Iraq is an atrocity producing situation


That’s what Christopher Hedges says in his new book, Collateral Damage.  The author spares no punches in assigning blame to those responsible for making the Iraqi war one of murder and not defense of the homeland.  He includes in his stinging indictment, members of his own profession, the press.

The press coverage of the war in Iraq rarely exposes the twisted pathology of this war. We see the war from the perspective of the troops or from the equally skewed perspective of the foreign reporters, holed up in hotels, hemmed in by drivers and translators and official security and military escorts. There are moments when war’s face appears to these voyeurs and professional killers, perhaps from the back seat of a car where a small child, her brains oozing out of her head, lies dying, but mostly it remains hidden. And all our knowledge of the war in Iraq has to be viewed as lacking the sweep and depth that will come one day, perhaps years from now, when a small Iraqi boy reaches adulthood and unfolds for us the sad and tragic story of the invasion and bloody occupation of his nation.

As the war sours, as it no longer fits into the mythical narrative of us as liberators and victors, it fades from view. The cable news shows that packaged and sold us the war have stopped covering it, trading the awful carnage of bomb blasts in Baghdad for the soap-opera sagas of Roger Clemens, Miley Cyrus, and Britney Spears in her eternal meltdown. Average monthly coverage of the war in Iraq on the ABC, NBC, and CBS newscasts combined has been cut in half, falling from 388 minutes in 2003, to 274 in 2004, to 166 in 2005. And newspapers, including papers like the Boston Globe, have shut down their Baghdad bureaus. Deprived of a clear, heroic narrative, restricted and hemmed in by security concerns, they have walked away.

Most reporters know that the invasion and the occupation have been a catastrophe. They know the Iraqis do not want us. They know about the cooked intelligence, spoon-fed to a compliant press by the Office of Special Plans and Lewis Libby’s White House Iraq Group. They know about Curveball, the forged documents out of Niger, the outed CIA operatives, and the bogus British intelligence dossiers that were taken from old magazine articles. They know the weapons of mass destruction were destroyed long before we arrived. They know that our military as well as our National Guard and reserve units are being degraded and decimated. They know this war is not about bringing democracy to Iraq, that all the clichés about staying the course and completing the mission are used to make sure the president and his allies do not pay a political price while in power for their blunders and their folly.

The press knows all this, and if reporters had bothered to look they could have known it a long time ago. But the press, or at least most of it, has lost the passion, the outrage, and the sense of mission that once drove reporters to defy authority and tell the truth.

Politicians also find their way in Hedges’ ire.

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 America’s Iraq War veterans. It has unleashed a new wave of disillusioned veterans not seen since the Vietnam War. It has made it possible for us to begin, again, to see war’s death mask and understand our complicity in evil.

But the book is full of personal accounts of soldiers who served time in Iraq and the experiences they had, and it’s a gruesome narrative.  For the average American it reveals a side of the war that is not portrayed in the media yet it’s a portrayal we should all be familiar with in order to prepare ourselves for what will come when Americans service men and women return.  We’ve already heard the stories of suicides are up among Iraqi veterans as well as post traumatic stress disorder and other problems people who’ve been lied to and ordered to kill have to face.

These combat veterans are often alienated from the world around them, a world that still believes in the myth of war and the virtues of the nation. They confront the grave, existential crisis of all who go through combat and understand that we have no monopoly on virtue, that in war we become as barbaric and savage as those we oppose.

Here are some examples of the accounts you will find in his book.

“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 Sgt. 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 two hundred 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 f—ing hajis learned to drive, this sh-t wouldn’t happen.'”

“The first briefing you get when you get off the plane in Kuwait, and you get off the plane and you’re holding a duffel 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 f—ing hajis, because all these f—king hajis are going to kill you. And ‘haji’ is always used as a term of disrespect and usually with the F-word in front of it.”

*************

“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 Spc. Josh Middleton, who served in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. “And you know, 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 for having 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 bullsh-t.”

*************

Sgt. Camilo Mejía, 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 “sh-tting like dogs.” The troops around him treated Iraqis, whose language they did not speak and whose culture was alien, little better than animals.

These scenes of abuse, which began immediately after the American invasion, were little more than collective acts of sadism. Mejía 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 gunpoint, 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.

Iraqi families were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son. 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 sh-t up,” a soldier said. Some opened fire on small children throwing rocks. And when improvised explosive devices (IEDS) went off, the troops fired wildly into densely populated neighborhoods, leaving behind innocent victims who became, in the callous language of war, “collateral damage.”

“We would drive on the wrong side of the highway to reduce the risk of being hit by an IED,” Mejía 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.”

What’s disturbing to this observer is the people who exposed young innocent Americans to this atrocity producing situation are themselves veterans of the atrocity called Vietnam, many of them if not in service through experience as citizens of the country during that tumultuous time.  Why weren’t they smart enough to learn from Vietnam so as not to put their  grandchildren through the same horror?  This is the insidious nature of the phony war on terror, all the more complicated by a compliant press that has been bought and paid for by the US government.  The press’ silence however is not enough to quiet stories, as horrific as the accounts in Hedges’ book, from still coming out.

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