What the Hell Was That: Happy Tenth Birthday, Operation Iraqi Freedom
(Photo by Cpl. Jonathan K. Teslevich, US Marine Corps via Department of Defense)
I got an @reply the other day from a guy I met ten years ago in Fallujah, where I was working as a reporter for MTV: a young captain in the 82nd Airborne who was part of the moveable feast of infantry interviews that made up my life at the dawn of the Iraq War. It was a welcome ping from the past. The guy, Captain (now Major) Craig, was funny, thoughtful, professional, humane. At the time, I was 25. He was a couple of years older. We shared instant coffee one morning watching his grunts play pickup football in between a row of innocuous-looking pup tents on a corner of the 82nd’s base in a former Iraqi prison. It was Thanksgiving morning back home in the States, and my cameraman shot the pickup game for color B-roll because it was fun. The visuals were sure to make it to air: a bunch of athletic, all-American kids in camo joking, tackling, laughing. Even though it was early in the war, eight months since the invasion, it was already a challenge to capture aspects of the conflict that weren’t going south. Guys getting shot at on patrol, panic in the streets, heavy weaponry overhead, and chaos on the ground was the norm. My cameraman and I didn’t notice that the tents bounding the end zone in this game were full of hooded, plastic-cuffed, freezing Iraqis lying in cold, damp sand. I remember being caught by surprise when a pissed-off NCO came over screaming, hand on his sidearm, accusing us of violating the Third Geneva Convention, which prevents prisoners of war from being appropriated for propaganda purposes and/or exploited by “public curiosity.”
Believe me when I say that my cameraman and I were absolutely oblivious to the POWs in the end-zone tents. In the thin light of dawn, we couldn’t see that the pup tents were sewn up against the cold. Some squad had picked up the detainees during weapons cache sweeps in Fallujah the night before. Nobody had notified the guys we were with. The forward operating base was cramped, and the space between the pup tents was the closest thing they could find as a field. As we peeked inside at the stacks of guys, heads in bags and huddling together for warmth, we were shocked to find that not only was the NCO right about the tent contents, but, in reviewing our tape, we had gotten the detainees on camera. In one shot, one of the 82nd grunts did an epic, SportsCenter-worthy dive for the end zone, where he tripped over a tent rope and pulled open a flap just enough to reveal the detainees within. But he made the catch, happy and oblivious to the Iraqi dudes at his feet.
Who knows whether or not the Iraqis in those tents were insurgents. All the 82nd guys could tell us is that they would be sent to Abu Ghraib down the highway to be processed. But that digital freeze frame in the camera sunk my stomach: the look on the soldier’s face, so stoked to score, the phantom hoods of these Abu Ghraib-bound detainees, all of it all at once. It was everything about the Iraq War for me in one shot—innocence, confusion, violence, power, disarray, joy, terror, America, and Iraq. When the NCO saw the footage, the conversation ceased, and he simply took our camera and began rewinding to erase our tape.
My cameraman and I went ballistic. We accused the NCO of trampling our First Amendment rights. The NCO accused us of prisoner abuse (again, these guys were headed to Abu Ghraib) through filming. We shouted at him for trying to manage the reality of the war. He shouted at us for engineering incendiary images for broadcast. It was confusion and yelling until Cpt. Craig intervened. We had permission from the battalion to shoot as we saw fit. Whatever the fallout from international law, Cpt. Craig said would be ours to bear, not the NCO’s to manage. The football game would cease immediately and the POWs would go back to freezing in the dawn, unmolested by film crews and football. I walked back to the barracks with Cpt. Craig and thanked him. By simply being unafraid of the contradictions of war manifest in our footage, he exhibited courage and character.
I fixed Cpt. Craig as a star in the constellation of brave displays by Americans and Iraqis in the years to come. He was a decent and good soldier amid what was surely the darkness of war. When we drove back to Baghdad from Fallujah that night, there were burning convoys on the highway and gunships in the air. I had some weird truth on a DV tape and a story to tell. I was 25 and felt impossibly alive.
So, ten years later, when I got the @ from Cpt. Craig, I tweeted him right back. I was happy to hear from him after all this time. We wowed that ten years had slipped by in a blink and went through the cursory dance of catching up. We were older, fatter, grayer. He quit the infantry for a desk job at the Pentagon. I quit journalism utterly disaffected by the headwinds of fear, group-think, and external message control that faced good reporting and good reporters. Millions of Iraqi civilians became refugees, nearly hundreds of thousands of them became civilian dead, tens of thousands of Americans came home wounded inside and out, thousands didn’t come home at all. But life at home happened, and the war raged on. I did a little snooping about Cpt. Craig online, where I found the first photo of him with his leg amputated, competing in a Wounded Warrior race. It was unclear whether Iraq, or another war, or the Army, bad luck or life had taken a chunk out of him. Whatever it was, it was a shame. Bad things happening to good people was the recurring motif of the Iraq War in my experience, and Cpt. Craig was always one of the good ones. What the fuck had happened to him, I wondered. What the fuck had happened to any of us? What the fuck was that war anyway?
(Photo via Wikipedia Commons)
In the years that passed, I continued to be reminded of the Iraq War by the things it took away from people. For personal friends, mostly the other journalists, but also the American soldiers and marines and Iraqi civilians I’d come to know, that loss was easy to measure. Besides limbs and lives, there was just a lot of what economists call “hidden costs”. Like futures. Or years. Marriages. Family members. Psychological health. Persistent cognitive dissonance. The ability to relate. The ability to feel. The ability to sleep. Drug habits. Booze habits. Desensitization through any means available. Lifelong physical or emotional therapy. A hangover from extreme conditions that is impossible to relate to those who haven’t experienced them. A distance from people and the world around you. A daily battle with meaninglessness that echoes in terrifying ways throughout life in every possible corner. To me, that was Iraq.
Not everyone was served with that bill. But those who were got served hard. As smarter women and men than I go through the ten-year accounting of what, if anything, that war was worth, I find the math all a bit suspect. The marginalization of the hidden costs seems to bury a lot of the reality of the war to me. There is no line-item ledger where you can measure the cost of war as a political theory against the practice of war for those who are forced to live through it. The only way you can pretend to get away with it is if a healthy portion of your intended audience have no fucking idea what war actually means in the first place.
For most Americans, this remains the case, and it’s a huge problem. We are perfectly set up to repeat wars like Iraq because of it. Armed service remains a ghettoized, alien experience to the vast majority of this country. It is very easy to advocate industrialized violence if it doesn’t directly affect you, save for a feeling of pride. But forcing strangers, foreign and domestic, to endure heinous nightmarishness is a pretty awful way to feel good about yourself. There are a lot better ways to build self-esteem than feeding societies to a wood chipper. And when reality runs counter to those feelings of pride, tuning out of reality doesn’t cause it to cease.
As early as three weeks into the war, the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that Americans were becoming disengaged from the reality of the war. War fatigue had set in. As the years dragged on, that war fatigue only grew worse and the tune-out became more severe. The war festered. The public ignored, even as the body count rose. If this ten-year anniversary is one of the last few chances to have a dialed-in national conversation about it before time sucks it down the well of persistent forgetting, might as well call it by its name. The Iraq War was an awful and terrible waste, a tragic choice. It was fundamentally meaningless.
If you are reading this and got the shit shot out of you or lost your friends or lost your body parts or lost your mind, I’m not saying you’re not a hero. I’m not saying your life or the lives of people you loved was in vain. I’m not saying your experience has no meaning to you and those you love. I’m just saying that the sacrifices anyone was asked to make for the Iraq War seem to me to be mismanaged at best and criminally squandered at worst.
There is a moral obligation to see the failure of this war. If we don’t talk honestly about Iraq, we run the risk of repeating it soon. And God knows, there are already people jabber-jawing about all sorts of playpens for future American violence as though other countries are map packs for the next edition of Call of Duty. We have almost utterly disengaged as a society from the reality of warfare. Shame on all of us if we talk about large-scale war as anything but a horrible thing that eats people.
Which is not to say reporting in, from, on and around Iraq wasn’t one of the single most thrilling experiences of my entire life. I loved it. So much about war is amazing. Shooting at shit and bombs blowing up look cool as hell until you hear the screaming of survivors afterward. The Iraq War opened my eyes, it blew my mind, it made me money, and it got me laid. After my first trip, all I wanted to do was go back. And then, when I realized that there was just no stopping its tragedy and horribleness, that very little could be done to slow its production line of mutating terribleness, that even the best reporting just calloused an American audience or got them to tune out, that tiny little wars of choice continue and cannot be stopped, it scared the living shit out of me and shut me down. And still, to this day, I am obsessed with Iraq. I’ve just come to accept that it was utterly fucking meaningless.
It turns out Cpt. Craig lost his leg stateside, an impacted artery brought on by lots of paratrooping out of planes. The surgery that left him a wounded warrior didn’t come with a heinous ambush or insurgent attack like many of the other soldiers I’ve come to meet in the years since. I was overjoyed to hear that he was spared the worst of it. Many have not been so fortunate. I just pray, as we look back, that we don’t swell their ranks with future wars of choice. But, as I did with Iraq from the beginning, I have my doubts.
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