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November 28, 2007

You Go to War with the Killers You Have, Not the Killers You Want

By: Bernard Chazelle

"Marines shot this boy!" he roars... He wants the boy evacuated to a field hospital. The major on duty informs him that Lieutenant Colonel Ferrando is sleeping and can't be disturbed. Fick is livid. "I wanted to tell the major that we were Americans, that Americans don't shoot kids and let them die, that the men in my platoon had to be able to look themselves in the mirror for the rest of their lives."

Lance Corporal Jeffrey Carazales:

Do you think people at home are going to see this—all these women and children we're killing? Fuck no. Back home they're glorifying this motherfucker, I guarantee you. Saying our president is a fucking hero for getting us into this bitch. He ain't even a real Texan.

Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick:

Worst of all were the accolades and thanks from people "for what you guys did over there." Thanks for what, I wanted to ask—shooting kids, cowering in terror behind a berm, dropping artillery on people's homes?

Evan Wright:

As Graves steps back in horror, his boot slips in the girl's brains. "This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home," he says.

Sergeant Antonio Espera:

Before we crossed in Iraq, I fucking hated Arabs. I don't know why. But as soon as we got here, it's just gone. I just feel sorry for them. I miss my little girl. Dog, I don't want to kill nobody's children.

Do you realize the shit we've done here, the people we've killed? Back home in the civilian world, if we did this, we would go to prison.

Evan Wright:

But when you see a little girl in pretty clothes that someone dressed her in, and she's smushed on the road with her legs cut off, you don't think, well you know there were Fedayeen nearby and this is collateral damage.

The problem with American society is we don't really understand what war is.

Sergeant Antonio Espera:

[The priest] told me killing is OK, for a purpose. Where in the bible does it say that? Where did Jesus say you can kill people for a purpose? As soon as the priest told me I could kill with a purpose, there was nothing he could tell me after that, because he lost all credibility with me.

Sources: Iraq: the Hidden Human Costs, by M. Massing, The New York Review of Books, Dec 20, 2007. (Not online yet.) Excerpts from "One Bullet Away" by N. Fick and "Generation Kill" by E. Wright (interview).

Posted at November 28, 2007 08:40 PM

Interesting title for your post. Please remember that, even though they originally signed up voluntarily, after listening to a very one-sided recruiter spiel, war participation for U.S. soldiers is not voluntary - if they decline to participate, they can punished with imprisonment or death by firing squad. And their service is indefinite - it's not a four-year contract, it can be extended forever at the pleasure of the government without recompense (and has been, google 'stop loss order'). When people do things under pain of death if they don't do them, we rarely hold them responsible.

When we punish wrong actions, we correctly put a large share of the blame on those who caused them to happen, not just those who actually performed them. Thus mafia bosses can be punished even though they never dirty their hands with mob hits. In this case, George Bush holds the absolute power over the conduct of this war - he exercises more control over U.S. soldiers than any mob boss could hope for. Bush's hands are responsible for every little girl splattered across the road, every little boy with both arms amputated at the shoulder, every little baby with its feet blown off and hanging.

And in a just world, Bush would pay for his crimes. In our world, he won't. But don't put the blame on U.S. soldiers, put the blame on those who ordered them, under pain of death, to commit these acts.

Posted by: Anon at November 28, 2007 09:50 PM

Iraq Vets Against the War is planning a "Winter Soldier" event the weekend of March 15, to feature testimony like this.

Which brings us to an important role for the antiwar movement: to be the ones willing to listen to vets when they return from the war. In his book Spitting Image, Jerry Lembke points out that many returning Vietnam vets found a home within the antiwar movement because the guys in the local VFW hall didn't want to hear what they had to say, because it didn't fit a patriotic narrative and because those Vietnam vets hadn't won "their" war.

We should expect something similar to happen this time.

Posted by: SteveB at November 28, 2007 11:06 PM

The Iraq war's signature feature is total absence of legitimacy.
That's why it was lost before the first Downing Street memo was written. Millions of ordinary sensible people saw that and opposed it.
One of many things sick freaks Bush, Cheney & Co don't understand:
Machines don't fight wars. People do, and they use their minds.
Now even the most high indoctrinated soldiers can see the fraud.

We all know what greedy shit-for-brains run this country and the absolute cynical contempt they hold for our brothers and sisters they call fodder units. We don't have to sit idly by while these guys're fucked over by ignorant jackasses. The Army & Marines are coming apart again just like they did 35 years ago the last time our brilliant national security elite fell through their asses.

Now they need OUR help. Here's one of many groups helping veterans deal with this insane lost fiasco:
Courage To Resist-Support the troops who refuse to fight

Lend a hand. It'll help soldiers putting up resistance, give those sick fucks in the driver's seat absolute fucking nightmares and you'll feel better for it. A real trifecta.

Posted by: Pvt. Keepout at November 28, 2007 11:30 PM

Yeah, I'd probably change the title. It's not that I approve of how "support the troops" often seems to mean "never mention that in guerilla wars the occupying army invariably kills as many or more civilians as it does guerillas". That's what's so refreshing about the Evan Wright interview--he really does support the troops, but not in some evil sentimental way where we all pretend that war is clean and our boys only kill "bad guys". (Leaving aside the question of who gave the US the right to designate who is a bad guy in Iraq.)

But that said, I don't think the guys that Wright knew should be demonized simply because they're the ones actually doing the killing--I'd save that for politicians, pundits, and anyone (in or out of the military) who is gung-ho about this war.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 29, 2007 12:28 AM

Who told these guys not to wage war from the boardroom? That option allows you to retain peace of mind.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at November 29, 2007 02:32 AM

I took the title to be saying that "the killers (they) want" wouldn't be troubled by these things, but "the killers (they) have" are. Chilling, and quite the opposite of demonizing. Did I misunderstand?

Posted by: ethan at November 29, 2007 02:36 AM

Everything is beautiful, in its own way

The ordinary soldier - the grunt, the noncom, and even the company-grade officer - really does suffer when he has to do these kinds of things. When we thank the soldiers for their sacrifice, what we are thanking them for is not only the killing they've done, but the suffering they endure as a result of their feelings for having done it, as well as the pain of witnessing all the suffering by their fellow sentient beings (both their comrades and those on the 'other side'). This is why we have several national holidays devoted to war - Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July - and I predict, under our next president, 9/11.

As unpleasant as the dirty job of war is, it is a necessary one, and if you [you the rulers, that is] want to get the job done (accumulate obscene wealth, and maintain and increase political power) somebody's got to do it. You would understand the situation better, Jonathan, and have a less troubled mind about it, if you could take a less limited perspective. Those who push the buttons of power (speaking metaphorically), who receive confidential briefings at their country estates and secure undisclosed locations, are able to see the whole situation in a way that the little guy operating at ground level does not.

Big Time

Peter Gabriel

"Big Time"

I'm on my way I'm making it, huh!
I've got to make it show yeah, hey!
So much larger than life
I'm gonna watch it growing
Hey hey hey heyyyyyyy

The place where I come from is a small town
They think so small, they use small words
But not me, I'm smarter than that,
I worked it out
I'll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out
I've had enough, I'm getting out
to the city, the big big city
I'll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own
And I will pray to a big god, as I kneel in the big church

Big time, I'm on my way I'm making it, big time, oh yes
Big time, I've got to make it show yeah, big time
Big time, so much larger than life
Big time, I'm gonna watch it growing, big time
Ho ohh ohh, oh oh, ho ohh ohh, oh ohhh

My parties have all the big names and I greet them with the widest smile
Tell them how my life is one big adventure
and always they're amazed when I show them 'round my house to my bed
I had it made like a mountain rage with a snow white pillow for my big fat head
And my heaven will be a big heaven, and I will walk through the front door

Big Time, I'm on my way I'm making it, big time, Huh!
Big time, I've got to make it show yeah, big time
Big time, so much larger than life
Big time, I'm gonna watch it growing, big time
Big time, my car is getting bigger
Big time, my house is getting bigger
Big time, my eyes are getting bigger
and my mouth
Big time, my belly's getting bigger
Big time, and my bank account
Big time, look at my circumstance
Big time, and the bulge in my big big big big big big big big big big big big big big big,

hi there

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 29, 2007 08:34 AM

As unpleasant as the dirty job of war is, it is a necessary one...

It's getting harder and harder to make the case that war is "necessary". Was Afghanistan or Iraq necessary? When we start bombing Iran, will that be necessary?

Posted by: SteveB at November 29, 2007 09:13 AM

SteveB says It's getting harder and harder to make the case that war is "necessary".

It is "necessary" in the sense that the rulers perceive that maintaining and increasing political power, and accumulating ever-greater wealth for the MICFiC [military-industrial-congressional-financial complex], is necessary. "War, what is it good for?" It is good for business, and for the ruling class more generally.

As our friends the Symbolic Interactionists have aphorized, "things perceived as real become real in their consequences". The "real" necessity of maintaining the metastasis of the MICFiC has real consequences. Will it be "necessary" to bomb Iran? In the sense of "necessary" that the MICFiC understands, I am afraid it will.

A sincere, not sarcastic, expression of my personal views can be found at

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 29, 2007 09:54 AM

These were "the boys next door" who were turned into killers by the government.

--from an interview with Aiden Delgado, an Army Reservist in the 320th Military Police Company, who served in Iraq from April 1st , 2003 through April 1st, 2004.

DELGADO: I went to Fort Knox for basic training. It was known to be harsher than other bases. The training was mentally taxing, and there was already some anti-Arab sentiment.

Q: Like what?

DELGADO: In the early stages I remember Army chants. We sang in cadences. And the chants had anti-Arab themes. Like burning turbans, killing ragheads, killing the Taliban.

Q: What did the chants say?

DELGADO: It was three years ago. I can’t tell the exact words, but the sentiment was to burn turbans and kill ragheads. That was the phraseology. Our drill sergeants would give us motivational talks to pump up our fighting spirit. The theme was the need to get revenge, to go to the Middle East to fight Arabs.

Q: All this was before you even went to Iraq?

DELGADO: Yes. My own commander was infamous for anti-Arab speeches. Before we were deployed to the Middle East, he said, “Now don’t go tell the media that you’re going over there to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans.”

Posted by: Don Bacon at November 29, 2007 10:23 AM

"War, what is it good for?" It is good for business, and for the ruling class more generally.

Sure, I get that, but that's not what they tell us when we're about to go to war, is it? Instead, they need to manufacture some pretext that war is in our interest. Why do they bother? Does it really matter whether the average person "believes in the mission"? Apparently it does, if the stories of these vets are to be believed. Soldiers (or at least the ones that aren't crazy) don't risk their lives for the "MICFiC". They do so primarily (from what I've read) out of self-defense, or the need to defend their buddies, but also because they believe the battle they are engaged in is necessary. And, in that sense, I do believe it's getting harder and harder to justify war as "necessary."

Posted by: SteveB at November 29, 2007 10:44 AM

Hey, how many of US actually put SOME effort to get rid of these evil men in OUR administration? Why I can get HOURS of wasted time built up trying to get someone to make ONE PHONECALL to protest the matter, with little or no results.( MOST call me a dumbass or an idiot, and I'm beginning to agree)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 29, 2007 11:11 AM

You're probably right, Ethan. Bernard will probably come along and explain. I don't think Bernard meant anything bad--I'm just being a well-meaning concern troll and pointing out that it's best to avoid any misunderstandings about who is being criticized.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 29, 2007 11:17 AM
The ordinary soldier - the grunt, the noncom, and even the company-grade officer - really does suffer when he has to do these kinds of things.

That's why we like to automate these things and get a little bit of distance between the trigger and the point of impact. Out of compassion for them.

In a perfect world, we push a button here and get a result there. While the result, there, is being assessed, we can refill the cup-o-joe over at the coffee machine, stroll back to the cube, and catch up on the blogger news.

A predator circling overhead doesn't have to worry about getting some icky brain matter on it's shoes. Smartly, it doesn't have any shoes. That's process improvement in action baby!

Bernard: I don't think you were ever in the military looking at your bio, but you have a better understanding of what the military mission is than many in the military do. That is: To destroy, to wreck, to kill, to render asunder, to humiliate, to dominate, to frustrate, to demonstrate the futility of resistance to will. The marching in parades, the spiffy uniforms, the appeals to patriotism and freedom, the cool, noisy toys -- that's all icing on the cake to distract from the fine print.

Like the unfortunate homeowners with ARMs, some people are now forced to look at the contractual fine print out of necessity. Pretty unpleasant the fine print is; almost makes you think there's a reason why it's so fine.

Posted by: Ted at November 29, 2007 11:32 AM

Ethan is correct. I am sorry if there was any ambiguity in the title.

From the army's point of view, the very humanity of the soldiers featured in Massing's piece makes them bad soldiers:

Fick dropped out of the Marines in disgust.

Sgt Espera was kicked out of his battalion and is fighting mental issues. He's obsessed that because he killed many people his daughter will be taken away from him (by God?)

Bakers bake, drivers drive, teachers teach, and Marines kill. This is not a value judgment: I didn't call them murderers or psychopaths. I called them killers because that's precisely what they are trained to be.

Ted: Actually I did serve in the army (as did both of my brothers) -- I lived in France at the time and it was compulsory. But I used an option given to me to serve in the civil service: that meant 2 years of service instead of 1, but I don't regret a minute of it. And the few days of boot camp were an interesting experience...

But my parents saw war up close and personal. Far too close. And I'd be lying if I said I was not profoundly marked by that growing up.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at November 29, 2007 12:46 PM

Benard Chazell: YOU do understand the problem here, don't you? YOU (this means YOU) must have had SOME military experience to understand or voice an opinion of war. It matters not that YOU ARE A TAXPAYER PAYING FOR THE WAR, or a Mom with a baby running from a machinegun, or a taxi driver being run over by a tank. YOU have to have actually fired that machinegun or driven in that tank. Only the players are allowed that voice. (but then I do regret MY experience these many years. live and hopefully learn)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 29, 2007 01:09 PM

I understood, at least abstractly, the horrors of war long before I came of enlistment age and so never even came close to joining the military. And I've always had a difficult time understanding the mindset of those who do and willingly go off to fight wars so it's welcome, if horrifying, to read the words above.

I'd also like to recommend the jottings of the pseodonymous Milo Freeman, who is serving in Iraq now and can be read here:

Posted by: Rojo at November 29, 2007 01:11 PM

Whee, I like being correct.

Posted by: ethan at November 29, 2007 02:36 PM
Benard Chazell: YOU do understand the problem here, don't you? YOU (this means YOU) must have had SOME military experience to understand or voice an opinion of war.

I don't know where you got that from; it wasn't my intent to imply it if you're referring to my post. My point is that people in the military can have an overly idealized expectation -- as can be read from the excerpts presented. Else why would you get all icky over stepping on brains, unless you expected it to be antiseptic. Just wait for HDTV smellevision.

I thought the title of the blugpost was apt.

Posted by: Ted at November 29, 2007 02:56 PM

Rojo: My reason was I had a wife and child and saw the military as the answer to my dreams, a job with healthcare for my family and housing. (the three bears---bare table, bare feet, bare ass)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 29, 2007 03:40 PM

Ted: People in the Military know exactly what it is, it's KNOWING how to live with it is where things fall apart, I think. I certainly mean no slight to you, it's just that I see the chickens are coming HOME to roost and they are fat, very aggressive, and vulture like and landing on the front porch, even as WE speak.( WE won't need HDTV smellevision to see the show, much like Baghdad, it will be right there in the front yard)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 29, 2007 04:29 PM