Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Am I dreaming?

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
-- Barack Obama, Chicago, Nov. 4, 2008

There's no easily-referenced historical anecdote to bring up right now, no comparison I could make that I think could actually sum up what I just watched happen. Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States.

I have this cerebral knowledge that I just watched history happen, but I'm still having a hard time getting my mind around it. Maybe I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, though. There are plenty of other places to read run-downs of why what happened really happened, and I certainly don't need to contribute to the pile -- what I can tell you is how I wound up where I am, a "blue-gummed" liberal as an Army pal from Alabama recently referred to me, stunned that my country has actually done the right thing. I hope I may be granted the indulgence of making this "all about me" for a post.

I grew up observing passionately conservative values, which I equated -- as my parents still do -- with the Republican party. I knew God was watching me in everything I did, and as I grew older, I realized that society would be better the more it fell in line with the Catholic ideology I'd learned.

I graduated in 2002 with marginally decent grades and a degree in journalism from a stridently Catholic school, still espousing those same religously-grounded notions of right and wrong, and still equating those with the Republican party -- which had led me to vote in 2000, in Ohio, for George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative."

Still feeling some nascent nationalist rage over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, I joined the Army a few months after graduating college. I had been utterly unsuccessful in my half-hearted attempts to find a job as a reporter, and I shipped off for basic with a contract to become a "public affairs specialist" on August 25, 2002.

Basic training was at Fort Benning, Georgia, and when I arrived, my coddled, comfortable world was taken away from me, and I learned what it was like to be afraid. I suppose that's the key to military training -- showing you constant fear and teaching you to operate even in the face of it.

Most of basic is a blur, now. But there's an image that has stuck with me: in late September, I was outside my company's barracks, trimming hedged with a pair of rusty shears on a Sunday afternoon. My battalion was located near the edge of the basic training area, and a set of railroad tracks ran past it. While I was out trying to appear busy while enjoying the suddenly pleasant weather, a long train passed by -- several locomotives towing a seemingly-endless chain of flatbed cars loaded with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, all painted desert tan.

Our drill sergeants had told us since the beginning that we'd all be going to war within the next few months. They told us that we better listen, because if we didn't, we'd wind up being hamburger on the side of some Iraqi road (they all took it as a foregone conclusion that that was where we were headed).

Months later, in March of 2003, I crowded into my new company dayroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, to watch the beginning of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (which was later retroactively dubbed "OIF 1") -- U.S. tanks rolled into and across Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and we saw brief video of sporadic firefights interspersed with breathless after-action commentary from battalion commanders on the ground, whose men had fought valiantly against a foe all too eager to surrender.

It took a tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division and a subsequent reassignment to Fort Konx for me to finally realize what a horrible mess we were in -- war in Afghanistan had started before I'd joined, and the Iraq war was ramping up deployments of my more combat-oriented friends at an alarming pace. And our leaders were dissembling -- we'd gone in to Iraq on the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons hadn't materialized. Worse, the team sent in to oversee things had hideously botched matters. All this I had been willing to forgive -- after all, I remained a loyal soldier, true to the oath I'd sworn in the Syracuse federal building some years before...

I, Ian Boudreau, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
But it eventually occured to me that the officers appointed over me, and to a much greater extent, the president of the United States -- one George W. Bush, who we've heard precious little of in the last three months -- weren't all they were cracked up to be. And the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was Bush's failed nomination of Harriet Myers to the United States Supreme Court.

There's not much to dig up here on how I felt when it happened -- it actually seems to have stimulated a long period of inactivity (which never seems to have entirely gone away, actually). But it was a chink in the armor of what I'd up till then held as unassailable beliefs -- in American exceptionalism, in the inherent goodness of capitalism, and in our right to do pretty much whatever we wanted because of those things.

Today, I watched a country -- a people -- tell the rest of the world that we're sorry for telling it to go fuck itself whenever it doesn't get along with what our leaders want to do. Today I saw that Americans, by a large margin, are upset that we've lost standing in world opinion, that we want to get along, and that we don't want to be seen as the rednecks of the globe.

The last thing I want to do here is to take anything away from Obama, who has accomplished something that couldn't even have been conceived of 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama. He has been accused of the most fatuous group of lies ever concocted about an American presidential candidate (early on, he was suspected of being the antichrist), and Americans spoke and said "We want him anyway."

As much as it is a validation of Senator Obama's platform, it's a vote of disgust and no-confidence for the ideals the Republican party has come to espouse over the past decade. We want forgiveness from the rest of the world, because we're interested in being a helpful and benign part of it, not an opportunistic, vendetta-oriented warmonger looking to depose and hang inconveniently popular rulers in areas we have economic interests in. We care about the way our soldiers behave, and we care about whether the prisoners we take are tortured. We care about social justice, we care about the poor, we care about veterans, and we're angry that getting sick in America means going broke for most people.

And the operative phrase there is, "We Care." Maybe I'm a short-timer compared to some of the life-long protestors out there, but god!

Barack Obama is going to be our president in January, and no other explanation makes sense other than, Americans really do care.

It's late now. This could have done better justice both to Obama's win and my own history. Maybe I'll write more down tomorrow. It was an interesting night.