The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
“The real war will never get in the books.” J. Kael Weston quotes this line from Walt Whitman in his war memoir The Mirror Test documenting his seven years as a State Department official in Iraq and Afghanistan. His account of what it was like for soldiers and civilians on the frontlines of those wars may stand as a profound exception to Whitman’s observation.
The mirror test refers to what doctors say is the moment when a soldier is mentally prepared to look in the mirror to see what damage an IED or a firefight did to his or her face and deal with their new reality. Weston challenges the American people to do the same and assess the justification for the human cost of its wars.
Weston’s State Department commission started in Iraq in the wake of Bush’s invasion Shock and Awe. Kael, as he was known in the field, was charged with the seemingly impossible task under these circumstances as non-military liaison reaching out to build trust with Iraqi civilians. He filed reports to the state department of U.S. military missions and progress in building trust and cooperation with Iraqis. His real-time accounts of events on the ground often were in stark contrast to the vision of a now “liberated” after the U.S. invasion.
As the U.S. brass and industrialists move into Saddam Hussein’s palaces, Weston writes not only of the corrupted decadence of Saddam Hussein, but also how easily U.S. officials were deluding themselves with their equally decadent stratagems to occupy Iraq, with predictions from Donald Rumsfeld that war would be over in days or mere months. Of course within weeks it turned into a catastrophic quagmire as bad as Vietnam proved to be and finally one of the most profoundly arrogant military blunders in U.S. history.
Weston holds a moral mirror test up to the Bush administration’s architects of war—Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and Powell—holding their feet to the fire on the catastrophic decisions and the craven motives behind them. He doesn’t need to rant, but rather reveals the real life consequences of their failed policy decisions as they played out for the military, their families, and the millions of civilians in both countries.
In Iraq, after Fallujah was “destroyed so it could saved,” Weston describes how he observed Marines with “Few words. Heavy eyes . . . and alone time. Hidden battles already internalized. Emotional drawbridges up. Exhaustion, first physical and mental and then spiritual. Then what, for all the years to follow?”
Weston takes the mirror test himself by not glossing over his decision to send a helicopter full of marines to add security to remote polling places in Iraq for first election in Iraq, with Iraqis in some regions afraid to go to the polls. The unforeseen tragedy unfolded as that helicopter crashed in the desert, resulting in 31 U.S. marines’ deaths. Even though he could not have known the tragic outcome, he writes of his devastation for his part in the decision and its consequences.
After Kael leaves Fallujah, he tries to regroup stateside. After Iraq he returns to the American west of his childhood, where he grew up in a military family, near a WWII Japanese Internment camp and “downwind” from nuclear test sites. He prepared to go to Afghanistan, what U.S. soldiers there called “the forgotten war” that Weston considers was “The Right War.”
In Afghanistan, he was spearheading the building of schools and roads. He was also a target of insurgents and survived two IED explosions while traveling in the most dangerous regions of both countries. His personal experience, though, is decidedly secondary to his reportage of coalition troops and crucially, as he did in Iraq, the fate of Afghan citizens.
He describes how he forms fact finding alliances with future Afghan lawyers at Khost University to answer questions about U.S. policy and finds them challenging him with their knowledge of the west. With tribal leaders deep in the Afghan mountains, they commiserate about how they defend themselves in the harshest mountain regions, the long Russian invasion, and their perspectives on U.S. military missteps.
He ventures to a notorious U.S. interrogation in a remote part of Afghanistan as infamous as Abu Grahib, where he learns of the torture death of a taxi driver based manufactured evidence by warring tribes. As in Iraq, Weston is somehow able to build alliances that break through to a level of personal, if conditional, trust, with Afghans who are just trying to survive. He also has the task of paying what he calls “blood money” to victims of U.S. “collateral damage” that caused civilian deaths because of mistakes made by U.S. military.
After Weston’s tours of diplomatic duty were over, his personal missions are far from done stateside as he relates in the final chapters. What are the ignored lessons of WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam? Are they inestimable lost pieces of a cracked national mirror?
He visits wounded soldiers and gravesites, the Bush library, and reconnects with soldiers he knew in the field. In a most moving chapter, Operation Mend, about a nonprofit medical unit that facilitates state of the art corrective surgery procedures, the first patient Aaron Mankin writes of the moment he saw himself: “It’s such a disconnect looking at yourself and you expect to see someone that resembles you, and it was a stranger staring back at me, and it was a lot to deal with . . . Beauty is who you are. It’s not the way you look.”
J. Kael Weston's memoir of two American wars and the aftermath is a reality check and a rallying cry of conscience that we cannot perpetrate manufactured and immoral wars like Iraq again. Weston makes sure that we see these endless wars for what they really are and that no one is a forgotten statistic in the pages of his book.