A number of children at a Halloween parade this Sunday in Newark, Delaware, came as Zombies. It’s a simple get-up: talcum powder hair, ashen face, black-rimmed, vacant eyes. The blank stare is vital, but the kids usually let exuberance get the better of the demands of the character. A college student had been far more convincing the weekend before, staggering down Main Street with a stake through his clown costume while his sidekick, a kind of Heidi-goes-Zombie in Tyrolean dress, stared crazily into space. The children performed better as Death. Beyond the black hood and sickle, the role requires little, and the kids, after all, have been living with it most of their lives.
One probably shouldn’t read much into the sight of tykes suited up as the Reaper or the soulless dead; this is Halloween, holiday of the world upside down, and both are cheap, easy costumes when Mom or Dad has lost a job and the repo man is round the corner. But seven years of war have made death a too-close acquaintance, so close that without a loved one whose job it is to kill or suffer or lie about it in silence and despair, the wars have become almost forgettable. Horror as the background music, or Muzak, of life. When WikiLeaks released the biggest trove of classified military documents in the history of US whistleblowing at the start of the same weekend, the volume went up a few notches. Not enough to spoil the fun on Sunday, just enough to inject a little pathos into the children’s spectacle.
From only a cursory review, what is most striking about the tranche of soldiers’ reports from Iraq released last Friday, beyond the audacity of the leak itself, is how well they capture the nature of war: long stretches of tedium or confusion punctuated by terrible violence. And what is most shocking about the public response to the documents is that anyone is shocked. Can it really be a surprise that more than 100,000 are dead and most were Iraqi civilians? Naturally, the Pentagon cries about threats to national security, but it is difficult to take that cry seriously when it comes in the form of a tweet from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If the medium still is the message, a condemnation by Twitter suggests that the secrets released by WikiLeaks are as significant to the country’s security as a teenager’s latest crush update is to the history of love.
I will leave it to war reporters to detail exactly how the documents’ revelations of casualty figures, civilian slaughter, mercenary violence, torture and looking the other way confirm what we already knew about the mission of our own troops and the Iraqis we enabled. Details matter for the writing of official history or the preparation of evidence, but they shouldn’t be necessary to prick the public conscience. The pall of death and horror has been right on the surface all these years, an ordinary thing borne by ordinary men and women living among us.
Five years ago while covering the Abu Ghraib trials in Fort Hood, Texas, I met a blond young man who had recently come home from an extended tour in Iraq. I had just had dinner with him, his wife and their three little girls. We were leaving the restaurant, some unmemorable franchise along a divided highway of indistinguishable places where soldiers and their families go for a night out. As we were leaving the restaurant, the little girls running ahead and their mother trying to corral them, he turned and told me quickly in a low voice that he had been at Abu Ghraib once. It was a considerable time after the scandalous pictures had blazed round the world, and after the command of the prison had changed, bringing tighter rules and a greater awareness, it was said, of the rights of prisoners. This soldier and others in his platoon were bringing in an Iraqi man. “Make sure he gets special treatment,” they told the guard; “he killed one of ours.” The guard gestured to an empty cell as if to say, “Do what you like with him.” The Americans beat the man until he was a heap on the floor.
Nothing stopped because of that first big scandal of the war, this soldier said. Not the prison, not the killing, not the casual brutality. He leaned up against the back of his Grand Cherokee for a smoke. It was a hot night in Texas. He was wearing rubber flipflops and stepping from foot to foot almost mechanically. He was spitting sideways in the same manner: the step, the spit, the pull on the cigarette, repeated in rhythmic cadence. He flicked the butt away once he’d smoked down to the filter, and continued telling of what he did in the war.
“People go on about bombing; do you have any idea what I did? I called in artillery strikes. Some of them can take out whole blocks. Everything is dead.”
He told me specifics of engagement and ambush that only someone who was there could follow, and told himself more than me that maybe the whole damned experience was worth it because of those women with purple thumbs on the day of the very first Iraqi elections. Rather unexpectedly in this monologue, he said, “As long as I live, I can never do enough good to make up for all the bad I done.”
He was already a man with a lifetime’s regret and he was 28. A few days later, we were sitting outside in front of his home on post at Fort Hood. He, his wife and I were drinking cold beers, their daughters playing and laughing an easy distance away. I think the oldest girl was 5; the baby in diapers.
“The fact is, I’m a trained killer,” he said. “I hate to say it, I hate to even think it when I look at those little girls, but it’s true.” The light had dropped, making him visible only in silhouette, like someone in a witness protection program interviewed on camera. His contract with the army was about up, and he was thinking about what to do next. Maybe he’d be a cop or a prison guard. His specialty in artillery had not exactly prepared him for a career in the civilian world. That night he was toying with going back to Iraq as a private contractor; the money he’d make with Blackwater could pay for his daughters to go to college.
“You might also die,” I said stupidly.
“Yeah, but you know some people are worth more dead than alive.”
This soldier had not piled naked prisoners into pyramids or forced them to simulate fellatio. He had not hung out of an Apache helicopter and shot down journalists and others for sport. He had not delivered political enemies to Iraqis for torture, or even driven down a road shooting at everything that moved. No scandal attached to his service. He was any American soldier waiting for an honorable discharge, weighing his options, assessing his actions, and worrying that if somehow the bedroom door was left open while he took his afternoon nap one of the little girls might wander in and try to wake him, and then he might reflexively kill her.
The WikiLeaks documents don’t divulge those kinds of quotidian secrets, but from the sheer number of documents — 391,832 — it is possible to get a rough gauge of the specialization of the war workforce, the nature of the work, the number of killed and therefore the weight carried around by those who grieve and by the soldiers who did the bloody jobs or wrote the reports or simply lived with everyday violence.
The heavy redaction of these records — WikiLeaks’ concession to its liberal critics, who seem overeager to do the government’s job to protect the business of death — makes them difficult to read. More important than any one or 1,000 or 100,000 documents, though, is the fundamental defiance of the WikiLeaks project, of the soldiers who chucked obedience to provide the material, and of the project’s founder and technical genius, Julian Assange.
The Pentagon says simultaneously that there is “nothing new” in the reports and that those who divulged them are dangerous enemies. It has 22-year-old Spc. Bradley Manning locked up in Quantico for providing documents, and Assange is in the cross hairs for publishing them. It’s truly disgusting, then, that The New York Times, CNN et al. should choose this time to explore whether WikiLeaks might be better off without Assange; whether perhaps he is a bad boss, a bad date, a bad man, just too much all around, “haunted” and homeless. Assange may be egocentric; what of it? He certainly has reason to be paranoid. Swedish courts will determine the validity of molestation charges against him, but he would not be the first opponent of the US government who was targeted for a fall through rumor and sex. In any case it was all a bit overdetermined that in the flash of a weekend the story should shift from news report to soap opera to hit job, by media organizations that accommodated to war crimes before the first bomb fell.
To be frank, though, we have all learned to live too easily with death, with war as a way of life for someone, somewhere, just not here in the line of sight, and with a militarized system that depends for control on administering tolerable doses of horror — dribs and drabs of reality — and expects omerta among those for whom it is intolerable.
A few months after that night drinking beers at Fort Hood, I was again in Killeen, Texas. A taxi driver bringing me in from the bus station told me he had planned to be career military, but things changed when he did his time in Iraq. Now his wife was a few months from getting out of the army herself, he said, and then they would leave this bleached, desiccated town, this awful swathe of beige and neon and yellow ribbons in the middle of nowhere, and do something else. Other than that, he didn’t want to talk about Iraq. We rode through the nighttime streets in a thick silence. Outside the motel he turned toward me as he made change. It was a cheap place with brash lighting that cut slantwise through the taxi window and gave one side of his brown, angular face an intense clarity. He looked at me. “I killed a family,” he said. “At a checkpoint. I killed them all.” That was it. I took the change, and he drove off.
JOANN WYPIJEWSKI is on the road in a ’63 Valiant, sending stories to CounterPunch as she goes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org