I hear the beating of the war drum.
I have heard it throughout my adult life.
The beating of the war drum drowned out everything in 2001 when I was in high school. When I drove the streets of Baghdad as an enlisted soldier in 2004, I heard it louder than I ever have – until this election year.
The war drum has never stopped beating. I often think of the children I saw in the streets of Baghdad, children who are now in their 20s, if alive at all. They did not have the luxury I had of leaving the war behind and choosing a different future, rich with other sounds. They grew up enveloped by our occupation, enveloped by the beating of the war drum.
I listened to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and I did not listen naively. I did not listen as if my hands were clean, or my conscience clear. My hands are dirty, my conscience burdened with guilt. I know what the war drum sounds like – what it means to march to it – and its harshness will still be ringing in my ears when I approach the voting booth in November.
The RNC made it clear that the cacophony will continue:
GEN Michael Flynn shouted for America to “wake up!” “This is the last stand on earth,” he proclaimed, urging Americans to regain our ability to “truly crush our enemies,” because “our way of life, our existence is threatened.” For Flynn, there should be “no apologies for American exceptionalism.” Why then, as a veteran of the Iraq War, do I feel in my heart that there is so much for which I must apologize?
Speaker after speaker at the RNC, affirming the importance of naming the enemy clearly and precisely, chose to name the enemy however they wished: “ISIS,” “Islamic extremist terrorism,” “radical Islamic terrorism,” or the vague “terrorism” – a word with which we have waged continuous war this century. Even Occupy and Black Lives Matter, movements comprised of our own citizens striving for change, were labeled “anarchy” at the RNC.
Donald Trump outlined in his acceptance speech “the first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens our communities.” He seeks to “suspend immigration from any country compromised by terrorism.” Joni Ernst had already warned, “Terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states.”
I have heard it all before, and I will not be fooled.
The constantly oscillating “naming” of the enemy at the RNC was only the frenzied beating of the war drum. Under this din, we are all potential enemies, “compromised” faces of lawlessness and terror. The offer is the same as it always has been: toe the line, march to the beating of the war drum, and hope that the enemy never turns out to be someone that looks like you, that speaks like you, that thinks like you. You will have been named and no one will hear, over the beating of the war drum, as you as you cry out your appeal. Trump has declared: “I AM YOUR VOICE.”
While the tone of the war drum differed, those of us listening could still hear it from the Democratic National Convention. Vice President Joe Biden gave us a different flavor of American exceptionalism: “We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line!” If the finish line resembles peace and justice, we are far from crossing it – much less owning it.
Most speakers emphasized Hillary Clinton’s unique qualifications for the job of Commander in Chief, clearly summarized by President Obama:
“[Hillary Clinton] has the judgment, the experience, and the temperament to meet the threat from terrorism. It’s not new to her. Our troops have pounded ISIL without mercy, taking out their leaders, taking back territory and I know Hillary won’t relent until ISIL is destroyed; she will finish the job – and she’ll do it without resorting to torture, or banning entire religions from entering our country.”
Gen. John Allen brought some intensity to the stage, describing America as “the last best hope for peace and liberty for all of humankind,” and offering a word of warning: “To our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us. And to ISIS and others, we will defeat you.”
In her acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton turned the volume back down with a familiar promise: “We will work with all Americans and our allies to fight and defeat terrorism.” She added, “America’s strength does not come from lashing out” but from the “precise and strategic application of power.”
I am not fooled. I know the war drum when I hear it.
While it may take on a different timbre, people the world over suffer when it sounds.
However, a different timbre is nonetheless a significant difference. America’s current war drum is not enough for Donald Trump. He is in the process of replacing it with a louder machine that can more efficiently be directed at our own citizens.
Hillary Clinton deals with what we have – the echoes of our war drum that continue to reverberate across the planet. She does so, not flawlessly, from the place of pragmatic realism. That place is not pleasant to most Americans, but it is a familiar place to those who have been to war. It is a grey place, where choices are severely limited and constrained. It is a fragile place of careful calculation, where unpredictable consequences must nevertheless be weighed. It is a place where idealism and optimism are tested, and if they survive, they survive scarred.
Donald Trump will never be this veteran’s voice.
Neither, ultimately, will Hillary Clinton. But she has stood in a grey place under public scrutiny, where the sounds of the war drum are very present, and she has not flinched from making decisions there. She has not flinched from facing the very real consequences of those decisions. I will carry my scarred ideals and optimism to the booth and I will vote my burdened conscience – and I will support her as my President.