Occupation, Resistance and the Plight of the GIs

As US forces discovered the bodies of two soldiers, missing since Wednesday, and a guerrilla ambush killed a further serviceman and wounded four others, a senior American officer warned: “The first clear message that we have to take out of here is that this war is not over. I think that is pretty clear to all of us.”

Independent, June 29

As of this writing, June 29, 24 U.S. soldiers have died at the hands of Iraqis. That’s one every sixty hours or so since May 1, when Bush declared victory, and the frequency of fatal attacks has been accelerating in the last couple weeks. The British have lost 6 to Iraqi attacks. The Anglo-American occupation forces move about in fear; regularly panic (just today shooting to death an 11-year old boy on a rooftop); provoke the people through intrusive and humiliating house searches, seizing weapons and even money. Quite naturally, the Iraqis respond to an invasion, regarded as illegal and immoral by most governments and the Vatican, with indignation and (perfectly legitimate, legal, and predictable) resistance. U.S. government officials and the corporate media are unsure of how to characterize that resistance. Some call it coordinated and organized; others call it disorganized and random. (Probably some of both?) Some (including Wolfowitz) call it “guerrilla war;” Newsweek (June 29) reports that Washington realizes it confronts an “escalating guerrilla insurgency.” Others insist that it’s mere criminality. (Yesterday Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, denying that the U.S. is fighting a guerrilla war, blamed the tens of thousands of common criminals released from prison in the last months of the Saddam regime for attacks on U.S. troops.) Some call the resistors “insurgents” (MSNBC); others “non-compliant elements” (Boston Globe); others “Baathist remnants,” “supporters of Saddam Hussein,” “Iranian-backed Shi’ite Islamists,” or of course, terrorists.

“What’s going on over there?” asks MSNBC’s wide-eyed Alex Witt, of former secretary of defense and resident “expert” Lawrence Korb. “Is this normal?” Although Korb, like virtually all such experts appearing on the television news programs, speaks in support of the war and occupation, he explains that it is understandable that there would be negative reactions to the way the occupation has been conducted so far. It was a mistake, he says, to appoint a military man, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, as the first administrator of occupied Iraq; that caused us to “lose a month.” But never mind those nasty attacks on the troops; the U.S. will occupy Iraq for “at least a decade.” “The idea that we will be in just as long as we need to and not a day more,” scoffs Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, “we’ve got to get over that rhetoric. It is rubbish! We’re going to be there a long time” (Time Online). That, at least, is their intention.

The logic of those predicting long occupation (including key officials in the administration) seems to be as follows. Since there is so much opposition, it will take years to quell. And since democratic elections would almost certainly produce a Shi’ite theocracy in the south, where 60% of the population live, the expeditious transition to Iraqi rule promised during the build-up to war has been ruled out. In an interview with the Washington Post (June 28), L. Paul Bremer III, the civil administrator of Iraq, said that while there is “no blanket prohibition” against self-rule, and he is not personally “opposed to it,” he wants to “do it a way that takes care of our concerns. . . Elections that are held too early can be destructive. It’s got to be done very carefully.” In other words, he’s not totally against democracy (for Arabs), but he needs time to reeducate these people, weaken the hold of Islam on their thinking, inculcate American political values, and assist Ahmad Chalabi and other longtime clients in establishing a support base. Only then can we leave.

But how realistic is such thinking? Clearly the neocons, in their smug arrogance, were dead wrong about the Iraqi response to invasion and occupation. (The Defense Department not long ago was predicting that U.S. troop strength could be reduced to 30,000, keeping the peace in a nation of happy appreciative pro-U.S. Iraqis, by the fall! Nowadays they’re asking for precisely 30,000 troops from other countries to augment the growing U.S. force and help pacify the disorder generated by U.S. aggression.) Some blame Chalabi for encouraging the optimistic scenario of cheering crowds welcoming liberation à la Paris, 1944. Localized enthusiasm turned out to be short-lived; Chalabi’s found zero support; plans for genuine Iraqi participation in government have been put on hold; the Bremer administration is short on staff and competence; vital services remain crippled. (The mainstream press refers to “mounting frustration” about delays in restoring water and power; would it not be more accurate to refer to anger at the bombing that crippled Iraq’s infrastructure in the first place?) The Iraqis appear to perceive their “liberation” as occupation, Shi’ites and Sunnis alike marching while chanting Ya Amreeka, Ya Saddam (“No to America, No to Saddam!”) Charles Pena, director of the conservative Cato Institute think tank in Washington, has noted that “The longer the US stays, however well intentioned and noble the motive, the more Iraqis will come to resent a foreign occupier.” This he calls a “cruel irony” (AFP, June 28).

U.S. intelligence is well aware of the problem. Retired Air Force Col. Richard M. Atchison, a former intelligence officer for the Central Command, told the Washington Post (June 27): “I thought we were holding our own until this week, and now I’m not sure. If we don’t get this operation [a workable government] moving soon, the opposition will continue to grow, and we will have a much larger problem.” A former Defense Intelligence Agency expert on Arab issues, Jeffrey White, agrees: “There are a lot of worrisome aspects about the current situation. Resistance is spreading geographically, resistance groups seem to be proliferating in Sunni areas, resistance elements appear to be tactically adaptive, resistance elements appear to be drawn from multiple elements of Sunni society, our operations inevitably create animosity by inflicting civilian casualties, disrupting lives, humiliating people and damaging property.” Retired Marine Gen. Carlton Fulford foresees “a long, tough haul in Iraq The longer this goes on, the more violent these events will become. We learned this in Lebanon and Somalia — and Iraq is much more challenging than either of these.” Retired General William Nash, former commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia and now a senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations, told The Observer June 22 that the occupation of Iraq “is an endeavour which was not understood by the administration to begin with [W]e are now seeing the re-emergence of a reasonably organised military opposition—small scale, but it could escalate” He says that opposition is not confined to Saddam supporters; “What we are facing today is a confluence of various forces which channel the disgruntlement of the people.”

Kroll Inc., a risk consulting company, issued a report to corporate clients this month predicting as the most likely scenarios for the rest of 2003 either outright Iraqi revolt against the occupation or a “wobbly landing” involving continued instability but not outright revolt (Reuters, June 27). The generals and intelligence agents are worried; so is the White House, its bravado notwithstanding. They need to be worried about a resistance movement that is generating organizations: the Return Party, the Black Flags Group, the National Liberation Front, and others. Ayatollah Hakim, leader of the influential Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution, warns of more armed resistance would increase if the occupation doesn’t end soon (Guardian, June 26). It appears the resistance is ideologically diverse, ranging from secularists to both Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalists. The administration needs to be worried, too, about tribal leaders, even as they attempt to win their support. After a meeting with Bremer, Sheikh Fahran al-Sadeed, powerful head of the Shamir tribe, told the London Telegraph, “If the Americans stay as our guests, they can stay 100 years. If they stay as our invaders, they will not last two. I will fight, my people will fight too” (“Desert sheikhs feast on hate for detested American ‘invaders’,” June 28).

Then there is that other problem: the troops. Sgt. Adrian Pedro Quinones, in Fallujah, expresses frustration at local civilian hostility. “Like, in Fallujah we get rocks thrown at us by kids. You wanna turn round and shoot one of the little f*****s but you know you can’t do that. Their parents know if they came out and threw rocks we’d shoot them. So that’s why they send the kids out.” Specialist Anthony Castillo frankly admits to killing civilians: “When there were civilians there we did the mission that had to be done. When they were there, they were at the wrong spot, so they were considered enemy.”

Both Quinones and Cpl. Michael Richardson admit to killing injured enemy: “The worst thing is to shoot one of them, then go help him,” says Quinones, “In that situation you’re angry, you’re raging” and although regulations call for him to provide medical assistance to the injured, “S***, I didn’t help any of them. I wouldn’t help the f******. There were some you let die. And there were some you double-tapped. Once you’d reached the objective, and once you’d shot them and you’re moving through, anything there, you shoot again. You didn’t want any prisoners of war. You hate them so bad while you’re fighting, and you’re so terrified, you can’t really convey the feeling, but you don’t want them to live.” (Evening Standard, June 19). Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Bodley, chaplain for the First Reconnaissance Battalion, admits, “The zeal these young men have for killing surprises me. When I first heard them talk so easily about taking human lives, using such profane language, it instilled in me a sense of disbelief and rage. People here think Jesus is a doormat” (Evan Wright, “From Hell to Baghdad,” Rolling Stone, July 10; highly recommended).
It’s natural to hate people who are trying to kill you, to denigrate them as “ragheads” or “Hajjis.” Your commanding officers order you to do house-to-house searches, binding every family members’ hands behind their backs, with plastic handcuffs (the Arab press is filled with pictures of fully-armored GIs binding children face-down on the floors of their homes).

You tend to dehumanize the “enemy,” and that in turn dehumanizes you. Sgt. First Class John Meadows declares, “You can’t distinguish between who’s trying to kill you and who’s not. Like, the only way to get through s*** like that was to concentrate on getting through it by killing as many people as you can, people you know are trying to kill you. Killing them first and getting home.” Sgt. Antonio Espera told Wright, “Do you realize the stuff we’ve done here, the people we’ve killed? Back home in the civilian world, if we did this, we would go to prison.” Just as was the case in Vietnam, the brutality you’re obliged to enact can have a heavy psychological toll. Sgt. Meadows says men under his command have been suffering from severe depression: “They’ve already seen psychiatrists and the chain of command has got letters back saying ‘these men need to be taken out of this situation’. But nothing’s happened. Some soldiers don’t even f****** sleep at night. They sit up all f****** night long doing s*** to keep themselves busy—to keep their minds off this f****** stuff. It’s the only way they can handle it. It’s not so far from being crazy but it’s their way of coping.”

Just one example of “this fucking stuff,” provided in Wright’s Rolling Stone article. On March 30, a car races through a roadblock in north central Iraq, producing a massive burst of weapons fire from Recon’s Charlie Company. Protracted screeching of tires. Unarmed men run from the car, waving their hands, dropping obediently to the ground at Marines’ instruction.

“Two Marines cautiously approach the car. It is shot up, its doors wide open, lights still on. Sgt. Charles Graves sees a small girl of about three curled up on the back seat. There’s a small amount of blood on the upholstery, but the girl’s eyes are open. Graves reaches in to pick her up—thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her, he later says—then the top of her head slides off and her brains drop out. When Graves steps back, he nearly falls over when his boot slips in the girls brains No weapons are found in the car. A translator asks the father, sitting by the side of the road, why he didn’t heed the warning shots and stop it. He simply repeats, ‘I’m sorry,’ and meekly asks permission to pick up his daughter’s body. The last the Marines see of him, he is walking down the road carrying her corpse in his arms.”

Multiply that civilian death by at least 5570 and imagine the number of nightmares that await the troops. 500,000 Vietnam veterans live with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sooner or later the troops have to ask why they’re there, doing such things. “‘What are we getting into here?’ asked a sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division who is stationed near Baqubah, a city 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. ‘The war is supposed to be over, but every day we hear of another soldier getting killed. Is it worth it? Saddam isn’t in power anymore. The locals want us to leave. Why are we still here?'” (Washington Post, June 20). Sgt. Meadows has his answer. “There’s a picture of the World Trade Center hanging up by my bed and I keep one in my Kevlar [flak jacket]. Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think, ‘They hit us at home and, now, it’s our turn.’ I don’t want to say payback but, you know, it’s pretty much payback.”

Hard to imagine a greater crime than to cultivate professional killers who feel no remorse at killing civilians, and encourage them (as the Bush administration does) to see the war on Iraq as part of the “war on terrorism” and as payback for Sept. 11. It is a mentality immediately transferable to Syria, or for that matter, non-Arab Iran. According to Wright (“The Killer Elite,” Rolling Stone, June 26), “many of the tanks and Humvees stopped along the road [to Nasiriyah] are emblazoned with American flags or motto slogans such as ‘Angry American’ or ‘Get Some'[or] with the 9/11 catchphrase ‘Let’s Roll!’ stenciled on the side.” Has no commanding officer of chaplain explained to these soldiers that the only thing the kids of Fallujah, or the Iraqi people in general, have in common with the Sept. 11 hijackers is that they’re all Arabs? To promote this payback mentality is to deliberately exploit racism on behalf of Washington’s geopolitical goals. The soldiers sent into this racist war are victims; many will come back very messed up. Says Cpl. Richardson: “At night time you think about all the people you killed. It just never gets off your head, none of this stuff does. There’s no chance to forget it, we’re still here, we’ve been here so long.”

The bloody occupation should end, as the Iraqis demand (and as some in Britain are demanding) But despite its disastrous outcome to date, and the discrediting of the war rationale, the global antiwar movement that so heroically mobilized against the war cannot in itself force the withdrawal of the invaders. The mainstream media makes light of the lies that led to occupation; politicians of both parties avoid making the (ongoing) war an issue; many Americans, unconcerned that they’ve been duped, opine that, “At least a dictator’s been overthrown,” although the assertion that “the Iraqi people have been liberated” becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.

Only the Iraqis can turn the tide of public opinion in this country, by doing what they’ve been doing: making imperialist occupation costly and untenable. (Gen. Wesley Clark has actually suggested that if armed resistance mounts the U.S. may have to consider withdrawal next year.) Meanwhile GI feelings of betrayal, and their desire to leave the nightmare and get back home (where many were promised they’d be by now) may also factor into Iraq’s yet uncertain future. As in Vietnam, the troops come to resent their officers. Specialist Anthony Castillo declares, “We’re more angry at the generals who are making these decisions and who never hit the ground, and who don’t get shot at or have to look at the bloody bodies and the burnt-out bodies, and the dead babies and all that kinda stuff” (Evening Standard). Marine Sgt. Christopher Wasik, near Kut, told Wright, “In some morbid realm it may be a possibility that the commander wants some of us to die, so when he sits around with other leaders, they don’t snicker at him and ask what kind of shit he got into. Yeah, that’s the suspicion around here.”

Once again Sgt. Quinones: “Most of these soldiers are in their early twenties and late teens. They’ve seen, in less than a month, more than any man should see in a whole lifetime. It’s time for us to go home.” Private First Class James Mierop, 20, from Joliet, Illinois: “I think a lot of people here are at the breaking point. I think everybody’s had enough. Everybody is just ready to go home. I’m definitely ready to go home” (Islam Online, June 23). First Class Joe Cruz, 18, Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division, Fallujah: “I think I had enough. It’s time for us to go home” (AFP). Sgt. Brad Colbert, quoted in Rolling Stone: “This country is dirty and nasty, and the sooner we are out of here, the better.” It was wrong for them to be sent into an impossible situation; equally wrong for them to remain.

Support the troops. Bring them home.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu