On the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, about 10,000 people marched though Portland bearing the slogans and standards of protest.
At the same time, 200 miles away, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Oregon's U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith were among a crowd of 2,000 welcoming 92 Oregon National Guard soldiers home from Afghanistan at the Pendleton Convention Center.
Oregon National Guard Sgt. First Class Sean Davis of Clackamas didn't attend either of those events March 19. Davis, who returned from Iraq in 2004 with broken bones and shrapnel injuries that earned him a Purple Heart, instead prepped for his upcoming finals at Mount Hood Community College and picked up a friend from the airport.
Gallons of ink (and blood) have been spilled over Iraq, and still the war's causes and goals remain lost in a sandstorm of global economics, politics and history. Oil, military bases, the proliferation of terrorism, phantom weapons of mass destruction, political tyranny, the rise of radical Islam—the divisive tangle has seemingly become a Gordian knot.
Davis, 33, doesn't claim to speak for every soldier or to have all the answers, but he's eloquent and open about his experiences.
The explosion that sent Davis home at least eight months early also killed one of his friends and comrades, Specialist Eric McKinley, one of 37 Oregon soldiers who had lost their lives in Iraq as of March 18.
As of that date, 17,269 servicemen and Ðwomen from across the country had been injured, with 2,310 killed.
Davis, who showed up at an interview last week carrying the latest Vonnegut hardcover, A Man Without a Country, sometimes seems to have mentally roped off the positive aspects of his experience from the war's darker, messier realities. "I knew that we were making a difference over there," Davis says. "But I didn't know what the war was about. I still don't."
Among the things he stresses are his unit's combat successes, the feats of valor and strength of the men he served with, and the soldiers' generosity towards the Iraqi citizens.
His reverence for his peers seems genuine, if perhaps a tad naive: "I hope that you can somehow relay in your article how lucky I felt to be working with such unique and good people," he wrote in a follow-up email. "It was the war that sucked."
What follows is simply the story of one soldier, one among hundreds of thousands who served and returned: how he's wrestled with a war that asked him to bring both aid and death, along with excerpts from his war journal that document the toll the war quickly took on him despite a belief that his mission, if not the greater war, was good and just.
For Davis, the war (and all the baggage that tiny word carries with it) doesn't fit neatly into categories or simple explanations.
"People think that because I've been there I have the answers," he says. "But I don't."
Sean Davis considers himself a patriot. This is his war.
Davis, who graduated in the class of 1991 from Sweet Home High School, had what he called an "unstable" upbringing, bouncing from relative to relative.
But at 20, he found himself making pizza at a Safeway deli in Lebanon, Ore., driving a beater of a Datsun and living in crummy digs with four roommates.
"I joined up to get out of there," he says. "You just get sick of it. It's a small town, you're like, 'I'm never going anywhere.' "
As an infantryman in the Army, Davis shipped to Haiti in 1995 as part of "Operation Uphold Democracy," which reinstated exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and gave Davis what he calls his "first taste of the Third World...dead bodies and stuff."
He then served as a military policeman in Germany before deciding not to re-enlist and to come home, eventually settling in the Willamette Valley. One day, while working as a roadside helper for the state Department of Transportation in Corvallis, he got a phone call from his mother telling him to turn on the TV.
It was Sept. 11, 2001. The next day, Davis went down to a recruiting center and signed up for the National Guard.
"I didn't know who was responsible, I just knew they were going to need good people," he says.
Davis was a weekend warrior, continuing work at his state job until October 2003, when his unit—B Company, 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry—got word they were headed for Iraq. Once in-country, Davis took what he says was an unusual step by reading the Koran and requiring his men to learn basic Arabic phrases under penalty of missed meals.
Four months into his tour, Davis returned to the United States after he was critically wounded while patrolling near Taji, Iraq, when a car bomb exploded near his Humvee (whose armor consisted of plywood and sandbags). Today, a year and a half later, he's taking classes at Mount Hood Community College toward his eventual goal of a master's degree in writing.
WW talked with him last week about his experiences as the war entered its fourth year.
WW: How badly were you injured?
Sean Davis: The whole right side of my body was not working. My knee was broken. Another bone in my leg was broken. Everything was black and blue from my toes up to my head. My hand was hanging off—there were muscles gone, broke here and here. My rotator cuff was jammed up. My ribs were cracked. I had vertigo.
Do you feel like you accomplished something in Iraq?
Oh, yeah. We made friends with a lot of the people over there. We were told not to give them any food or water or anything, but we would. If you see a family and they don't have any water, you're going to give them some.
I was surprised how many soldiers over there didn't even know how to say hello or thank you.
I've also been in these prisons with meat hooks hanging from the ceiling and blood drains. I was like, "It's a good thing that we're over here." There's a lot of places in the world that we should go clean out ... There's a lot of evil people. We should keep going.
I'm glad I did what I could—but as far as the war goes, who knows?
Is the war just?
I don't know why Bush decided to go over there. I don't know if it was just.
Do you keep up with war coverage?
Not since last St. Patrick's Day , when all of my guys got back. I don't need to worry about it anymore.
But surely people around you talk about the war.
The biggest thing was going back to school. Every single class I have, people want to talk about Iraq. They have all these views about things. I just don't talk. I don't know any of the answers, really. I was there—I should probably know more than I do.
What's the toughest thing about coming back?
Over there, we're on patrol and I could tell seven guys to kill somebody and they wouldn't even say a word. But I come back over here and I'm just back to normal again. Over there, I had life and death in my hands. Over here, I'm just a normal guy, you know?
How often did you have to make those kinds of decisions?
Almost every day, every patrol.
One time, we were patrolling the Baghdad Zoo, which they had closed down. They told us, "Everybody is gone. Anybody in here you kill, because there's not supposed to be anybody in here." We're walking, and we see these four guys with machine guns, and they're squatting down and having tea. They're all dressed in blue shirts and black slacks—which is weird, because the enemy over there doesn't wear a uniform. My orders are to kill anybody that's in this area. But we walked down there and talked to them, and they were the zoo security guards.
I take it you didn't go to the big anti-war march?
I don't know what I'd have to give there. I don't want to be exploited, but I want to tell people what I've seen. I don't know why wars start. The people who are fighting in them don't know why wars start. You just try to make a decision inside yourself to do good while you're there. That's what we did.
"My name is Sean Davis. I was a staff sergeant and squad leader of eight men in Operation Iraqi Freedom II," is how Davis begins his 79-page war journal and memoir. Here are some excerpts. (With Davis' permission, some of the passages have been condensed and edited for spelling and grammar for ease of reading. The words, however, are all his own.)
March 25, 2004
On the bus ride to the airfield, all the guys with cell phones were using them for the final goodbyes. I could feel the mood of everyone, it's like we're off on a grand adventure. People were looking forward to this. I'm not sure what I was feeling, but I couldn't help thinking about what's going to happen to us. Statistically, we will lose some soldiers. Someone here is going to die.
We landed in Kuwait City, Kuwait, and were transported by bus to Camp Wolverine. The land I've read about and heard about in the news, on CNN. Now it really exists—I know it does because I'm here and it's not as strange as I would have thought, just incredibly hot.
They tell us that people are dying, and I don't know how to react. These last guys hit were from our battalion. Does that make it more real because it is someone from Oregon? I don't know. I know it's hot.
This place is desolate, nothingness in every direction. Sand, heat, and flat. There are small patches of grass surprisingly. How can this be the Holy Land? If it is, God has surely forsaken it.
The two-star [general] came out to speak to us. I can only believe it was supposed to be a morale booster, but then when he started his speech he didn't even know what unit we were.
We received the warning order for movement to Taji today. The lieutenant said every convoy that's headed up there has been hit. There are 59 overpasses on the way. The terrorists are known for firing down from the overpasses.
I'm not a bleeding heart or a conscientious objector, I know that people must die in a war, I know that brutality is the best teacher in some situations, terror is a tool—but a person should not like it.
I walked into the shitter today and retraced a message that someone had tried to wash off a couple of times before, but it was still there, it said, "Wake up, 10 percent casualties." It referred to the acceptable amount of wounded before the mission is not considered a complete success. Still, I'm not worried. If given the opportunity to go home right now or stay here, I would stay here.
We're loaded up in the HumV. We only got two up-armored [vehicles with additional armor] per platoon, and the lieutenant got one and the platoon sergeant the other.
We have seven magazines with 30 rounds apiece for our M4s, 850 machine-gun rounds, 1,500 SAW rounds, 90 shotgun shells, 190 M14 sniper rifle rounds, two anti-tank weapons (AT4s) and two boxes of Claymores. That should be enough to take a small country, and it is just in my squad's two HumVs.
It was cold as hell all night and the wind wouldn't stop. The HumV's engine is running, but I refuse to turn the heater on because I know how hot it will be today. I'm freezing, but I want to savor how cold I am so when it hits a hundred today I can remember how cold I am now. I also know that sometime in the next few hours it will hit the perfect temperature for a second or two.
0900 hrs: We already made it to checkpoint Kenworth. It seems that the U.S. Army took about three miles of highway and blocked it off with cement barriers. It's all desert, concertina wire and concrete barriers spray-painted with soldier's wives' names or hometowns. Some have units on them, units that used to be here: "2123rd transportation," "I love corn pops," "367 maint co. wuz here." My favorite is "I found Nemo" and there's a couple "so and so is gay."
Driving into Iraq seemed a lot like driving through Southern California, except for the 100-foot fire wells shooting from the ground on the horizon every couple of miles.
We absconded with some equipment from other units. This is bad, but it's life and death. One more [machine gun] mount could mean we get out of a tough jam. We shouldn't have to go through this shit, but that's what they mean when they say war is chaotic.
We've been treated like stepchildren this whole deployment, getting shitty equipment if any at all. We've had to steal everything we've needed, including food and water, at times.
This morning, we were hit by mortars. We've been here for less than 12 hours and we have our first Purple Heart.
This whole experience has been surreal so far. For example, after that second round hit today and the all-clear was given, everyone came out of the bunker and went back to sitting around in the same places. They started up bullshitting again. We played Frank Sinatra on the portable stereo. I was sitting there listening to "I Got You under My Skin" expecting more rounds to hit any moment.
Our mission today is to walk through the village and win hearts and minds. We were sent out to kill yesterday, and today we are sent out to make friends. It sounds ridiculous—I just hope we don't get blown up.
I just heard that the people are protesting back home. They don't want us to be over here. They got all riled up because we lost a couple Oregon boys from another company. They were hit in an ambush in Baghdad is what I heard. I'm not sure what they're protesting. We're not political here. It's not that we don't care, we just don't have the time. There are other, more important things to worry about, like watching each other's backs and wishing for sleep.
Went to a town called Magrabah; we walked through as the school was letting out. The hard looks and glares from the Iraqi people turned to smiles as we laughed with the kids. All the children asked for pens, not money or chocolate.
The Iraqi children had no fear of us. They have no politics.
I can't seem to wake up. We've been going so long without enough sleep, always outside the [perimeter] wire. The morale is dropping. I heard some of them say they would take a bullet to get out of here. I think they would change their minds if the opportunity arises. People are getting on each other's nerves; everyone is on mine.
I read a news article on the Army's website on our air assault of the island. It described a great battle that never happened, and it was clothed with facts that never occurred. This seems funny to me since I was there and I know we didn't find anything except empty chicken coops.
I haven't written anything down in weeks. So much has happened this month.
The boys are starting to talk back to superiors, drinking whiskey they bought from the Iraqi children and not being discreet about it, and not caring about uniform standards. Now here we are being pushed too far with no support channel. No way to fix our broken night-vision devices, no functional squad radios, our ammunition to the big guns is disappearing, and we lose men to trivial details before every mission.
It may just be my newfound cynicism, but I believe these journals to be more comical than historical. These people really have no control over anything going on here.
I've concluded that my time here will not be a total loss: Although I won't get to fight for democracy against the "Axis of Evil," I will save money and get into better shape. It's kind of like a workout program that pays you, a yearlong health spa. That is what it is, Club Iraqi Free Dumb. It has to be that, because it can't be a real war. If you don't believe me, look in the PX [commissary]. They sell a wide selection of incredibly corny T-shirts like, 'Who's your Baghdaddy?' These are such moronic attempts to capitalize on my violent health spa, but these things are selling like hotcakes. Do you think they sold D-Day T-shirts? Who's your D-Day Daddy? How about the invasion of Normandy?
On another curious note, we found some trash from the house we searched. In it were wrappers from humanitarian MREs [military rations called Meals Ready to Eat]. Those are the MREs we air-dropped in before the war in a humanitarian effort to feed the starving people. We ended up resupplying our enemy. I hope the terrorists liked them.
There is nothing about this war that makes any sense.
[Davis' journal ends there, two days before he was critically wounded by a roadside car bomb.]
Iraqi civilians killed between 33,773 and 37,895 (Source: Iraq Body Count)
Number* of U.S. Troop Fatalities: 2247 (Male: 2,199 Female: 48)
Age* of U.S. Troop Fatalities
Younger than 22: 654
(Source: Department of Defense Statistical Information Analysis Division)
Ethnicity* of U.S. Troop Fatalities:
American Indian:1.1 percent
Hawaiian/Pacific Islander:1 percent
(Source: DOD Statistical Information Analysis Division)
Oregon casualties in Iraq
Dead, hostile: 30
Dead, non-hostile: 7
Wounded in Action: 280 (with 36 more estimated wounded but not confirmed)
Average monthly bill $5.9 billion (Source: Institute for Policy Studies)
Cost per U.S. Citizen per month $989 (Source: Institute for Policy Studies)
Running Total $249.7 billion and growing
Running Total for Oregon $2.03 billion and growing
This could have insured 1,218,729 children for one year or provided 98,665 students with four-year scholarships at public universities.
Running Total for Portland $308.8 million and growing
This amount could have built 2,780 affordable housing units
(Source: National Priorities Project)