The plane is late as I sit here writing in an airport lounge, watching helplessly the evanescence of the hours. I'd like to be back home in time for dinner, but I don't know if that's going to happen today. Of all days. My wife made reservations at a special place for a special occasion, the anniversary of the day we got married in Philadelphia 25 years ago.
Then, too, the clock was ticking. That was the time of the Central American wars, and I'd only been able to take a few days off from covering the grim saga of slaughter in El Salvador. Most of us working that beat in March 1980 thought Archbishop Arnulfo Romero, who was speaking out publicly against the right-wing death squads run by the Army, would be targeted himself. And so he was, two days after my wedding in the United States. So my wife and I never had a honeymoon. The one-week anniversary of our marriage, I was at the archbishop's funeral amid the bursts of homemade bombs and the clatter of automatic weapons, as more than 30 people died in the panicked crowd. My new bride, back in the States, got a cryptic call relayed through my editors to let her know I was OK. She didn't realize until she watched the evening news why that call had been so important.
No, it hasn't been easy for Carol, this marriage. That we've lasted so long is, I think, almost entirely thanks to her patience, her love and her understanding, all of which are required much more of the people who stay at home than the people who go to war. When you are in combat, or covering it, you have a moment-to-moment update on the risks you're up against. A bomb goes off in the distance, and you know that that one, at least, didn't get you. Fear becomes controllable. And survival, let's face it, is exhilarating.
But for those left behind, the worry never ends. The ring of the telephone becomes the most terrifying sound in the world, and when it comes late at night, it brings heart-stopping fear. You can't help but think as you pick it up that the voice on the other end will give you the news you never wanted to hear.
Right now, the spouses and parents and children and brothers and sisters of 170,000 American soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan fear that message of death or dismemberment every time the phone rings. You know the numbers. You know the odds, and some people see them as good. True believers in the American crusade tell me in e-mails all the time that it's been two years now that war in Iraq has raged--another anniversary to remember--and "only" about 1,500 Americans have been killed so far. Only about 11,000 have been badly wounded. According to congressional testimony last month, as of November there were only 208 amputees, and only 30 of them had multiple amputations. (And some of the amputees now want to go back to battle.)
So the odds are that the vast majority of soldiers (and of war correspondents) will survive this fight unscathed. But the actuarial relativizing of armchair warriors watching Fox News doesn't much interest you when you're home alone and you hear the phone.
I'm not sure that most of us who spend time in war zones--soldiers, diplomats, contractors, correspondents--really understand what our families are going through. But last year I learned firsthand about the particular kind of terror that my wife has endured for so long. The lunatic jihadists in Saudi Arabia had mounted a campaign to kill foreigners, and my son, a career U.S. Army officer, was serving in Riyadh as an advisor to the Saudi military. Suddenly he was the one calling me, sometimes even before I saw the news bulletins, to tell me there'd been a bombing or a beheading and, no, it wasn't him, and I could sleep easy. If I could get back to sleep at all. Then, during that same period, I went to Iraq, and my wife had both of us to worry about. These days I can see the fear developing a kind of numbing rhythm, as we anticipate the next time I'll go back to Baghdad, and the next, and the next--a routine of worry--and my son gets ready to start his tour in Iraq this fall.
No, it hasn't been easy for Carol this last quarter-century. (I often ask myself how she can be so long suffering, and also stay so beautiful.) There are no medals, no encomiums for the people who have spent weeks and months and years and even decades wondering when that moment will come when their whole life will be turned upside down. Nor is there any exhilaration for those left behind, until the moment the person they love is safely out of the hellhole where he or she is serving. And, no, there are no guarantees that the future before us will be better. This fight in Iraq will be a long time ending. And then, as the United States pursues what seems to be its newfound manifest destiny, there will be others. While some Arabs are learning about freedom, we Americans are learning the rigors of endless war.
Ah, now the plane is boarding. I may yet make it back for that dinner. Carol and I will have that moment this evening together. That happy anniversary. We'll raise a glass to those who aren't so lucky. And for the rest of the night, we'll both turn off our phones.