Sunday 16 March 2003
A Chicago mother feels it is her duty to oppose military action in Iraq. Somewhere in Kuwait, her son understands but is set to fight.
They have established their rituals as they wait for war, the Marine in the tent that heaves in the desert wind and his mother in her elegant condominium near Belmont Harbor.
He cleans his rifle. She fills a manila folder with items she wants to show him when he comes home.
In the folder, there are printouts of some of the e-mails they have exchanged since Christmas, when she last saw him. There is the issue of the New Yorker magazine that makes her eyes fill with tears when she looks at its cover of a soldier opening a Valentine's Day card. There are the fliers and messages from anti-war demonstrations she has attended.
The folder is a scrapbook of sorts, but it is more than that. It is a charm, a talisman. Because if you gather these items for your son and you tuck them into a folder and you label this folder "Rob-2003-Iraq" as if it contained nothing more than paperwork, then surely your son will see it. Then, surely, he will make it home from war.
The rifle is the soldier's charm. He breaks it down and puts it back together. He scrubs its black steel. He performs the tasks he has performed thousands of times since he learned them eight years ago in boot camp. Because if you keep your M-16 clean and ready, then surely it will do what it is supposed to do. Then surely, it will keep you safe.
Fran Johns is the mother of Robert Sarra, who is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. In January, he was deployed to the Persian Gulf from Camp Pendleton, Calif., along with other members of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, in anticipation of a war against Iraq.
Like so many other mothers of soldiers, Fran Johns stanches her dread and worry with packages and cards, swearing to herself that not a day's mail call will go by without her son hearing from her. But, unlike most, she is also demonstrating against the government that sent her son away, marching in opposition to possible military action in Iraq, a petite, animated woman with a stylish black coat and professionally printed protest sign.
This is not a situation she expected to find herself in. She is an advertising executive, a woman whose children grew up in Lincoln Park and went to private schools. A self-avowed lakefront liberal. When her son was born in 1972, friends sent her a card referring to him as a future supporter of presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.
That this son grew up to become a Marine puzzles and sometimes pains her. Now it places her in the almost unbearable position of loving a soldier whom, it seems, will fight a war she hates.
Images of her son conflict
In Fran's collection of mementos from her son's life, there is a photograph of Rob at age 8 or 9. He crouches on a sidewalk, wearing a striped shirt, shorts and his grandfather's military cap, arranging his toy soldiers as his younger sister, Gianna, watches.
Rob's earliest memories are of digging forts for his soldiers in the front yard. He watched old war movies, wore camouflage and drew endless pictures of tanks and fighter jets.
Then, there is the photograph of the boy his mother wanted him to be.
In this picture, he is standing in his freshman dormitory at the College of Wooster in Ohio, a grinning teenager in baggy shorts and a T-shirt. "A preppy college kid," she says, smiling as she examines the snapshot. "This is the boy I had in mind."
For much of his life, it seemed, Rob seesawed between those two images. He failed his first semester at a boarding school in Michigan. But after he transferred to St. John's Military Academy in Wisconsin, he found the structure and discipline he needed, he says.
He graduated with one of the school's highest honors, the President's Medal in Honor of Douglas MacArthur, given to the best soldier in the corps. His family was surprised to see Rob win. When his name was announced, they had already turned off the video camera.
Rob dropped out of two colleges. He worked as a bartender and volunteer firefighter and an armored truck guard. He had a daughter with a girlfriend and moved to Cincinnati for a time to be near her.
After almost five years in the Marine reserves, Rob finally did what he thought would make him happy. At 28, he enlisted for active duty, in the infantry.
By then his mother had decided to stop trying to tug her son away from the military.
"There is something in Rob," she says. "He wants to be a hero."
A mom's moral outrage
Fran Johns attended her first demonstration on Oct. 26, shortly after her 58th birthday.
She had opposed the Vietnam War by wearing a button on her coat, not carrying a sign in her hands. In Chicago, where she and her first husband moved from New York before their son was born, she was politically active but she was also managing a career and raising her children, and after she divorced, working full-time to support her family.
She did not object to the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Saddam Hussein stepped over the line, both literally and figuratively, she says, by invading Kuwait. But the rhetoric for a second war so angered her that she sometimes felt she was trapped inside a Kafka novel.
"I just developed all this moral outrage," she says.
Like many people who oppose military action against Iraq, her reasons are simple and complicated. She can talk passionately and at length about UN Resolution 1441 and genocide in Rwanda and the speech Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd made on the Senate floor, but it basically comes down to this:
"I think war should not be entered into lightly," she says. "I have a certain image of the United States as being the good guys, of us helping people who are attacked and defending ourselves when we are attacked. And none of that is true in this case. We can't go all over the world fighting the bad guys who might do something."
The Saturday afternoon that she left her office downtown at DDB Chicago for her first protest, she thought her son was safe. Rob had been selected to train as a Marine Corps recruiter and was going to be posted in Chicago for three years.
By the time she went to her second march, on Jan. 11, Rob's orders had been changed. He was going to the Persian Gulf.
As a newcomer, she was inspired and frustrated by what she saw at the demonstrations. There was the sense of camaraderie, the energy, but also the motley assortment of fringe groups calling for everything from Puerto Rican independence to "U.S. out of Colombia."
As someone who plans advertising strategy, she knows about delivering a message. "You have to speak clearly with one voice," she says, "and pound it home."
For her second demonstration, she came up with her own campaign. She carried a sign reading "Marine Mom Against The War."
The weekend after Valentine's Day, when Rob turned 31, his mother and sister protested on opposite coasts. Gianna, who is 25 and lives in Boston, traveled to the United Nations in New York. Fran marched in San Francisco, where she had gone to visit family before a business trip to Los Angeles.
Before the demonstration, she went to a Kinko's in downtown San Francisco to get a sign made. The assistant manager who helped her has one brother who fought as a Marine in Vietnam and another who marched in protest of the war.
She did the work for free. When Fran left the copy store, the assistant manager called out to her:
"I hope your son comes home safe."
`This weapon is my life'
Hunched on an empty cardboard box that once contained the much-derided military MREs, or meals-ready-to-eat, Sgt. Rob Sarra begins to break down his M-16 service rifle.
He sits in the tent he shares with 41 other soldiers at a base camp northwest of Kuwait City, some 30 miles south of the Iraqi border. After two weeks in the desert, his lips are chapped and his green eyes bloodshot.
He cleans his rifle every morning and every night and buffs it whenever he has a spare moment.
It's a habit he developed in boot camp, when he learned how to take the rifle apart and put it back together blindfolded. Now, it's second nature, a reassuring ritual in the face of uncertainty. Ammo out. Bolt out. Break the weapon down. Upper receiver off the lower receiver. Break down the bolt.
Most of his platoon is off on a training exercise, learning how to cross the sand berms and ditches that form the border with Iraq. Rob stayed behind to hunt for gear. As platoon guide, it is his job to make sure the men have everything they need, from AA batteries to straps for their night-vision goggles.
Chores done, he cleans. He replaces the bolt in the weapon.
"For the first time in my Marine Corps career, this weapon is my life," he says. "So I want to make sure it's working."
Rob places faith in routine. Follow orders. Keep a daily journal. Clean the rifle. Do these things and do them right and, he thinks, he will make it through.
What he knows about war, he has learned mostly from the stories of a friend who served in Operation Desert Storm and from "Black Hawk Down," an account of a U.S. military raid in Somalia that went awry, which he has read seven times.
Even that, though, is enough to make him shake his head at the way the younger Marines envision the possible war, as if it were a movie full of heroes and firefights and ticker-tape parades. Rob is the oldest person in his 42-member platoon and he has read enough military history--enough Patton and Sun Tzu, even Schwarzkopf--to suspect otherwise.
"I felt I didn't want to miss the chance to go, and put to use what I have been trained for," he wrote in an e-mail for this article. "At the same time, I hoped I might miss out. Marines get killed and war is never a good thing."
When he was sailing toward the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Dubuque, Rob saw news coverage of the anti-war demonstrations. The soldiers around him hooted and yelled at the screen, swearing revenge on any "commie" who spat on them when they came home.
Rob knew his mother was somewhere among those crowds. He saw it differently.
"I know my mom is protesting the war," he says as he sits in the tent in Kuwait. "It doesn't bother me. She's doing it for the right reasons. She's doing it because she's worried about me and the other guys out here. So how can I object to what she's doing?"
His views of the possible war he prefers to keep to himself, he says, but in an e-mail from the ship, he wrote: "A few of us do not agree with what is going on, and that there are bigger fish to fry (i.e. Al Qaeda). But ... we have been ordered into this situation and no one is arguing that."
He is the one who can see the horizon that marks the boundary with Iraq, but he worries about her, waiting back in Chicago.
"Every letter I send her, I say, `Everything's good. Better than I thought.' That kind of stuff," he says. "I think my mom will go a little nuts once this thing starts. I know she'll be looking at every headline that says, `4 Marines injured' and wondering if it's me."
Around him, the tent fills with soldiers, loud with adrenaline and bravado. They toss their dusty gear onto the ground and peel off sweaty hats, shirts and harnesses. Someone starts reciting a rap song.
Rob sits in the middle of the chaos, head bent over his weapon.
What if he has to kill?
Fran Johns fears that there are worse fates than being killed in combat.
Her son could be captured. He could be gassed. He could be tortured.
It's not only what may be done to him, she thinks, it's what he may have to do to others. What if he has to kill someone? What if he sees his friends killed? What if he sees dead children?
The questions overwhelm her and she is powerless to answer them. She tries not to picture where her son is and what he is doing. She is frightened that the very qualities she loves in him may put him in danger.
"In trying to instill in him a sense of humanity, I wonder if I put him at risk in a war situation," she says. "In war, you have to dehumanize the enemy and I wonder if a humanist in uniform is kind of a dead man walking."
Before Rob left, they set up a series of code words that would allow him to tell his mother how he was doing. There was only one code word she cared about. When you are safe, she told him, use the word "Pentwater."
Pentwater is the name of the town in Michigan where she has a summer home. It is the place she considers the family's refuge.
From the USS Dubuque, Rob and his mother talked by e-mail and telephone whenever they could. The trip was basically a taxi ride, as Rob put it, but the days were long, beginning at 5:30 a.m. with physical training, and the conditions cramped and uncomfortable. Eight men slept across from each other on bunks stacked four high. Rob checked his e-mail three times a day.
When he wrote to his mother, he signed his messages, "Your son and Marine." She responded in kind, closing hers with "Marine Mom Against the War."
In the beginning, their messages were mostly practical or light-hearted. He teased his mother that he was going to get the "high and tight" haircut she hated. They talked about his daughter Parker's 5th birthday. He asked for diaper wipes, so he could clean his face in the heat, and a razor and sunscreen.
He told her he was concerned for the young men in his unit, most just a few months out of boot camp.
"I am pretty worried about my guys," he wrote his mother. "They are all great kids, but jeez ... so young."
"Hang in there, Rob," she answered. "Lots of people are still trying to keep this thing from happening. ... I think about you every day."
She sent him the transcript of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations. For his Valentine's Day birthday, she mailed him a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
"Mom ... I received the package!!" he answered. "Thanks! ... Everything in it was useful, and the chocolate was melted, but it went fast ... (30 guys, 10 pieces ... haha) Anyway, hope all is well, I am doing fine and am safe right now. ...
"Love, your son and Marine ... Rob."
She missed Rob's last telephone call, before he landed ashore, because she was at a meeting. But when she went into her office two days later, an e-mail was waiting for her.
"We are leaving tomorrow morning," Rob wrote, in the message his mother received Feb. 23.
"I'll be safe and watch out for myself. ... Expect some mail and try not to worry too much, we are in good hands. ... Thanks for everything mom. ... I love you. ...
"Love, (your nervous son and Marine)
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