Faces Of War, Lines From Milton

December 9, 2003

I cannot forget their eyes -- the look of young men (and some women), most of them members of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne. I saw them last August in northern Iraq when Baylor sent a team of professors to conduct a needs assessment of Iraqi universities. And what we saw -- what I can never forget -- was the look of both resolution and trepidation. In harm's way, these young men and women battled oppressive heat and boredom ... and incessant fear. 
So, all over northern Iraq where our team worked, we shook hands with our country's soldiers. "Thank you for serving. We haven't forgotten you. If you don't hear this anywhere else today in Iraq, we're proud of you. Godspeed." And, of course, we asked where they were from. "Alabama, sir." "New Mexico, sir." "California, sir." So polite, all of them, America's daughters and sons sent to a remote and treacherous place. It was heartbreaking. Charged with carrying out their country's contested foreign policy, doing so in a culture they little understand, these oh-so-young soldiers pray for safety and count the days as they nevertheless capably serve their nation.
I recall one young female lieutenant in particular, a squad leader. The second time I saw her, she and her troops were in exercise gear, not wearing insignia, but I had noticed her rank on her camouflaged uniform the day before. "Lieutenant," I said, "I served in the Air Force. Before I head back to the States, I wanted to thank you for what you are doing here. It's outstanding work." She blushed, a youthful and feminine blush, and beamed with steely pride. I cannot forget.
And one other thing I cannot forget. It's the letter home of a Baylor graduate, class of 1999, now flying combat missions aboard the J-STARS out of an undisclosed base in the Arabian peninsula. An English major who had worked at the Armstrong Browning Library, the young man from Waco wrote home, reminding his dad of a shared favorite spot called the Foyer of Meditation at that library. "Go there," he asked, "and take Milton's 'Il Penseroso' with you. Read it in the foyer for me. As far as I know, there isn't a copy of Milton's verse for a thousand miles from here." The lines he most wished to have read?

But let my due feet never fail 
To walk the studious cloister's pale,
And love the high embowed roof,
With antic pillars massy proof, 
And storied windows richly dight,
Casting a dim religious light.

What do the men and women who go to war think about? They all think of home, of course. Certainly they consider their own mortality. And some of them recall their Milton and times of deep reflection and places of quiet beauty at Baylor University.

Long, BA '73 (Howard Payne University); MDiv '79 (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary); MA '89 (Naval Postgraduate School); PhD '01 (Baylor), is assistant professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and church-state studies and director of the Middle East Studies Program. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer, and his son, Philip, is a first lieutenant on his second tour of duty in the Persian Gulf.