Thursday, June 23, 2016

J. Kael Weston's "The Mirror Test"

John Kael Weston represented the United States for more than a decade as a State Department official. Washington acknowledged his multi-year work in Fallujah with Marines by awarding him one of its highest honors, the Secretary of State’s Medal for Heroism.

Weston applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reported the following:
Page 99 happens to be the fulcrum of the book -- a scene that details how policymaking in Washington met reality on the ground in Iraq, resulting in tragedy.

The page sets up a key discussion between senior Marines and me in late 2004. The exchange centered on where to send our troops in support of the first post-invasion Iraqi election scheduled for January 2005. Key phrases include: “Washington wanted to shift public focus to ballots instead of bullets”; “For Sunni politicians, and the Bush administration for that matter, the more ‘purple finger’ Iraqi voters observed by the media the better”; “At Camp Fallujah, decision time had arrived”.

A top Marine general wisely pushed for a narrowly defined and less risky mission for Marines. I argued the opposite, a strategy that led to Marines being sent to remote polling locations in sparsely populated areas in Anbar province. On January 26, 2005, one of two large Marine helicopters carrying election support troops crashed in the middle of the desert while on this expanded mission, leaving 31 service members dead. The accident remains the single largest casualty incident in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

When drafting this chapter, I wished I had been writing a fictional account of war -- able to craft a different ending. Instead, those of us in Iraq and Afghanistan who had to implement war policy were faced with real-time operational decisions. Sometimes our decisions went right. Sometimes our decisions went wrong. In this instance, the outcome of our deliberations meant death.

The content of page 99 reflects the responsibility I believed I had throughout my nonfiction book -- not only to remember these 31 dead, to tell a bit about each of them, but also to convey the stories of Iraqis and Afghans. Themes of wartime accountability and post-war reckoning form the book’s foundation across the 608 pages.

As the drafts progressed, I knew the book would require detours (more chapters than planned) and thereby ask more patience of readers. It would have been easier to end the book in the war zones and not add parts about each of the dead, their hometowns, and the memories of them their families and friends shared online. But I believe it was right to go deeper, adding pages of others’ voices as well in an “After War” section. A long book for two very long wars that go on…

Page 99 frames how war ultimately is about the human costs.

Had I pushed for a different decision that day (leading to no “31 Angels”), I doubt I would have written The Mirror Test. I probably would not have felt the need to try and resurrect, through words, some of the many, many war dead -- Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans.
Visit J. Kael Weston's website.

--Marshal Zeringue