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.
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.”