A multi-part series on the effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the millions of Americans who were deployed and fought is being published by The Washington Post. It is based on results from a poll the Post conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran describes the poll as an “unprecedented glimpse into the lives and attitudes of modern warriors.” In fact, this poll and the story is only concerned about the lives and attitudes of American “warriors.” The Iraqi and Afghan people are given very minimal attention, and, when they are, it is to scorn them for not being more grateful that the United States chose to occupy their country and try and make their country “safer” or “better.”
“This is typical of American war culture, which only gives importance to the American lives that are lost in war and to the suffering that American soldiers bring home with them as a result of war,” explained Ross Caputi, a Marine who served in the Second Battle of Fallujah.
It is not that the suffering of American war veterans is not significant or troubling. As the poll noted, at least 2.6 million Americans “dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with physical or mental health problems.” One in two “know a fellow service member who has attempted or committed suicide.” Nearly 1.5 million believe the “needs of their fellow veterans are not being met by the government.” But, should the pain and suffering be uncoupled from the destruction wrought upon the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of US military occupation?
Caputi is now a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and is part of the Justice for Fallujah Project, which is setup for veterans, students and working people to raise awareness about the suffering of the people of Fallujah and the war crimes that were committed by the US.
“It’s important for veterans to do something to make amends for the harm we helped bring to Iraq, and, in this way, make yourself into a new person and heal your moral self-image,” Caputi stated.
Unfortunately, healing by reckoning with what one did as a member of the US military while deployed is taboo for The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. The questions put to veterans are mostly questions with framings that are acceptable to those atop the military command structure.
For example, “Nearly 90 percent performed actions in Iraq or Afghanistan that made them feel proud,” according to the poll, “yet only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting.” And this is what chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, had to say as a reaction:
…[B]eing true and trustworthy to the man or woman on your left or right is probably what mostly drives the 90 percent figure. They’re proud of what they did. They believe they did their job, and potentially the elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t do theirs…
Jovanni Reyes, a military veteran and also a member of IVAW, said this reminded him of what President Barack Obama said recently when criticizing Russia. The election in Crimea was denounced because the people “voted under the occupation of a foreign army.”
“The same thing in Afghanistan and Iraq happened,” Reyes added. People voted in elections but they did it “while they were occupied by a foreign army.”
Caputi argued that Dempsey “totally ignores the moral question of whether or not we even had a right to invade and a right to interfere in a sovereign nation’s affairs, to topple one nation’s government then engage in this whole process of state building.”
He “also ignores some pretty heavy facts on the ground that show the US did go a long way to rebuild these countries in a way that reflected US interests and not the interests of the people who live there.” One example, which Caputi mentioned, is the one hundred orders from Paul Bremer, who served as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of Iraq.
The orders, according to journalist Antonia Juhasz restructured Iraq’s economy to fit “free market ideals.” They were part of a push to privatize Iraq’s national resources, which had been nationalized.
Therefore, Dempsey’s comments seem intended to grant veterans permission to not worry that they are somehow responsible for the violence and problems in Iraq or Afghanistan. His remarks uttered authoritatively inform veterans that if anything went wrong it is that the governments and even the country’s people did not do what they needed to do. They were ungrateful.
Ungrateful for what? A “People’s Hearing on the Lasting Impact of War” by the Right to Heal Initiative highlighted the effects of depleted uranium that has poisoned the land, water, air and soil of Iraq. It highlighted the high rates of cancer in parts of Iraq from the use of this weapon.
Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist, described how their are vacant military bases and abandoned sites with military vehicles, where toxins are seeping into the environment. The military dumped waste into large pits and then set the waste on fire. The pollution from the burnt waste entered the air. When it rained, it got into the water. It polluted the crops, which people would then digest when eating the crops.
There are veterans, who fought in these wars, who were ordered to carry out torture, night raids, capture and imprison Iraqi suspects, including children, and shoot and kill people who were innocent.
Over a million Iraqis were killed in the war. The exact number of killed and wounded is unknown because the US military refused to keep a count, but the best estimates are dreadful in magnitude.
Forty-four percent believe the war in Iraq was “worth fighting.” One veteran, Justin Peachee, told The Washington Post, “I don’t think we should have occupied Iraq that long.” This is not because they have moral questions about the war.
Peachee articulated what is probably a very common view:
…[I]t seems like a waste because we lost so many people going into those outlying areas to clear out for the citizens themselves because they wanted those people gone, and the government of Iraq has done little to nothing to combat this ‘scourge’ in their own territory, in their own lands and it seems like they’re not willing to fight for it.
Such a view seems like a product of indoctrination in the military, of being led to believe in the righteous and valiant nature of a mission while commanders ignore how the case for war was entirely manufactured by officials in President George W. Bush’s administration.
It is part of a “self-serving attitude,” Reyes suggested. “We’re the ones there for you. My buddy’s there for you, and you can’t get your stuff together.” He added that is “pretty much the attitude of a conqueror,” and “no one likes to be conquered. No one likes to be occupied.”
Reyes did not deploy to Iraq. “I showed my opposition to the war by leaving the military. I would have retired last year. I joined the military in ‘93.”
Some of the statements, such as ones where veterans say they regarded the military as a “profession” and it was not their place to question orders or even the mission, come off as obvious rationalizations to detach one’s self from the horrific role they may have played in the wars.
“I recognized the self-defense mechanisms in a lot of these rationalizations pretty well because I used them all myself at some point or another,” Caputi stated. “When you’re asked to make such a big sacrifice as most American soldiers and service people are asked to make and you experience the type of loss they experienced, it’s very natural to want to believe it was all for something or there was some noble purpose for it.”
A sizable number of veterans may think about the impact their actions had on Iraqis or Afghans. That could be why only 52% “like talking about their wartime experiences with casual acquaintances.” Or, perhaps, this is a product of the insular warrior culture fostered. They find it much easier to talk to other veterans about the wars and believe that most Americans misunderstand them.
The warrior culture of the military also conditions soldiers to think they are morally superior to citizens. The poll found “63% think service members are more patriotic than those who are not in the military.” Fifty-four percent said they think they have better moral or ethical values than the general civilian population.
Both Caputi and Reyes are concerned about the respect and “hero treatment” that society shows them when they return home. Because, what did they do? Why should the next generation revere them as heroes and follow in their footsteps by becoming warriors in the next generation of American wars and occupations?
Furthermore, according to Reyes, the wars may be unpopular but that is not because of the wars themselves, such as the legality of the wars, etc, but because “they were too long.” People got tired of them. The wars became “yesterday’s news.” Yet, the concept of the soldier remains very popular in culture.
The concept of service in war, regardless of what happens, remains something to be celebrated in all sectors of society. Regardless of the physical or mental harm highlighted in the Post’s multi-part series, that concept inspires the glory and praise bestowed upon all the men and women, who participated in the poll.