In 1970, when I arrived at my unit, Company A, 4th Battalion/503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade, in what was then the Republic of Vietnam, I was charged up for a fight. I believed that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, we’d eventually be fighting this global conspiracy in the streets of Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’d been toughened by Basic Training, Infantry Training and Parachute Training, taught how to use my weapons and equipment, and I was confident in my ability to vanquish the skinny unter-menschen. So I was dismayed when one of my new colleagues–a veteran who’d been there ten months–told me, “We are losing this war.”
Not only that, he said, if I wanted to survive for my one year there, I had to understand one very basic thing. All Vietnamese were the enemy, and for us, the grunts on the ground, this was a race war. Within one month, it was apparent that everything he told me was true, and that every reason that was being given to the American public for the war was not true.
We had a battalion commander whom I never saw. He would fly over in a Loach helicopter and give cavalier instructions to do things like “take your unit 13 kilometers to the north.” In the Central Highlands, 13 kilometers is something we had to hack out with machetes, in 98-degree heat, carrying sometimes 90 pounds over our body weights, over steep, slippery terrain. The battalion commander never picked up a machete as far as we knew, and after these directives he’d fly back to an air-conditioned headquarters in LZ English near Bong-son. We often fantasized together about shooting his helicopter down as a way of relieving our deep resentment against this faceless, starched and spit-shined despot.
Yesterday, when I read that US Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, in a moment of blustering arm-chair machismo, sent a message to the ‘non-existent’ Iraqi guerrillas to “bring ’em on,” the first image in my mind was a 20-year-old soldier in an ever-more-fragile marriage, who’d been away from home for 8 months. He participated in the initial invasion, and was told he’d be home for the 4th of July. He has a newfound familiarity with corpses, and everything he thought he knew last year is now under revision. He is sent out into the streets of Fallujah (or some other city), where he has already been shot at once or twice with automatic weapons or an RPG, and his nerves are raw. He is wearing Kevlar and ceramic body armor, a Kevlar helmet, a load carrying harness with ammunition, grenades, flex-cuffs, first-aid gear, water, and assorted other paraphernalia. His weapon weighs seven pounds, ten with a double magazine. His boots are bloused, and his long-sleeve shirt is buttoned at the wrist. It is between 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit at midday. He’s been eating MRE’s three times a day, when he has an appetite in this heat, and even his urine is beginning to smell like preservatives. Mosquitoes and sand flies plague him in the evenings, and he probably pulls a guard shift every night, never sleeping straight through. He and his comrades are beginning to get on each others’ nerves. The rumors of ‘going-home, not-going-home’ are keeping him on an emotional roller coaster. Directives from on high are contradictory, confusing, and often stupid. The whole population seems hostile to him and he is developing a deep animosity for Iraq and all its people–as well as for official narratives.
This is the lad who will hear from someone that George W. Bush, dressed in a suit with a belly full of rich food, just hurled a manly taunt from a 72-degree studio at the ‘non-existent’ Iraqi resistance.
This de facto president is finally seeing his poll numbers fall. Even chauvinist paranoia has a half-life, it seems. His legitimacy is being eroded as even the mainstream press has discovered now that the pretext for the war was a lie. It may have been control over the oil, after all. Anti-war forces are regrouping as an anti-occupation movement. Now, exercising his one true talent–blundering–George W. Bush has begun the improbable process of alienating the very troops upon whom he depends to carry out the neo-con ambition of restructuring the world by arms.
Somewhere in Balad, or Fallujah, or Baghdad, there is a soldier telling a new replacement, “We are losing this war.”
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He retired in 1996 from the US Army, from 3rd Special Forces. He lives in Raleigh.
He can be reached at: email@example.com