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August 23, 2005

A Meachum Goes to War

Roy Meachum

Let me share the first Email from Christopher George Meachum. Trained as a tank driver in Fort Knox’s Armor school, he shipped out to Kuwait August 1, the day after his 20th birthday:

“Hey Grandfather, I just got your Email. It’s kind of hard to get a chance to use computers here especially since I’m never in the fob (Ed. Note: forward operating base). I just came back from spending the last 10 days at a patrol base over top of HWY Tampa; it runs from Kuwait to Fallujah. Not too much was going on, got mortared a couple of times but nothing too serious. I finally just got in today and about to take a shower after i get off of here. I haven’t really done too much, fired at a couple of people but not to kill them just to get them to move. I guess that’s about it, I’ll talk to you later.


When he enlisted nearly a year ago, my grandson joined a tradition that is traceable to his great-great-great grandfather; there are no records for earlier Meachums. The family has supposedly been on this side of the ocean since the late 17th century.

James Clay Meachum rode with the 4th North Carolina Cavalry during the Civil War. Chris’s great-great-grandfather wore U.S. blue during the conflict with Spain but never reached Cuba. His great-grandfather was buried in Alexandria National Cemetery in Louisiana days before his outfit left for North Africa. As readers know, my enlistments covered the wake of World War II and Korea.

My grandson’s father and older uncle reached military age in the last stages of Vietnam; they were favored by the then-lottery system that awarded them high numbers in the draft. They were not close to being called up when Saigon fell. Christopher’s younger uncle was almost 15 at the time, but served briefly in the Navy a few years later.

It would be lovely to write that the deeply rich blood of patriots flows through the Meachums’ veins. Lovely but there were other factors.

There’s no way to know why James Clay Meachum and his son and namesake decided to enlist, but, in my father’s case, the strong national feelings evoked by Pearl Harbor made him more susceptible to his co-workers’ urging to join them in a railway operating battalion, as a sergeant. He was a conductor on the Missouri Pacific before the war.

My swearing in, on January 26, 1946, was prompted by several factors, including the pressure I had felt as a tall, underage young man in World War II’s final year. “Draft dodger,” I was called more than once; it hardly applied. I was 16 when atomic bombs fell on Japan.

Receiving the Army Serial Number RA18213194 resulted additionally from great personal discontent: circumstances created by myself as well as the adults I blamed at the time. I was, in other words, a prime candidate for Hemingway’s young man who needed his war for vindication. I got none.

North Korea’s sweep across the border found me still in uniform; I volunteered for duty in the Pacific, as Hemingway foretold. But in its peculiar wisdom, the Army shipped me back to Europe where I had been stationed for nearly three years earlier. Five men on the same Fort Benning orders went to Alaska. The other 197 names received posting to the Far East Command, which meant Korea.

In the event, I became a civilian on December 20, 1952, just in time to “cover” Eisenhower’s first inauguration as a Washington Post copy boy, carrying Chief Photographer Arthur Ellis’s bag and extra cameras.

Reciting the litany of family military service underlines the fact that Christopher shares only with his great-great-great grandfather the distinction of having seen combat. In addition, they served in the same arm: Army horse-mounted regiments went long ago, but when they were replaced by tanks, the Armor units inherited the Cavalry history and tradition, even their formations.

You have read as much as I know about what kind of war my grandson is fighting. I can only hope it turns out to resemble further the elder James Clay Meachum’s adventure. History says the 4th North Carolina Cavalry was known more for prudence than dash. On that basis, we might assume the casualty rate was not heavy.

Christopher’s presence in Iraq doesn’t change but deepens my distress with a situation that makes absolutely no sense. Opposition to the invasion demanded no special prescience; nor did my forecast the fighting would degenerate into “urban warfare, which demands no divisions; squads will do.”

What I did not foresee was the deadly toll on the highways and in the villages, because I assumed, prior to March 19, 2003, that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would send in at least enough troops to secure the countryside. He furthermore guaranteed the insurgency by disbanding the country’s army in response to pressure from Iraqi politicians.

My 20-year-old grandson, now assigned to drive a Humvee, may not be protected by proper armor, on his vehicle and his body. With no immediate provocation, Mr. Rumsfeld sent in young Americans, ill-equipped and weak in numbers. Those conditions still prevail, over two years later.

Administration supporters wrap themselves in the mantra: “Support the troops.” They directly charge opposition to the war lets down the men and women serving in Iraq. They are wrong. Expending more lives does nothing for “grunts,” like my grandson.

More and more people have come to realize the blood and the billions are spent in vain. There were never weapons of mass destruction to be feared. The fading illusion of installing an American-style democracy is becoming more apparent every day, even to the most vigorous war lovers. London and Madrid can testify invading Iraq did not lessen the terrorist threat.

Christopher George Meachum’s presence on the highway between Kuwait and Fallujah can be justified only because the other guys in his outfit need his skills and physical presence. But they all should be brought home.

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