So This is What War Looks Like: Hubris Meets Reality in the Desert

Published as a ZNet Commentary, April 3, 2003

Well, now we know.

War is not a high-tech video game, or grainy footage of bombs as seen through night-vision goggles. It’s not swiftly moving tanks, displaying their mechanical prowess across the sands of the Iraqi desert. It’s not like the war games the soldiers planned for. It’s not like wrestling your unit buddy in the sand so as to “toughen you up” for duty.

It’s also not merrily greeted by the citizens of one’s adversary. There are not crowds of grateful Iraqis lining the streets, waving American flags and hoping for candy bars, Christina Aguilera CDs or some such worthless consumer-culture shit, to be dispensed by the brave fighting men of the 3-7 infantry or 101st Airborne Division.

It’s not Bob Hope or some other entertainer regaling the troops with bad jokes and worse music, while the soldiers take long drags off cheap cigarettes and fantasize about sleeping with some pinup girl as soon as they get back stateside.

It’s not going as planned; it’s not causing the enemy to fold like a bad poker hand; it’s not your grandfather’s war. But it has prompted a few thousand Arabs and Muslims from surrounding countries — Syria, Jordan, and possibly even Iran — to enter the country and join the battle against the American invaders. Shocking. And it has caused hundreds of thousands in Pakistan, one of our allies, to take to the streets shouting “Death to America,” and in Egypt too. Shocking.

And it has prompted the utterly predictable turn to such tactics as suicide bombing and ambushes of American troops. As much as Donald Rumsfeld may whine about the underhandedness of such “criminal” behavior, it can hardly be surprising. After all, Iraq has no significant military force; no weapons of mass destruction to speak of (so much for that rationale for war); no air force; no working helicopters. Guerrilla warfare is the only remaining option for such a people, and we would turn to it just as quickly if invaded by a stronger foe. I mean, does anyone really doubt that all those NRA members would become snipers from behind windows and doors if push came to shove? Hell they promise as much.

Furthermore, this war is surely even now fueling a new round of al-Qaeda videos, brought to you by the world’s most elusive terrorist who, despite our spending billions to catch or kill him, manages to keep moving from cave to cave, cranking out tapes like he owns a Memorex factory.

And it has led to the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi civilians and the injury of thousands more. The only surprise here is that the numbers aren’t higher; but give us a week or so. The siege of Baghdad hasn’t really begun as of yet, and with U.S. troops now inclined to fire on anything that moves — since there have been several ambushes by civilians or Iraqi forces dressed as civilians — who knows how high the body count might go? Of course, that hardly matters to American war planners. As General Tommy Franks puts it: “We don’t do body counts.”

Speaking of which, we should also probably take note of another kind of body count, another kind of death toll, but one that is rarely discussed; because amidst all the clamor about the need to “support the troops,” (which apparently means sending them sappy video greetings and prayers on DVD players shipped out by Target, or Wal-Mart, or Best Buy, or one of those places), there is a deafening silence about what this war is doing to those same troops. And here I don’t mean those who are killed or taken prisoner and tortured, for indeed we speak of them hourly it seems. I mean those who survive, at least in body, but who face the emotional and mental trauma of their actions, and do so without the apparent concern of a nation that views them as soldiers first, and human beings second.

Today, Londoners but not Americans will read about what just happened on a bridge in Nasariyah, which Fox News anchor and all-around know-nothing Shepard Smith still can’t seem to pronounce correctly after ten days of war. According to the Times of London, American troops fired on a group of civilians crossing the bridge as they tried to escape the war zone. Unsure as to whether they were friend or foe, and understandably nervous about finding out the hard way, they unloaded on families: killing twelve, including as the Times reporter put it: “a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, (who) lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing.”

It continues: “Nearby, in a battered old Volga, peppered with ammunition holes, an Iraqi woman — perhaps the girl’s mother — was dead, slumped in the back seat.” Elsewhere, “A father, baby girl and boy lay in a shallow grave. On the bridge itself a dead Iraqi civilian lay next to the carcass of a donkey.”

Not wanting to take the focus off the dead Iraqis — for indeed they are the ones who paid the ultimate price in this scenario — it should yet be mentioned that the Times report also indicated a more subtle, yet all too real set of casualties from that attack; namely, the soldiers who had carried it out, and who were clearly impacted by the process. The reporter quoted a Lieutenant by the name of Matt Martin, whose wife had given birth to their third child while he was headed to the Gulf.

“Did you see all that?” he asked, his eyes filled with tears. “Did you see that little baby girl? I carried her body and buried it as best I could but I had no time. It really gets to me to see children being killed like this, but we had no choice.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Corporal Ryan Dupre, for whom this war has also brought out a heavy flood of emotions, though not ones as gentle or compassionate as with Martin. According to Dupre, “The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy. I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a fuckin’ Iraqi. No, I won’t get hold of one. I’ll just kill him.”

It is easy to disdain such a comment, and indeed I do. It is easy to say, as I also would, that if Corporal Dupre carries out his threat and opens fire intentionally on Iraqi civilians, he should spend the rest of his life behind bars for war crimes. Yet something else also should be noted.

Namely, that Messrs Dupre and Martin, though assessing their actions from different vantage points, are both considerably worse for wear than they were a few weeks ago. Something in both of them has died; something vital to the maintenance of a healthy soul has been traumatized, all because they have been set up by guys who mostly never wore a uniform and who have no idea what war is really like–guys who made this sound like it would be a stroll at Disney, with overjoyed throngs of Iraqis rushing to greet them in the streets like rock stars.

For Martin, with whom I instinctively identify because I have a daughter much like his own and much like the ones his unit killed, the loss will haunt him the rest of his days. No matter the outcome of this war; no matter if he never has to kill again; no matter how soon he is able to return home, his life has been altered forever. Altered in a way that only causing death possibly can, for we are not, after all, talking about a life-changing experience on par with winning the Kentucky Lottery. That’s a hell of a price to pay at the age of 22, or whatever he is.

His night sweats, terror, and the unexplained illnesses and breakdowns in years to come, all of which will frighten his children, and possibly torpedo his marriage will be predictable, and will not be the fault of the anti-war movement, accused of not supporting the troops. Rather, they will be the shameful responsibility of the United States government, which we are told does support them. Strange thing, this support that renders one’s conscience an acceptable form of collateral damage.

For Dupre, the danger is that he may, even now, be dropping his defenses against the ongoing calcification of his sympathy gene, or whatever it is that, in normal circumstances, prevents us from becoming murderers. That he is now finding he hates Iraq and Iraqis, and views them as cancer, is no small revelation. That he cannot likely understand how Iraqis could also hate America and Americans, for what we have done to their country — from supporting Saddam’s brutality, to killing tens of thousands of civilians in Desert Storm, to burying Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert in that same war, to maintaining deadly sanctions for twelve years — is testimony to how little our nation’s elites really prepare kids like this for what they are being asked to do.

Without any sense of relevant history, but with a detailed knowledge of important military facts like Sherman’s troop movements through the South, or the logistics of the Normandy landing — the kinds of mundane details taught to officers at the nation’s military academies or studied by warrior wanna-be’s from an early age, but none of which means shit right about now — they go out to “liberate” people who despise them.

The article goes on to discuss the way many of the “coalition” soldiers have been shell-shocked by the sight of fellow troops slaughtered by RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), their legs hanging on by a collection of tangled sinews and little else.

Or the one particular solider who is seen carrying an unrecognizable chunk of human flesh from a battlefield, sobbing uncontrollably as he returns the remains of a friend to a safe place until they can presumably be sent home for burial.

Or the soldier who is composing a war diary for his spouse but leaving out the parts about the children he and his comrades have killed, and who turns down the reporter’s offer to call home on a cell phone for fear that his wife will tell by his voice that something is terribly wrong.

Indeed something is wrong, and George W. Bush is to blame for it; Cheney and Rumsfeld are to blame for it; Tony Blair is to blame for it; and Colin Powell too, having long ago abandoned his apparent misgivings about this escapade so as to remain the loyal soldier. Some things haven’t changed since My Lai after all. Just as then, the troops commit atrocities. And just as then, they are destroyed by the wake of their actions, their orders, and their mission. Just as then, we are told not to worry, and to support the troops as they engage in a conscience-searing process so utterly unnatural that it requires years of training to make one a proper killer. Just as then it is we who oppose this war who will be remembered as not sufficiently supporting “our” men and women in uniform, while it will be those who put them in harm’s way (and for what?), and those who forced them into the untenable position where they now feel they must kill women, children and old men in order to ensure their safety, who will be considered super-patriots.

Such is a world turned upside down, where wanting to bring all soldiers home tomorrow is being unsupportive, while placing them in the way of car bombs and RPGs is tantamount to being their best friends. As the saying goes, “With friends like these…”

Heading to the anti-war rally in Boston this past week, I noticed a man on the corner, who I presume was homeless. He had a small bucket at his feet where I guess he places the paltry offerings of automotive passersby, headed into the business district. And in his hands was a sign. It read: “Homeless Veteran. Down on My Luck. God Bless.”

Little does he realize that there is no “luck” to it. His immiseration has been calculated, and he is now the logical and functional detritus of a system that needs, loves and supports its troops only when they are killing, and not when they are simply trying to live. So there he was, a “troop,” supported by those in power to do whatever he had to do in combat, most likely in Vietnam, guessing by age; and who upon returning was not spat upon by any antiwar protester — that being a historic fabrication of Biblical proportions, thoroughly debunked in the recent examination, The Spitting Image — but was likely denied membership in the VFW by old war horses who considered Vietnam vets to be long-haired, dope-smoking losers, unfit for membership alongside the so-called Greatest Generation. And now he is on the streets, the same week that “supportive” right-wing Republicans and the White House proposed gutting the budget for veteran’s pensions and disability spending. Jobless, no health care, no place to live.

This is supporting the troops, I suppose.

And this is what war looks like.

Leave a Reply