March 28th, 2006
The Guardian has an engaging account of the 200 veterans, led by Iraq Veterans Against the War, who marked the third anniversary of the war by marching from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans. [
'If you start looking at them as humans, then how are you gonna kill them?'] The article gives a sense of the tremendous guilt these veterans bear and their desire to find a way to make restitution for what they did. As a psychoanalyst, I would love to understand why some soldiers take this path and others follow that of denial. Of course, there probably are some who truly believe they are doing good, but it is unlikely that number is very high. Rather, most do their “duty,” which means obeying orders and remaining a fighting machine. But, as Chris Hedges movingly emphasized in War is a force that gives us meaning, back home we have little need for the exquisite fighting machines that successful soldiers have been turned into. Antiwar or pro-war, we all have an interest in figuring out how to transform killing machines back into human beings who can live at peace with themselves and the rest of us. IVAW, with its “religious” zeal, shows one such route.
Blake says that the turning point for him came one day when his unit spent eight hours guarding a group of Iraqi women and children whose men were being questioned. He recalls: “The men were taken away and the women were screaming and crying, and I just remember thinking: this was exactly what Saddam used to do – and now we’re doing it.”
Becoming a peace activist, he says, has been a “cleansing” experience. “I’ll never be normal again. I’ll always have a sense of guilt.” He tells us that he witnessed civilian Iraqis being killed indiscriminately. It would not be the most startling admission by the soldiers on the march.
“When IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] would go off by the side of the road, the instructions were – or the practice was – to basically shoot up the landscape, anything that moved. And that kind of thing would happen a lot.” So innocent people were killed? “It happened, yes.” (He says he did not carry out any such killings himself.)
Jody Casey left the army five days ago and came straight to join the vets. The 29-year-old is no pacifist; he still firmly backs the military but says that he is speaking out in the hope of correcting many of the mistakes being made. He served as a scout sniper for a year until last February, based, like Blake, in the Sunni triangle.
He clearly feels a little ill at ease with some of the protesters’ rhetoric, but eventually agrees to talk to us. He says that the turning point for him came after he returned from Iraq and watched videos that he and other soldiers in his unit shot while out on raids, including hour after hour of Iraqi soldiers beating up Iraqi civilians. While reviewing them back home he decided “it was not right”.
What upset him the most about Iraq? “The total disregard for human life,” he says, matter of factly. “I mean, you do what you do at the time because you feel like you need to. But then to watch it get kind of covered up, shoved under a rug … ‘Oh, that did not happen’.”
What kind of abuses did he witness? “Well, I mean, I have seen innocent people being killed. IEDs go off and [you] just zap any farmer that is close to you. You know, those people were out there trying to make a living, but on the other hand, you get hit by four or five of those IEDs and you get pretty tired of that, too.”
Casey told us how, from the top down, there was little regard for the Iraqis, who were routinely called “hajjis”, the Iraq equivalent of “gook”. “They basically jam into your head: ‘This is hajji! This is hajji!’ You totally take the human being out of it and make them into a video game.”
It was a way of dehumanising the Iraqis? “I mean, yeah – if you start looking at them as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you going to kill them?”
That last question is one to be remembered as we hear all the nonsense about American troops “liberating” the Iraqis. You can’t liberate those you don’t regard as people.