I don’t know how many of you had the opportunity to listen to the Winter Soldier conference put on by Iraq Veterans Against the War this weekend, but it was a riveting, emotionally devastating primer on the cost of the Iraq War in lives, treasure, and the mental and physical health of the soldiers who have been induced to fight it. Panel after panel, presenter after presenter revealed personal stories about the damage that has been done. Nearly every panelist referred to the “war” as what it really is: an OCCUPATION, an illegal occupation of a people who were already prostrate from a dozen years of our sanctions and bombing, and who, with the arrival of American soldiers, were treated like criminals in their own country, arrested without cause, curfewed in houses that, in Iraq’s summer heat, were literally ovens.
And then there were the horror stories of what each soldier had done, the atrocities each was led to commit as part of that occupation. The brutalizing of women and children. The random arrests of every Iraqi male caught in the frequent sweeps of neighborhoods. The killing, without thought, of anyone who made or appeared to make a false move. All of it made possible by the training each had received, to wit, that Iraqis are subhuman, that they are “ragheads” or “haggis” responsible for 9/11 (it has been proven Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or Al Quaeda) and thus undeserving of any human compassion whatever. One soldier described how the term “haggi” actually derives from the Islamic tradition of the Hagg, the pilgrimage to Mecca every Muslim is supposed to make at least once. Hence, he said sadly, the holiest tradition of an entire religious faith is trampled and reduced to a term of utter contempt.
Some of these soldiers and marines were interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and described the brutal tactics they used, and, when they were unwilling to perform as expected, those used by others. A soldier named Michael told of one detainee who was writhing strangely and acting crazily. Sensing insulin deprivation, Michael took a sugar reading and found it at 450, many times the normal range. Michael called the hospital, asking permission from the doctor to transfer the detainee, clearly in shock, to her facility. The captain refused, refused several times. The detainee was then taken to another area, and when his strange behavior continued, classified as a resister and put outside, manacled, in the hot sun as punishment. He died roasting and writhing in agony.
Another soldier related his experience with stop loss—the ploy by which the military, unable to attract new recruits, has been forcing troops who have finished their duty tours to be corralled into repeated deployments. This, and the brutality he was forced to employ in Iraq (at one point, he had his sights trained on a 6-year-old boy on a roof), eventually turned a gung-ho teenager eager, after 9/11, to kill all Middle Easterners, into a broken alcoholic who tried to commit suicide. But instead of giving him help, the United States Army discharged him with a general discharge for insubordinate behavior, leaving him with no benefits whatever, able to hold only a job as a pizza delivery boy. Among the military duties that led to his breakdown, he said, was his task of photographing dead Iraqis and sending the photos to superiors for use in “building the morale” of American troops.
A Marine, Jason Wayne Lemue, served three duty tours in Iraq. On his first, he learned the rules of engagement. “My commander told me, ‘Kill those who need to be killed, and save those who need to be saved,’ that was our mission on our first tour,” he said of his first deployment during the invasion nearly five years ago. Lemue went on to relate that, “After that the ROE changed, and carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew” meant that people were to be killed. “I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us.” (Quoted in “Rules of Engagement Thrown out the Window” by Dahr Jamail, Common Dreams, 3/15/08.)
Of course, Marine corporal Jason Washburn also explained the corollary—that American troops were instructed to carry shovels and “drop weapons” on their missions in case of an accidental shooting. A shovel or weapon found near a dead Iraqi was sufficient evidence to justify his death as a terrorist.
Such testimony, along with apologies by many of the panelists for the destruction they inflicted on innocent people, is enough to make anyone weep. Many in the audience did. And so, to the cost of this illegal and criminal war—now estimated at $300 billion a year by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz in The Three Trillion Dollar War (that is nearly a billion dollars every day just for keeping the war machine going, nevermind the cost of replacing a broken military when it’s over and the broken human beings who will be needing veterans’ benefits for years to come)—there is the human cost. The cost of devastated lives and devastated psyches and devastated families, and, let us never forget, a country and an entire people that lies in ruins.
As one contemplates the horror of what the United States has done, and keeps doing, and the fact that we cannot, after Winter Soldier, claim ignorance, the words of T.S. Eliot come, almost unbidden, to mind:
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”