Close your eyes, and take a journey with me.
It’s another sickeningly hot day. By now, though, you’re used to the heat, and how it manages to sap the vigor from your bones…which explains why the people here move at such a languid pace.
You’ve had your morning chow, you’ve jolted yourself to a semblance of your normal self by chugging a couple of cups of barely mediocre instant coffee. You would’ve hit the gym, but that’ll have to wait till nightfall. Now that the surge is in full swing, the days tend to move with some kind of purpose.
You’re floating above New Baghdad in your Apache, making seemingly lazy figure 8s above the neighborhoods that have claimed so many lives, American, Sunni and Shi’a. It’s the 7th month of your tour, and there’s nothing you’d rather be doing more than drinking a beer and grilling brats in your backyard.
There’s nowhere you’d rather be less than New Baghdad, but it was there we went four long years ago, and, hell, well there you are. And instead of gripping an icy cool drink, you’re floating above a city that never sleeps, however long and slow the days may roll on by.
Suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you see a gaggle of Iraqi men. Your gut, your personal experiences over two tours – and the experiences of your friends – tell you nothing good comes out of a gaggle of Iraqi men lollygagging about in daylight, with nowhere particular to go, and nothing particular to do.
You and your pilot swoop in to get a closer look…and when you do, you notice that at least two of the men are shouldering something. You’re high above the scene, but there are American units in the area. For all you know and have experienced, these men could be setting up an ambush – and because you don’t want more American casualties, you decide to engage.
As you keep an eye on the scene using your targeting systems, you spy one of the men crawling around the corner of a building with something that looks like an RPG launcher. In a split second, your decision to engage and open fire looks prescient – and you frantically radio back to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), asking for clearance.
You get the clearance.
It’s July 12, 2007. You’ve been in Iraq for the seven longest months of your life, you’ve seen your friends get cut down in the shadows left and right, and while on the outside, you’re still a hard-charging son-of-a-bitch, deep inside you just want to get out in one piece.
Just two days ago, you talked with your wife, and you tried to comfort her as she told you about the Wilkins boy down the street. Went away to Sadr City in one piece…came back, a latticework of scars running down his back, missing a leg and three fingers on account of a roadside bomb there that took out his Bradley.
You coached that kid in PeeWee football. Kid was a stud athlete in high school, and was turning out to be a squared-away troop, and now…well, now life’s just gonna be a bit different, on account of a different gaggle of Iraqi men in a different neighborhood that’s just like this one.
You’ve got the clearance to fire from Bushmaster 7.
Do you? Do you pull the trigger? Or do you walk away?
Here’s where we step back into today.
I was lucky. I only served one tour in Iraq, from April of 2003 through March of 2004. Lord knows I didn’t see as much action as women and men who served in ‘05…and ‘06…and ‘07. I saw a decent share, though, and I know I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience.
I’ve done things that I wasn’t proud of, things that, frankly, I’m ashamed to have done. The fact that I’ve worked since then to end the war and repair the breach doesn’t erase those things. I’ll have those things haunting me until the day I die, and that’s just the way it is. What I did in Iraq is just as indelible a part of me as what I did when I came home – it’s all a part of the whole.
Wikileaks released that video today, and that’s fine, as far as it goes. But it’s one video, of one episode of our longest war – seven years and counting. Seen by itself, in isolation, deprived of the larger context, the back and forth between the gunner, pilot and the TOC sounds brutally jarring.
When I saw it, it was hauntingly familiar.
There’s a lot of rage in my Twitter stream, small as it is, but I can’t help but feel that it’s an empty, show-offy kind of rage. Because, let’s face it – if this incident is a stain on the military, then all I can say is that it’s been one dark decade for the military.
If this incident is what you think makes for a dark day for the U.S. Army, then, respectfully, you’ve got no idea of what war is really like.
“War is hell”, said William Tecumseh Sherman. “I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers…”
War is hell, but damn if we refuse to accept that fact. If you think that what happened in that video is a crime, then by definition I’m a criminal. If you feel so strongly about what happened in that video, don’t put me on a pedestal or thank me for my service, put me on the dock and throw away the key.
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Because the reality is, you don’t know if you would’ve pulled the trigger and killed those men. You don’t know how you would react after 7 months away from your wife and kids, after seeing men you went to school and basic training with get torn to pieces, after being woken up in the middle of the third night in a row by the deafening thunder of a mortar’s impact.
You don’t know what it’s like to be under that kind of strain, to have to react on a moment’s notice despite that kind of burden, so you’ll have to forgive me if instead of rage, all I feel is a deep, abundant sadness.