May 07, 2009 News » Cover Story

First strike 

The Iraq war's lead bomber, an Air Force professor and a WWII vet reflect on the art of war and the new book that's brought them together

Politicians and pundits argue over who started the current war in Iraq. Was it Saddam Hussein and his elusive weapons of mass destruction, or George W. Bush and his determination to, as he wrote, "let freedom reign"? Was it the Project for the New American Century and its influential strategies for regime change, or the U.S. Congress and its election-season vote to grant the president war powers? When it comes to a consensus, the jury is still out.

But Jason Armagost knows exactly who started the war.

It was him.

Fueled by government-issue amphetamines, cans of espresso and sheer adrenaline, the Air Force Academy graduate was about as wide awake as you can get when his B-2 stealth bomber reached its destination on March 21, 2003.

The flight — from Whiteman Air Force Base in western Missouri to the Arab world's second-largest city and back — covered 20,000 miles and took almost 39 hours.

But in the campaign of "Shock and Awe," for which Armagost's B-2 served as lead aircraft, all that really mattered were those 208 seconds over Baghdad.

"I don't know, and I will never know, what I was really responsible for personally as I went over Baghdad," says Armagost, who now, six years into the war, is stationed in Guam. "But as a B-2 bomber, I am a much more discriminate weapon than a man with a rifle, if that makes any sense. So I don't have a lot of moral doubts as to the target I was going after."

What's less certain for the 39-year-old is the human element: "All that doesn't mean the guy sitting at the console down there didn't have a family, that he wasn't a loving father, or a loving husband, or somebody's son with a sick mother who needed him to take care of her."

All told, Armagost dropped 16 bombs that night, ranging in size from one to two-and-a-half tons. It's conceivable that he didn't kill anyone in the process, but he figures that's not likely.

"I could create scenarios in my mind that would torture me," he says, "but they'd be imaginings."

While it's not what you'd call escapist literature, Armagost credits the duffel bag full of books he brought on board — Edward Abbey, Miguel de Cervantes, Billy Collins, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane, Tim O'Brien — with keeping him sane.

Armagost's co-pilot, who was less secularly inclined, flew with a Bible in his lap. He also carried a photo of one bomb on which he'd written a proverb in yellow chalk.

"People often choose the worldview that makes them most comfortable," says Armagost. "And there's value in that — as long as that comfort doesn't make them numb to the complexity of the situations they have to face."

Armagost would end up flying one more bombing mission into Iraq, this time covering the same distance without benefit of a wingman. The solo flight was "wickedly boring" but also nerve-wracking: "There were American troops in Baghdad by then, so I was very nervous about fratricide."

"We live in a culture," says Donald Anderson, "that pays far more attention to when we're gonna switch over to digital TV than it does to the two wars that are in progress."

Anderson, who was one of Armagost's professors here in Colorado Springs, has spent the past two decades publishing soldiers' accounts of their wartime experiences — personal reflections that otherwise may never have been articulated, let alone made available to the reading public. As an educator, he views literature as a way of challenging students to think critically.

"I don't think soldiers should be comfortable," says Anderson. "The humanities, it seems to me, makes people less certain of themselves. And I find that important and vital, and a lucky thing to find in a leader. If we're not careful, all we'll ever produce are robots, when what we need is more thoughtful warriors."

Anderson says Armagost was his best student in 15 years of teaching, as well as a prime example of the kind of leader he feels we need: "We've stayed in touch over the years, and he has extraordinary reading habits. The Academy didn't have him reading Cervantes or The Iliad three times. He's a very well-read warrior, and I'm grateful that he now commands a squadron of B-2 pilots. That's who I want in charge."

As for himself, Anderson says he never intended to join the Air Force until, as a college student with a wife and baby, he won the lottery.

"My birthday was lottery No. 1 in 1970," he says of the Vietnam-era draft. "So I went and joined the Air Force ROTC, thinking that they were burying more soldiers than airmen."

It was a short-term plan that ended up lasting a lifetime. Anderson, now 62, served for 22 years and has spent the past 15 as a professor in the Academy's Department of English & Fine Arts. His anthology, When War Becomes Personal: Soldiers' Accounts from the Civil War to Iraq, consists of 13 essays, many of which first appeared in War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, the nearly 400-page annual journal he began editing 20 years ago. Among the book's 13 essays is Armagost's "Things to Pack When You're Bound for Baghdad," which was subsequently excerpted by Harper's.

Collectively spanning three centuries of conflict, the essays Anderson has chosen reach beyond arid histories and sensationalist headlines to reveal a sense of how it feels to actually be at war. Among the book's most compelling pieces is "Shadow Soldier," which was written by Donald Clay, a former Marine who had been awarded three medals for valor and, by the time Anderson met him, was serving time for first-degree murder.

"It took more than one visit to get any trust," says Anderson of his prison writing workshops. "I had a lot of things going against me: I was a lieutenant colonel, I was white, I was on active duty, and I was in the Air Force, which is a different thing than being in the Army or being in the Marines, as my Marine son often points out to me."

With Anderson's encouragement and guidance, Clay eventually set down his memories, opening with his reaction to a racist incident one night in a Vietnam compound.

"I was to be reminded," he writes, "that despite any risk or patriotic conviction on my part, I would always be a nigger."

Upon returning to civilian life, Clay would also find himself unemployed, homeless and, ultimately, imprisoned.

"The things you get medals for over there will put you in jail here," says Anderson, adding that Clay's decline was in large part due to drugs and alcohol. "He was a damaged guy and it was hard for him to hold down a job. One of the things it's impossible not to notice about veterans — and what America doesn't take responsibility for — is that they're all damaged. War damages people, some more severely than others, and sometimes you don't see the damage."

But sometimes you do.

"I don't think John Wolfe with one leg would misunderstand Mr. Clements with one leg," Anderson says when asked how views would align if all the essayists were seated around a table. "Their politics would be different. But I think they would all agree on the chaos and carnage and surrealness of war."

When Al Clements was a teenager, back before he enlisted to fight in World War II, his father passed along to him a sheaf of papers. They were written by Clements' grandfather Isaac, who volunteered for the Union Army in the summer of 1862.

"It was a new experience," the elder Clements wrote, "for me to have no will of my own."

Other new experiences soon followed. Two years after enlisting, Clements suffered grave wounds on the battlefield. Untreated for three days, his left leg had to be amputated. He was then held for several months as a prisoner of war.

As much as his grandfather suffered, Al Clements never doubted his own need to enlist.

"I really didn't think too much about it, although I was conscious of it, yes," he says. "It gave me a reason to be patriotic, I suppose."

As World War II raged on, Clements trained to become a paratrooper in the Army's 503rd Infantry, but didn't get involved in fighting until four months before the war's abrupt end.

"I was very lucky, because the war ended with the bomb in Japan," says Clements, whose outfit was on the Philippines island of Negros when the news came. The group celebrated by mixing orange juice with 190 proof alcohol.

"It was pretty potent stuff," he recalls. "Our doctor used to furnish it to us, which was nice of him."

Clements, who at 86 divides his time between Florida and upstate New York, feels there's "no comparison whatsoever" between the wars of past and present.

"Certainly the recent wars are not equal to the Civil War or the first and second world wars," says Clements. "We knew that everything was at stake. So naturally you were behind it 100 percent. But of course with the present situation, you just don't know. I mean, I have mixed emotions about it. I'm still very patriotic, I want our country to succeed in whatever we do. But I don't know the answers now. I think many of us don't know the answers at this point."

As united as American public sentiment was during World War II, opinion has always been divided over the means by which it was brought to an end. The detonation of nuclear weapons over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the surrender of Japan, but was roundly condemned by critics like Albert Einstein, who had himself played a role in the bombs' creation.

From Armagost's viewpoint, the destruction of the two cities gave Japan's previously divided leadership an exit strategy from a war in which massive fire-bombings had already claimed far more lives of its civilians. Still, that doesn't stop him from worrying about the degree to which technological advances are capable of divorcing us from the moral consequences of our actions.

"I think I have a better understanding of what I did now than I did at the time," he says of his mission over Baghdad. "It's more encompassing and less direct to the experience, a broader sense of what war is and has meant throughout history and across different cultures. Since then, I've re-read every translation of The Iliad that I can find. Its approach to the beauty that happens in the struggle to not fight the war and the struggle to fight the war — and the beauty that's conveyed in how the fighting is done, how men die and how men kill — is just amazing to me."

For most of his life, Armagost has engaged in a solitary deer hunting ritual in which he makes his arrows, stalks his prey, and watches as the animal he's killed draws its final breath. It's a primal pairing of action and consequence that seems out of place in an era of increasing disconnect.

"Supposedly, something like 30 percent of the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project thought that, when they detonated the [atomic bomb] at Trinity, New Mexico, the atmosphere of the Earth might catch on fire and destroy all humanity, all living things. I mean, we're talking about something that they were willing to accept."

Despite any anxieties, the test went forward, resulting in a mushroom cloud seven and a half miles high and a vast crater of radioactive glass. After the detonation, the Manhattan Project's poetically inclined director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, recited a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The bombing of Hiroshima followed less than a month later.

"I try to put myself in the mindset of what would it have been like to drop that weapon," says Armagost. "But it's hard to wrap your mind around that."



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