"Spray and Pray" in Iraq


While flying off to Taiwan for a residency, I found myself sitting next to a young Hispanic man with a recent buzzcut.
Somewhere south of Anchorage, I asked him where he was going and he said, “Okinawa.”

“Are you in the service?” I asked.

He answered that he was a U.S. Marine.

“Have you been to Iraq yet?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied, “but I’m being sent there in a couple of weeks.”

The thought of this healthy young Californian walking into that mess disturbed me, but he seemed completely at ease about it.

“I’m not worried,” he said, without any bravado. “We can handle whatever they throw at us.”

It wasn’t the kind of bluster you get from Bush, the AWOl Guardsman with the fake–and poorly delivered–“Bring ’em on” JohnWayne lines. This was the real thing: a quiet confidence in his, and his unit’s abilities.

I asked this young man what he thought about the whole Iraq adventure.

“Well, the problem is that the Army’s made a mess of it,” he said. “They haven’t handled the occupation right. We in the Marines say that the Army has a policy of `spray and pray.’ If they take a shot from somewhere, they fire off everything they’ve got in every direction. When you do that, you kill lots of innocent people, and then you get a whole lot more people mad at you. It’s stupid, but that’s what they do.”

Asked how the Marines would handle things differently, he said they had been trained to be careful, to only shoot at legitimate targets, and to use minimal force.

It sounds nice in the abstract, but I wonder how well this theory of occupation will work in practice. I’m no veteran but conversations with veterans of wars from World War I through the first Iraq war have led me to believe that soldiers, however they’re trained, and whatever side they’re fighting for, tend to develop an attitude of dehumanizing the guys on the other side–an attitude that tends to carry over rather easily to the entire population of the enemy side, making the slaying of civilian innocents much easier, at least in the moment. It’s a transition that is hard to resist, and which later can lead to psychological trauma.

The aging bastards in Washington–most of them arm-chair chickenhawks and the major domo among them, the commander in chief, a duty-ducking AWOL– who have dragged this nation into war in Iraq, have much to answer for already. One of those things is the innocent American lives they have wantonly destroyed by sending them off to become hired killers.

The young man sitting next to me certainly didn’t look like a hardened killer. I found it easy to picture him playing with a younger sister and her friends on the floor of a living room, and very difficult to imagine him pumping M-16 rounds into an Iraqi teenager or old woman. I hope he never has to do that–I hope he doesn’t have to kill anybody–and that he comes home himself physically whole and looking as innocent and optimistic as I found him on the plane.

DAVE LINDORFF, author of “KillingTime: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Taiwan’s Sun Yat Sen University.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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