Monday, August 15, 2005

Mrs. Sheehan is not the only parent with questions

A soldier’s father wrestles with the ambiguities of
Issue of 2005-07-04
Posted 2005-06-27

On November 8, 2003, at around 7:40 p.m., a convoy of
two Humvees drove out of the front gate of the
American base at Al Rashid Military Camp, in southeast
Baghdad. The mission was to pick up a sergeant who was
attending a meeting at the combat-support hospital
inside the Green Zone, the secure area where the
Americanled occupation authority was situated. The
convoy belonged to the scout platoon of Headquarters
Company, 2-6 Infantry, First Armored Division. In the
rear left seat of the lead vehicle sat a
twenty-two-year-old private named Kurt Frosheiser.

Frosheiser was from Des Moines, Iowa. The son of
divorced parents, he had a twin brother, Joel, and a
married older sister, Erin. During high school, he had
been a rebellious, indifferent student, and by the age
of twenty-one he had become a community-college
dropout, living with his sister and her family,
delivering pizza, and partying heavily. He had a
brash, boyish smile and his father’s full mouth and
thick-lidded eyes; he liked Lynyrd Skynyrd and the
Chicago Cubs; and one day in January, 2003, he flew
through the door with the news that he had just
enlisted in the Army.

His father, Chris, who also lived in Des Moines,
wasn’t thrilled to hear it. The Frosheisers were not a
military family; Chris, fifty-eight, a salesman’s son
from Chicago with a flat Midwestern accent, had joined
the Army reserve in 1969, mainly to avoid going to
Vietnam. But he wasn’t the kind of father to impose
his views on his children—he never pushed Kurt to
share his own interest in history and politics—and he
didn’t try very hard to talk Kurt out of joining up.
Their relationship was what mattered, and his son
needed his support. A few weeks later, Kurt dropped by
his father’s apartment around two in the morning,
after a night out drinking, and said, “I want to be
part of something bigger than myself.”

Kurt watched the invasion of Iraq on TV, looking,
according to his sister, more serious than she had
ever seen him. He had an option to get out of serving,
but he left home on April 16th for basic training at
Fort Knox, Kentucky. In June, the family drove down to
see him on Family Day, and Chris was stunned by the
transformation: his son stood at perfect attention on
Pershing Field for forty-five minutes in his dress
uniform. It was the same in August, when they attended
graduation: Private Frosheiser, marching, singing with
his classmates, “Pick up your wounded, pick up your
dead.” Chris found the words chilling, but the music,
the sharpness of the formation, the bearing of his
son, filled him with pride. After the ceremony, Kurt
told his father, “You weren’t hard-core enough for
me.” Chris always lingered in the gray areas, asking
questions; Kurt wanted the clear light of an oath and
an order.

They all drove back to Des Moines for their last two
weeks together before Kurt would join the First
Armored Division, based in Baumholder, Germany. He
partied every night, but the departure hung over
everyone, and on the last night, when Erin dropped him
off at one final party and turned to look at him, he
said, “I know,” and ran off.

Late that night, Kurt told his father, “Well, old man,
I’m probably not going to see you for two years.” They
both started to cry, and Chris ran his hand through
his son’s crew cut. “I know I’m going to be in some
deep shit,” Kurt said. “But you know me, I’m a
survivor.” Chris knew that the words were meant only
to comfort him. His son said, “Live your life, old

In Germany, Kurt was bored and eager to join the rest
of the division, which was already in Iraq. Once, on
the phone with his father, he noted that weapons of
mass destruction might not be found. “We’re fucked,
aren’t we?” he said. His father responded that there
might be other reasons for the war, such as democracy
in the Middle East. (Condoleezza Rice, the
national-security adviser, had offered this rationale
in a speech that Chris, a devoted viewer of C-span,
had seen.) Chris told him that the W.M.D. threat might
just have been the easiest rationale to sell to the
public. Kurt wasn’t really interested in the politics
of the war anyway. He was more concerned about
confronting guerrilla warfare. His officers at
Baumholder had warned the soldiers not to pick up
trash bags, and not to take packages that kids would
rush up to give them.

Suddenly, Kurt was on a transport plane to Kuwait,
where he awaited deployment for a few days. By the end
of October, he was in Baghdad. On November 6th, he
managed to get online and e-mailed his sister:

Our secter that we patrol is a good one we don’t get
shot at that much nor do we find IEDs (improvised
explosive devices) thats their main way of attacking
us. They usually put them in bags but now their
putting them in dead animals or in concrete blocks to
hide them better. It’s kinda scary knowing their out
there but like I said our secter is pretty secure so
Ill be allright.

Writing to his father about his first mission in
Baghdad, an uneventful night operation, Kurt was more

I found myself thinking that Im in a country where a
lot of soldiers lost their lives but where we at it
was so quiet except all friggin dogs barking the
Iraqis hate dogs so they’re all wild probubly never
had a bath their whole lives this country is a shit
hole they dont have plumbing so they dig little canels
and let all the shit and piss run into the streets . .
. theyre places that smell so bad you almost throw up.
from what I see its goin to take alot longer then
Rumsfeld and G.W are saying to get this shit hole up
and running.

He spoke to his father once, briefly, on the phone.
“I.E.D.s, old man, I.E.D.s,” he said.

On the evening of November 8th, Kurt was sitting on
his bunk, sorting and counting his ammunition, when
word came of a mission to the combat-support hospital.
He was training for his license as a Humvee driver,
and he was eager to experience driving through Baghdad
by night. In his short time with the battalion, he had
earned a reputation as a hard worker who was quick to
volunteer. He and his best friend in the unit, Private
Matt Plumley, a Tennesseean, raced each other to the
vehicle. Because the right rear door was hard to open,
they both headed for the left. Kurt got there first.

The convoy left the base and began cruising north,
toward downtown Baghdad. Five minutes later, on the
left shoulder of the dark highway, thirty feet ahead
of the convoy, two 130-mm. artillery shells packed
with Russian C-4 explosives detonated, in a flash of
light, black smoke, flying dirt. Hot chunks of
shrapnel tore through the legs of the lead Humvee’s
driver, Private First Class Matt Van Buren, but he
accelerated a few hundred yards along the highway,
thinking that he would try to make it to the hospital.
Then Staff Sergeant Darrell Clay, who was sitting next
to him, told him to stop.

In the back of the Humvee, Kurt was slumped in his
seat. Plumley checked Kurt’s pulse, and found none.
Kurt had been looking out the window, which had no
glass. His head was turned to the left, and a small
piece of metal had penetrated the right side of his
skull just below his Kevlar helmet, breaching his
brain. Private Kurt Frosheiser was taken by helicopter
to the combatsupport hospital in the Green Zone, where
he was pronounced dead, at 8:17 p.m.

At six-thirty the next morning, a Sunday, the phone
rang in Chris Frosheiser’s cramped apartment, where he
had been living since his divorce. The caller was a
lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard; he was
two blocks away and trying to find the address. “I
have a message from the Army,” he said tersely. The
previous week, Chris Frosheiser had asked an officer
what to expect if something happened to Kurt; the
officer had said that he would receive a phone call if
Kurt was wounded, a visit if he had been killed.
Frosheiser met the lieutenant colonel outside the
building and invited him in, hoping it was all a
mistake, and they briefly made small talk in the
living room. Frosheiser went to the kitchen for a cup
of coffee. When he returned, the lieutenant colonel
suddenly stood at attention: “I regret to inform you
that your son Kurt was killed as a result of action in

On November 11th, Veterans Day, Kurt’s battalion
gathered in formation at the base in southeast Baghdad
for a memorial service. A captain, Robert Swope, later
wrote an account of the ceremony:

At 1430 the ceremony is supposed to begin, but it
doesn’t start until 1448 because we have to wait for a
couple generals to arrive. The memorial ceremony
begins with an invocation by the chaplain, and then
the battalion commander and the company commander both
speak. Two privates who knew the soldier follow them.
One of the privates chokes and starts tearing up while
giving his tribute. I look around me out into a sea of
sad faces and in the very back of the battalion
formation I see that one of the female soldiers
attached to our unit is crying.
A bagpiper plays a crappy version of “Amazing Grace”
and halfway through it doesn’t even sound much like
the song anymore. . . . The chaplain reads a few
verses from the Bible, and then gives a memorial
message and prayer. It’s followed by a moment of
Then, the acting First Sergeant for the company does
roll call, yelling out the names of various soldiers
in the unit. They all answer, one after another, that
they are present. When he comes to the private who
died, everything is quiet.
He calls out again his name, and still there is no
answer. He does it a final time, using his full name
and rank:
“Private First Class Kurt Russell Frosheiser!”
And then the mournful melody of “Taps” begins. Midway
through the bugler begins slowly walking away, letting
the music softly fade out in the distance. Seven
soldiers with seven rifles fire off three series of
blanks, giving Private Frosheiser a twenty-one-gun
When they’re finished the battalion commander walks up
to the memorial, which is an M-16 with a bayonet
attached and driven into a wooden stand. Resting on
top of the butt stock is a helmet and hanging down are
a pair of dog tags with Kurt’s name, social security
number, blood type, and religion on them. Directly in
front of the M-16 and in the center of the memorial
stand sit a pair of tan combat boots. To the left and
to the right are a bronze star and purple heart
ensconced in their silk and velvet cases.
This is the second time I’ve had to go to a ceremony
like this so far this year, and I don’t feel
comfortable doing it. I walk up to the memorial the
way I did last April for the other soldier in my
company. I don’t lower my head and pray or whisper
anything, as so many others do before me. I don’t lean
over and touch the tip of his boots like the sergeant
major ahead of me just did. I just salute and then
turn and walk away.

Chris Frosheiser initially wanted to escort his son’s
body back from Baghdad, or at least meet it at Dover
Air Force Base, in Delaware. In the end, it was enough
to receive the coffin at the Des Moines airport with
thirty family members and friends and see Kurt’s face
one more time. At the wake, Frosheiser tried to say
that his son’s courage filled him with awe, but he
wasn’t able to express himself well. Kurt received a
military funeral after a Catholic service, and was
buried nearby, in Glendale Cemetery.

A few days before the funeral, Kurt’s mother, Jeanie
Hudson, had told the local paper, “He loved this land
and its principles. He loved Iowa. It’s an honor to
give my son to preserve our way of life.” She had
become an evangelical Christian, and she said that
Kurt had volunteered to fight the forces of evil. For
Chris Frosheiser, this was too apocalyptic, suggesting
some kind of religious war; he was a Catholic, but he
thought that mixing politics and religion—whether
Islam or Christianity—was dangerous. Anyway, Kurt had
not spoken of the war this way. On the night after
Kurt’s death, Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack, had called
to offer condolences and said that he hoped the
country’s policies were as good as its people.
Frosheiser was troubled by the thought that it might
not be so. In January, 2004, one of Kurt’s friends
from Fort Knox wrote him in an e-mail, “I don’t
suppose he was in an up-armored HMMV, was he? Probably
not, Uncle Sam wouldn’t give us Joe’s the good stuff.”
Frosheiser didn’t know the answer, but thinking about
it only deepened his grief.

Frosheiser dreamed that he was in the Army with Kurt.
It was unclear whether they were father and son or
friends; both of them were sitting on the right side
of the Humvee and, when the explosion came, they fell
out together and everything was O.K. He was nagged by
the thought that he hadn’t had time to send Kurt a
book he had requested, Tolkien’s “The Return of the
King.” On his wrist he wore Kurt’s watch, still set to
Baghdad time, with an alarm that went off at 6:30
a.m.—9:30 p.m. in Des Moines.

Frosheiser was a lifelong Democrat. In 1968, as a
student at Drake University, he had supported Robert
Kennedy for President. He couldn’t identify with the
antiwar movement, though; he thought that Vietnam was
a terrible waste but not a reason to hate your
country. Even the Eugene McCarthy campaign struck him
as too élite, too unconventional, and when McCarthy
said that Kennedy was “running best among the less
intelligent and less educated people” it touched the
resentful nerve of a lower-middle-class college kid.
The Tom Haydens of the world were going to make it no
matter how they spent their youth; the Chris
Frosheisers had to be more careful.

He didn’t join the backlash that elected Nixon and
Reagan, however; he remained a liberal, mostly on
economic grounds. For many years, he worked in the
insurance business without enthusiasm; in 1993, he
started a new career, as the Salvation Army’s director
of social services in Des Moines. “I wanted to do
something more meaningful—kind of like Kurt,”
Frosheiser said. Meanwhile, he had grown increasingly
unhappy with the “weakness” of Democratic leaders and
the anti-military views of much of the Party’s base.
After Kurt’s enlistment and then his death, the
feeling deepened into estrangement. Frosheiser
venerated those who put on a uniform and served. He
was uneasy with friends who called Iraq “another
Vietnam,” and he couldn’t tolerate hearing that Kurt’s
life had been wasted. When a local Catholic peace
group got in touch to offer condolences and let him
know that Kurt’s picture, along with those of other
fallen Iowans, would be on display at a weekly
candlelight vigil, Frosheiser told the group not to
use Kurt’s photograph. But when he bought a long-life
candle at a Christian bookshop and told the cashier
that it was for his son’s grave, and she said, “Thank
you for your sacrifice,” that, too, sounded wrong.

That winter, in the Iowa caucuses, Frosheiser
supported Senator John Edwards; he had misgivings
about John Kerry. When a friend called Kerry’s vote
against the eighty-seven-billion-dollar war
appropriation a “protest vote,” Frosheiser said, “Kind
of a serious issue to be casting protest votes on.” He
wondered if Kerry could hold steadfast in Iraq under
pressure from the Party’s dissenting base. If not,
what would Kurt’s death mean then? When President Bush
said in a speech, “We will hold this hard-won ground,”
he found the language inspiring. Kerry’s rhetoric did
not inspire him. Frosheiser kept remembering Lincoln’s
1862 Message to Congress: “As our case is new, so we
must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall
ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” He
longed to hear words like these from a wartime leader;
politics required the art of explanation. But Bush,
who had made so many mistakes, was unable to admit or
see his errors, even as the war was getting worse; he
had the best education money could buy, but he seemed
to know little about the world. Frosheiser admired men
who seemed driven more by patriotism than by ideology,
such as Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, of the 9/11
Commission, and Senators Joe Lieberman and John
McCain. Iraq was too important to be left to the

Not long after Kurt’s death, Chris Frosheiser read a
piece I wrote for this magazine about Kurt’s
battalion. Frosheiser was looking for some way to
comprehend Kurt’s short life and his death in Iraq.
After I got back from Iraq, we began a correspondence
by e-mail. Frosheiser’s letters were full of the
restless questions, the constant return to the same
inconclusive themes, of a man who has suffered a
trauma and is determined to feel every contour of it:

April 1, 2004: Democrats need a foreign policy and a
national security strategy to back it up. . . . Now, I
have gone on too long and not answered your questions
very well. It shows my ambivalence and the difficulty
in talking beyond the personal. Sorry. May I write
more later? I can’t go on now. . . . I have reread
Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech and Marshall’s
Harvard Commencement speech of June 1947. I admired
them and those policies. I must avoid bitterness. In
honor of Kurt and the other soldiers, bitterness seems

May 15, 2004: Sometimes I think about Kurt being in
Baghdad, Iraq, as part of something called “Operation
Iraqi Freedom.” Kurt said he wanted to be a part of
something larger than himself. He was in the middle of
something so huge it nearly defies understanding.
There is more to be said about this, I just don’t know
what it is. My son died for something. And there is
honor in simply enlisting, let alone serving in Iraq.

August 28, 2004: Next Tuesday, George Bush will be
campaigning near Des Moines, in a farm community
called Alleman, Iowa. Apparently, the campaign invited
us as Kurt’s family to be there. Joel and I talked
about it and Erin too. And we will attend. It is a
tribute to Kurt, I think. It may or may not be
construed as support for Bush. But, you know, I will
put my Democratic loyalty up against anyone’s. As a
tribute to Kurt I am entitled to shake hands with the
President. Besides, it is still a bit odd I think that
very little was said to me, a loyal Democrat, by
leading Democrats, about Kurt’s service. I know a guy
who was the state party chair and who was an early
Edwards supporter. I had expressed an interest in
talking to Edwards about Kurt’s service. It was never
arranged. I thought someone like Edwards should speak
to someone who lost a child in combat. Is there a
larger issue exposed here? About Democrats and the
soldiers? Sometimes it feels like I don’t have a
party. John Kerry did send a card to both Jeanie and
me, but I really think there is an ill-at-ease sense
among activist Democrats about the “warriors” because
of opposition to the war.

September 5, 2004: In follow-up to my previous e-mail
about meeting Dubya, it didn’t happen. Out of a sense
of obligation to honor Kurt, to receive his Commander
in Chief’s offer of tribute and condolences I went. We
were just part of the crowd. . . . We did get to hear
the “stump speech,” a longer version of which he gave
to the Convention. He speaks of the “war against
terror” as if it includes Iraq, no distinguishing
between them. . . . I will be happy when the election
is over. I can’t take much more of the hyperbolic

September 11, 2004: Grandson Colin spent the night
last night. We ate popcorn, visited Borders, watched
Star Wars, and this morning took a dip in the pool (a
bit cool). Life goes on, ready or not. I have to say
that Kurt is never out of my thoughts. Ever. That may
not be healthy but it is the way it is. I am 57 years
old, George, I may never fully recover from this. And
maybe I shouldn’t.

October 4, 2004: A better Iraq? Is it possible? Why
did we go into Iraq? What justifies our remaining?
American lives have been lost, precious lives, for
what? Can something be achieved that is worthy of the
sacrifice? Are there things not known to anyone other
than the President and his advisers? No one in the
Senate or any of the “attentive” and “informed”
organizations? That would justify the sacrifice? And
how much more sacrifice can be justified? For us to
turn Iraq over to civil war would be hard to take. I
don’t have the right to advocate continued involvement
because of my sacrifice—that would lead to more, many
more. What is best for America and Iraq? What is
reality on the ground in Iraq? What is possible to
achieve? Can Kerry and a team of his choosing do it?
It is a great leap of faith.
And most of the time none of this matters to me. I
want my son. My son.

The home front of the first two years of the Iraq war
was not like that of the Second World War, and it was
not like that of Vietnam. It didn’t unite Americans
across party lines against an existential threat.
(September 11th did that, but not Iraq.) There were no
war bonds, no collection drives, no universal call-up,
no national mobilization, no dollar-a-year men. Nor
did the war tear the country apart. Almost as soon as
it began, the American antiwar movement quietly
capitulated. On the first and second anniversaries of
the invasion, there were large demonstrations in
Europe and parts of the Middle East and Asia, but in
this country organized opposition was muted by the
imperative to support the troops. Candlelight vigils
like the one in Des Moines, which displayed the
photographs of fallen Iowans, strived for a tone of
respectful dissent.

In the media, Iraq generated words as bitter as any
event in modern American history. But most Americans
didn’t turn against other citizens, any more than they
joined together in a common cause. Iraq was a
strangely distant war. It was always hard to picture
the place; the war didn’t enter the popular
imagination in songs that everyone soon knew by heart,
in the manner of previous wars. The one slender
American novel that the war has inspired so far,
“Checkpoint,” by Nicholson Baker—a dialogue over lunch
in a Washington hotel room between two old friends,
one of whom is preparing to assassinate President
Bush—has nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do
with the ugliness of politics in this country. Michael
Moore, the left’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, made a
hugely successful movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” in which
Saddam’s Iraq was portrayed in a crudely fantastical
light—a happy place where children flew kites. Iraq
provided a blank screen onto which Americans projected
anything they wanted, in part because so few Americans
had anything directly at stake there. The war’s
proponents and detractors spoke of the conflict
largely in theoretical terms: imperialism, democracy,
unilateralism, weapons of mass destruction,
preëmption, terrorism, totalitarianism,
neoconservatism, appeasement. The exceptions were the
soldiers and their families, who carried almost the
entire weight of the war.

Whereas the street fights of the late nineteen-sixties
were the consequence of Vietnam, the word fights of
this decade were not the consequence of Iraq—if
anything, it was the other way around. It was the
first blogged war, and the characteristic features of
the form—instant response, ad-hominem attack,
remoteness from life, the echo chamber of friends and
enemies—helped define the tone of the debate about
Iraq. One of the leading bloggers, Andrew Sullivan,
responded to the news of Saddam’s capture, in
December, 2003, by writing, “It was a day of joy.
Nothing remains to be said right now. Joy.” He had
just handed out eleven mock awards to leftists who
expressed insufficient happiness or open unhappiness
at the news. In response to an Iraqi blogger’s
declaration of heartfelt thanks to the coalition
forces, Sullivan, sitting at his computer in
Washington, wrote, “You’re welcome. . . . The men and
women in our armed forces did the hardest work. They
deserve our immeasurable thanks. But we all played our
part.” Sullivan’s joy was, in fact, vindictive and
narcissistic glee. (He has since had second thoughts
about the Administration’s conduct of the war.)
Similarly, as the insurgency sent Iraq into tumult
most antiwar pundits and politicians, in spite of the
enormous stakes and the awful alternatives, showed no
interest in helping Iraq become a stable democracy.
When Iraqis risked their lives to vote, Arianna
Huffington dismissed the elections as a “Kodak
moment.” It was Bush’s war, and, if it failed, it
would be Bush’s failure.

Iraq was too complicated for the simple answers each
political side offered. The American invasion brought
death, chaos, and occupation to Iraq; it also ended a
terrible tyranny and ushered in the possibility of
hope. American forces achieved local successes in
rebuilding infrastructure and setting up new
institutions of government; they also lost ground
every day in the estimation of Iraqis. The war had
something to do with national security, something to
do with oil, and something to do with democracy. Few
Iraqis I met felt compelled to rifle through the
contradictions and settle on one story line; many of
them acknowledged that America, while ridding them of
Saddam, had acted out of its own self-interest. But in
America there were comparatively few people who could
handle the kind of cognitive dissonance with which
Iraqis lived every day.

Some journalists visited Iraq simply to reinforce
their preconceptions. In the summer of 2003,
Christopher Hitchens, who had just published a book
with the premature title “A Long Short War: The
Postponed Liberation of Iraq,” flew in with the
entourage of Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of
Defense, spent several days in Wolfowitz’s wake, and
came back to tell Fox News that the postwar
reconstruction was succeeding splendidly, with the
Americans busy rebuilding the place, gathering
intelligence, apprehending Baathists, and making
friends with the people—none of which was appearing in
press coverage. “I felt a sense of annoyance that I
had to go there myself to find any of that out,”
Hitchens told the Fox interviewer. The following
March, with the long short war showing signs of
turning into a short long war, Fred Barnes, the
executive editor of the strenuously pro-war Weekly
Standard, parachuted into the Green Zone and
discovered that the only thing wrong with Operation
Iraqi Freedom was Iraqis. “They need an attitude
adjustment,” Barnes wrote. “Americans I talked to in
ten days here agree Iraqis are difficult to deal with.
They’re sullen and suspicious and conspiracy-minded.”
Before the invasion, hawks like Barnes had described
Iraqis as heroic figures, but now something had to
explain all the bumps in the road. A successful
democracy would emerge in Iraq, Barnes said, only
after “an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act
of benevolence one country has ever done for another.”
Naomi Klein, a columnist for the bitterly antiwar
Nation, visited Baghdad at the same time as Barnes and
found that the insurgency was mushrooming because the
occupation authority was “further opening up Iraq’s
economy to foreign ownership”—in other words, because
Iraqis shared her own anti-globalization views.

America had become too politically partisan, divided,
and small-minded to manage something as vast and
difficult as Iraq. Condoleezza Rice and other leading
officials liked to compare Iraq with postwar Germany.
But there was a great gulf between the tremendously
thoughtful effort of the best minds that had gone into
defeating Fascism and rebuilding Germany and Japan,
and the peevish, self-serving attention paid to Iraq.
One produced the Army’s four-hundred-page manual on
the occupation of Germany; the other produced talking

In the aftermath of September 11th, President Bush was
granted what few Presidents ever get: national unity
and the good will of both parties. In the days that
followed the terror attacks, something like a popular
self-mobilization emerged. Yet President Bush did
nothing to harness the surge of civic energy, or to
frame the new war against Islamist radicalism as a
national struggle. The war on terror should have been
the job not only of experts in the intelligence
agencies and Special Forces but also of ordinary
American citizens. And the war demanded more than a
military campaign—it required intellectual,
diplomatic, economic, political, and cultural efforts
as well. “The Bush Administration has chosen to
prosecute this war in a way that the average citizen
won’t feel the burden,” Andrew Bacevich, a professor
of international relations at Boston University and a
retired Army officer, told me. “The global war on
terrorism, a task that’s supposed to be equal to that
of the greatest generation, is being fought by 0.5 per
cent of the citizenry—predominantly people who don’t
exercise a lot of clout in our domestic politics.”
Bacevich, in his recent book “The New American
Militarism,” proposes reviving the role of the
citizen-soldier by, for example, tying college
scholarships to national military service. “The
political leadership of the country needs to expend
political capital to make clear that support for the
global war on terrorism must come from all sectors of
society,” he said. “Then they need to put their money
where their mouth is and encourage their children to
join. If this is such a great cause, let us see one of
the Bush daughters in uniform. That would send a
powerful message. But it’s considered in bad taste
even to suggest such a thing.”

Bush’s rhetoric sometimes soared, but his actions
showed that he had a narrow strategy for fighting the
war, which amounted to finding and killing terrorists
and their supporters. His other political agendas,
such as tax cuts and energy policy, stirred bitter
fights and disrupted the clarity and unity of
September 11th. Whatever national cohesion that
remained by mid-2002 came undone in the buildup to the
invasion of Iraq. The White House forced a
congressional vote on a war resolution one month
before the 2002 midterm elections, in an atmosphere of
partisan invective; Republicans on the floor of the
House and Senate accused their dissenting Democratic
colleagues of Chamberlain-like appeasement of Saddam.
Meanwhile, Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
working with his Republican colleague Richard Lugar,
drafted a war resolution that stood a better chance of
getting bipartisan support; it placed a few
constraints on the Administration’s ability to act,
making it slightly less likely that America would go
to war without international participation. The White
House maneuvered to block the Biden-Lugar bill and got
its own passed, on a more partisan vote. The strategy
of Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove paid off in
November, when the Republicans regained the Senate and
added to their majority in the House. But the
Administration left behind an embittered Democratic
minority and an increasingly divided electorate, just
as it was preparing to take the country into a major
land war.

In the fall of 2002, it still might have been possible
for President Bush to construct an Iraq policy that
united both parties and America’s democratic allies in
defeating tyranny in Iraq. Such a policy, however,
would have required the Administration to operate with
flexibility and openness. The evidence on
unconventional weapons would have had to be laid out
without exaggeration or deception. The work of U.N.
inspectors in Iraq would have had to be supported
rather than undermined. Testimony to Congress would
have had to be candid, not slippery. Administration
officials who offered dissenting views or pessimistic
forecasts would have had to be heard rather than
silenced or fired. American citizens would have had to
be treated as grownups, and not, as Bush’s chief of
staff, Andrew Card, once suggested, as ten-year-olds.

After the invasion, European allies would have had to
be coaxed into joining an effort that desperately
needed their help. French, German, and Canadian
companies would have had to be invited to bid on
reconstruction contracts, not barred by an order
signed by Paul Wolfowitz (who once wrote that American
leadership required “demonstrating that your friends
will be protected and taken care of, that your enemies
will be punished and that those who refuse to support
you will live to regret having done so”). American
contractors close to the Pentagon would have had to be
subjected to extraordinary scrutiny, to avoid even the
appearance of corruption. The U.N. would have had to
be brought into Iraq as an equal partner, not as a
tool of American convenience. The top American
civilian in Iraq might even have had to be a Democrat,
or a moderate Republican such as the retired general
Anthony Zinni, whom a senior Administration official
privately described as the best-qualified person for
the job. (“You’ve got to rise above politics,” the
official told me. “You’ve got to pick the best team.
You’ve got to be like Franklin Roosevelt.”) The
occupation authority would have had to favor hiring
not political appointees but competent, non-partisan
experts. It would have had to put the interests of
Iraqi society ahead of the White House agenda.

And when no weapons of mass destruction were found in
Iraq the Administration would have had to admit it.
The President would have had to scratch evasive
formulations like “weapons of mass destruction-related
program activities” from his State of the Union
address. Officials and generals who were responsible
for scandal and failure would have had to be fired,
not praised or promoted. When reporters asked the
President to name one mistake he had made in Iraq, he
would have had to name five, while assuring the
country that they were being corrected. He would have
had to summon all his rhetorical skill to explain to
the country why, in spite of the failure to find
weapons, ending tyranny in Iraq and helping it to
become a pioneering democracy in the Middle East was
morally correct, important for American security, and
worthy of a generational effort. In fact, he would
have had to explain this before the war, when the
inspectors were turning up no sign of weapons, and
thus allow the country to have a real debate about the
real reason for the war, so that when the war came it
would not come amid rampant suspicions and surprises,
and America would not be alone in Iraq.

The Administration’s early insistence on Iraq’s
imminent threat to national security later made it
difficult for many Americans to accept broader
arguments about democracy. “What would be worth it?”
Chris Frosheiser asked. “W.M.D. imminence? Yeah.
Linked to Al Qaeda? Yeah. After that? We’re concerned
about humanitarianism in Iraq, and the Kurds and all.
But democracy in Iraq?” He wasn’t so easily convinced.

What prevented open and serious debate about the
reasons for war was, above all, the character of the
President. Bush’s war, like his Administration, was
run with an absence of curiosity and self-criticism,
and with a projection of absolute confidence. He
always conveyed the impression that Iraq was a
personal test. Every time a suicide bomber detonated
himself, he was trying to shake George W. Bush’s will.
If Bush remained steadfast, how could America fail? He
liked to call himself a wartime President, and he kept
a bust of his hero Winston Churchill in the Oval
Office. But Churchill led a government of national
unity and offered his countrymen nothing but blood,
toil, tears, and sweat. Bush relentlessly pursued a
partisan Republican agenda while fighting the war, and
what he offered was optimistic forecasts, permanent
tax cuts, and his own stirring resolve.

I asked Richard Perle, the former chairman of the
Defense Policy Board and a leading war proponent,
whether top Administration officials ever suffered
doubts about the Iraq War. “We all have doubts all the
time,” Perle said. “We don’t express them, certainly
not in a public debate. That would be fatal.”
Expressing doubts in public would empower opponents.
In public, Perle himself essentially said, “I told you
so.” Soon after the invasion, he told a French
documentary filmmaker, “Most people thought there
would be tens of thousands of people killed, and it
would be a long and very bloody war. I thought it
would be over in three weeks, with very few people
killed. Now, who was right?” As the war became longer
and bloodier, Perle was still right, but in a
different way: If only ten thousand Iraqi National
Congress members had gone in with the Americans as he
had wanted, if only Ahmad Chalabi had been installed
at the head of an interim government at the start, all
these problems could have been avoided. None of the
war’s architects publicly uttered a syllable of

Leslie Gelb worked in the Pentagon during the last
years of the Johnson Presidency, and he directed the
writing of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of
the Vietnam War which had been commissioned by Robert
McNamara, the Defense Secretary, before leaving
office. I expressed my doubts to Gelb that Donald
Rumsfeld, Bush’s Defense Secretary, had commissioned a
secret history of the Iraq war. “You can bet your
bippy,” Gelb said, laughing. “It’s not accidental that
President Bush, during the campaign, couldn’t answer
the question whether he ever made a mistake. I’ve
never seen those folks say they were wrong. Vietnam
was a liberals’ war. This is not.” Comparing Bush to
his own boss, Gelb went on, “Johnson was a tragic
figure. He was driven by the imperative not to lose
the war. He knew he couldn’t win. Bush is Johnson
squared, because he thinks he can win. Bush is the one
true believer, a man essentially cut off from all
information except the official line.”

Chris Frosheiser once told me, “I don’t expect to hear
Bush say he made a mistake, but I want to hear
something that shows he knows what the hell he’s
doing. And I still don’t hear that from him. That gets
back to the soldier’s oath.” He was referring to the
oath of personal obedience that Kurt had sworn to the
Commander-in-Chief. “It implied that the President
must be very wise and knowledgeable and have foresight
before deploying men, because he’s going to be
responsible for them.”

The strategy of projecting confidence served the
President well in domestic politics. Steadfastness in
wartime is an essential quality, and after the 2004
election no one could reasonably doubt his ability as
a politician. For him, the result also proved his
critics wrong. “We had an accountability moment, and
that’s called the 2004 election,” Bush said. But in
Iraq, which had a reality of its own, the approach
didn’t work as well.

When Bush spoke—as he did in his acceptance speech at
the Republican Convention in September, 2004, and
again in his inaugural address in January, 2005—about
the power of freedom to change the world, he sounded
deep notes in the American psyche. But Iraq itself,
which was visibly deteriorating, looked nothing like
the President’s exalted vision. Bush’s assertions that
the war was succeeding forced the entire government to
fall in line or risk the White House’s wrath. So
agencies sometimes issued prettified reconstruction
reports—even when Iraq’s electricity grid remained in
terrible shape. War is less tolerant of untruth than
domestic politics is. Bush’s imperviousness to
unpleasant facts actually made defeat in Iraq more

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s envoy in Baghdad,
watched governments in Washington and London try to
bend Iraq to their own political needs and concluded
that the Coalition Provisional Authority was hampered
by its creators. “You have to make decisions judged
against the criteria within and about Iraq, not within
and about any other political context,” Greenstock
told me. “If you want the American and British publics
to be happy about the results in Iraq, you don’t say,
‘What do they want next?’ You look at Iraq, and you
produce the substance that will make them happy. You
don’t produce the presentation that might make them
happy tomorrow.”

When Bush’s first chief of the postwar operation, the
retired general Jay Garner, was replaced by L. Paul
Bremer III and recalled from Iraq, in May, 2003, he
was taken by Rumsfeld to the White House for a
farewell meeting with the President. The conversation
lasted forty-five minutes, he told me, with
Vice-President Dick Cheney and Rice sitting in for the
second half, and yet the President did not take the
chance to ask Garner what it was really like in Iraq,
to find out what problems lay ahead. When Garner had
come back from northern Iraq in 1991, after leading
the effort to save Kurdish refugees following the Gulf
War, he had answered questions for four or five days.

Bush thanked Garner for his excellent service. Garner
told Bush, “You made a great choice in Bremer.”
Garner’s end-of-duty report had assured the President
that most services in Iraq would be restored within a
few weeks. Anyone listening to the conversation could
only conclude that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a

“You want to do Iran for the next one?” the President
joshed as the meeting came to an end.

“No, sir, me and the boys are holding out for Cuba,”
Garner said.

Bush laughed and promised Garner and the boys Cuba.

Garner shook hands with the President, then with the
Vice-President, who had said nothing the whole time.
He told me that he caught Cheney’s “wicked little
smile” on his way out, adding, “I think the President
only knows what Cheney lets in there.”

On the day before the 2004 election, the senior
Administration official told me that Bush “was
enshrouded by yes- men and yes-women. George
Tenet”—the former director of the C.I.A.—“is at the
top of the list: people who can smell the political
angle and furnish the information that will give the
President what the political angle is. No one ever
walks into the Oval Office and tells them they’ve got
no clothes on—and persists.” He went on, “I think it’s
dangerous that we have an environment where our
principal leader cannot be well informed.”

When a transport helicopter was shot down near Falluja
in November, 2003, killing fifteen soldiers who were
flying out on leave, the public waited for the
President to make a statement about the single worst
combat incident of the war. Bush said nothing for two
days, until, when pressed by reporters while he was
touring wildfire damage in California, he put his hand
over his heart and said, “I am saddened any time that
there’s a loss of life. I’m saddened. Because I know a
family hurts. And there’s a deep pain in somebody’s
heart. But I do want to remind the loved ones that
their sons and daughters—or the sons, in this
case—died for a cause greater than themselves, and a
noble cause, which is the security of the United
States.” The President seemed not to know that two of
the soldiers in the helicopter were women. Ronald
Reagan or Bill Clinton would never have missed such a
detail. It wasn’t indifference on Bush’s part. It was
a deliberate strategy of not being told too much, not
getting bogged down in the day-to-day problems of the
war, not waiting up past midnight for the casualty
figures to come in, like Lyndon Johnson in the
Situation Room. Not knowing kept the President from
appearing distracted and discouraged. And,
politically, it worked. Bush never seemed to be a
President under siege.

To downplay the mounting death count in Iraq, the
Administration enforced a ban on the filming or
photographing of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force
Base. The decision achieved a political success by
keeping the death toll an unreality for those
Americans who were not personally linked to a soldier.
It played its part in making Iraq a remote war.

I asked Chris Frosheiser what he thought about the
policy. He said, “We need to see the coffins, the
flag-draped coffins. The hawks need to see it. They
need to know there’s a big price to pay. If they don’t
have skin in the game, they need to see it. And the
doves need to see the dignity of the sacrifice. They
don’t always see that.” He wanted to collect Kurt’s
posthumous medals, his folded funeral flag, his
autopsy report, and a photo of the head wound, and
take them on the road, making fifteen-minute
presentations around the country. He would tell those
who supported the war, “Suit up and show up.” He would
tell war opponents about the nobility of a soldier’s
duty. Or he wouldn’t say anything at all. He simply
wanted people to see.

The idea of diminishing the threat from the Middle
East by spreading democracy, beginning with Iraq, had
occurred to the Bush Administration before W.M.D.s
turned out not to exist. Some officials had been
promoting the notion for years, and the President had
made the argument in a speech before the American
Enterprise Institute a month before the invasion. But
this was hardly the casus belli that the
Administration had presented to the American people.
When the Administration changed its rationale later
on, without ever admitting to the shift, it had every
appearance of a bait-and-switch.

Nevertheless, the idea deserved to be taken seriously
by the political opposition at home and by America’s
allies. A few Democrats, like Biden and Ambassador
Richard Holbrooke, took up the idea without diluting
their criticism of the Administration’s conduct in
Iraq. This was a difficult mental balancing act, but
it was also important, because what Iraqis and
democracy needed most was a thoughtful opposition that
could hold the Bush Administration to its own
promises. Yet most of the war’s critics, including
leaders of the Democratic Party, refused to engage in
debate. They turned the subject back to the missing
weapons, or they scoffed at the Administration’s
sincerity, or they muttered about the dangers of
utopianism, or they said nothing. As a result, the
Administration never felt concerted pressure from the
left to insure that Iraq emerged from the war with a
viable democracy.

The lack of dialogue between the Republicans and the
Democrats brought out the destructive instincts of
each party, and Iraq got the worst of it. Abdication
also left the Democratic Party in a bad position, both
morally and politically. The Party’s fortunes during
the election year came to depend on Iraq’s turning
into a disaster. When a journalist pointed this out to
the antiwar candidate Howard Dean, he said, “I’m
hoping against it, but there’s no indication that I
should be expecting anything else.” An informed
argument that the American presence in Iraq could only
make matters worse deserved a hearing, and some
Democrats believed that heavy civilian casualties were
reason enough for ending the war. But most critics
offered a detached and complacent negativism. The
election year proved to be the year in which Iraq did
turn into a disaster, yet the Democrats failed to
benefit, in part because they had nothing to offer
instead. Chris Frosheiser ended up voting for Kerry by
a hair, more out of party loyalty than anything else,
but, between Bush’s attempts at Lincolnian rhetoric
and Kerry’s unconvincing multi-point plans, a slender
majority of American voters went for jury-rigged hope.
And yet month after month the war grew less popular.

The cynicism on both sides was bound to reach the
troops in Iraq. For many enlisted men and women, the
mission became harder to understand and justify. Last
summer, at the American base outside Mahmudiya, an
insurgent stronghold in an area south of Baghdad which
soldiers had nicknamed the Triangle of Death, I talked
with several of Kurt Frosheiser’s platoon buddies,
including Matt Plumley, who had been next to him in
the Humvee the night he was killed. We sat in a
stifling trailer. They were privates, all but one of
them in their early twenties, and they expressed a
tender and fatalistic affection for the young man they
called Fro.

“That incident woke me up,” Marcus Murphy, a blond,
soft-spoken Indianan, said. “These people are trying
to kill us.”

“It’s amazing,” Plumley said. “We’re here trying to

Latrael Brigham, a black soldier from Texas, took
Kurt’s death as a failure of leadership. “I was pissed
off, because we’re riding around here with messed-up
equipment. If you send men to war, you have to prepare
them and equip them so they can fight. And have a
vision of the aftermath of the war, have a plan about
how you’re going to finish it. And not just jump into
it. And not put the whole burden on us Americans.

“We got ourselves into something,” Brigham went on. “I
wish I could have some real answers to why we’re here,
but I don’t think I’ll ever have them. Not any time

Plumley, Kurt’s best friend in the unit, had a shy
manner, and his voice had a Southern twang. He was
less ready than Brigham to write the whole thing off.
“If everyone here hated us, there’d be I.E.D.s every
five inches,” he said.

Brigham said, “I don’t see us changing hundreds of
years of religion, and I don’t see us bringing
democracy to the region. We might be here ten
years—depends on the casualties, the body bags coming

Murphy said, “What this country needs is a big civil
war. There’s so many religions—we need to leave and
let them work it out themselves.”

“I think we might have did it too fast,” Plumley said.

“I love our democracy, but we can’t impose it,”
Brigham said.

“I would hate if we did pull out,” Plumley told him.
“That would be very selfish for our country. We done
messed it up.”

Brigham said, “I don’t think we’re going to be here
long enough. The insurgency’s going to get worse. We
can’t stop it. There’s always going to be more of

I asked the soldiers about the meaning of Kurt’s
death. Plumley said that there was a reason that he
was alive instead of Kurt, but he didn’t know what it

Brigham remembered Kurt arriving at basic training,
out of shape, and beating him by two minutes in the
two-mile run. But Kurt had worked hard to become a

“I never seen him in a bad mood,” Plumley said.

“I think about Fro every day,” Brigham said.

Plumley was smiling, remembering his friend. He had
been the speaker at the Veterans Day memorial who
couldn’t hold back his tears, and for the first few
days he had felt depressed. “Then I thought, How would
Fro want me to be if he could see me? Every time I
don’t want to do something or think it’s stupid, I say
to myself, ‘Would Fro think that? No.’ So he gives me
a lot of drive.”

They were all quiet. Then they asked how Kurt’s family
was doing.

For Chris Frosheiser, Iraq posed an unanswered
question about his son and his country. He didn’t need
to be proved right; he needed to find out what was
right, in order to honor Kurt and the other soldiers
who had died in Iraq. The war that had taken his son
became an essential connection to his son, and he
wanted to feel a connection, also, to the soldiers
with whom Kurt had served and to the country where he
had died. Nothing irritated Frosheiser more than when
someone urged him to get on with his life. He searched
obsessively, even frantically, through poems, song
fragments, magazines (he read not just the New
Republic but the left-wing In These Times and the
right-wing American Enterprise), Army documents,
e-mails, the First Armored Division Web site, American
history books, tomes on the theory of a just war,
Kurt’s belongings, and his own memories. “What was my
son involved in? Was it right?” he asked. “I’m looking
for an account of it that can sit well in my mind and
in my heart. I’m proud of Kurt’s service. But the
whole thing—were these guys misused? And for what?” He
never made it easy for himself.

Frosheiser wrote to me not just as a father but as a
citizen as well. Our e-mail exchange, however, didn’t
prepare me for the raw grief I encountered when I went
to see him last year in Des Moines, over Memorial Day
weekend. Within minutes of picking me up at the
airport, Frosheiser was in tears; he was in tears when
I left his apartment, two days later. His narrow blue
eyes were always red-rimmed behind glasses, his fair
skin raw with faint lines etched into his cheeks, his
nose stuffed up. His sentences were often interrupted
by a nervous laugh that broke into a sob before he
regained control.

The Sunday before Memorial Day, we drove a few miles
northeast of Des Moines to the new development of
Altoona, where Erin, his daughter, lives. Neighbors
were having a cookout in their driveway. (They had
continued bringing over food and taking out Erin’s
trash months after Kurt’s funeral.) Erin smiled kindly
at her father when she saw that he was upset. “Not
already, Dad.” After dinner, we went to Erin’s house
and sat around the dining-room table, where, spread
out, were photos of Kurt in his youth; his graduation
portrait from Fort Knox, in which he was standing in
front of a Bradley armored fighting vehicle; his
combat patches; his “Killed in Action” banner, framed
in red; his Purple Heart and Bronze Star; and his
tricornered funeral flag, in a wooden frame.

Erin, a woman in her early thirties with a direct
gaze, was having difficulty explaining things to her
small children. Her five-year-old son, Colin, kept
asking, “Why didn’t he shoot them? Why are they
there?” Her three-year-old, Madelyn, wouldn’t remember
Kurt when she grew up.

Erin had been trying hard to picture Iraq: the lives
of Iraqi mothers, the dangers they lived with. “I have
trouble imagining anyone’s life but mine,” she said.
“Does that sound selfish? Sometimes I fear it’s going
to keep going until we blow up the world. And I wish
we had a better plan.” When she first saw the photos
from Abu Ghraib, she said, “I thought, They blew up my
brother—more power to them. Then more rational
thoughts came up: We’re trying to win them over, and
this humiliation isn’t helping our cause.” She
supported the war, but on a bad day in April, 2004,
when twelve Americans were killed, she said to
herself, “We’ve got to get out. I don’t want other
families to go through what we went through. But what
do you accomplish? Because we lost Kurt for nothing,

For her father, the great challenge was simply to keep
going. “This one-day-at-a-time thing works for me,” he
said. “I get in trouble when I start thinking, How am
I going to get through these days and weeks and

“Most days, I just pretend like it didn’t happen,”
Erin said.

“Me, too. Sometimes I think it didn’t happen—just for
a minute. Then I know it did.”

The alarm on Kurt’s watch went off.

Frosheiser and I drove back to Des Moines. His
apartment felt smaller than it was, because it lacked
natural light and had become the cluttered repository
for many of Kurt’s things—his clothes and sports gear,
his CDs stacked next to his father’s old records and
books, his memorial spurs, plaques, medals, flags.
Frosheiser had been sleeping on the living-room couch,
as if keeping a vigil, since the day Kurt left for
basic training. I slept in Kurt’s room. A dust-covered
black U.S. Army shaving kit was on the toilet tank; in
the closet, desert and jungle fatigues hung above
desert combat boots, winter-weather boots, and a
guitar. It was a long time before I fell asleep.

The grave was a patch of dark earth and green grass,
surrounded by the graves of veterans of earlier wars;
little Memorial Day flags were planted in each of them
and fluttered in the breeze of a beautiful Midwestern
spring morning. Frosheiser, in nylon blue sweats,
saluted. “Hey, buddy,” he said, kneeling to run his
hand over the stone marker, which was engraved with a
cross and the words

Kurt Russell Frosheiser
PV2 US Army
Jul 10 1981 Nov 8 2003
Purple Heart

“It was hard to keep the snow off it because it kind
of built up all winter,” he said. “When the dirt was
soft, you could press it and leave your handprints.
That was a good thing.” He was talking to the grave
now. “It’s less painful trying to forget it, but you
have to keep remembering. Random thing, just a random
thing. Kurt said, ‘Live your life, old man,’ and that
could mean I’d be a bitter son of a gun, and I don’t
want that. That could very easily happen.” He was
adjusting the long-life candle under blue glass. “We
know that people live on in our hearts, but do they
live on in another way? We just don’t know the answer
to that.” He slowly got to his feet, and we walked
back to the car. “What does it all mean? It means
nothing. How we respond is what it means.”

A Memorial Day ceremony was taking place in a park
next to the state capitol, and was attended by a small
crowd, including a number of old men in veterans’
caps. A woman from the committee that had organized
the event recognized Frosheiser and escorted him over
to a row of folding chairs, where he exchanged awkward
greetings with his ex-wife. Jeanie was wearing a
jacket bearing an image of the American flag and the
words “These Colors Don’t Run,” but her face was
crumpled with grief. A politician gave a short speech,
and then the names of the Iowans who had been killed
in Iraq—fourteen of them—were read. Frosheiser stood
in line to place a rose beneath an M-16 that had been
stuck, bayonet first, into the ground with a helmet
perched on top, as had been done at the service in

After the ceremony, we drove across the state, toward
the Illinois border, to the high-school graduation
party of his ex-wife’s niece. (Frosheiser wanted to
keep family relationships as strong as possible,
especially now.) We passed grain silos, seed
factories, and fields of early corn and baled hay
speckled with the shadows of fleecy white clouds
racing across a blue sky. The pleasures of the road
seemed to free Frosheiser’s thoughts from the
morning’s burdens. “I wonder what Bush in private
thinks about being against nation-building and now
being waist-deep in it,” he said. “What is
that—paradox, or irony?” Since America was extending
itself so deeply into other countries, Frosheiser
said, the country needed to create a whole cadre of
citizens who had been educated in the humanities and
were capable of working overseas. “I was thinking of
that song the other day, ‘Ain’t Gonna Study War No
More.’ Maybe we should study it. Otherwise, we’re
going to screw it up. Because it’s going to be our
kids and grandkids doing it.” He had heard the new
Bush foreign policy described as Wilsonian, an
inspiring term. “There’s this phrase, ‘America the
great and the just.’ Reagan used to talk about ‘the
city on the hill.’ The first time I heard Condi Rice
talking about democracy in Iraq, I got chills up my
back. But then you ask, ‘How do you do it? Is it
necessary?’ ” Frosheiser drove in silence for a while,
and when he spoke again his voice was quieter. “That’s
where I kind of run up against a wall with regard to

I asked him what he meant.

“Kurt’s life—was he worth that? I’d say no. He was
more important than that. So I pull back.”

That night, back at his apartment in Des Moines, we
were watching CNN—thirteen Memorial Day-weekend deaths
in Iraq—when the phone rang. It was Matt Van Buren,
the driver of Kurt’s Humvee, calling from Germany,
where he was still recovering from his shrapnel
wounds. Frosheiser muted the sound and sat up in his
rocking chair. The stress of the day had left him with
a headache. “I’m not sure what I can ask you,” he said
to Van Buren. “Let me know if I go too far.” On the
other end, Van Buren was describing that night.
Frosheiser said, “He got whacked on the head pretty
good. He never had much of a chance—I understand that.
He got hit in the wrong place.”

I was watching the muted television: terror attacks in
Saudi Arabia, gun battles outside Najaf, Special
Forces operations in Afghanistan, Memorial Day
ceremonies in America. Without sound, these felt like
scenes from a war that had already receded into

“He wasn’t able to talk after he was hit, was he?”
Frosheiser asked. Listening, he broke into a sob. “But
he was trying? Yeah, that sounds like him. I believe
it. Yeah, I believe it.”


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