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Iraq Through the Lens of Soldiers' Memoirs

Aliens in an Alien Land

by STEPHEN SOLDZ

Nt so many years ago, perhaps five, there was a country known as "Iraq." That Iraq no longer exists. It has been replaced by two Iraqs. No, I am not referring here to the Kurdish Autonomous Region, nor to the nascent Shia statelet likely about to be created in the south, though either of these could be considered as break-up products of that former country.

I am, rather, referring to the two zones into which Iraq has become divided, the Green Zone and the Red Zone. The Green Zone, a.k.a. the "International Zone," the "Ultimate Gated Community," or more appropriately, the "United States of Iraq," is the place where the various would-be rulers of Iraq have congregated since the March-April 2003 invasion. The colonial administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), set up its headquarters here. After the June 2004 handover of "sovereignty" but little power to an Iraqi Interim Government with its Prime Minister forced upon United Nations officials nominally in charge by the United States, this government made its home in the Green Zone. The current "elected," but largely powerless, Shia-dominated government also "rules" from this zone.

For the Americans there, life in the Green Zone resembles life in the United States, with just enough of an exotic tinge to make it interesting. Nightclubs serve liquor, women jog in shorts and sports bras, and pool parties sometimes get wild. McDonalds and Burger King are available, though, just as in many modern American cities, kebabs served by real natives are available for the daring.

For the time of the CPA, the Green Zone was a nice career stop-over point for those hoping to get some attention in the modern Republican Party. A few months there helped get that coveted PR job back in the States. Of course there was the occasional mortar shell to contend with, but the hint of danger helped relieve the boredom that was, perhaps, the greater risk of service in the colonies.

So what of the Red Zone? It is the place where those Iraqis not cleared to get near the occupation forces live. The place where people go about their lives in a situation economically much worse off than that before the invasion. In the Red Zone people die by the tens or hundreds of thousands, from bombs and bullets, yes, both Iraqi and American, but also from crime, from disease, and from lack of basic medical care. In the Red Zone clean water is scarce, electricity available but a few hours a day, if that, and doctors are increasingly rare as the few remaining flee to the safety of exile. And boredom, that plague of the Green Zone, also plagues the Red Zone as millions of women and children, and increasingly men as well, are afraid to step outside the house for months on end as fear of murder and abduction keeps them under long-term house arrest.

The Green Zone sometimes sees conflict between US political officials with their fantastic visions of an occupied Iraq willing and able to submit to every whim of the occupiers, and the Iraqi officials with their visions of an ascendant Shia state. The Red Zone, in contrast, sees daily conflict between numerous militias with varied political and governmental loyalties, some labeled police, army, special Interior Ministry death and torture squads, others known as the militias of various political parties and organizations, while yet others are labeled as "insurgents," "terrorists," "jihadists," or "freedom fighters" depending on who is doing the labeling.

As Iraq is divided into these two separate but unequal worlds, there are those who go between them, who cross the barriers separating the two worlds. Among these are the US soldiers, the "grunts," upon whom the day-to-day tasks of occupation fall. Unlike the politicians, bureaucrats and corporate scam artists of occupation, who can often do their jobs without stepping foot in the Red Zone, these soldiers cross the border between the two Iraqs on a regular basis. Can these ambassadors of freedom, and of occupation, bridge the two Iraqs? How do they construe the situation thrust upon them? Perhaps the experiences of these soldiers can shed light upon the evolving relations of the two Iraqs, relations so complex as to challenge the pundits who attempt to make sense of the Iraqi mess for the folks back home.

Insights into the experiences of the US soldiers in Iraq can be found occasionally in the accounts of reporters and in the torrent of memoirs pouring out from those veterans desperate to tell their story as they seek, somehow, to fit back into a land they believed they were defending, but into which they no longer seem to fit.

I examined three early specimens of these memoirs–Colby Buzzell’s My War: Killing Time in Iraq; John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq; and Kayla Williams’ Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army–for insights into the experiences and inner lives of GIs in Iraq. These works, and their authors, each have distinctive perspectives to express. Two of them–Buzzell and Williams –enlisted in the army, whereas Crawford was one of those shocked National Guard troops victimized by the unprecedented massive use of the Guard to recruit for a war many at home did not consider worth fighting. Two of these authors–Crawford and Williams — were present during the initial invasion and had the experience of being welcomed as liberators by at least some of the population, whereas Buzzell arrived in Iraq in October, 2003, when the war after the victory was getting underway. And, of course, two of the authors are male, whereas Williams conveys some of the unique perspective of today’s female soldiers.

To begin with, how do these authors portray their motivation to fight in Iraq? Three reasons are mentioned: loyalty to comrades; keeping one’s contract (one’s word); and the excitement of combat. For all three, loyalty to comrades is a prime factor, though this loyalty is tinged with the need to prove that one is as tough as the rest, even to the extent, as in the case of Williams, of putting off needed medical care and suffering pain for months in fear of being deployed late and not serving with her buddies. It is also Williams who says: "It might not mean too much to give your word anymore, but that did not mean we would not keep ours" (p. 61).

But there is a thrill to combat that attracts on its own. Crawford discusses an outcast among his unit, a man about which "we all had our doubts over whether or not he was a ‘trigger-puller’–whether or not he could take a serious shot at someone–whereas the rest of us had come to live for the moment" (p. 65; emphasis added). This thrill, when combined with the bonds that hold the group together can be an overpowering force. Thus, Buzzell, after describing his return home to a world in which he may never again fit, a world in which he contemplated becoming a homeless veteran, gives a sense of the libidinous excitement that bonds as he concludes his story with:

"But then again, if I ever got a call from the battalion commander saying he was getting everyone from Second Platoon Company 1/23 INF back together to go ‘Punish the Deserving’ for one last tomahawk chop out there in Iraq, and that he was going to lead the way, and everyone was going, and they needed me as an M240 Bravo machine gunner again, I’d probably tell him, ‘That’s a good copy sir. Let’s roll.’

"Hell yeah."

Noticeably absent from these motivations was any interest in helping the Iraqi people, or even in removing those dreaded WMD. In fact, one of the characteristics of these books is that Iraqis are at best bit players in the story, referred to as they are by the varied terms: hajji, raghead, towelheads, camel jockeys, or "the fucking locals" (Williams, p. 200). None of these authors devoted much energy to trying to comprehend why thousands of Iraqis were risking their lives to fight the US troops in their country. None of these three books even mentions the divisions that divide Iraqi society and have become the basis for the developing civil war. In reading them I did not notice even the words Sunni or Shia. Kurds are hardly mentioned, and Arab-Kurd tension does not appear.

Williams, as an army linguist who received a year of Arabic training, had a distinct advantage over the other two authors; she could actually talk to Iraqis. Even so, her greatest opportunity to talk with Iraqis occurred when she spent time in the mountains near the Syrian border, meeting Yezidis, a mysterious Kurdish-speaking religious sect who, despite strong Islamic influences, insisted on telling Williams over and over: "We are like Jews. And we are like Christians. But we are not like Muslims. We love Americans because you hate Muslims" (pp. 184-185). These conversations forced Williams to assert, unsuccessfully, that Americans do not hate Muslims.

Perhaps because he arrived in Iraq several months into the occupation, after bases were built to house the soldiers and after the insurgency had started and it was becoming more dangerous for Americans to interact informally with Iraqis, Buzzell reports essentially no interactions with Iraqis other than those on base selling trinkets at the Hajji shops (p. 150), or when reading "Fuck You Americans" graffiti on a highway overpass (p. 170). For him "every single neighborhood in Iraq looks the same" (p. 336). The one Iraqi he was able to converse with was one of his unit’s Iraqi interpreters, "the first English-speaking Iraqi person I could find" (p. 330) who strongly supported the US invasion, saw considerable progress during the occupation, and opposed the resistance. This interpreter disappeared, either having resigned under threat of being killed or actually having been killed.

Crawford conveys the overall sense of alienation from Iraqis when he describes meeting a dog who licked his face: "At least someone in Iraq was glad to see me" (p. 43). When an Iraqi came to inform the Americans about an insurgent house, he describes the troops’ reaction: "I didn’t care about the informant — none of us did. I figured that killing him would only serve to decrease the hajji population by one, so fuck him" (p. 68).

At another point Crawford relays a conversation with one of his comrades about the Iraqis who drink on the banks of the Tigris:

"’You know there used to be bull sharks this far north in the Tigris?’ Sellars told me once. He had just read a book about man-eaters. ‘It got too polluted for them to live here. Too bad there aren’t any now. Wouldn’t that be some shit? Fucking Hajji getting eaten up.’

"’Yeah, I’d pay a dollar to see that’" (pp. 116-117).

Not surprisingly Crawford and his buddies raided these Iraqis to steal their beer, appearing to resent, especially, that these Iraqis could party and feel at home while the soldiers were aliens in this land.

Yet, for Crawford, and for Williams, there was a longing, a hunger, for contact with Iraqis, as there was for certain Iraqis to reach out to him. After inadvertently saving a homeless kid from bullies, Crawford developed a mascot nicknamed "Cum", who wanted nothing more than to protect his American protectors (pp. 101-106). Through Cum, Crawford met Leena, an English-speaking former university student forced to give up her studies because of the danger in postwar Iraq. Leena’s grandmother apparently tried to arrange a marriage. While Crawford, married already, wasn’t receptive to the proposal, there was a powerful pull as he found Leena’s company enjoyable, helping to distract him from life in an alien environment: "It was like being home, even if only for brief moments. Her smile was infectious, and her laughter sounded to me like flowers growing" (p. 111).

While the language of sexual attraction may be universal, the cultural context is ignored only at one’s peril. Leena’s cousin, who didn’t approve of her flirting with Crawford, intervened. Later, Crawford found out that Leena’s house had been burned down; he never saw Leena or Cum again. He turned his back on the house and went back to work. The problematic nature of this relationship for Crawford was indicated through the terms he used to express to his Sergeant his concerns about what happened to Leena and Cum, perhaps defensively, "I know they’re just hajjis, but still, you know, its kinda my fault for talking to them" (p. 113).

While these occasional attempts to make contact were thwarted, the soldiers mostly were absorbed with their job and deeply conflicted about the institution of which they were part. Despite having lots of unoccupied time, they had little time to actually reflect on the world into which they had entered. Part of the genius of the military, as it comes through in these memoirs, is its sadomasochistic structure that keeps the soldiers perpetually distracted and unable to critically reflect. Like any authoritarian bureaucracy, there are the absurd rules, the petty dictators, and the everyday rebellions. These rules and the accompanying rebellions deflect attention from the larger structures and contexts in which the soldiers are acting. The perpetual struggles around the ridiculous and the absurd distract from the overarching horror of war and occupation.

As Williams describes getting ready to deploy to Iraq, a deployment which she could have avoided by accepting an offered foot operation, she writes "FTA. We said it all the time. Some soldiers even took a Sharpie and wrote it on their duffels or their helmets or boots–any damn place they could find. Fuck the Army" (p. 63; emphasis in original). "Fuck the Army" but loyally serve it regardless.

Buzzell’s book is based on a blog he maintained while in Iraq, a blog which signally irritated the army brass, while sometimes receiving surreptitious praise. He signed his pieces CBFTW, leaving the clear impression that the "FTW" stood for "Fuck the War." Buzzell’s blog entries expressed the excitement of combat, but also tweaked the army and the brass. His entries became more provocative as he received opposition from military authorities. But, in the end, it’s the blog of someone who accepted the role of the complaining grunt and found he had no role when he returned stateside.

The sado-masochistic relationship of soldier to military permeates these soldiers’ relationships to the Iraqis they came in contact with, those who they occasionally liked to think they were helping and who were sometimes worth flirting with, but who were, after all, only hajjis. As Crawford relates, after U.S. troops shot two carjackers, killing one and unintentionally castrating the second, two medics found out that the castrated man had just gotten married that very night. "They went back to bed for the few remaining hours of darkness, slightly content in the knowledge that for at least one night, someone else was more unhappy than they were" (p. 121).

As the Green Zone became a microcosm of modern American life, with its Burger Kings and its nightclubs, the American soldiers were those representatives of the occupation forces who were not allowed to remain in relative safety, oblivious to the dangers of the Red Zone outside. The various military bases sometimes came to resemble mini-Green Zones, but the soldiers who lived in them had to cross the barrier into the Red Zone. If the authors of these memoirs are at all representative, real engagement with the lives of the Iraqis they met was essentially impossible. They remained as alien to the country as the political appointees flitting through the Green Zone on their way to Republican Party advancement. Regardless of the justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the occupation was doomed by its inability to make real contact, and hence to develop any understanding of the lives of most Iraqis. Absent any understanding of their way of life, the only way to make contact, real or imagined, was through death.

Seen in the light of the experiences described in these memoirs, the horrors of Haditha and the other massacres coming to light were likely, perhaps even inevitable, consequences of the occupation of a once-proud land by aliens for whom Iraq could only represent otherness, "not home," and for whom the people of this alien land would forever remain "hajjis."

STEPHEN SOLDZ is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.