|"Jefferson." From Suzanne Opton exhibit “Soldiers.” Portraits of veterans were made at Fort Drum, New York, between 2004 and 2005 shortly after each soldier's return from Iraq or Afghanistan. Photographer Suzanne Opton asked her subjects to rest their heads on a table. She wanted “to look in the face of someone who'd seen something unforgettable.” www.suzanneopton.com|
“American Veterans are a bridge to the heartland,” says Garett Reppenhagen, a former Army sniper who is now chairman of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “Veterans give the anti-war movement credibility in the eyes of middle-America. People in the United States are disconnected from the war. For the men and women who fought in the Iraq War, speaking against the war is not just a hobby. They have a personal interest in ending it.”
Soldiers do not easily fit our image of experts. It is often difficult to listen to their stories. Many are in pain; many have experienced trauma. The frankness of their perspective is almost entirely absent in the Iraq War debate. When we hear so few critical military voices, we lose a powerful tool for understanding the Iraq War and, more broadly, the consequences of U.S. military action abroad.
Part of understanding the reality of war is understanding how the stress and demands of battle lead otherwise good people to engage in inhumane behavior. When veterans and active-duty members of the military share their personal experiences, they provide us with vivid pictures of combat, raising our awareness of how war can emotionally devastate our soldiers. That awareness might also help us learn how to help this new generation of veterans heal the wounds of this war—veterans like Clifton Hicks, an Army tank driver who grew up near Savannah, Georgia.
“What struck me most was just how callous we had become,” says Hicks, who was discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector. His point is not that soldiers inherently lack compassion, but that dehumanizing the enemy is a reality of war, a reality that most Americans don't typically consider. If the U.S. public is unprepared to deal compassionately with these realities, perhaps, Hicks argues, we should reconsider sending soldiers to war except in dire circumstances.
“Sure, some Iraqi kid had been killed,” Hicks says. “It's like seeing a dead dog on the side of the road. We hated them and were happy to have killed one. That's how those kids on the news were able to rape the 14-year old girl, shoot her in the face, and kill her whole family. They just didn't care, they still don't care, they couldn't make themselves care if they tried. Every soldier on the front lines is capable of that or worse.”
With GIs serving more and longer tours of duty, such callous thinking and behavior can be expected to increase rather than decrease.
“Active duty soldiers are immediately thrown back into training for the next deployment without time to physically or mentally heal,” says Army Sergeant Linsay Burnett, who spent a year in Iraq with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101 Airborne Division. “You're seeing soldiers now facing their third deployment, almost at the breaking point, yet we are sending those soldiers into a foreign country with loaded weapons.”
Burnett is now stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where her unit is preparing to redeploy sometime this year or next. “I think there might be more instances like we've seen with the soldiers shooting the detainees. It will get worse if we don't treat soldiers returning from Iraq.” Burnett says soldiers are increasingly opposed to the continuation of the Iraq War because they see first hand the paradox of claiming to support the troops while thrusting them back into harm's way.
|In March 2006, Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War joined survivors of Hurricane Katrina for a 7-day march from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans. Their intent was to draw attention to the similarities between the devastation inflicted upon both Baghdad and New Orleans, and to protest the diversion of state and federal emergency resources toward the war in Iraq and away from Katrina reconstruction. Photo by Craig Morse. www.flickr.com/photos/culturesubculture|
Bringing the War Home
From our safe homes and offices here in the United States, we often overlook the perspective of veterans like Hicks and Burnett. Soldiers know that this war is dehumanizing not just Iraqi civilians, but also American military personnel and ultimately all of us who allow it to continue by paying for it.
What do we miss when we fail to hear this perspective? We miss the reality of war—the horror, the pain, and the anguish. Without voices like Hicks and Burnett, it is possible to have the entire debate around this conflict take place among those who have not fought in Iraq. Thus, the debate is sanitized and reflects nothing of the “ground truth” soldiers are able to share.
The soldiers most often heard in the media say some variation of: “We've got a job to do, and I am here to do it.” But an increasing number of veterans disagree with U.S. military involvement in Iraq. “The real issue I want to raise is why are we there in the first place,” says former Marine Captain Anuradha Bhagwati. “Why is it so easy to get Americans to believe that military use of force is the only way to feel satisfied, secure, or whole?”
The stories soldiers tell us can also challenge our own culture, assumptions, and societal beliefs.
“I am ashamed and embarrassed, because I joined the Marines to prove myself,” says Bhagwati. “This is a very American thing: be all you can be. I wanted to do something where I was better than others. That's my personal growth, but at whose expense? At the expense of people in villages around the world. It's not the way I hope humans can become fulfilled.”
Most Americans will never serve in Iraq, but if we choose to hear the stories told by veterans, the war may finally penetrate the American consciousness. When that happens, veterans of this war can help us to collectively end it.
Sarah Olson is an independent journalist and radio producer based in Oakland, California. She was subpoenaed in the 1st Lt. Watada court-martial and objected based on press freedom concerns. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
:: IRAQ VETERANS' STORIES
|Ricky Clousing on the day before departure.|
Army Interrogator, from Seattle, Washington
In Iraq I operated on a tactical interrogation team while attached to tactical infantry units. Throughout my training, very appropriate guidelines for the treatment of prisoners were set. However, I witnessed the baseless incarceration and harassment of Iraqi civilians in addition to an innocent teenager that was shot before me. I saw firsthand the abuse of power that goes without accountability.
Eventually, I began to ask my unit the same questions I had been asking myself. Wearing the uniform demands subordination to your superiors and the orders passed down. But what if those orders violate morality, ethics, and even legality? If those orders go unquestioned down the chain of command, are we exempt from reevaluating them?
Finally I came to the conclusion that I could not train or be trained under a false pretense of fighting for freedom. We as Americans have found ourselves in a peculiar era where we have traded humanity for a patriotism. We're trading our civil liberties for a false sense of security. In the the words of Henry David Thoreau… we must not lend ourselves to the same evil which we condemn.
|Photo by Jeff Paterson|
Army Scout & Sniper, from Manitou Springs, Colorado
After serving as a U.S. Army cavalry scout and sniper in Iraq, I now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as do many of the people I served with. Recall where you were last year today, and now try to imagine the last entire year you were in a combat zone in Iraq. Imagine you are in constant danger from hidden road-side bombs and exposed to ambushes and sniper fire. Imagine that your home is constantly harassed with mortar explosions and rocket attacks while you try to sleep. Imagine you witnessed your closest friend being torn apart by enemy fire. Imagine you discover that the person you thought was an insurgent that you killed turns out to be an innocent child, or some one who looks similar to your own mother.
For many decades, we have seen the dire impacts of war on those who serve and those who are close to them. I don't understand why the VA has no plans for addressing the needs of the thousands of veterans like me who have served our country proudly and now find ourselves without the help we need. Despite being in the middle of two wars, our government is actually scaling back on services that are critical to the men and women trying to re-enter civilian society.
Army 1st Armored Division, from Lexington, Kentucky
I went AWOL from the military and spent two years in exile. In October 2006, I came back and turned myself in at Fort Knox.
I am not politically anti-war. I didn't go to Canada to talk about politics. I went to talk about war crimes. Because no matter what we're doing or what we're trying, it's inevitable that if you participate in an occupation, you will commit war crimes. Even in World War II, or any of the just wars we speak of, we killed innocent people.
From my experience in Iraq, I believe there is no way I could go back to Iraq and follow procedures without killing innocent people, committing war crimes, and eventually reaching a point where I'd commit massacres because enough of my friends had died.
It is my duty as a solider to refuse this illegal war and refuse to commit war crimes. And it is my right as a human being to choose not to kill innocent people.
Listen to Many Lines of Fire: Women at War , a special half-hour program of Iraq veterans' stories by the National Radio Project. Sarah Olson speaks with veterans of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines. Each woman has a unique story, but all share an understanding of the power politics of the U.S. military and the price that is paid by women seeking to serve their country. Visit the National Radio Project for more audio files and guest info.