All troops, when they occupy and battle insurgent forces, as in Iraq, or Gaza
or Vietnam, are placed in "atrocity producing situations."
In this environment, surrounded by a hostile population, simple acts such as
going to a store to buy a can of Coke means you can be killed. This constant
fear and stress pushes troops to view everyone around them as the enemy. This
hostility is compounded when the enemy, as in Iraq, is elusive, shadowy and
hard to find.
The rage soldiers feel after a roadside bomb explodes, killing or maiming
their comrades, is one that is easily directed over time to innocent civilians
who are seen to support the insurgents. It is a short psychological leap, but
a massive moral leap. It is a leap from killing -- the shooting of someone who
has the capacity to do you harm -- to murder -- the deadly assault against someone
who cannot harm you. The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder. There is
very little killing.
After four years of war, American Marines and soldiers have become socialized
to atrocity. The American killing project is not described in these terms to
a distant public. The politicians still speak in the abstract terms of glory,
honor, and heroism, in the necessity of improving the world, in lofty phrases
of political and spiritual renewal. Those who kill large numbers of people always
claim it as a virtue. The campaign to rid the world of terror is expressed with
this rhetoric, as if once all terrorists are destroyed evil itself will vanish.
The reality behind the myth, however, is very different. The reality and the
ideal clash when soldiers and Marines return home, alienating these combat veterans
from the world around them, a world that still dines out on the myth of war
and the virtues of the nation. But slowly returning veterans are giving us a
new narrative of the war -- one that exposes the vast enterprise of industrial
slaughter unleashed in Iraq for a lie and sustained because of wounded national
pride and willful ignorance. "This unit sets up this traffic control point
and this 18 year old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with a .50 caliber machine
gun," remembered Geoffrey Millard who served in Tikrit with the 42nd Infantry
Division. "And this car speeds at him pretty quick and he makes a split
second decision that that's a suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger
and puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed the mother,
a father and two kids. The boy was aged four and the daughter was aged three."
"And they briefed this to the general," Millard said, "and they
briefed it gruesome. I mean, they had pictures. They briefed it to him. And
this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says, 'if these fucking
Hadjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn't happen.'"
Those who come back from war, like Millard and tens of thousands of other veterans,
suffer not only delayed reactions to stress, but a crisis of faith. The God
they knew, or thought they knew, failed them. The church or the synagogue or
the mosque, which promised redemption by serving God and country, did not prepare
them for the betrayal of this civic religion, for the capacity we all have for
human atrocity, for the lies and myths used to mask the reality of war. War
is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by
cynics and of troops by politicians. This bitter knowledge of betrayal has seeped
into the ranks of American troops.
It has unleashed a new wave of embittered veterans not seen since the Vietnam
War. It has made it possible for us to begin, again, to see war's death mask.
"And then, you know, my sort of sentiment of what the fuck are we doing,
that I felt that way in Iraq," said Sergeant Ben Flanders, who estimated
that he ran hundreds of convoys in Iraq. "It's the sort of insanity of
it and the fact that it reduces it. Well, I think war does anyway, but I felt
like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people, the only
thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys that I was with. And everybody
else be damned, whether you are an Iraqi, I'm sorry, I'm sorry you live here,
I'm sorry this is a terrible situation, and I'm sorry that you have to deal
with all of, you know, army vehicles running around and shooting, and these
insurgents and all this stuff.
"The first briefing you get when you get off the plane in Kuwait, and
you get off the plane and you're holding a duffle bag in each hand," Millard
remembered. "You've got your weapon slung. You've got a web sack on your
back. You're dying of heat. You're tired. You're jet-lagged. Your mind is just
full of goop. And then, you're scared on top of that, because, you know, you're
in Kuwait, you're not in the States anymore … so fear sets in, too. And
they sit you into this little briefing room and you get this briefing about
how, you know, you can't trust any of these fucking Hadjis, because all these
fucking Hadjis are going to kill you. And Hadji is always used as a term of
disrespect and usually, with the 'f' word in front of it."
War is also the pornography of violence. It has a dark beauty, filled with
the monstrous and the grotesque. The Bible calls it "the lust of the eye"
and warns believers against it. War allows us to engage in lusts and passions
we keep hidden in the deepest, most private interiors of our fantasy life. It
allows us to destroy not only things but human beings. In that moment of wholesale
destruction, we wield the power to the divine, the power to revoke another person's
charter to live on this earth. The frenzy of this destruction -- and when unit
discipline breaks down, or there was no unit discipline to begin with, frenzy
is the right word -- sees armed bands crazed by the poisonous elixir our power
to bring about the obliteration of others delivers. All things, including human
beings, become objects -- objects to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost
no one is immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.
Human beings are machine gunned and bombed from the air, automatic grenade
launchers pepper hovels and neighbors with high-powered explosive devices and
convoys race through Iraq like freight trains of death. These soldiers and Marines
have at their fingertips the heady ability to call in air strikes and firepower
that obliterate landscapes and villages in fiery infernos. They can instantly
give or deprive human life, and with this power they became sick and demented.
The moral universe is turned upside down. All human beings are used as objects.
And no one walks away uninfected. War thrusts us into a vortex of pain and fleeting
ecstasy. It thrusts us into a world where law is of little consequence, human
life is cheap and the gratification of the moment becomes the overriding desire
that must be satiated, even at the cost of another's dignity or life.
"A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if
they don't speak English and they have darker skin, they're not as human as
us, so we can do what we want," said Josh Middleton, who served in the
82nd Airborne in Iraq. "And you know, when 20 year old kids are yelled
at back and forth at Bragg and we're picking up cigarette butts and getting
yelled at every day to find a dirty weapon. But over here, it's like life and
death. And 40-year-old Iraqi men look at us with fear and we can -- do you know
what I mean? -- we have this power that you can't have. That's really liberating.
Life is just knocked down to this primal level of, you know, you worry about
where the next food's going to come from, the next sleep or the next patrol
and to stay alive."
"It's like you feel like, I don't know, if you're a caveman," he
added. "Do you know what I mean? Just, you know, I mean, this is how life
is supposed to be. Life and death, essentially. No TV. None of that bullshit."
It takes little in wartime to turn ordinary men into killers. Most give themselves
willingly to the seduction of unlimited power to destroy, and all feel the peer
pressure to conform. Few, once in battle, find the strength to resist. Physical
courage is common on a battlefield. Moral courage is not.
Military machines and state bureaucracies, who seek to make us obey, seek also
to silence those who return from war to speak the truth, to hide from a public
eager for stories of war that fit the mythic narrative the essence of war which
Camilo Mejia, who eventually applied while still on active duty to become a
conscientious objector, said the ugly side of American racism and chauvinism
appeared the moment his unit arrived in the Middle East. Fellow soldiers instantly
ridiculed Arab-style toilets because they would be "shitting like dogs."
The troops around him treated Iraqis, whose language they did not speak and
whose culture was alien, little better than animals. The word "Hadji"
swiftly became a slur to refer to Iraqis, in much the same way "gook"
was used to debase the Vietnamese or "rag head" is used to belittle
those in Afghanistan.
Soon those around him ridiculed "Hadji food," "Hadji homes,"
and "Hadji music." Bewildered prisoners, who were rounded up in useless
and indiscriminate raids, were stripped naked, and left to stand terrified and
bewildered for hours in the baking sun. They were subjected to a steady torrent
of verbal and physical abuse. "I experienced horrible confusion,"
Mejia remembers, "not knowing whether I was more afraid for the detainees
or for what would happen to me if I did anything to help them."
These scenes of abuse, which began immediately after the American invasion,
were little more than collective acts of sadism. Mejia watched, not daring to
intervene, yet increasingly disgusted at the treatment of Iraqi civilians. He
saw how the callous and unchecked abuse of power first led to alienation among
Iraqis and spawned a raw hatred of the occupation forces. When army units raided
homes, the soldiers burst in on frightened families, forced them to huddle in
the corners at gun point, and helped themselves to food and items in the house.
"After we arrested drivers," he recalled, "we would choose whichever
vehicles we liked, fuel them from confiscated jerry cans, and conduct undercover
presence patrols in the impounded cars.
"But to this day I cannot find a single good answer as to why I stood
by idly during the abuse of those prisoners except, of course, my own cowardice,"
he also notes.
Iraqi families were routinely fired upon for getting too close to check points,
including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated
by a 50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son, although by then, Mejia
notes, "this sort of killing of civilians had long ceased to arouse much
interest or even comment." Soldiers shot holes into cans of gasoline being
sold alongside the road and then tossed incendiary grenades into the pools to
set them ablaze. "It's fun to shoot shit up," a soldier said. Some
open fire on small children throwing rocks. And when improvised explosive devices
go off the troops fire wildly into densely populated neighborhoods, leaving
behind innocent victims who become, in the callous language of war, "collateral
"We would drive on the wrong side of the highway to reduce the risk of
being hit by an IED," Mejia said of the deadly roadside bombs. "This
forced oncoming vehicles to move to one side of the road, and considerably slowed
down the flow of traffic. In order to avoid being held up in traffic jams, where
someone could roll a grenade under our trucks, we would simply drive up on sidewalks,
running over garbage cans and even hitting civilian vehicles to push them out
of the way. Many of the soldiers would laugh and shriek at these tactics."
At one point the unit was surrounded by an angry crowd protesting the occupation.
Mejia and his squad opened fire on an Iraqi holding a grenade, riddling the
man's body with bullets. Mejia checked his clip afterwards and determined that
he fired 11 rounds into the young man. Units, he said, nonchalantly opened fire
in crowded neighborhoods with heavy M-240 Bravo machine guns, AT-4 launchers
and Mark 19s, a machine gun that spits out grenades.
"The frustration that resulted from our inability to get back at those
who were attacking us," Mejia writes, "led to tactics that seemed
designed simply to punish the local population that was supporting them."
He watched soldiers from his unit abuse the corpses of Iraqi dead. Mejia related
how, in one incident, soldiers laughed as an Iraqi corpse fell from the back
of a truck.
"Take a picture of me and this motherfucker," one of the soldiers
who had been in Mejia's squad in third platoon said, putting his arm around
The shroud fell away from the body revealing a young man wearing only his pants.
There was a bullet hole in his chest.
"Damn, they really fucked you up, didn't they!?" the soldier laughed.
The scene, Mejia noted, was witnessed by the dead man's brothers and cousins.
Senior officers, protected in heavily fortified compounds, rarely saw combat.
They sent their troops on futile missions in the quest to be awarded Combat
Infantry Badges. This recognition, Mejia notes, "was essential to their
further progress up the officer ranks." This pattern meant that "very
few high-ranking officers actually got out into the action, and lower-ranking
officers were afraid to contradict them when they were wrong." When the
badges, bearing an emblem of a musket with the hammer dropped, resting on top
of an oak wreath, were finally awarded, the commanders immediately brought in
Iraqi tailors to sew the badges on the left breast pockets of their desert combat
"This was one occasion when our leaders led from the front," Mejia
noted bitterly. "They were among the first to visit the tailors to get
their little patches of glory sewn next to their hearts."
The war breeds gratuitous and constant acts of violence.
"I mean, if someone has a fan, they're a white collar family," said
Phillip Chrystal, who carried out raids on Iraqi homes in Kirkuk. "So we
get started on this day, this one, in particular. And it starts with the psy
ops [psychological operations] vehicles out there, you know, with the big speakers
playing a message in Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish or whatever they happen to be
saying, basically, saying put your weapons, if you have them, next to the front
door in your house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we had
Apaches flying over for security, if they're needed, and it's also a good show
of force. And we were running around, and we'd done a few houses by this point,
and I was with my platoon leader, my squad leader and maybe a couple other people,
but I don't really remember.
"And we were approaching this one house, and this farming area, they're,
like, built up into little courtyards," he said. "So they have like
the main house, common area. They have like a kitchen and then, they have like
a storage shed-type deal. And we were approaching, and they had a family dog.
And it was barking ferociously, because it was doing its job. And my squad leader,
just out of nowhere, just shoots it. And he didn't -- mother fucker -- he shot
it and it went in the jaw and exited out. So I see this dog -- and I'm a huge
animal lover. I love animals -- and this dog has like these eyes on it and he's
running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, the family
is sitting right there with three little children and a mom and a dad horrified.
And I'm at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I'm like what the fuck are
"And so, the dog's yelping. It's crying out without a jaw. And I'm looking
at the family, and they're just scared. And so, I told them I was like fucking
shoot it, you know. At least, kill it, because that can't be fixed. It's suffering.
And I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but -- and I had tears
then, too, -- and I'm looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got the
interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out and I gave them
20 bucks, because that's what I had. And, you know, I had him give it to them
and told them that I'm so sorry that asshole did that. Which was very common.
I don't know if it's rednecks or what, but they feel that shooting dogs is something
that adds to one's manliness traits. I don't know. I had a big problem with
"Was a report ever filed about it?" he asked. "Was anything
ever done? Any punishment ever dished out? No, absolutely not. He was a sycophant
down to the T."
We make our heroes out of clay. We laud their gallant deeds and give them uniforms
with colored ribbons on their chest for the acts of violence they committed
or endured. They are our false repositories of glory and honor, of power, of
self-righteousness, of patriotism and self-worship, all that we want to believe
about ourselves. They are our plaster saints of war, the icons we cheer to defend
us and make us and our nation great. They are the props of our civic religion,
our love of power and force, our belief in our right as a chosen nation to wield
this force against the weak and rule. This is our nation's idolatry of itself.
And this idolatry has corrupted religious institutions, not only here but in
most nations, making it impossible for us to separate the will of God from the
will of the state.
Prophets are not those who speak of piety and duty from pulpits -- few people
in pulpits have much worth listening to -- but it is the battered wrecks of
men and women who return from Iraq and speak the halting words we do not want
to hear, words that we must listen to and heed to know ourselves. They tell
us war is a soulless void. They have seen and tasted how war plunges us to barbarity,
perversion, pain and an unchecked orgy of death. And it is their testimonies
alone that have the redemptive power to save us from ourselves.
Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times
and the author of "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."