snapshots and chatterMy first surprise upon reporting to Fort Benning for active duty was the identity of the folks who greeted me outside the barracks. Two buildings on Kelley Hill now house soldiers called back from the Individual Ready Reserve, while the buildings directly adjacent to the IRR barracks house soldiers in a medical retention unit -- soldiers, in other words, who were injured in combat while in Iraq. It's interesting that the Army has chosen to park those two groups of soldiers side by side.
So I had been on post for thirty minutes when I started talking to a group of those injured soldiers, drinking beer outside the dayroom on a Sunday evening. Their message would be unsurprising to anyone who has been reading the newspaper: You can't tell which Iraqis are going to try to kill you, so you should act on any doubt or suspicion you have by cutting down anyone who makes you nervous. It may turn out to be the wrong choice, but it's a wrong choice that you'll live through.
As the days went on, I met other soldiers with similar stories to tell. Sitting in the computer room checking email, I heard a soldier at the next terminal asking an officer if he'd been over there yet. Since the officer had not, and since I hadn't either, the soldier showed us his photos from over there: Image after image of American soldiers cut to pieces by IEDs, missing limbs and missing faces. In a formal training session, we watched videotape footage of other American soldiers being killed in IED explosions; in one clip, the turret of an M-1 Abrams tank took flight, sailing above a massive cloud of dirt and black smoke.
Soldiers who have been in Iraq offer a mixed bag of lessons for soldiers who are going to Iraq, telling us that we'll make a difference and do important work in almost the same breath that they warn us not to trust the ragheads and to drop anyone who makes us feel nervous. We are warned that Hajii is a sneaky little fucker and can't be trusted, that Iraqi soldiers and police are to be kept at arms length or farther, that it's much too easy to be killed. An NCO explained to a class that the ragheads won't understand what you tell them, and you won't understand that little gobbledy-gook that they talk, so the best way to get them on the ground to search them is to kick 'em in the balls or butt-stroke 'em in the face. That they'll understand.
It's difficult to blame American soldiers for viewing Iraqis as ragheads and sneaky Orientals while those soldiers face death and mutilation from sneak attack every day, thousands of miles from home in a place where they don't speak the language and have no education or training in the culture or religion. Another NCO who was injured in Iraq responded to a question last week about the regional differences in fighting by saying that things are apparently different among the Sunnis and the whatever, all those other types of people they've got over there -- the kind of differences, he concluded, that officers have to worry about. For grunts, he suggested, those differences are not worth considering; just be prepared to shoot back when it's time.
I hesitate to begin drawing Big Conclusions based on two weeks of barracks chatter and PowerPoint presentations, but it does seem to me that there's a problem with the idea that American military power is the right tool for a pedagogy of liberation. We are partners in freedom with the fucking ragheads, teaching those sneaky little fuckers about the values of a constitutional republic. Something seems a little off, there.
I also remember reading a news story, just before I left, about an incident in which American soldiers shot and killed an unarmed, 57 year-old high school teacher in Baghdad because they thought she might have been a suicide bomber. After talking with American soldiers who have been in Iraq and have been horribly maimed in Iraq, that mistake seems entirely human and understandable to me. We cannot place ordinary men and women in an untenable circumstance and expect them to exercise more-than-human judgment and forbearance. It is reasonable to expect human beings to be afraid of dying, and it is reasonable to expect them to act against that fear. Again, this suggests some significant implications for a liberationist project that attempts to use heavily armed nineteen year-olds to carry the torch of freedom in the face of daily suicide bombings.
But I have a long way to go, and look forward to the journey. I'm keeping an open mind, and have predictably met many, many soldiers who are smart, highly capable, and worthy of the greatest respect. None of the stories that I've told here are the full story, and none represent the complete spectrum of thought and behavior among soldiers.
More later. I hope that everyone back home is healthy, happy, and productive.
(Cross-posted on Cliopatria)