WarLISTEN TO ME
At a Jan. 3, 2003, meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, historians from more than 40 colleges and universities across the country formed Historians Against the War, a network decrying the march to war in Iraq and expressing concern about “the needless destruction of human life, the undermining of constitutional government in the U.S., the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and the obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.”
That group recently published a 24-page pamphlet, entitled “Join Us? Testimonies of Iraq War Veterans and Their Families,” edited by Carl Mirra of the SUNY College at Old Westbury.
(The complete pamphlet is available in electronic form online — http://www.histori ansagainstwar.org/resources — and printed pamphlets can be ordered from HAW at Box 442154, Somerville, Mass., 02144.)
Below we’ve excerpted firsthand stories of three Iraq vets. More than anything you’ll see on cable news, or any spinning you’ll hear on talk radio, or any of the administration’s wishful prognostications, these accounts display the reality of what we are doing in Iraq.
Harmon served as a combat medic in the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division and was deployed to Iraq in April 2003. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a college student studying respiratory therapy.
… I remember my first taste of combat. I was driving in a Humvee smoking a cigarette and all of a sudden I heard machine gun fire, small-arms fire and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] exploding around us. We returned fire. Another day we were doing vehicle checks and my sergeant and I were enjoying an MRE [meal ready to eat]. We didn’t get to eat all that much. We were limited to one MRE and two bottles of water a day. The scout Humvee was fired on and it had a Javelin [portable anti-tank weapon] inside, so it exploded. I remember one guy who was literally split open. It was crazy. It was surreal. After such scenes, I would smoke five cigarettes in a row. It felt like I was watching a movie; it was pretty scary and sick. I saw shot children and dead children as well as dead soldiers.
… Soldiers who return from war are starting to question it. … You can say “support the troops” all you want, and put yellow ribbons on your gas-guzzling SUV to feel better about yourself. I say let’s wake up. The Bush regime is wrong.
People have accused me of being a traitor for saying these things. I am not a traitor. I was a soldier who served in Iraq and I say immediate withdrawal is the way to support the troops.
When I returned home, I did not know what was wrong with me. Your body is so pumped up after being on high alert for so long; you no longer know how to relax. I didn’t shower or shave. I was diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and took pills, which did not help. There was talk of redeployment after I just returned. I had about a year and a half left on my contract and it was made clear to me that I was going to get stop-loss [service extended beyond discharge date]. I told the military to let me out. There was a fight, they gave me a field grade Article 15 [nonjudicial punishment] and stripped my rank. I told them I will not do it anymore. They let me go. I guess they didn’t want a problem soldier infecting the ranks.
Kevin M. Benderman
Benderman served in the 4th Infantry, 1-10 Cavalry, and was deployed to Iraq from March 2003 to August 2003. In December 2004, he applied for conscientious objector status, which was subsequently denied. He refused to redeploy in January 2005 and was charged with intentionally missing movement. Kevin was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He wrote the following statement during his incarceration at the Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Lewis, Washington.
… I was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 to August 2003 and it was the most unusual experience I have ever had. It is difficult to express how it really was. You feel fear, but not overwhelming fear because if you did you could not function properly. You feel fear for the people that you are there with because you know that some of them will not return home alive. You feel for the soldiers that you are responsible for. …
… When you stand at the edge of a mass-grave site and see the rotting bodies of women, children and old men, you think to yourself, “Why the hell are we still participating in war in this day and age?” I remember wild dogs at this mass grave digging into them and eating the remains. When you see a young girl standing along the road and she needs immediate medical attention for severe burns and you have to just drive away because you are at war, it leaves you feeling extremely angry at the stupidity of war. When you see the men that you serve with start behaving in ways that they do not normally do because they are trying to cope with the insanity of war themselves, you realize that there is nothing glorious about war.
Two of our mortar-platoon soldiers were injured by shrapnel because of an order from our first sergeant. I remember the executive officer getting killed because of a computer malfunction on two of the fighting vehicles. …
Some individuals made sound decisions, but overall they were not exactly a competent, professional force. … [Our new company commander] wanted us to retrieve a bronze statue of a horse and bring it back to our maintenance area so that we could remove the anatomically correct penis and testicles from the statue. He wanted to bring it back to the States and deliver it as an “award” to the vehicle crew who shot the worst during firing exercises.
… Our military presence is now fueling the problems we see in Iraq. We need to withdraw U.S. forces so that Iraqi forces can start to provide their own protection. There are many infrastructure problems facing Iraq, such as the power grid, the potable water supply, effective sanitation disposal, security, highway construction, etc. The government of Iraq must find solutions, not Halliburton. …
… People should also be aware that a number of people in this confinement facility should have received rehabilitative treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress factors in their life. Many of these guys went to combat for this country and a lot of them are here due to their inability to cope with the readjustment. There should be better rehab programs for the people serving time here. They have only one program for people serving over two years; it is a woodworking program. Most of these guys made mistakes which should not be used to beat them down the way this system does. There are rapists and child molesters who deserve to be incarcerated, but their sentences are somehow shorter than those who went AWOL.
I was active duty infantry. I think most people who join the infantry are not political. They join because they want to experience combat. Most of them aren’t even patriotic, at least in my experience. … They want to experience this romantic ideal of being a soldier.
… I was going to Iraq in a new unit. I was kind of nervous. I felt the officer and staff sergeant in charge of my platoon were idiots. My unit was one of the units that invaded al-Nasiriyah. Our first casualty in Bravo Company was at night in the middle of the desert and one of our own tanks ran him over. And that really set the pace for the rest of the war from what I experienced. We kept moving through Iraq and, if I remember correctly, on March 23, 2003, we got ambushed in al-Nasiriyah. We coordinated the attack with my old company, Charlie Company. They went into the city first. My battalion commander called in an air strike and they started bombing the city with A-10 Warthogs. Charlie Company was in the city. If my memory serves, 18 members of Charlie Company were KIA [killed in action]. I would guess that 90 percent were killed by our own Warthogs.
My platoon was in the city, too. My cowardly platoon sergeant wouldn’t let us get out of the [tanks]. He was scared shitless. Many Marines make up war stories and make it seem like Saving Private Ryan. In reality it was pathetic. Once we got there, I realized how incompetent most of our officers were. Al-Nasiriyah … has been romanticized, but most of the killing in that battle was of civilians and dogs. …
We then set up some defense outside al-Nasiriyah. I did not see any Iraqi soldiers during this attack. Marines shot at people and dogs, almost as if they needed something to do. Most of the time we did vehicle checks. We checked for weapons. No one ever had any weapons. We took a lot of random prisoners, who were unarmed civilians. Some of the vehicles were shot up because they didn’t stop.
After seeing what our unit did in Iraq, it made me re-evaluate my opinion of the military and what were doing in Iraq. None of the romantic feelings were satisfied. It was just disgusting. I saw people carrying groceries get shot. …
Many of the casualties were from friendly fire. You’re not going to get any Marines to tell you this because they want to be warriors who see crazy stuff. Indeed we did see crazy stuff but not anything to be proud about: a lot of dead citizens, sort of a massacre, not real combat. A lot of Marines are reluctant to admit this and they despise me for saying so. I get messages: “You’re a lying fucking faggot.” This ideal they want attached to them isn’t true. …
I left the Marines in the summer of 2004. I had about a month to go before I would get out and I was reading books, getting ready to go to school. I enrolled in college and briefly joined the anti-war movement as my last “fuck you” to the Marine Corps, but as a personal stance not a political one. None of my anti-war actions are political. I am shying away from being an activist because I am not political. I am against the war in Iraq because we don’t know why the hell we are over there. … More civilians are getting killed than soldiers and that’s why I am against it.
A longer version of this story appeared originally in Buffalo, New York’s Artvoice newspaper.
About the artist
The art accompanying this story is from a series of drawings, paintings and collages called Dust Memories by Aaron Hughes. It attempts to communicate the ambiguous and anxious moments of Hughes' deployment with the 1,244th Transportation Company in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. These images are Hughes' effort to deconstruct the nostalgic war epic (which informs much of how war is interpreted by mass media) in order to convey the overly complex, monotonous anxiety of his personal war narrative.