In the July 30 edition, The Nation ran a special investigation entitled, "The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness," an article which detailed brutal, gratuitous and cruel attacks on Iraqi civilians by American servicemen and women. The attacks, when perpetrated, are rarely reported, leading to a distorted perception of civilian casualties of the war; when they are reported, they are routinely dismissed as the cost of doing business by military officials. It reminds me of that scene in "Casualties of War," a film which tells the story of four soldiers who rape and murder a Vietnamese girl and the efforts of one soldier to bring them to justice. At one point, frustrated with the Army's response to his reports, PFC Eriksson (played by Michael J. Fox) physically attacks one of the perpetrators who has been threatening him for speaking out, shouting, "Nobody cares! I told everybody. I told them. You don't have to worry. You don't have to try to kill me, man. I told them, and THEY DON'T CARE!" Some things never change, apparently.
(Another great line from that film: "Everybody's acting like we can do anything and it don't matter what we do. Maybe we gotta' be extra careful because maybe it matters more than we even know.")
The article is unsparing to say the least, and an unflattering portrait of the perpetrators of these crimes-the near-diefied American soldier (or the "self-sacrificing white male patriotic hero" as described by one Nation detractor)-comes into sharp focus during these vignettes. It is not necessarily, however, an indictment of the individual servicemen that are being held up to task in this piece, but rather the policies, and bureaucracies, and take-no-prisoners idealism that define the American military that make such situations almost unavoidable, if unspeakably tragic.
Needless to say, the article received a lot of feedback. Some soldiers who were interviewed for the piece wrote to say that they were misquoted and taken out of context (two out of 50 interviewed, actually ) while others thanked the Nation for their accurate representation of their words. What was most interesting is the response from Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who bristled not at the idea that the Nation was reporting on atrocities committed by American servicepeople but that they weren't laying appropriate blame, which he places squarely at the feet of the Bush Administration. "Anyone who wants to write a serious piece about the ethical lapses of US troops should start and end the article by putting the blame where it belongs-on the politicians who sent our troops to war unprepared and without a clear mission."
This is not the first time Paul Reickhoff has made these accusations. He has been an unwavering critic of the Bush war policy. In a 2006 interview to PBS, he made the same claim-stress, poor leadership and repeated deployments are causing these outbreaks of extreme violence against Iraqi civilians. (Ironically, he also says, "I think the press has fallen asleep at the switch in many ways or has been intimated by the administration in many different ways.")
All this is likely very true, and it's hard to imagine what you yourself would do under similar circumstances. Still, it all conjures up the idiocy of Rush Limbaugh dismissing the Abu Ghraib abuses as guys just "blowing off steam" (the Limbaugh mantra of "personal accountability" ends as soon as one enters the military, apparently). Mr. Reickhoff, in his zeal to protect the soldiers (as in Rush's zeal to protect the administration), misses the point and weakens his cause. You can't tell the full story of the administration's failings in the war without telling the stories of the soldiers, even if it may not be pretty and even if some of your soldiers come out looking like little more than petty thugs. As despicable and without moral compass as George Bush may be (and he is)-these guys should never be there in the first place-there were no direct orders to anyone from the president to shoot the family dog in front of the children, deny a badly beaten man medical care and send him back to whence he came so the job could be finished, or pretend to eat the brains of a dead Iraqi man lying on the street. While that may be the result of poor planning, poor execution, and administration lies-and I know it is-part of trickle-down effect of a blustering, "Bring 'em on" and "We will get him dead or alive" is that it often inspires a specific type of personality to action-the type who is more likely to see the world in the black-and-white terms of the president and thus see all Iraqis as less-than-human "hajis" and potential terrorists ("I also know, because of that same base of knowledge, that the military has some folks in it that should never have passed the psych evaluation. Because military recruting rules have become so lax, folks that should be locked away for their own protection have instead been sicced on Iraqis" notes another Nation responder.)
The problem is when you take already troubled, angry, disaffected young people-many of whom would have been ineligible for military service on 9/10/01-and give them guns and power and no training, no oversight and no sense of accountability, it is a recipe for a disaster of epic proportions. Shooting pets and children, terrorizing families at gunpoint, and indiscriminately detaining anyone who looks suspicious is not a recipe for winning "hearts and minds," nor is it likely to contribute to a feeling that Americans are "liberators" of a foreign country, 80% of whom want us gone. It is a recipe for an endless cycle of violence, resistance, and war.
You can also read an interview here with Carmelo Mejia, a veteran who went to prison rather than return to Iraq.
You can read more about civilian casualties in Iraq here.