For all the acres of newsprint devoted to the Iraq war, very little has focused on the reality of the war itself, that is to say, the human cost of the vast tidal wave of violence that was unleashed by the US-led invasion; a wave that courses through the towns and cities of Iraq, with ever-growing ferocity, to this day. See for example, the attempt made by Western politicians and media to marginalise or rubbish the most reliable study yet made into Iraqi civilian deaths caused by the invasion - which estimated a total of over 655,000. These too are, to use the current phrase, 'inconvenient truths'.
Coverage of the violence itself (as opposed to discussion of the politics of the war - which is endless) mostly focuses on the suicide bombings carried out by the Iraqi al Qaeda franchise. But as the abovementioned study pointed out, far more deaths (where there is an identifiable cause) are attributable to coalition violence. Over the last four-years-and-counting we have heard precious little of these deaths - those for which we are most directly responsible - though they take place just the same.
So a new collection of interviews with US veterans of the conflict, published in The Nation, provides a welcome corrective. The Independent comments that:
"It is an axiom of American political life that the actions of the US military are beyond criticism. Democrats and Republicans praise the men and women in uniform at every turn. Apart from the odd bad apple at Abu Ghraib, the US military in Iraq is deemed to be doing a heroic job under trying circumstances.
That perception will take a severe knock today with the publication in The Nation magazine of a series of in-depth interviews with 50 combat veterans of the Iraq war from across the US. In the interviews, veterans have described acts of violence in which US forces have abused or killed Iraqi men, women and children with impunity.
The report steers clear of widely reported atrocities, such as the massacre in Haditha in 2005, but instead unearths a pattern of human rights abuses. "It's not individual atrocity," Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, a sniper from the 263rd Armour Battalion, said. "It's the fact that the entire war is an atrocity."
A number of the troops have returned home bearing mental and physical scars from fighting a war in an environment in which the insurgents are supported by the population. Many of those interviewed have come to oppose the US military presence in Iraq, joining the groundswell of public opinion across the US that views the war as futile.
Journalists and human rights groups have published numerous reports drawing attention to the killing of Iraqi civilians by US forces. The Nation's investigation presents for the first time named military witnesses who back those assertions. Some participated themselves."
Some of these accounts of atrocities will be very difficult to read. But those of us whose governments started the war in which these events took place have little right to the comfort of ignorance. Its hard not to conclude that if everyone in the US and the UK was brought face to face with the reality described by these soldiers then the occupation would end tomorrow.
The testimonies include the following:
"I'll tell you the point where I really turned... [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little two-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs and she has a bullet through her leg... An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got hit. And this baby looked at me... like asking me why. You know, 'Why do I have a bullet in my leg?'... I was just like, 'This is, this is it. This is ridiculous'."
Specialist Michael Harmon, 24, of Brooklyn, 167th Armour Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. In Al-Rashidiya on 13-month tour beginning in April 2003
"Here's some guy, some 14-year-old kid with an AK47, decides he's going to start shooting at this convoy. It was the most obscene thing you've ever seen. Every person got out and opened fire on this kid. Using the biggest weapons we could find, we ripped him to shreds..."
- Sergeant Patrick Campbell, 29, of Camarillo, California, 256th Infantry Brigade. In Abu Gharth for 11 months beginning November 2004
"I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, 'A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi... You know, so what?'... [Only when we got home] in... meeting other veterans, it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, then."
- Specialist Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry. In Baquba for a year beginning February 2004
"[The photo] was very graphic... They open the body bags of these prisoners that were shot in the head and [one soldier has] got a spoon. He's reaching in to scoop out some of his brain, looking at the camera and smiling."
- Specialist Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, Florida, 320th Military Police Company. Deployed to Talil air base for one year beginning April 2003
"A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that 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."
- Specialist Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division. Four-month tour in Baghdad and Mosul beginning December 2004
"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."
- Sergeant Ben Flanders, 28, National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, 172nd Mountain Infantry. In Balad for 11 months beginning March 2004
You can read the full Nation article here.
Whilst the Iraqis are clearly the primary victims, reading the article brings home the inescapable fact that many if not most of the US troops are victims of the war as well, at one level or another. As well as killing and destroying, war also dehumanises, as Sergeant Flanders, quoted above, testifies. Moreover, long after they have gone home, the experiences of these men and women will continue to unpick the seams that would otherwise hold them together emotionally and psychologically. Inevitably these veterans - including those guilty of the worst atrocities - will bear the scars of their experiences for years to come. For many, this will mean the breakdown of their lives, their families, their health and their careers.
And while these multifarious breakdowns occur, the veterans will not necessarily be able to rely on the support of the state that sent them to war in the first place (which is true of British servicepeople as well). This makes rather a grim mockery of the "support the troops" refrain so beloved of politicians whose cynicism appears to extend to using those troops as collatoral for emotional blackmail in order to shut down debate on the wars those men and women have been sent to fight and possibly to die in.
The gory reality of war is not a new revelation. Rather, it is something that those who control the flow of information in our societies would rather we ignored or forgot. But the reality remains, and remains a reality that, via our votes, our taxes and above all our acquiescence, we are ourselves complicit in. With any luck these testimonies will serve not only as a reminder of this, but also as a spur to greater action aimed at ending the status of aggressive war as a favoured foreign policy tool of government.
Labels: Iraq, Lancet, Media