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Gary Younge
Military families live in dread, while the rest of America is busy shopping

It's tearing me up so badly inside. I just can't stand it. I can't get rid of the feeling that I probably won't make it home from this war. I have this horrible feeling that his fate will soon become my own. I don't want to die here Mom. Don't tell Erin bc I know it will devastate her. But if somehow I don't make it, I want you Mom and Dad and all the family and especially Erin to know I love you all so so much and appreciate everything you all have done for me in the thick and thin.

The most important thing I want you all to do, is to use all of your connections to do everything in your will to use my death as a tool with the media to end this pointless war. Contact Michael Moore or whomever it may be to get the word out about how disgusted with our government I am about forcing us to come here to wait for death to claim us. I want it to end. How many more friends, sons, daughters, mothers, and dads must die here before they say it's enough? And if you don't die, the worst part you have to live with is the guilt of surviving. Surviving this war and not dying like your buddies to your left and to your right in combat.

I love you all so so much.


Wednesday August 8 2007, Baghdad

'Death," said Donald Rumsfeld, the former United States defence secretary, "has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war."

Zach Flory, 23, didn't start his military career depressed. He enlisted full of idealism about the potential of American power. Raised in Clinton, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi, he came home on September 11 and asked his parents for permission to join the military. They refused. They wanted him to finish high school first. "He was a young man with a conscience," said his mother, Marcia, who has always been opposed to the war. "He wanted to make things right." They hoped he would change his mind. He didn't. In February 2004 he enlisted in the first cavalry infantry division and signed a three-year contract. He did his time, serving in South Korea and Texas, and should have been discharged in June. Instead, the army forced him to extend his service by a year in what is known as the stop-loss programme - a form of indentured servitude that can keep soldiers working beyond the expiration of their contract for several years - and sent him to Iraq. Shortly before he left he married Erin, whom he has known since childhood. "Zach's greatest fear is to have to shoot innocent civilians," said Marcia shortly after he left. "What is this war doing to our fine young men and women?"

Even as Iraq has dominated America's political stage it has occupied a parallel universe in mainstream society. Military families may listen intently to every news report and live in constant fear of a visit from two uniformed officers in the wee hours. But the rest of the nation is shopping. This is the only war in modern American history that has coincided with a tax cut. "People seem to think war is OK as long as it is someone else's kid doing the fighting," says Zach's dad, Don.

Serving in it falls on the shoulders of the poor and the dark, who are over-represented in the military. And the casualties fall disproportionately on white men from small towns - like Donald Young, Zach's recently departed teenage friend. Iraq remains the number one issue of political concern, but it is rarely the central topic of conversation.

Needless to say, Iraqi deaths barely feature at all. The US military, which ostensibly came to liberate Iraqis, does not even count their corpses. So their death toll is approximate - rounded up or down by the thousand rather than counted individually. We'll never know what tender words an insurgent might send to a family member following the death of a fellow combatant, let alone the final farewell of an unsuspecting civilian slain by American troops or a car bombing. Perhaps if we did, it would help those with a limited imagination and compassion humanise the horrors of this war more easily.

Fortunately, this is not a competition. Unfortunately, there is enough misery to go around.

This is an American story. A tale of imperial overreach, military fatigue and political hubris as it affects a midwestern boy in a far away land who wants to get home. "You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you," wrote Tim O'Brien in his Vietnam war novel, The Things They Carried. "If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty."

The army is "about broken", said retired general Colin Powell last year - before Bush announced an escalation in troop numbers. British military standards dictate that a soldier should have two years at home for every six months deployed and that anything less than this 4:1 ratio could "break the army". American troops currently serve 15 months followed by less than a year's rest - a ratio of 4:5.

US military leaders deny the army is strained. But in recent years they have lowered standards and changed entry requirements in order to bolster flagging recruitment, including a push to attract non-citizens and to lift the upper age limit for new recruits. Since 2001 it has raised by half the rate at which it grants "moral waivers" to potential recruits who have committed misdemeanours and lowered the educational level required. Steven Green, the former soldier who now faces the death penalty on charges of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her family in Mahmoudiya, entered the military on one such waiver.

On Friday the president's new war adviser, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, said it was time to think about restoring the draft.

"I think it makes sense to certainly consider it," he said, suggesting that some soldiers' families could soon reach breaking point themselves. "And I can tell you, this has always been an option on the table."

There is gruesome irony in the fact that such a possibility should come from an administration headed by a president who dodged the draft and a vice-president who "had other priorities" than serving in Vietnam. But American conservatives have a curious inability to put their children where their mouth is when it comes to the war. All of the main Republican contenders back it; none of their children are in it.

On the day that Zach sent his email home, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney addressed a town hall meeting 50 miles from his home town. Romney was asked why none of his children are serving in the military. "One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president," he said.

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Video: Zach Flory's parents tell Gary Younge their views on the American military

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