In Jarhead, his memoir of the first Gulf War, Anthony Swofford writes, “[T]he men who go to war and live are spared for the single purpose of spreading the bad news when they return, the bad news about the way war is fought and why, and by whom for whom.”
The news – bad or otherwise – contained in the recent flurry of soldier memoirs about this Iraq war is especially significant at a time when G. I. Joe has become the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy in the battle to define the truth about the war.
In media interviews and public appearances, the authors and military bloggers are asked the same questions: Can we win this war? Did the Bush administration have a post-invasion plan? Was the situation in Iraq worth going to war over? And, inevitably, should we just get the hell out?
But those who fight do not necessarily offer a higher truth about Iraq – or at least the kind that will help answer these difficult questions. The reality portrayed in these memoirs is personal and, for the most part, self-confessedly unreliable. As one memoirist, Jason Christopher Hartley, warns his readers, “If you want news about Iraq, congratulations, you’ve come to the wrong fucking place!”
Rebels without a clue
Unlike previous generations of soldiers, these authors – with the exception of one – have little interest in pondering the “big picture.” The “truth” they offer about the war and its effects is incomplete, episodic and usually delivered in a tone borrowed from Animal House.
Colby Buzzell (My War: Killing Time in Iraq), Hartley (Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq), and John Crawford (The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq) express the same adolescent contempt for authority. These rebels without a cause show no aspiration to be much else, even in the midst of combat. The result: a lot of unadorned, profanity-laced honesty but not much truth-telling.
Buzzell joins the military to escape a life of dead-end jobs, skateboarding and way too many drugs. A veteran in a bar makes the Marines sound like “joining a party frat with weapons that gave out paychecks,” and he’s sold, though he ends up in the infantry.
Strikingly self-absorbed and referencing movies non-stop, Buzzell seems to experience the war as a Hollywood flick in which he is the star. On combat missions, he listens to an iPod playlist named “My War,” with songs more likely chosen for their titles than their politics: “Kill ‘Em All,” Metallica; “Bombs over Baghdad,” Outkast; “Killing an Arab,” The Cure.
The war, in Buzzell’s book, appears as an extreme adventure tour, with his fellow soldiers as likely to whip out digital cameras as weapons. A mission to capture a top general of the Fedayeen almost goes awry when a camera flash goes off just before the raid begins. Readers looking for tales of heroism will instead find Buzzell’s gleeful account of how six guys in his company came under mortar attack on base while playing night volleyball under “bright as fuck” lights. Their minor shrapnel wounds earned each a Purple Heart.
National Guardsman John Crawford’s achievements include stealing a motorcycle from a hapless local, and shouting Christmas greetings at his “captive Muslim audience” at a traffic checkpoint because it was “entertaining to annoy them.”
Such cheerful irreverence in a war zone can oftentimes be read as callous indifference. Hartley describes standing guard on detainees arrested in various predawn raids, a duty that includes taking the “big rascals pee pee.” Soon, one of the “problem children” refuses to keep a blindfold on because of allergies that hurt his eyes. The situation escalates and Hartley loses it:
I put dickhead on his knees in the middle of his cell, removed the blindfold he was now wearing as a dashing olive-drab scarf, and wrapped the top of his head with about ten layers of hundred-mph tape. … Our S-2 (intel) master sergeant, a mean-spirited quasi-sadist, the full-time El Capitan of the jail … kept saying, “Okay Sergeant, that’s enough tape. Okay, that’s enough.”
Hartley relents after a tearful apology from the prisoner. He owns up to feeling “stupid, petty and cowardly,” but gives no indication that he learned anything from the episode.
The slacker memoirs are often funny and sometimes insightful. For the most part, these are decent guys who loathe the bloodlust and common military incompetence that destroy so many lives. Their perspective, however, is blinkered by their need to stay in “character,” i.e., the smart-ass who refuses to take anything seriously, including the casualties of war. Even Hartley, who is more clued-in than his compatriots, can only express his unhappiness at the lopsided body count – “a near 1:3 ratio of dead evildoers to innocent and ridiculously poor Iraqis” – with flippancy: “It’s like we should have bumper stickers that read, ‘I [HEART] DEAD CIVILIANS.’”
This “whatever, dude” detachment adds to the tunnel vision created by a war zone where the enemy is entirely unknown and rarely seen. Guys like Buzzell emerge from well-fortified operating bases to execute quick combat missions that largely consist of unleashing massive firepower on shadowy fighters, glimpsed intermittently between rounds. The rest of the time he works out, listens to music and watches movies. Such are the perks of fighting for a superpower.
In a combat zone marked by a vast cultural and linguistic divide between the soldiers and the Iraqis, “truth” depends on who is doing the telling. Hartley and Buzzell describe late-night raids as decisive operations where soldiers show up, storm through the front door, apprehend the “target individual,” search the house for weapons and head out. “Badda bing, badda boom,” writes Buzzell. Wailing women and kids warrant a mention – at times a pang of guilt – but remain in the background.
But when the Iraqi blogger Riverbend witnesses one such raid, it’s the woman’s humiliation that dominates the description:
“I couldn’t see her face because her head was bent and her hair fell down around it. It was the first time I had seen her hair … under normal circumstances, she wore a hijab. That moment I wanted to cry … to scream … to throw something at the chaos down the street. I could feel Reem’s humiliation as she stood there, head hanging with shame – exposed to the world, in the middle of the night.”
The authors of these memoirs know that Iraqis have a less flattering opinion of such actions, but they often seem too self-absorbed to care. Failing to “see” the Iraqis as people, the authors depict them as rote “Third World” types: good-hearted peasants; menacing mobs of angry locals; shy, sweet women and children; rascally street urchins; trusty shopkeepers or guides; and, of course, the “bad guys.”
Unhappy things happen when soldiers can’t peg an Iraqi as “good” or “evil.” The narrators struggle to read facial expressions and body language in tense situations, where someone can “look” angry one minute and welcoming the next. Any behavior less than unmistakably benign – loud offers of food or broad smiles – has the potential to be misinterpreted as threatening.
Even Kayla Williams (Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army), an Arab linguist who communicates military directives to the locals, fails to transcend stereotypes. Williams, a former sergeant in the 101st Airborne, credits her two-year relationship with an Arab ex-boyfriend for giving her “sympathy, understanding and respect for the people of Iraq.” And she is more sensitive than an 18-year-old American kid who doesn’t understand the Iraqi tendency to come up close and speak loudly. Yet the bulk of her translations are directed at the Iraqis, not for them. When Iraqis express anger and frustration, she offers platitudes – or in one case, a bag of Skittles – and walks away. More unforgivably, in at least one instance, Williams doesn’t bother to refute a colonel’s mistaken assumption that a group of seriously injured Iraqis – a.k.a. “ragheads” – were trying to kill his men.
But Love My Rifle is more about Williams – her battles with low self-esteem and sexual harassment, fraught relationships with incompetent female superior officers and male soldiers – than the war itself. For Williams and her fellow memoirists, this war isn’t about oil, terrorism, democracy or kicking ass for the U.S. of A. It’s about them–their self-image, their needs, their emotions. This is war in the “Real World,” not the real world, where the fate of nations and people hang in the balance.
A broader perspective
The one writer who defies this navel-gazing is Nathaniel Fick (One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer), who joined the Marine Corps to serve his country: “t was a last bastion of honor in society, a place where young Americans learned to work as a team, to trust one another and themselves, and to sacrifice for a principle.”
Fick is all that we would want our soldiers to be: decent, thoughtful, responsible and brave. Unlike Buzzell, who picks the infantry because his “heart was dead set on pulling a trigger,” he opts for the First Recon Battalion whose primary goal is to gather information, not “spray and pray.” It’s a special kind of Marine who returns from a triumphant tour of duty in Afghanistan only to be disappointed by jingoism at home: “Flag waving, tough talk, a yellow ribbon on every bumper. I didn’t see any interest in understanding the war on the ground. No one acknowledged that the fight would be long and dirty, and that maybe the enemy had courage and ideals, too.”
Unlike his fellow memoirists, Fick cares deeply about military strategy and winning the war. Though he is no antiwar activist, he has been vocal in his criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy in his various media appearances. One Bullet Away documents the incompetence of his commanding officer, the lack of post-invasion planning and lopsided military priorities that forced him “to accept senior officers’ decisions, regardless of their stupidity, criminality, or inhumanity.”
One such criminal decision occurs when everyone inside an airport field is declared hostile. Fick’s men end up shooting two teenage boys. Describing his fight to ensure the boys get proper medical attention, Fick makes clear the real reasons for his altruism: Dead kids are bad for morale.
Fighting (this war), for me, meant two things: winning and getting my men home alive. Alive, though, set the bar too low. I had to get them physically and psychologically intact. They had to know that, whether or not they supported the larger war, they had fought their little piece of it with honor and had retained their humanity.
Those two goals – winning and taking care of his men – may have been compatible when the victory was defined as the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Today the mission is nothing less than bringing peace and democracy to Iraq. Within this context, the death of an Iraqi boy represents a decisive defeat, irrespective of its toll on our soldiers. The low priority that military policy has assigned to Iraqi life throughout this war is exactly what fuels the insurgency.
Since publication, Fick has suggested a shift in military strategy, advocating for “green zones” in Iraq where the people’s “security and comfort are our first priority.” But there are few signs, judging by these memoirs, that our soldiers have the training to take on such an unprecedented task – a task complicated by their inability to distinguish between friend and foe in a war whose frontlines run through the streets, backyards and bedrooms of ordinary Iraqis.
At war with ourselves?
Nearly three years into this conflict, the only military objective Americans can agree on is the welfare of our troops. Since Vietnam, the prime directive of American war-making has been protecting “our sons and daughters in the military.” This is why Bush speaks almost exclusively at military bases and veteran gatherings. It is also why the antiwar movement as of late speaks less of the war’s spurious rationales than of its effects on the soldiers. Morale, body armor, casualty numbers – these are the new buzzwords of post-invasion activism, whose most recognizable face is Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead soldier. The Iraqis have become an afterthought.
In Jarhead, during an argument with a German tourist, Swofford stumbles upon the fatal flaw in all national narratives of war:
[T]he problem with believing your country’s battle monuments and deaths are more important than those of other nations is that the enemy disappears … the heroes from one’s own country are no longer believed to have fought against a national enemy but simply with other heroes …
In our stories of this war – including these memoirs – it is the Iraqi people who have disappeared, rendered invisible in a war fought ostensibly on their behalf. Who will speak their truth of this war? More importantly, who will listen?