Perhaps one of the things we are learning from the war the US military is waging against Iraq is that though you can bomb an insurgency into existence, you cannot bomb one out of existence.
Perhaps we are also learning that war is by nature brutal and brutalizing. In this past week alone, two outstanding examples of the brutal nature of war have come to us from Iraq. The first is the decision by the US military to refuse entrance into Fallujah to an Iraqi Red Crescent convoy carrying medicine, food, blankets, and water purification tablets desperately needed by residents of the city under siege. Apparently Fallujah, which has become officially synonymous with terrorism, is to be treated in actuality as if the official picture were true. Everyone knows that hundreds of thousands of civilians live in Fallujah – history, homes, livelihoods, all of this under assault. At least tens of thousands of civilians remained in Fallujah during the assault. Everyone knows they are victims of this war, deserving of every consideration. But it is in the nature of war to operate from a distorted version of reality. In this way, Fallujah is transmogrified from a city of 300,000 people with an ancient history, to a hellhole, a fumarole out of which poisonous gases seep. Thus Fallujah, which had already been deprived of electricity and access to medical care, clean water, and food, would now be sealed off entirely, even mercy and compassion prevented from entering. It would behoove us to look this image in the face and commit it to memory, an amulet to protect us next time someone tries to sell us a good war.
The second example of the brutalizing nature of war is the killing by a US marine of an unarmed, wounded Iraqi “insurgent” who had been captured along with four other Iraqis when a previous marine unit stormed a mosque in Fallujah. A reporter embedded with the marines filmed the killing. The audio portion is especially chilling. In a voice filled with outrage and disgust, the marine twice announces (presumably to his fellow marines) that the wounded Iraqi is “faking” that he is dead. Then, after the sound of gunfire, another marine is heard saying “He’s dead now” in a tone that seems to indicate a job well done. The killing, under investigation by the US military, will likely be treated as an isolated incident and an aberration, but we can easily imagine other such killings which embedded reporters didn’t capture on film. And we have the evidence in hand from Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities which demonstrate how people are treated in war. The distorted version of reality operating here is, of course, that these are not people like the rest of us; these are “insurgents,” a label which neatly transforms them from people with families, friends, personal histories – that is, people very much like ourselves – into part of the collective monster known as “terrorism” which we are supposedly fighting in Iraq and against which we must always be vigilant.
The human mind, however, is not a simple organ. It cannot easily operate according to distorted versions of reality without conflict. One US soldier who has spoken courageously and eloquently about this conflict is Camilo Mejia, currently imprisoned in Ft. Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma for refusing to return to fight in Iraq. Mejia fought in Iraq from April to October, 2003, eventually rising to command an infantry squad. He and his squad were ordered to “soften up” detainees at a center near the Baghdad airport, where they were taught to keep prisoners awake by banging on metal walls with sledgehammers, and to frighten hooded prisoners by pulling the trigger of a gun near their head; he witnessed the killing of civilians, and the use of excessive force in battle. All of this troubled him at the time, but he found it difficult to sort out his thoughts given the contingencies of war. “Being at risk every second of my life made it very hard to put into perspective how I felt about the war and about being in the military. There was always a sense of emptiness in what we were doing, a certain spiritual pain every time we were attacked, but the tendency was always to find ways to stay alive and put away feelings about the war and its reasons.”
In October, 2003, while home on leave, Mejia had the opportunity to reflect seriously on his experiences in Iraq. “I have held a rifle to a man’s face, a man on the ground and in front of his mother, children, and wife, and not known why I did it. I have seen a soldier broken down inside because he killed a child…I admit that in Iraq there was the fear of being killed, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill; there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body…I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.”
Ultimately, he understood that he could not continue to participate in this war, and he refused orders to return to Iraq. “By putting my weapon down,” he said, “I chose to reassert myself as a human being.” Found guilty of desertion, he was sentenced to the maximum penalty, a year in prison.
Even if you were to make the trip to out-of-the-way Lawton, Oklahoma, which I did last week along with seven other members of Voices in the Wilderness, Camilo Mejia can only be seen by a small group of approved visitors. Neither is it possible to write to him without prior approval from the military. For the time being, he is under wraps, quarantined like a deadly virus. From the point of view of a military that depends on a compliant corps, Mejia is in fact dangerous. For soldiers, who presently have so much to lose by their participation in the military – life, limb, relationships, mental health – his willingness to look war in the face and to examine its distortions could well be infectious. His ultimate decision to choose a path of humaneness and sanity make him a lively example to the thousands of women and men currently active in the US military or in the military reserves and whose minds are prone to the same kind of reflection.
The day before I arrived in Lawton, a US soldier stationed at Ft. Sill, and recently returned from Iraq, killed himself, leaving a young child without a father and a young wife without a husband. Some of the most poignant encounters I had in Lawton were with young women whose husbands are stationed at Ft. Sill. One woman, who held an 11 month-old child in her arms, said in a fierce rush of words “I saw you here with your signs, and I had to stop. Look at me, I’m trembling. Who do I have to talk to about this? My husband is a soldier at the base, and I’m terrified he’s going to be sent to Iraq.” Another woman, again without prompting, poured out her story. “I moved here when my fiancÃ©e got called up. I changed my whole life to come here, but I broke off the engagement when he got his orders to go to Iraq. Every one of my friends whose husband has fought in Iraq has had her marriage fall apart after he returned.”
I do not pretend to know the dark twists and turns that led the soldier at Ft. Sill to take his life. I do know that he isn’t the first returning soldier to do so. While Camilo Mejia is clearly an example to people who wish to say no to this war, perhaps he can also be an example to soldiers returning from Iraq. Like Mejia, these soldiers have to contend with their participation in this brutal occupation. For some, confronting their experiences is a matter of life and death. For others, it is part of trying to save a marriage, and Mejia’s words and actions since returning from Iraq point a way that leads from distortion and dissolution to clarity and wholeness.
[This article first appeared in the print edition of Counterpunch]