January 28, 2009

Iraqi War Trilogy

For reasons I can’t quite explain I have doused myself in war, since the beginning of the year. In addition to reading nearly fifty articles on the genocide in Gaza and watching Waltz with Bashir and Generation Kill, I decided to set-up what I like to call the Iraqi War trilogy. Since the first of January I have read: Generation Kill by Evan Wright, The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson, and Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch.

Two of the authors had impressed me before with their fluid and precise prose- Gourevitch with We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and Anderson with his definitive biography of Che Guevara simply called Che. It was refreshing to note that Rolling Stone writer Wright did not disappoint.

I am not sure how these books lined up and happened to all arrive at my house at the same time, but suddenly I realized that I had inadvertently set up a chronologically correct account of the war, by some of my favorite writers. The following is unplanned and perhaps disorganized reflection on the past month.

Generation Kill follows a group of First Recon Marine as they push the tip of the spear into the heart of Iraq during the first days of the invasion. The book begins in Kuwait days before the assault and ends after they arrive in Baghdad.

The Fall of Baghdad seamlessly picks up the tale, by offering a day-to-day account of the days before the invasion right up to the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Finally, Standard Operating Procedure paints a haunting picture of the eventual demise and disaster that was Abu Ghraib, the iconic symbol of the failed adventure that was Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The important question is not why did I do choose to dwell on war for an entire month, but what did I learn?

I have always been fascinated and a bit obsessed with war. I remember really struggling with the concept of systematic murder in the eighth grade after watching Platoon for the fiftieth time. The paradox of loathing the men I saw for their weakness, while simultaneously respecting their strength is a phenomenon I still haven’t gotten over. I find the notion of fraternity, honor, and camaraderie very appealing, but I have never been able to understand the warrior mentally that soldiers deem necessary for solidarity. The shear masculinity and violence associated with the armed forces is so foreign and vulgar to me, yet I am obsessed with it.

Wright says in Generation Kill:
What unites them is an almost reckless desire to test themselves in the most extreme circumstances.
The whole structure of the military is designed to mature young men to function responsibility while at the same time preserving their adolescent sense of invulnerability.

These displays of heroism are what I find fascinating and relatable.

But then, one Marine in the books says:
I would have loved to have flown the plane that dropped the bombs on Japan. A couple of guys kill hundreds of thousands. That fucking rules!
It is this shear ignorance and need for violence that forces me to ask: how do people become so jaded? A comment like that from some one like Hitler or Saddam Hussein is rightfully admonished and considered perverse, but almost completely dismissed when it is said by a nineteen year old Marine from Kentucky. We are asked to support and honor these young warriors, but do we really know who these men are? All three authors repeatedly paint a picture of young men and women lost in their own confusion and rage.

My fascination with war is not about the gory pictures or weapons or strategies, which occupy the minds of most men, I am curious to delve deeper into the human soul and see where the light ends and the darkness begins. I want to try to understand how we create warriors, so we are careful not too do in the future.

Wright paints an impressively objective picture of the life of these Marines. He does not depict them as monsters or animals. We are invited along for the ride and shown how these men grapple with or ignore their personal demons.

I began to see that these men have been bred and trained by generations of people who glorify and promote violence as a means to resolve conflict. Any other form of dealing with conflict is scene as effeminate and ineffective. How do we go about changing this way of thinking? With the largest most powerful military the world has ever known, the United States has spent it’s entire history promoting this warrior culture. One wonders if a non-violent America is even possible. A land forged in genocide has a long way to go, if it ever hope to heal. We have created a culture where any one, who does not magnanimously “support” the troops, is seen as a traitor. But really, how many people take the time to try and understand the troops?

To see that they are a microcosm of the world, forces us to look closely at their behavior and try to understand the source of their rage and emptiness. Because if any person can stomach war and the scenes that come with it:
There’s a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no leg.
Truly look at it for what it is, then they need our support. War is the ultimate failure of humanity. It is the easy way out. Brute force is the method of unimaginative and backward. Any peace movement worth anything cannot afford to make an enemy of the troops that fight the wars. We must take a closer look at the culture in which we participate and begin to build a world in which young boys and girls would prefer to build homes for their enemies than destroy them. We must give children, both rich and poor as many options as possible, while promoting non-violence over violence in all circumstances.

Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe the world is more like one Marine says in the book:
The fact is people who can’t kill will be subject to those who can.
This is the history we have lived since the beginning of man, but for those of us who believe in evolution, hope, peace, love, and the human spirit, there must be something more. Any anti-war movement that hopes to build a lasting peace must find ways to foster and promote these values, before focusing on the political objectives of any government. A government without soldiers willing to kill or die in the name of patriotism and false glory is an impotent one indeed. We need to tend to our soldiers and offer them a reality that sees compassion, kindness, and peace as the path toward honor, glory, and acceptance.

The Fall of Baghdad does not humanize the US soldier, but rather paints the portrait of their enemies. We see the war from the other side of the bombs. A causality of war, especially in the 21st century is the idea that wars are still fought on battlefields. As a child I would gape at photographs of the barbaric battles of earlier wars. The idea of men thrusting themselves at each other in trenches and battlefields seemed absurd. But now, one almost wishes for the good ole days, because at least there was a specific place for the carnage.

Today however, entire society have become battlefields, from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to the Sudan, to the Congo, to Gaza war has slipped the confines of battlefields and has become a way of life for many. Anderson does a superb job of showing us that Baghdad was not and is not simply an empty theater of war, but home to millions of people. A placed that breathes, creates art, gets haircuts, raises children, gets married and ultimately dies on a daily basis.

In addition to trying to understand the “warrior spirit” I am fixated by the idea that societies somehow still function under the curtain of war. I think of my daughter and her many moods and needs: her crankiness when hungry, her need for a complete nap, then I imagine not having water, or diapers, or her tears as bombs pound our house night after night. I think of her delicate spirit crushed beneath so much uncertainty and unnecessary violence. I crumble inside. How can anyone knowingly cause others so much pain? How does a sane human being unleash so much anguish?

Nothing is worth the destruction of a child’s heart. Nothing can justify the destruction of entire societies. No argument for self-defense, no pseudo-liberations, no state interests will ever make the death of entire cultures worthwhile.

I seemed to have rambled a bit more than I had planned. Perhaps your attention span is waning as well, either way, I have run out of energy to discuss Standard Operating Procedure at this time. It deserves more energy than I have. Stay tuned for an upcoming post. Besides I am watching the film tomorrow night. I am sure it will add another layer of insight.


  1. As always, you provide us with many things to think about. You provide one the opportunity to ponder the human condition, the human experience. I agree with your assessment that war is a human failure, yet I am confused by your own inner contradictions from other personal views you have expressed. Your stance on "Choice" abortion has been made clear in the past, yet in this post you state "Nothing is worth the destruction of a child’s heart." I feel that war is a human failure, but it is not the greatest failure of man. In my humble opinion, when man disregards the beating heart of the unborn, mankind has desensitized itself to all killing. I don't want to turn the subject from war to abortion, but from my perspective, a society that sees it fit to abort the life of the unborn or partially born is destined to walk the path of killing. We can't address War without first addressing mankind's respect for all life.

  2. I continue to be offended by your use of the word genocide. Its use is counter-productive in so many ways. If you wish to describe all wars as genocide then at least you would be consistent but even then I feel you are using words that are disrespectful to those who have been victims of genocide as well as using deliberately provocative language.

  3. Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

    I see what Israel is dong to the Palestine people as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

    I guess we differ on that point.

  4. As I said that definition can therefore apply to almost any conflict - the war in Iraq was a genocide against the Baathists, the war in Sri-Lanka was a genocide against the Tamils, WWII was a genocide against the Nazis. By your definition Iran and Hamas are involved in a genocide against Israel. Many Sunni groups are involved in genocide against Shia groups and vice versa.
    I certainly know that Israel are not trying to systematically destroy the Palestinian people or they would not have been in peace talks with them. If they were they did a poor job of it as over the last 60 years the Palestinian population has increased three or four fold.
    You could fairly say Israel are involved in genocide against Hamas but even then it's a poor and inflammatory use of English in a situation where tact and reconciliation is so important

  5. @david, I think you are right and I do see the word genocide as a way to describe all war in a sense, but more importantly I want to thank you for bring the following statement to my attention:

    …inflammatory use of English in a situation where tact and reconciliation is so important…

    Often when one’s only weapons are words, we forget the power they can yield. By using inflammatory language I have obviously distracted, you the reader, from my main point: I simply wanted to explore the nature of violence and the growing need for our society to praise and worship a warrior class. By using aggressive language, it appears that I lost you after the first few sentences.

    The anger I feel toward the “situation” in Gaza sometimes blinds my critically thinking and objective writing. I hope to be more aware and careful with my language in the future. I also hope you can come back and re-read the post and see if you have any other thoughts to contribute.