How the Moultons Made Peace with the War
Seth Moulton’s G.I. Joe looks, Harvard degree, and courageous Marine service would make most parents proud. His own needed a little help coming to terms with the warrior they’ve raised.
When Marine Captain Seth Moulton redeployed to Iraq last July, he was accompanied to the airport by the usual retinue of family and friends, as well as a cameraman from ABC News. It was the fourth tour of duty for Seth, who since joining the military six years earlier had earned heady renown. The appeal was not hard to grasp: Six feet tall with sandy-brown hair, blue eyes, and a sharp, square jaw, the 29-year-old was articulate, thoughtful, and handsome. As a Marblehead native and Harvard man (by way of Phillips Andover), he’d taken an unexpected path for someone with his background. After deciding to enlist in May 2001—weeks before graduating, and four months before the terrorist attacks of September 11—he’d gone on to volunteer for two more tours, deferring his acceptance to a graduate program in the process. During his initial deployment, he’d led one of the first platoons into Baghdad, and shortly before the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in that city’s central square, he was interviewed live on CNN. More media attention followed: a segment on MSNBC, a profile and repeated interviews on NPR, multiple articles in the Globe, an appearance in the award-winning documentary No End in Sight. Along the way, he’d caught the eye of no less than General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. On that summer day, Seth was going back to that country—at the general’s personal behest—to work with tribal leaders in the southern provinces.
And there was an additional twist to the Seth Moulton Story, the one the cameraman was there to document. It involved Seth’s former interpreter, Mohammed Harba, with whom he’d formed a remarkable friendship. They’d met in the spring of 2003, when Mohammed, then a 23-year-old college student from the southern Iraqi town of Hillah, was assigned by the Marines to serve as Seth’s translator. Together, the two went on to launch a twice-weekly television show providing candid assessments of conditions in the area. Moulton and Mohammed was an immediate hit with local Iraqis and U.S. forces, and the cohosts became minor sensations. But after three months, Seth’s unit moved on and the show ended. The pair, however, stayed in touch.
In 2005, Mohammed, who has black hair and startling green eyes, won a Fulbright scholarship to study in the U.S. Before he graduated in May 2007, he was warned by his family not to return home: For having worked so closely and visibly with coalition forces, he faced near-certain death by insurgents. He petitioned for asylum, and while he waited for a decision, Seth invited him to move in with his parents on the North Shore. Now Seth was leaving Mohammed behind, and ABC wanted to capture their poignant goodbye.
When the clip aired, it closed with a shot of Seth waving farewell to his family, followed by one of his parents, Tom, 61, and Lynn, 59, reacting as you might expect in the situation, clutching each other, barely suppressing sobs. Left unrecorded by ABC, however, was a conversation Lynn had had with Jennifer Rikoski, a family friend and lawyer representing Mohammed in his asylum case. She had accompanied the Moulton family to the airport, and as Seth walked toward the security gate, she watched Lynn’s face crumble. Rikoski searched for the right words to comfort Lynn, something to point out Seth’s selflessness and sense of duty, to evoke the pride she must be feeling for her son.
"It’s hard when your kids grow up to be the people you raised them to be," Rikoski said.
Lynn Moulton looked Rikoski directly in the eye.
"Jenny," she said, "I never raised my son to be a Marine."
As students at Brown University in the late 1960s, Lynn and Tom opposed the Vietnam War. During her senior year, Lynn joined students at campuses across the country who, as an act of protest, refused to take their final exams. Later, as a law school student at Boston University, Tom marched in an antiwar demonstration. After marrying and starting a family, they wanted to raise Seth and his younger siblings, Cyrus and Eliza, to be independent thinkers. "They had a teacher who preached leftist values," says Lynn, a gregarious woman who wears glasses and her hair cropped short. "I wanted to say, ‘I agree with you, but I don’t want you to tell them what to think.’"
As parents, Lynn and Tom’s own open-mindedness had its limits. While the children were growing up, Lynn prohibited them from playing with toy weapons, even squirt guns. ("I gave them plastic fish to squirt at one another," she says.) When Seth informed his parents that he planned to enlist in the Marines, Lynn says, her first thought was: "There was no career choice he could have made that would have made me more unhappy, except if he had chosen a life of crime."
Seth made his decision during the spring of his final term, but because the fall Officer Candidate School class was already full, he did not officially sign on until October. At that time, it was clear the U.S. would be going to war in Afghanistan. Though his parents—whose attitudes, they admit, are colored by Vietnam—were unhappy with his decision, Seth was unswayable. "I think he realized the dangers," says Tom, who is soft-spoken and has a sparse fringe of gray hair. "But he believed the potential good outweighed the potential danger. I have a different view." The depth of the couple’s opposition to Seth’s choice only intensified when the U.S. declared war on Iraq, a move they were vehemently against politically, and then even more so personally as it became evident he would be among the first wave of U.S. troops into the country.
Thus for almost four years now, the Moultons have struggled over how to support Seth while standing against the conflict. How to honor their love for their child while opposing the cause for which he has, time and again, decided to risk his life. How to experience the pride others feel in him despite their own misgivings. It’s a challenge further complicated by the presence of Mohammed, whose opinion on the war stands in stark contrast to their own. Though Tom and Lynn clearly adore him, and are thankful for the vitality he brings into their family, Mohammed is also a reminder that while he cannot return home, their own son, by choice, will not.
For all the justifiable talk of heroics that swirls around Seth, no one in his own family would want to characterize him as a martyr. He is intelligent, to be sure, and generous, but he can be stubborn, and on occasion self-involved. He is used to getting his way, and it is obvious that the Moulton household often centers on him and his ambitions.
As they were growing up, Seth and his younger brother, Cyrus, often squabbled, as brothers do. But in their case the fights were intensified by their markedly different personalities. "I was more methodical, and he was more confrontational and would never take no for an answer," says Cyrus, 27, who lives in Portland, Maine, and works for the environmental group Island Institute. "It would bother me that he needed to be the best and wouldn’t settle for anything else. It would bother him that I wasn’t as assertive."
Despite his youthful drive and restlessness, Seth remained close to home, first at Andover, then at Harvard, where he majored in physics and quickly established himself on campus, rowing crew and playing organ at the Memorial Church. It was there t
hat he met and became friends with the church’s minister, Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes. The two spent hours discussing questions of sacrifice and duty. Through those talks, Seth explains by e-mail, he realized that he "didn’t want to grow up and have to say that somebody else had fought for my freedom."
Seth was one of three students chosen to speak at his class’s graduation. On June 7, 2001, from the south porch of the Memorial Church (which is dedicated to the memory of Harvard alumni who lost their lives in World War I), he looked out on an audience of 30,000 elated parents, friends, and fellow graduates, and decried the complacency and selfishness of his peers. "Many of our fathers and mothers stood steadfast in the midst of Vietnam, fighting their own battles of duty and protest. But what is the cause for our generation? Where is our fight?" he asked. "We live in a Western world dominated by contentment, and threatened by mediocrity. The great challenge for us now is to make lives that are good, lives that are great. We have the capacity, but do we have the will, and the ambition, to achieve greatness?"
Ten months later, in March 2002, Lynn and Tom attended another commencement, this one in Quantico, Virginia, for Seth’s graduation from Officer Candidate School, where he received his commission as a second lieutenant. "Tom and I had to be proud of him for successfully completing something that was so different from any challenge he had met before," says Lynn. "On the other hand, these accomplishments were not achievements we had ever valued. I hated the haircut and the concept of walking in straight lines, changing direction when everyone else did." During the ceremony, a guest speaker, a general, told the audience how proud he was of the "group of trained killers" before him. Hearing those words, Lynn recalls, "I actually felt the room spin."
Tom and Lynn Moulton’s house is modest, especially by tony Marblehead’s standards. The two-story beige Colonial was built in the 1960s for Tom’s parents, and it feels warm and lived-in. Until he retired seven years ago, Tom spent 30 years commuting into Boston for his job as a real estate lawyer; today he works contentedly at the pro shop at the nearby Tedesco Country Club. For 13 years, Lynn has been a secretary in the endocrine department at Mass General. A petite woman, she favors clothing she has worn for years—clothes that, in some cases, she now has had trouble fitting into. "I look at chocolate, and think that I deserve to eat it. After all, my son is in Iraq," she says. In addition to the extra pounds, she has also acquired new wrinkles and bags under her eyes, along with rheumatoid arthritis, the active symptoms of which were brought on, she’s convinced, by the strain of Seth’s service.
In April 2003, Seth’s unit—the 2nd Platoon of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines—rolled into Baghdad. When it did, his parents had to figure out how to process the near-constant coverage of the war, knowing their son was at the forefront of the fighting. Lynn could not consume enough news. "I don’t like the idea that anybody on earth should know more about my son than I do," she says. And so she read and read and watched and watched, in case he or his platoon was pictured or mentioned. As the stream of news from Iraq abated, she established a routine: After waking up, she’d check the Internet, then read the Globe, then listen to NPR; over her lunch hour, she’d scan the websites of CNN and MSNBC. Tom, on the other hand, preferred to take in as little coverage as possible. When he read the paper in the morning, he turned the pages gingerly, hoping to avoid catching sight of any stories on the war, relying instead on Lynn to vet the news. "At the beginning," he says, "I wouldn’t watch TV at all. But Lynn would watch TV and read e-mails, and say, ‘It’s okay. You can read this or watch this.’"
For Tom, who had always been a light sleeper, the nights grew long. He woke up frequently, and would have trouble drifting off again. Lynn, meanwhile, slept well, a luxury made possible with the aid of medication for her arthritis pain, as well as an increased dose of the prescription antidepressants she started taking when Seth went overseas.
In February 2006, at the end of his third tour, Seth officially came off active duty. He had been accepted to a joint graduate program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School for the fall of 2007, and the plan was that until then, he would move back in with his parents in Marblehead and work on a book while also doing consulting for the Marines in California. Lynn and Tom believed he was home for good. Then, in January 2007, Seth received an e-mail from General Petraeus, asking him to serve in the southern Iraqi town of Qadisiyah alongside two other Marines, Ann Gildroy and Alex Lemons, forging ties with Shi’ite tribal leaders. The assignment was scheduled to last through July 2008. To Seth it was too important an opportunity to pass up.
His decision meant the coping methods Lynn and Tom developed have had to be pressed back into service. For Lynn, that means talking with other people about her son as often as possible. For Tom, it means the opposite: He finds it difficult to discuss Seth’s situation, even with well-meaning acquaintances. This fall, when several members of the community learned about Seth’s service and asked Tom about it, the attention made him uncomfortable; he appreciates the concern but prefers to keep the matter private. As they did during Seth’s previous deployments, the couple also keeps an electric candle lighted in his bedroom. "If it ever goes out," says Lynn, "I go nuts." And once again she finds herself trying to stay home as much as possible on weekends, fearful she’ll miss one of Seth’s calls.
On the rare occasions when they do get to speak to their son, the Moultons are careful not to mention the extent of their worry. "I can’t let him know he’s causing us pain," Lynn says. "My son had options other than the military. I feel there is more pain for those families who couldn’t offer those options." Seth’s siblings, however, have not been so spared. "As soon as he told us he was going back, it was like a literal weight was put on my shoulders," says his sister, Eliza, 24, a pretty, slender redhead who lives in Brookline and teaches history at Norwood High. "That weight will be there until he returns home." Among the family, she is the most reluctant to criticize Seth or his choices. Last year she set up a website that updates friends and relatives on his whereabouts, and she also organizes shipments of care packages. She is acutely aware of her parents’ stress. "I remember when Seth was fighting in Najaf it was incredibly tense in my house," she says. "Every time a dark-colored car drove by, we all kind of held our breath and prayed that it did not stop in front of our house."
Growing up in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mohammed Harba often dreamed about living in the United States. In 1991, Iraqi soldiers killed thousands of people in his hometown, a predominantly Shi’ite city about 60 miles south of Baghdad. "I will never forget the bruises and cigarette wounds and marks of torture I saw on the bodies of those who were released," he says. He gorged himself on U.S. movies, becoming nearly fluent in English, and collected so many American comics, posters, and books that his mother referred to his bedroom as the 51st state.
On April 9, 2003, when he ran out to greet and thank arriving American troops for toppling Hussein, Mohammed’s English skills immediately earned him a position as a translator. A few weeks later, he was paired with Seth. After Seth’s unit moved out of Hillah, more than
two years passed before the friends saw each other again.
In December 2005, Seth came home to Marblehead on holiday leave. Mohammed, who was on his Fulbright, studying comparative literature at SUNY Binghamton, was on winter break, so Seth invited him to visit. It was a practice Mohammed continued for the remainder of his two-year program. After Mohammed learned of the death threat against him, the Moultons invited him to move into Cyrus’s former bedroom. "Mohammed is not just an Iraqi patriot but an American patriot, too," says Seth, explaining his family’s decision. "He has risked far more for the United States than most Americans ever will consider."
When Seth went back to Iraq last summer, Mohammed admits, he felt useless. Without asylum, he was unable to obtain a work permit and found himself at loose ends. In the fall, he launched a project in Marblehead to gather and ship supplies to children in Hillah, but mostly he spent his days reading and exercising and hanging out with the Moultons’ pet Tibetan terrier, Oliver (a fact that horrified his mother when she heard about it—in Iraq, dogs are considered dirty). He cherishes his relationship with Lynn and Tom, but he is homesick. "I wait until the environment is able to accept me and other Iraqi intellectuals. I have no idea when that will be," he says. In December, his initial asylum petition was approved. Though he still has to clear a security check, he has already started looking for a job and is also working on a documentary about Iraqi refugees.
Over the months, Mohammed and the Moultons have forged their own domestic routine. Every night, Lynn cooks dinner (avoiding pork for Mohammed’s sake) and the three sit down in the kitchen to eat. They have taken him on vacation to New Hampshire and Maine. But, as within any family, there are areas of disagreement.
In this case, the three are pointedly at odds on the war. Mohammed, who spent most of his life under a dictatorship, has supported it from the beginning. "I can’t imagine what it’s like for them, living with Mohammed, who never hesitates in asserting that America’s decision to topple Saddam was correct," says Mohammed’s lawyer, Jennifer Rikoski. "He won’t even let me say ‘U.S. invasion.’ Our agreed-upon term is ‘U.S. arrival.’" The family joke is that Mohammed has converted Oliver the dog to his side. "I don’t know that Oliver has become a Republican," Lynn says, "but he and Mohammed watch a lot of Fox News."
Mohammed’s stance on the war positions him to the right of everyone in the Moulton family, including, as it turns out, Seth. In the documentary No End in Sight, which won a special jury prize at Sundance last year, Seth dispels any doubt that his parents raised the independent thinker they hoped for. Calmly but bitingly, he criticizes virtually every level of the U.S. government for its failures in Iraq, particularly what he perceives as a lack of will at the top.
"The United States of America, as an entire nation, could be doing a lot more, and a lot better, in Iraq," Seth writes in an e-mail. "I’m not talking military mistakes. I’m talking about things like the lack of commitment of the nation—the time it takes to produce up-armored [vehicles], the forcing of so few to bear the burdens of so many, all that stuff. I still believe that if we can make this work, it has the potential to be a good thing for the long-term future of the Middle East. But there’s no question that it will be difficult to succeed, and the war, in the meantime, has probably made things worse." What keeps him coming back, aside from his commitment to his fellow Marines, is a sense of responsibility to the Iraqi people. He believes the United States made a promise to them, a promise it has yet to fulfill, but on which he personally refuses to default.
For a long time, the Moultons had trouble comprehending why Seth had chosen to enlist, and his ambivalence about the war only made it more difficult to reconcile. They came of political age in an era when if you opposed the war, you did everything in your power to stop it. But ultimately, the hawkish Mohammed has helped nudge Tom and Lynn closer to an understanding, and even an appreciation, of what Seth is doing.
When Mohammed moved in with them, Lynn and Tom began hearing his stories about what he had endured growing up, stories similar to the ones Seth had heard during his Iraq tours. And they could not miss his distress over not being able to return to his native country. They still don’t support the war. But they have found a way, through Mohammed, to come to peace with their son’s determination to do his part in Iraq to make things right. "I’m very proud that Seth feels this obligation," says Lynn, "and is willing to make a personal sacrifice to uphold it."
Last December, Seth surprised his family when he arrived home for a two-week stay. He had put in for a Christmas leave months earlier, but decided not to tell anyone, since so often such requests get bungled in the bureaucratic process. He called Eliza first, and had her secretly pick him up at the airport. When they got to the house, Tom heard the car pull into the driveway, and met them at the door. Seth wrapped him in a tight embrace, then went inside to find his mother napping, waking her with a hug before going into Cyrus’s room to greet a shocked Mohammed. He got hold of Cyrus in Portland, who traveled to Boston straight away.
Two days later, sitting with Cyrus in the den, Seth said he was thrilled to be back in Marblehead. He looked exhausted. Despite the warmth and comfort of his home, it was clear that part of him was almost constantly thinking about Iraq. He confessed to feeling guilty about having left behind Ann and Alex, the fellow Marines serving with him in Qadisiyah, and the people with whom he has spent nearly every waking minute over the past eight months.
It was subtle, but Seth seemed humbler than the 22-year-old who had chided his Harvard classmates. For most of his life, he had pursued his own goals on his own terms, almost invariably with success, but in Iraq he’d come up against intractable, insurmountable realities. In an earlier e-mail, he admitted to changing a great deal in the course of his service. "The Marine Corps has been very good for me, really in countless ways," he wrote. He said it had made him "a much better leader, a better manager, all kinds of things like that," but it was more than that. "I think I’m also a better person," he wrote, and less impetuous.
Lynn, not surprisingly, was just ecstatic to have Seth home. "For two entire weeks," she said, "we have only the worries that all parents have—not the ‘our son is in Iraq’ worry, too."