The Mirror Test is John Kael Weston’s testament and witness to seven years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Weston worked as a State Department political officer alongside U.S. Marines and Army soldiers in some of the most dangerous areas of both countries, advising—and sometimes overruling—American military commanders in what became political nation-building operations growing out of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” by definition an endless war. Weston admired and identified with the troops he worked alongside, sharing their often harsh living conditions and always dangerous duty, dodging sniper rounds, suicide bombers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mourning the loss of friends—American, Iraqi, and Afghan—and growing disillusioned with both “the wrong war” in Iraq and the conduct of “the right war” in Afghanistan. In Fallujah, Iraq, he watched a city be destroyed in order to save it. In Khost Province, Afghanistan, he worked earnestly to win “hearts and minds” (with libraries, education, medical aid, and other nation-building programs) among a people he was sometimes unsure wanted American “help.”
At the end of the book, Weston’s “mirror test”—asking whether the conduct of those wars (drone strikes, torture as official policy, rendition, “black sites,” warrantless wiretapping) reflects American “ideals”—is left without a clear answer, reflecting Weston’s ambivalence about what he and his country’s government did in both wars. The book also leaves unanswered a question regarding Weston’s thinking, a question of which the author of The Mirror Test seems unaware: Is America a real place or a proposition?
A large portion of the book is devoted to Weston’s efforts to purge demons that haunted him after his fateful decision to send Marines on a mission to deliver ballots to remote Sunni regions in Iraq before the 2005 parliamentary elections. Weston knew that it was likely the inhabitants would refuse to vote in the much-hyped (by Washington) elections. Iraq’s Sunni leaders, who saw the American invasion and toppling of Saddam as opening the door to Shi’ite and Iranian domination of the country, had called for an election boycott, but the Bush administration was pressing hard for pictures of smiling Iraqis with purple fingers indicating they had voted. Bringing “democracy” to benighted Iraq was a priority of the Bush administration, and Weston overruled (against his better judgment) a Marine commander who opposed sending his men on what that commander rightly saw as a fool’s errand. The result was 30 Marines and 1 Navy corpsman killed in a helicopter crash.
Upon his return to America after spending seven years in various war zones, Weston made an effort to visit the graves of every one of the “31 Angels” killed on a mission he had ordered, as well as those of a number of Marines who had been killed from units Weston worked with—the “Marine tribe,” of which he grew to feel he was a member. Indeed, the book is partly a celebration of the martial virtues, camaraderie, courage, and willingness to sacrifice (for their friends and not, as one Marine noted, for “freedom” or nation-building) that Weston witnessed daily in his time at war. But the question that Weston avoids, though he recognizes the failure of Washington’s policies, is this: What were the sacrifices for? Whatever meaning can be attributed to the sufferings, the courage, and the fortitude displayed by the troops must be found in the personal experience of men living, fighting, killing, and dying together in a situation over which they have no control. Weston can never quite bring himself to draw this conclusion.
As a man attached to his native Utah and the American West, its people and history, Weston should have known better. His book is filled with lists of the KIAs (Killed in Action), including tearful visits with family members and gut-wrenching detail on the often hollowed-out hometowns Weston visits, people and places he seems to have real affection for and attachment to. Weston commented on a visit to Menard, Texas,
The clear skies started to darken. A few cars passed. Some dogs barked, but the stillness of the place is what struck me most. Not only did Menard feel and look tired, it felt and looked like a dying town. It had lost its sheen long ago. And yet, it retained its character. Underneath the dust, cracks, weeds—and an unemployment rate that must have tripled the national average—I sensed an enduring toughness . . . One historical marker was headlined “Great Western Trail” . . . Menard had been one stop in that migration of horned animals below ten-gallon-hatted men. I sure wish I could have experienced Menard back then . . . the town, the state of Texas . . .
At a Menard cemetery, Weston reflects that the particular grave he came to visit was that of a Marine who was also a “son, brother, husband, and father”—someone whose death had left a gaping hole in a small and withering place that desperately needed him.
Weston admits that nation-building was a failure, especially in Iraq, yet he can’t quite bring himself to ask what U.S. foreign policy should be based on: concrete interests, or “ideals.” At one point he notes “hubris” in policymakers, but cannot see the same fault in his own vision of America, a vision distorted by “ideals” based on egalitarian assumptions not borne out by reality (such as the impossibility of teaching Sunnis and Shi’ites to adopt American political practices or even simply not to hate each other). Despite Weston’s criticism of Dubya and the invasion of Iraq, he shares Bush’s ideological vision of the world. He leafs through his passport, eyeing the imprinted images—sailing ships, the Statue of Liberty, a view of the earth from the moon—and perceives there a symbol of what he thinks America is:
A view of earth from the moon . . . It symbolized an America that did big things and not just on behalf of Americans. The America that Jamshid, the Afghan medical student, saw when he gazed up at the moon from Jalalabad, reflecting on the death of Neil Armstrong . . . these images, I thought, represent the more enduring part of the American Experience, the American Story. The true Spirit of America. What we stand for . . . opportunity, responsibility, rights, dreams to be shared . . .
Weston doesn’t understand that it is he himself who has conjured up the real America: the America comprising the gravesites he visited, of the hometowns and families now orphaned by wars he himself questioned (Afghanistan, too, in its conduct and length, dragging on long after Osama was killed by SEAL Team Six) and even condemned. If America is something to be imagined, chiefly a set of “dreams,” Jamshid is as much an American as Neil Armstrong or J. Kael Weston—or maybe more so—and the American state is obligated to fight more of the endless wars Weston knows must end.
Yet this ideological distortion of reality is shared even by certain of its victims. Menard, Texas, as Weston notes, has a war memorial whose inscription reads in part, “They lived and died so that the eternal values by which men live shall not perish from this earth.” It’s understandable that families should need to be able to justify to themselves the loss of a family member in a war that they may not have understood or supported. “Eternal values” thus seem more affirming, and more palpable, than national retribution against a deadly and determined foe, as in Afghanistan. Weston, who sent Iraqi election ballots to the families of Marines killed in action—a practice he himself now questions (“I’m pretty sure now that all those elections we forced on Iraqis only divided Iraq”)—often received grateful replies from the families of the KIAs:
Dear Mr. Weston,
The Iraqi ballots have arrived and there is no way that I can even come close to expressing my gratitude . . . I will never forget January 30, 2005. I was in almost constant e-mail contact with Daniel’s battalion commander and was glued to the Fox News coverage. That ballot is the essence of what it is all about. All those purple fingers meant that my son, and all the other fallen, did not die in vain. Two of the January 30th ballots are, as I write this, at the frame shop being professionally matted and framed. One will hang in a place of honor in our home and the other will be [resent] to Fox Company to be placed on a special wall that they have reserved to honor the five Marines who did not return from Iraq . . . Once again, I cannot even come close to expressing my gratitude.
Near the end of The Mirror Test, Weston describes a visit to the family of a Marine killed during the “31 Angels” mission, ready to confess his own guilt in the faulty decision that cost them their lives and that plagued the prosecution of the Iraq war. Since then, the Middle East has been plunged into further chaos, a direct result, as Weston acknowledges, of America’s intervention in Iraq. What followed was hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed, lives ruined, countries devastated. Yet he, an intelligent and sensitive man, is himself part of the collateral damage caused by the war, having spent nearly a decade of his life in war zones, chasing an elusive ideal while forgoing marriage and a family of his own.
It is past time for Americans to reassess what service to the country means—and what “the country” actually is. The death of the Marine from Menard, Texas, did no service to his hometown, to his wife and children, or to preserving, much less strengthening, the real America. The deaths of thousands of young soldiers and Marines have left families unmade, communities frayed, and bereaved people with only “eternal values” to comfort them, and an ideological commitment that justifies more pointless wars in the future and making America—the real America—part of the ensuing collateral damage.
[The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan , by J. Kael Weston (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 585 pp., $28.95]
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