His orders come from far away no more
To every Right-winger who cheered this war on; to the hawks on the left who seriously thought it was a good idea; to the 101st Fighting Keyboarders who still talk in glowing praise of GWBush's Noble Adventure™ in Nation Building™, I dare you, I DARE YOU, goddamnit, to read the story of James Blake Miller, who became the iconic image of the tough Marine, the brave soldier fighting for democracy, the poster boy for the Neo-con dream, and who, like a real human, paid a terrible price for your blood-soaked fantasies.
From today's LATimes, and the photographer who snapped that image and thus became inextricably joined to Miller, for good and bad:
The young marine lighted a cigarette and let it dangle. White smoke wafted around his helmet. His face was smeared with war paint. Blood trickled from his right ear and the bridge of his nose.
Momentarily deafened by cannon blasts, he didn't know the shooting had stopped. He stared at the sunrise.
His expression caught my eye. To me, it said: terrified, exhausted and glad just to be alive. I recognized that look because that's how I felt too.
I raised my camera and snapped a few shots.
Thus was a relationship forged. High drama, much press coverage, and a Pulitzer nomination followed. For the photographer, Luis Sinco. What followed for Miller was real life, with consequences:
In January 2006, I was on assignment along the U.S.-Mexico border when my wife called. "Your boy is on TV. He has PTSD," she said. "They kicked him out of the Marines."
I'd spoken with Miller by phone twice, but the conversations were short and superficial. I knew post-traumatic stress disorder was a complicated diagnosis. So once again, I dug up his number. Again, I offered simple words: Life is sweet. We survived. Everything else is gravy.
Nice try, Luis. I might have said the same thing. You know, buck up, "I never promised you a rose garden", etc. But Sinco traveled to Kentucky to follow up on Miller:
Mobile homes and battered cars dot the rugged ranges. Marijuana is a major cash crop. Addiction to methamphetamine and prescription drugs is rampant.
Kids marry young, and boys go to work mining the black seams of coal. Heavy trucks rumble day and night.
Miller showed me around. At an abandoned mine, he walked carefully around a large, shallow pool of standing water that mirrored the green wilderness and springtime sky. He picked up a chunk of coal.
"Around here, this is what it's all about," he said. "Nothing else.
"It was this or the Marines."
Like so many in this damned war, the poorer among us are disproportionately represented. And they lack the resources to even begin to deal with the horrors that can affect them in unpredictable ways. And We The People have allowed our government to refuse all but the most perfunctory help to them:
He returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C. His high school sweetheart, Jessica Holbrooks, joined him there, and they were married in a civil ceremony.
Then came the nightmares and hallucinations. He imagined shadowy figures outside the windows. Faces of the dead haunted his sleep.
Once, while cleaning a shotgun, he blacked out. He regained consciousness when Jessica screamed out his name. Snapping back to reality, he realized he was pointing the gun at her.
He reported the problems to superiors, who promised to get him help.
And then Hell truly opened its doors to Miller:
Miller bought a motorcycle and went for long rides. He and Jessica drank all night and slept all day. He started collecting a monthly disability benefit of about $2,500. The couple spent hours watching movies on DVD, Coronas and bourbon cocktails in hand. Friends and family gave them space.
Miller had hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement. But the PTSD and abrupt discharge killed that dream. No one would trust him with a weapon.
But at least he didn't have to go back to Iraq. He started to realize he wasn't the only one traumatized by war.
Self-indulgent, weak, irresponsible, some might say. Some like Goldberg, or Kristol, or Rumsfeld, or Bush. The list goes sadly on and on. But none of them have seen what Miller saw, had someone shoot at them like Miller did, seen bodies of friends and foes with broken limbs, covered in gore, dying while they watched . Thus, their opinions are empty, vacant, like the ideals they throw around.
Miller tried to help, to do right by his fellow Marines, to try to tell his story:
Three days after their wedding, I tagged along as the young couple flew to the nation's capital. Easily distracted by the offer of free drinks for an all-American hero, Miller stayed out until 3 a.m. He was hung over when he met with House members a few hours later.
Miller chatted up GOP Rep. Harold Rogers, the congressman from his district. He smoked and frequently cursed while recounting his combat experiences. I cringed but stayed on the sidelines, snapping photos.
Miller shuffled from one congressional office to the next, passing displays filled with photos of Marines killed in Iraq. As he told his story over and again, the politicians listened politely and thanked Miller for his service. One congressman sent an aide to tell Miller he was too busy to meet. No one promised to take up his cause.
No promises, no support. Kill for us because its noble, the cause you fight for. But are you worth our time, our commitment, our love? Only while the cameras are rolling.
The next day, I found Miller in a back bedroom at his uncle's house. He told me that he had come close to committing suicide the night before. He had thought about driving his motorcycle off the edge of a mountain road.
He showed me the morning newspaper. His divorce was the lead story.
I felt torn. I didn't want to get involved. I desperately wanted to close the book on Iraq. But if I hadn't taken Miller's picture, this very personal drama wouldn't be front-page news. I felt responsible.
Sometimes, when things get hard to witness, I use my camera as a shield. It creates a space for me to work -- and distance to keep my eyes open and my feelings in check. But Miller had no use for a photojournalist. He needed a helping hand.
I flashed back to the chaos of combat in Fallouja. In the rattle and thunder, brick walls separated me from the world coming to an end. In the tight spaces, we were scared mindless. Everybody dragged deeply on cigarettes.
Above the din, I heard what everybody was thinking: This is the end.
I've never felt so completely alone.
I snapped back to the present, and before I knew it, the words spilled out.
"I have to ask you something, Blake," I said. "If I'd gone down in Fallouja, would you have carried me out?"
"Damn straight," he said, without hesitation.
"OK then," I said. "I think you're wounded pretty badly. I want to help you."
He looked at me for a moment. "All right," he said.
That is the price many pay. Do the Right-wingers who yearn for "victory in Mesopotamia" care about Miller? Do the administration hacks who sold us this debacle? Do the National Review writers who still prattle on about "exporting democracy"?
Absolutely not. They will claim it's all worth it. It's for the greater good, for whatever tortured ideological fever-dream they wake to every day. But their dreams are nothing compared to James Blake Miller's. He has lived your dream, people. You own him and his story, every second of it. His crisis of psyche is yours.
May you wake in his Hell tomorrow; may you be the Sin-eater he deserves. May you scream and be tortured in Hell until the end of time. He surely doesn't deserve his pain.
But you do.
Celebrate Veterans' Day by honoring Mr. Miller. Don't send any more Americans to join in his pain.