Note: The author was currently enrolled as a student at UMass, Boston.
Growing up I became fascinated from an early age with military history and military culture. Certainly, my family was not ‘traditionally’ patriotic-and we were not a military family by any means. The concept of patriotism when I was younger was not something I gave much thought to, but if pressed I would have said that at its pinnacle, it involved military service. I would now say that is part of it, but it is much deeper than that as well-but more on that later. And so I read, watched, and listened to everything and that I could get my hands on regarding the military. I read both fiction and non-fiction books, memorizing various names, places, and battles. Such books as John Keegan’s The First World War, and The Second World War, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried’ and If I Die in a Combat Zone’ Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and later on Phillip Caputo’s A Rumor of War’ and Michel Herr’s Dispatches all had a significant effect on me. Movies such as Platoon, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Presidents, etc., all did as well. Though I did not comprehend it at that time, the juxtaposition of the hard non-fiction history books and movies with the more nuanced and subtle anti-war fiction, non-fiction, and films was an interesting one. What I perceived as less-than-enthusiastic depictions of war and combat in these works still only served to further mythologize the military and war for me, and to fill in me a longing to be a part of it.
I decided to join the army after I graduated high school in 2004. The reasons were too numerous to mention, suffice to say it was not for (what I discovered to be) the more normal reasons: money for school, to get out of jail, to get away from a bad household and/or a dead end life, or the motivations of bored, restless, or psychotic individuals. Upon completion of basic and infantry training, I was stationed at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). I completed two tours of duty in Iraq, from 2005-2006 in Southwest Baghdad, and from 2007-2008 in Iskandariyah. I finally got out of the army in the beginning of 2009, shortly after my second tour. My current perspective on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can best be described as complex, given my own personal experiences. There is the (somewhat) logical and detached military mind of my past, which seems to at times be doing battle with the raw emotion and rage at what I perceived back then (and somewhat today) to be a betrayal by those at the highest levels of civilian and military command. It is an ongoing process that I’m trying to work out. But going into it, I think I was ambiguous about the Iraq conflict.
Before the First tour, while I acknowledged that Iraq may not have been invaded for the right reasons, I thought that service to one’s country did not necessitate that a soldier make a decision about a particular war. Rather, the dictates of service forbade it, with the theory that politicians would take care to put us in conflicts only when absolutely necessary. Thus, the willingness to fight wherever and whenever was both demanded and depicted as something to be proud of. However, and while I can only speak for myself, I will say that over there the ostensible mission of killing the bad guys, saving the women and children, and defending freedom was an illusion that was quickly shattered for me. I hesitate to over-simplify my time there and what we did, as I think we did our best and definitely did some good. At the lower (and in some cases mid-levels) of command, most of us were for the most part doing everything we could in the best way we knew how, minus a few inevitable bumps along the way in a year-long deployment.
To say the least, it was often bizarre and surreal. Much time during the 1st tour was spent chasing insurgents on intelligence tips that were too late or bad altogether (resulting in helicopter raids that involved dealing with-for the most part-crying women and children), in addition to looking for-and getting blown up by-IED’s and Mortars that the insurgents we were trying to catch were emplacing/firing constantly, along with occasionally taking/returning small arms fire. We would spend vast amounts of time on ‘route security,’ living in HUMMV’s for days and sometime weeks on end which would quite literally drive us mad, all the while trying to prevent the emplacement of IED’s and deny the insurgents freedom of movement. We ran Traffic Check Points for months, trying to stop the smuggling of weapons and explosives-and yet, with lines that stretched far into the distance and temperatures exceeding 115 degrees, we never had the time nor inclination to thoroughly search or examine their vehicles. Most of my commanders would say that we controlled and held a given amount of space, and caught/killed many insurgents, denying them freedom of movement and as such completing the mission and discounting my claims.
While there were some important humanitarian and infrastructure projects that we completed, and while we did capture/kill some insurgents, none of this was enough to justify our time there in my eyes-especially considering what they did to us (WIA/KIA-wise). The second tour was spent mostly training and supervising the deployment of the ‘awakening councils,’ former Sunni-insurgents who now acted as town police forces/militia, and though we took some casualties and some significant things happened, it was nothing compared to the 1st tour.
Most of the men I served with I consider brothers for life (though not all, for there were certainly a ‘shitbag’ or two among us). They are men who sacrificed more in a year then most do in a lifetime. Some of these men were the toughest, smartest, most shining examples of all that is good about humanity and our country if we were to use it justly. Indeed, I watched some of them become wounded. It is in fact the politicians, and the career-savvy highest level commanders, who I despise for putting us in that situation to begin with. The highest trained and motivated of soldiers had no power to alter their circumstances, such as SSG Bieve of 3rd Platoon, a former Ranger Battalion member who was blown up by an IED and became a KIA, or my team leader SGT. Triplett, also a former Ranger Battalion member, who was lacerated by shrapnel in both legs and sent back home to the United States. The larger reasons for these sacrifices are ones I neither accept nor fully understand.
I remember reading the book Fiasco by Tom Ricks during my second tour and, in addition to enraging my psychotic squad leader, it also enraged me (albeit for different reasons humorously enough) because it exposed the lies, deception, and incompetence of those planning and running the war. It was, without doubt, a war that was not fought on any pre-text of American security, though it was claimed to have been just that. Whether in the name of ‘human rights’ (made soon after the WMD/terrorist connections were exposed as lies) or whatever else, the attempt to justify it became more and more ridiculous.ify it. The ‘human rights/liberation’ argument in particular was made all the more laughable by the simple fact that many, many other countries are much more ruthless to their populations-and harbor many more terrorists then Iraq ever did-and yet we do not invade them! Indeed, some are our allies!
These conclusions were not easy to reach. After all, we had all literally shed blood, sweat, and tears in Iraq, and for many guys the idea that it literally was for nothing more than keeping each other alive and the small differences that we made was something most of us simply could not accept. The fact that I know in my heart that in all likelihood I created more terrorists then I killed, that I did not defend America, that I did not fight the good fight, that I am not a hero, that I am not a defender of democracy in any way shape or form, and that I was the end result of the naive’ and criminally dangerous policies and planes of borderline fascist-Neocon-chicken hawks is not something that sits well with me. The fact that I was a target for insurgents who were like ghosts, and who I would have given anything for one clean shot at, is something that is so frustrating at times I can’t even think about it for very long without getting extremely upset.
And yet I have people tell me all the time that I did and am all of the things that I am not, and didn’t do. This is something that fills me with emotions I don’t even know how to describe. I often think of a quote I heard once, but for the life of me cannot remember the origins of: “The only thing worse than being a fraud, is being a fraud but having people not realize it.” I think Iraq, like Vietnam, will go down in history as one of the most tragic American strategic mistakes ever to be made (though it was so utterly deliberate, I suppose it is up for debate whether it can realistically be called a ‘mistake’). I think that no matter how pacified that country becomes, it will never be what we envision; that is, anything resembling an America-style democracy. The culture and values of that population are so different from ours that they might as well be aliens (I don’t mean that negatively). We had-though it is getting better-very little understanding of all of the complexities of that society, some of them maddeningly ridiculous and draconian. Imagine everything from neighbors having gunfights over stolen livestock, to sheiks embezzling their Awakening Council members’ (all of the men doing good work and making our lives easier the second tour) money, and you will get an idea of what I’m talking about. The fact that more civilians have died since the invasion than Saddam ever killed, and that more terrorists have been created since the invasion-both truly undisputable facts-does not help matters. All of this is particularly tragic in light of the fact that so many serving in that country, civilian and military, worked and are working so hard to ensure that the aforementioned is NOT a foregone conclusion. Again, when so many resources, and so much good will, training, and money are squandered in that hellhole under those circumstances, it is truly a tragedy of the highest proportions. I may be wrong about Iraq- it may turn out to be relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous. But unless it does, in my mind anything short of that will come to be an unacceptable trade-off for the lives that we lost and the bodies that were shattered while we were over there.
I hoped I would be deployed to Afghanistan and briefly considered re-enlisting for the reason I originally supported the conflict was that I perceived it as a direct response to an attack on US territory-an attack against Al-Qaeda strongholds and by extension the Taliban that ‘harbored’ them. I considered the initial response soon after 9/11 to be a just one given the circumstances. In the subsequent months and years that followed I considered it to be a just war as well, unlike most of the wars of the past that this country has engaged in. Recently that view has been altered slightly, after hearing legitimate criticisms of the conflict from such individuals as Andrew Bacevich (who advocates a strict ‘counter-terrorism’ approach fought mostly by special operations forces) and various Army buddies who have served over there. I think that the purpose of what we are trying to do there is noble, in preventing a ruthless and draconian regime like the Taliban from re-gaining power, and in trying to provide Afghanis with opportunities and education they would not otherwise have. However, this can be said of many despotic regimes in the world; and in Afghanistan, where our original mission was accomplished (destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and deny them a base of operation) only to see it slip away, frankly it all appears to be up-in-the-air; specifically whether our goals, actions, and the reality on the ground are lining up in any meaningful way. I think it remains to be seen. Considering that my old unit-including one of my own former soldiers-is over there right now in the heart of it (Kandahar province and that accompanying offensive) serves to further complicate matters, in that I have feelings of guilt and shame for not going with them, and not staying in.
I am considering the fact that because we abandoned the country after the Russians left, and again in 2001 after we toppled the Taliban (because of force requirements in Iraq, we did not deploy enough troops to provide security and humanitarian assistance, and pulled half of some of the highest level special operations task forces out to hunt insurgents in Iraq), there is a growing amount of evidence that we lost our opening, blew our chances, and that the best thing we can do now is cut our losses and get out. However I do not think that this is for certain -it all remains to be seen in the not-so-distant future. Sooner rather than later, the ultimate question of whether the longest war in our history can ever be won will be realized, and we should act without delay at that point.
My views on war, and on war in American culture, have been altered significantly-though not completely-from before I entered the service to the time after I exited. My views before Iraq were that all war was fascinating, relevant, and important. That it was an endeavor of the most honorable and significant tradition that a man could engage in, immortalizing him in lore, mythology, and history that nothing else could come close to. My views after my service were that it is more likely than not an infinitely complex, gray and messy endeavor-not the one that our culture displays. Right and wrong, honor and shame are more often than not interwoven in an unrecognizable tapestry during war. Of course I can only speak of my own experience-but I feel there are common strains that apply to most war. While all of those positive qualities I mentioned were possible, and do occur in small and sometimes big ways in the military and in war, it is unfortunately a complete crap shoot in that not all of those things are guaranteed to be experienced by each combatant. Indeed I did not experience most of what I expected, and “my war”-or more accurately my counter insurgency, because that’s really what it was and not a traditional war-was not how I envisioned it. For some, that is not necessarily the case, but it is common knowledge among combat veterans that it is the case the vast majority of the time. Whether the dichotomy between my expectations and reality were simply the result of my own unique experience, or due to a complete fantasy of war and the military which I previously held onto, I do not know. One thing is for certain however: even seemingly just wars or military actions are often just the opposite, at a frequency of which is truly startling. This can be seen in the Vietnam war-based on a staggering amount of evidence it was one of the biggest mistakes and avoidable tragedies in our nation’s history. I tend to compare and contrast that to “just” wars like WWII. Though it is apparent to me from further readings of history that our reasons for entering that war were not as noble as many believe, nevertheless I still believe that the alternative to not-entering that war could have been, likely would have been, much worse than not entering at all. The same cannot be said for nearly all of the wars in our nation’s history.
Regarding ‘opponents’ of the current war, I feel obligated to mention that my own mother was part of Military Families Speak Out for virtually my entire enlistment, marching and protesting at various times. However, she remained fiercely respectful of me, my unit, and all of my buddies and comrades -all the while being deeply critical of the administration’s handling of the war. I always respected her for that, and though she was constantly asking if what she was doing was at all undermining our morale or confidence overseas, I told her to do what she felt was right, and that it was OK. Such reflects my feelings regarding most of the opponents of the current war; I have no problem with their opinions or politics, only occasionally their tactics/the contexts in which they display those beliefs. However, by and large those who claim to be ‘counter-protestors’ to the anti-war movement-those who often question the patriotism or realism of the anti-war movement-are often themselves the unpatriotic ones. One of their most enraging tactics is their tendency to ‘speak for the soldiers’: that is, the claim that criticizing the war is undermining the soldiers and that the soldiers do not appreciate it. What I can say to that is that among an Infantry Company, roughly 120-140 men-a good deal of whom I knew personally-just as many were ambivalent regarding the war or thought it ‘fucking retarded’ (as we would say) as supported it or who thought it was just. But when you are trying to get through it and watch each other’s back, and complete the mission, you don’t spend much time ruminating on such things. Suffice to say that there is no way that all or even most of the soldiers hold those opinions or get offended in the ways that the ‘pro war’ movement (as the media has at times dubbed them) would claim.
It may be a cliché, but one of the most patriotic and American things a person can do is question his/her government-because it indicates that citizens are paying attention, that they are involved, and that they are willing to sacrifice their time for something they believe in-whereas many others are not. Putting a yellow ribbon on your trunk, the ‘gesture of choice’ for so many Americans, does not qualify someone as a patriotic American-ironically it is the protestors in the streets who are greater patriots then those who merely partake in the aforementioned gesture, and deem it adequate. That being said, there are small segments of the anti-war movement who have little-to-no understanding of geopolitical realities and dynamics, nor war in general, preferring to take the extreme pacifist rout and criticize the military and the soldiers themselves. This I find deplorable because it is based on an ignorance and laziness, on par with the so called ‘flag waving’ patriotic Americans. They, like the very people they claim to have issue with, have chosen the shameful rout of dressing up a debate about policy, war, and right and wrong with their real reasons-that is, the underlying motivations of different cultures and lifestyles and the confusing hatred and fear that it seems to engender among these fringe groups. In the interest of fairness, I feel obligated to mention that there are people who demonstrate in favor of the war who do so in a respectful manner, and many military experts and veterans who have earned the right to have such an opinion.
Along these lines, I think that dissent about the American way of life in general is something we could use more, not less of, in the United States. We enjoy a standard of living that most in the world cannot fathom-and most of us here have no appreciation for. Witnessing the poverty of subsistence farmers in Iraq-where electricity and running water are luxuries-it struck me that we live in one of the luckiest countries in the world, standard-of-living wise. Now I am profoundly grateful for our standard of living. But I categorically reject the notion that our way of life is only attainable through our current practices-be they foreign incursion or domestic in nature-and I believe there is ample evidence to back this up as well. When dissent is for a good reason/cause, and respectful most importantly of the facts-but also of the opposition-then it is an inherently good thing, one of the last true good things that we have with regard to our public discourse. However, when it is reactionary, lazy, and not based in science or reality, and when it merely masks cultural/personal/religious differences, then it is one of the most despicable and embarrassing things in our culture these days. There are numerous examples of both of these types of dissent within our daily culture, but unfortunately, there seems to be more-of the latter recently.
In conclusion: when I was young, I thought that the military, and war, was black and white. Now, I know that it is not. I only experienced one war, albeit a very different one than others in history (due in large part to technological advantages and geographical circumstances). And while I can only speak of my own experiences, I now suspect that war is never a good thing-it is never glorious, though some psychotics would disagree. There are opportunities for honor and courage within war, and some do attain these in the heat of battle. But they are few and far between. This echoes what the vast majority of combat veterans told me prior to my enlistment, something which I ignored at the time. Perhaps that is a fundamental aspect of war in American culture-a culture that mythologizes war in movies, books, and video games, and glorifies it when it is anything but glorious. Our culture refuses to address the complexities or the horrors of war that are inextricable from the excitement of it. Perhaps this is the only way to keep the system going-just as everyone prefers a good drama over a bland documentary, it wouldn’t be entertaining for kids to watch footage of a HUMMV getting blown up and seeing the gore that results from that, with no enemy dead to show for it, only maimed US soldiers. Regarding war, the only thing realistically up for debate is whether some wars are absolutely necessary or not. And of course, some are necessary; though so few in our history-with the ‘wars of choice’ heavily outweighing the ‘wars of necessity’-that it almost makes one ashamed to be an American at times. For the rest of my life, I have to live with the fact that much of what I strove for and wanted to be a part of, much of what I wanted to accomplish personally in the military, was not achieved. Some of this was well within my control-deciding to get out instead of remaining in and going to Afghanistan, and other special schools, etc. However, some of it was not, such as the nature of our collective experiences during the 2005-2006 deployment, which really was the turning point when I was made deeply cynical and embittered-and I realized I would never stay in the Army. I don’t know what it feels like to be proud of your service and what you did-the only pride I feel is that we ‘sucked,’ got through the deployment, always tried to complete the mission, and are part of a brotherhood for life that no one who did not go through it can ever understand.
All of that being said, I continue to believe that some of what the military and war offer us is positive and necessary-the discipline, training and knowledge; the extreme skill and courage of some of our soldiers (special operations soldiers in particular) and more are all something that many could benefit from-minus the unjust wars, of course. And I do not-even after all this-regret my enlistment. I was lucky enough to leave with a body and mind intact, friends for life, and a valuable skill set and experiences to draw on, perhaps the most valuable of which was a real-world education, a shattering of childhood illusions. As I mentioned, I met some of the most influential people of my life while in the Army, whom I won’t soon forget. The greatest tragedy is that what I, and the army as a whole, was and is capable of – truly helping the helpless, and killing the bad guys- did not come to pass. It was not to be for me or (for most of our country’s history for that matter, as I am discovering). While I contend that the unfortunate reality of the world and of human beings necessitates the formation and maintenance of some kind of military, and some kinds of military actions, the ones we have been engaging in as of late do not resemble anything close to what is right, what is just, and what America should be standing for and/or pursuing in any way shape or form. The resources-be they financial or personal-that have been spent on wars in recent American history are beyond comprehension, especially when compared to more pressing domestic and environmental concerns calling for resources of their own. It truly boggles the mind that they should have been allowed to occur. Will we as a society ever learn? Is it circumstantial, the result of truly deceitful conniving by politicians and leaders, or something in our own biological nature? Hopefully we will find out before it is too late for all of us.