From the Bronx to Baghdad and Back Again
Although local, state, and national issues most powerfully affect my work as a public defender in the Bronx, occasionally foreign affairs have a direct impact on the lives of my clients. Although the Drum Major Institute is not a foreign policy institute, it seems amiss not to comment on certain events overseas when their repercussions can be felt so strongly in many local communities.
Not surprisingly, perhaps no recent overseas predicament has impacted American communities as directly as the U.S.-led war in Iraq. New York State has lost at least 117 residents in Iraq, the fourth most of any state, after California (254), Texas (217), and Pennsylvania (121). The five boroughs have sacrificed at least 33 lives thus far, well over 50 if one includes Long Island and Westchester, Orange, and Putnam Counties.
I have represented a number of young Latino and African-American men who have either served a tour of duty in Iraq or sought to enlist (far fewer today than in 2003). Perhaps most telling of their shared experiences in Iraq is that of one client, a young African-American man who spent a year on the front lines. When he comes to court, he walks with a limp, having suffered a number of shrapnel wounds in his leg after a roadside bomb exploded in his vicinity. He witnessed firsthand the deaths of a number of his friends, emerging from his tour diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and suffering from depression. His relationship with his wife has disintegrated, as she does not understand the psychological and emotional changes he has undergone, and she is frustrated that the husband she bid farewell to when he was shipped to the Middle East is not the same person who has returned from the war.
The Army is eager to send him back to the battlefield in Iraq now that he is ambulatory again. The Army must wait, however, for his criminal case to conclude before it can deploy him. Uncharacteristic of most of my clients, who become quickly impatient with the criminal justice system, resenting the numerous trips to court and the sometimes slow-winding path of their cases, this client would welcome a snail’s pace for his case, hoping it drags on as long as possible.
His dread at the prospect of returning to Iraq is so great that in order to stay away from the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah, my client --- someone with no criminal record or prior arrests --- said he would be willing to get arrested repeatedly, even if it meant risking his liberty. For someone to "want" to be arrested, sit in a nasty jail cell on volatile Riker's Island, be prosecuted, and get a criminal record rather than be shipped back to Iraq speaks volumes about our soldiers' situations abroad.
This client must not be alone. Our military consists mostly of young men and women from less affluent backgrounds, many of whom are simply trying to get an education, escape stagnant local economies, or (ironically) get away from the danger and stress of city streets. The communities most affected by this war are predominantly rural or smaller towns as well as larger urban inner-city neighborhoods like the Bronx. Many US military personnel who have been killed in Iraq are from America's big cities and their surroundings, specifically Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.
One thing the majority of families that have sacrificed the most for this war share is that they are not part of wealthy America. Thus, though this war may not be effecting any racial group in America disproportionately (the current percentage of African-Americans and Latinos who have died is proportionate to their percentage of America's total population), it is certainly having a predictably lopsided effect on the lower and middle classes, particularly in human terms because they consist of the vast majority of troops in the armed forces (not to mention that in order to fund the war, the government imposes an immense financial burden on the middle and lower classes, primarily through taxation).
Thus, as America struggles to untangle itself from the dangerous web it has spun for itself in Iraq, hundreds of young men like my client are attempting to untangle themselves from the war's injurious consequences as they reenter civilian life --- even if it means getting thrown in jail to avoid going back to Baghdad.