The Soldiers who Return from IRAQ.....
The Death Mask Of War American Marines
and soldiers have become socialized to atrocity.
By Chris Hedges
07/28/07 "Adbusters" -- -All troops, when they
occupy and battle insurgent forces, as in Iraq, or Gaza
or Vietnam, are placed in "atrocity producing
In this environment, surrounded by a hostile population,
simple acts such as going to a store to buy a can of Coke
means you can be killed. This constant fear and stress
pushes troops to view everyone around them as the enemy.
This hostility is compounded when the enemy, as in Iraq,
is elusive, shadowy and hard to find.
The rage soldiers feel after a roadside bomb explodes,
killing or maiming their comrades, is one that is easily
directed over time to innocent civilians who are seen to
support the insurgents. It is a short psychological leap,
but a massive moral leap. It is a leap from killing --
the shooting of someone who has the capacity to do you
harm -- to murder -- the deadly assault against someone
who cannot harm you. The war in Iraq is now primarily
about murder. There is very little killing.
After four years of war, American Marines and soldiers
have become socialized to atrocity. The American killing
project is not described in these terms to a distant
public. The politicians still speak in the abstract terms
of glory, honor, and heroism, in the necessity of
improving the world, in lofty phrases of political and
spiritual renewal. Those who kill large numbers of people
always claim it as a virtue. The campaign to rid the
world of terror is expressed with this rhetoric, as if
once all terrorists are destroyed evil itself will
The reality behind the myth, however, is very different.
The reality and the ideal clash when soldiers and Marines
return home, alienating these combat veterans from the
world around them, a world that still dines out on the
myth of war and the virtues of the nation. But slowly
returning veterans are giving us a new narrative of the
war -- one that exposes the vast enterprise of industrial
slaughter unleashed in Iraq for a lie and sustained
because of wounded national pride and willful ignorance.
"This unit sets up this traffic control point and
this 18 year old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with
a .50 caliber machine gun," remembered Geoffrey
Millard who served in Tikrit with the 42nd Infantry
Division. "And this car speeds at him pretty quick
and he makes a split second decision that that's a
suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger and
puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle.
It killed the mother, a father and two kids. The boy was
aged four and the daughter was aged three."
"And they briefed this to the general," Millard
said, "and they briefed it gruesome. I mean, they
had pictures. They briefed it to him. And this colonel
turns around to this full division staff and says, 'if
these fucking Hadjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn't
Those who come back from war, like Millard and tens of
thousands of other veterans, suffer not only delayed
reactions to stress, but a crisis of faith. The God they
knew, or thought they knew, failed them. The church or
the synagogue or the mosque, which promised redemption by
serving God and country, did not prepare them for the
betrayal of this civic religion, for the capacity we all
have for human atrocity, for the lies and myths used to
mask the reality of war. War is always about betrayal,
betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics
and of troops by politicians. This bitter knowledge of
betrayal has seeped into the ranks of American troops.
It has unleashed a new wave of embittered veterans not
seen since the Vietnam War. It has made it possible for
us to begin, again, to see war's death mask.
"And then, you know, my sort of sentiment of what
the fuck are we doing, that I felt that way in
Iraq," said Sergeant Ben Flanders, who estimated
that he ran hundreds of convoys in Iraq. "It's the
sort of insanity of it and the fact that it reduces it.
Well, I think war does anyway, but I felt like there was
this enormous reduction in my compassion for people, the
only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys
that I was with. And everybody else be damned, whether
you are an Iraqi, I'm sorry, I'm sorry you live here, I'm
sorry this is a terrible situation, and I'm sorry that
you have to deal with all of, you know, army vehicles
running around and shooting, and these insurgents and all
"The first briefing you get when you get off the
plane in Kuwait, and you get off the plane and you're
holding a duffle bag in each hand," Millard
remembered. "You've got your weapon slung. You've
got a web sack on your back. You're dying of heat. You're
tired. You're jet-lagged. Your mind is just full of goop.
And then, you're scared on top of that, because, you
know, you're in Kuwait, you're not in the States anymore
so fear sets in, too. And they sit you into this
little briefing room and you get this briefing about how,
you know, you can't trust any of these fucking Hadjis,
because all these fucking Hadjis are going to kill you.
And Hadji is always used as a term of disrespect and
usually, with the 'f' word in front of it."
War is also the pornography of violence. It has a dark
beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque. The
Bible calls it "the lust of the eye" and warns
believers against it. War allows us to engage in lusts
and passions we keep hidden in the deepest, most private
interiors of our fantasy life. It allows us to destroy
not only things but human beings. In that moment of
wholesale destruction, we wield the power to the divine,
the power to revoke another person's charter to live on
this earth. The frenzy of this destruction -- and when
unit discipline breaks down, or there was no unit
discipline to begin with, frenzy is the right word --
sees armed bands crazed by the poisonous elixir our power
to bring about the obliteration of others delivers. All
things, including human beings, become objects -- objects
to either gratify or destroy or both. Almost no one is
immune. The contagion of the crowd sees to that.
Human beings are machine gunned and bombed from the air,
automatic grenade launchers pepper hovels and neighbors
with high-powered explosive devices and convoys race
through Iraq like freight trains of death. These soldiers
and Marines have at their fingertips the heady ability to
call in air strikes and firepower that obliterate
landscapes and villages in fiery infernos. They can
instantly give or deprive human life, and with this power
they became sick and demented. The moral universe is
turned upside down. All human beings are used as objects.
And no one walks away uninfected. War thrusts us into a
vortex of pain and fleeting ecstasy. It thrusts us into a
world where law is of little consequence, human life is
cheap and the gratification of the moment becomes the
overriding desire that must be satiated, even at the cost
of another's dignity or life.
"A lot of guys really supported that whole concept
that, you know, if they don't speak English and they have
darker skin, they're not as human as us, so we can do
what we want," said Josh Middleton, who served in
the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. "And you know, when 20
year old kids are yelled at back and forth at Bragg and
we're picking up cigarette butts and getting yelled at
every day to find a dirty weapon. But over here, it's
like life and death. And 40-year-old Iraqi men look at us
with fear and we can -- do you know what I mean? -- we
have this power that you can't have. That's really
liberating. Life is just knocked down to this primal
level of, you know, you worry about where the next food's
going to come from, the next sleep or the next patrol and
to stay alive."
"It's like you feel like, I don't know, if you're a
caveman," he added. "Do you know what I mean?
Just, you know, I mean, this is how life is supposed to
be. Life and death, essentially. No TV. None of that
It takes little in wartime to turn ordinary men into
killers. Most give themselves willingly to the seduction
of unlimited power to destroy, and all feel the peer
pressure to conform. Few, once in battle, find the
strength to resist. Physical courage is common on a
battlefield. Moral courage is not.
Military machines and state bureaucracies, who seek to
make us obey, seek also to silence those who return from
war to speak the truth, to hide from a public eager for
stories of war that fit the mythic narrative the essence
of war which is death.
Camilo Mejia, who eventually applied while still on
active duty to become a conscientious objector, said the
ugly side of American racism and chauvinism appeared the
moment his unit arrived in the Middle East. Fellow
soldiers instantly ridiculed Arab-style toilets because
they would be "shitting like dogs." The troops
around him treated Iraqis, whose language they did not
speak and whose culture was alien, little better than
animals. The word "Hadji" swiftly became a slur
to refer to Iraqis, in much the same way "gook"
was used to debase the Vietnamese or "rag head"
is used to belittle those in Afghanistan.
Soon those around him ridiculed "Hadji food,"
"Hadji homes," and "Hadji music."
Bewildered prisoners, who were rounded up in useless and
indiscriminate raids, were stripped naked, and left to
stand terrified and bewildered for hours in the baking
sun. They were subjected to a steady torrent of verbal
and physical abuse. "I experienced horrible
confusion," Mejia remembers, "not knowing
whether I was more afraid for the detainees or for what
would happen to me if I did anything to help them."
These scenes of abuse, which began immediately after the
American invasion, were little more than collective acts
of sadism. Mejia watched, not daring to intervene, yet
increasingly disgusted at the treatment of Iraqi
civilians. He saw how the callous and unchecked abuse of
power first led to alienation among Iraqis and spawned a
raw hatred of the occupation forces. When army units
raided homes, the soldiers burst in on frightened
families, forced them to huddle in the corners at gun
point, and helped themselves to food and items in the
"After we arrested drivers," he recalled,
"we would choose whichever vehicles we liked, fuel
them from confiscated jerry cans, and conduct undercover
presence patrols in the impounded cars.
"But to this day I cannot find a single good answer
as to why I stood by idly during the abuse of those
prisoners except, of course, my own cowardice," he
Iraqi families were routinely fired upon for getting too
close to check points, including an incident where an
unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a
50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son,
although by then, Mejia notes, "this sort of killing
of civilians had long ceased to arouse much interest or
even comment." Soldiers shot holes into cans of
gasoline being sold alongside the road and then tossed
incendiary grenades into the pools to set them ablaze.
"It's fun to shoot shit up," a soldier said.
Some open fire on small children throwing rocks. And when
improvised explosive devices go off the troops fire
wildly into densely populated neighborhoods, leaving
behind innocent victims who become, in the callous
language of war, "collateral damage."
"We would drive on the wrong side of the highway to
reduce the risk of being hit by an IED," Mejia said
of the deadly roadside bombs. "This forced oncoming
vehicles to move to one side of the road, and
considerably slowed down the flow of traffic. In order to
avoid being held up in traffic jams, where someone could
roll a grenade under our trucks, we would simply drive up
on sidewalks, running over garbage cans and even hitting
civilian vehicles to push them out of the way. Many of
the soldiers would laugh and shriek at these
At one point the unit was surrounded by an angry crowd
protesting the occupation. Mejia and his squad opened
fire on an Iraqi holding a grenade, riddling the man's
body with bullets. Mejia checked his clip afterwards and
determined that he fired 11 rounds into the young man.
Units, he said, nonchalantly opened fire in crowded
neighborhoods with heavy M-240 Bravo machine guns, AT-4
launchers and Mark 19s, a machine gun that spits out
"The frustration that resulted from our inability to
get back at those who were attacking us," Mejia
writes, "led to tactics that seemed designed simply
to punish the local population that was supporting
He watched soldiers from his unit abuse the corpses of
Iraqi dead. Mejia related how, in one incident, soldiers
laughed as an Iraqi corpse fell from the back of a truck.
"Take a picture of me and this motherfucker,"
one of the soldiers who had been in Mejia's squad in
third platoon said, putting his arm around the corpse.
The shroud fell away from the body revealing a young man
wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole in his
"Damn, they really fucked you up, didn't
they!?" the soldier laughed.
The scene, Mejia noted, was witnessed by the dead man's
brothers and cousins. Senior officers, protected in
heavily fortified compounds, rarely saw combat. They sent
their troops on futile missions in the quest to be
awarded Combat Infantry Badges. This recognition, Mejia
notes, "was essential to their further progress up
the officer ranks." This pattern meant that
"very few high-ranking officers actually got out
into the action, and lower-ranking officers were afraid
to contradict them when they were wrong." When the
badges, bearing an emblem of a musket with the hammer
dropped, resting on top of an oak wreath, were finally
awarded, the commanders immediately brought in Iraqi
tailors to sew the badges on the left breast pockets of
their desert combat uniforms.
"This was one occasion when our leaders led from the
front," Mejia noted bitterly. "They were among
the first to visit the tailors to get their little
patches of glory sewn next to their hearts."
The war breeds gratuitous and constant acts of violence.
"I mean, if someone has a fan, they're a white
collar family," said Phillip Chrystal, who carried
out raids on Iraqi homes in Kirkuk. "So we get
started on this day, this one, in particular. And it
starts with the psy ops [psychological operations]
vehicles out there, you know, with the big speakers
playing a message in Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish or
whatever they happen to be saying, basically, saying put
your weapons, if you have them, next to the front door in
your house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And we had Apaches flying over for security, if they're
needed, and it's also a good show of force. And we were
running around, and we'd done a few houses by this point,
and I was with my platoon leader, my squad leader and
maybe a couple other people, but I don't really remember.
"And we were approaching this one house, and this
farming area, they're, like, built up into little
courtyards," he said. "So they have like the
main house, common area. They have like a kitchen and
then, they have like a storage shed-type deal. And we
were approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was
barking ferociously, because it was doing its job. And my
squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots it. And he
didn't -- mother fucker -- he shot it and it went in the
jaw and exited out. So I see this dog -- and I'm a huge
animal lover. I love animals -- and this dog has like
these eyes on it and he's running around spraying blood
all over the place. And like, you know, the family is
sitting right there with three little children and a mom
and a dad horrified. And I'm at a loss for words. And so,
I yell at him. I'm like what the fuck are you doing.
"And so, the dog's yelping. It's crying out without
a jaw. And I'm looking at the family, and they're just
scared. And so, I told them I was like fucking shoot it,
you know. At least, kill it, because that can't be fixed.
It's suffering. And I actually get tears from just saying
this right now, but -- and I had tears then, too, -- and
I'm looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got
the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my
wallet out and I gave them 20 bucks, because that's what
I had. And, you know, I had him give it to them and told
them that I'm so sorry that asshole did that. Which was
very common. I don't know if it's rednecks or what, but
they feel that shooting dogs is something that adds to
one's manliness traits. I don't know. I had a big problem
"Was a report ever filed about it?" he asked.
"Was anything ever done? Any punishment ever dished
out? No, absolutely not. He was a sycophant down to the
We make our heroes out of clay. We laud their gallant
deeds and give them uniforms with colored ribbons on
their chest for the acts of violence they committed or
endured. They are our false repositories of glory and
honor, of power, of self-righteousness, of patriotism and
self-worship, all that we want to believe about
ourselves. They are our plaster saints of war, the icons
we cheer to defend us and make us and our nation great.
They are the props of our civic religion, our love of
power and force, our belief in our right as a chosen
nation to wield this force against the weak and rule.
This is our nation's idolatry of itself. And this
idolatry has corrupted religious institutions, not only
here but in most nations, making it impossible for us to
separate the will of God from the will of the state.
Prophets are not those who speak of piety and duty from
pulpits -- few people in pulpits have much worth
listening to -- but it is the battered wrecks of men and
women who return from Iraq and speak the halting words we
do not want to hear, words that we must listen to and
heed to know ourselves. They tell us war is a soulless
void. They have seen and tasted how war plunges us to
barbarity, perversion, pain and an unchecked orgy of
death. And it is their testimonies alone that have the
redemptive power to save us from ourselves.
Chris Hedges, who
graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School, was a
foreign correspondent for nearly two decades fo The New
York Times and other publications. In his book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Public Affairs, 2002), Hedges gives an account
of the intoxication of war, which he covered
in regions around the world, including El Salvador,
Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Israel, Gaza and the West
Bank, the Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. His most recent book is American Fascists: The Christian Right and
the War on America (Free Press, 2007).
Original article with photos here.