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.

seth moulton

Tom and Lynn Moulton with their son Seth’s Iraqi translator, Mohammed Harba, in their Marblehead home. (Photograph by Guido Vitti)

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.”

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Seth Moulton, home on his holiday leave. (Photograph by Guido Vitti)

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 that 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.”

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