The simple days are gone where I could recall with fondness the words of a once-beloved leader and feel the inspiring chills toward a noble cause. “America is a friend to the people of Iraq,” the commander-in-chief had said, stirring a desire for justice and compassion. “Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us. When these demands are met, the first and greatest benefit will come to Iraqi men, women and children.”
Freedom and Democracy would be delivered to the people of Iraq by the world’s most sophisticated fighting force as part of a larger “global war on terror.” It was a tune that was easy to sing along to, with 79% of U.S. citizens polled in May of 2003 saying that the war in Iraq was justified. Actually it was two tunes: one song was fierce and militaristic; we would “shock and awe” the forces of evil. The other was reverent and chivalrous; we would defend the defenseless and introduce a reign of freedom to some of the most oppressed peoples in the world.
From a distance, these songs sounded sweet and poetic; up close, sour and tragic. On Independence Day of 2007, I sat in a guard tower at the old factory that served as my infantry company’s outpost on the outskirts of Baghdad. Patriotic sentiments had been replaced with a guilty feeling of hypocrisy. The Freedom and Democracy that I was supposedly exporting thrived, in theory, on the will of the people.
But the “will of the people” — in our Iraqi district — had been forcefully shoved aside about a month before. Men, women, and children had poured into the streets outside of the building we planned to turn into our outpost. Banners demanded “USA Go Home!” and a chorus of angry shouts proclaimed their will. When our rhetoric wasn’t convenient to our goals, it was dismissed, as were the crowds of people chanting for us to leave.
With recent announcements that U.S. combat troops are returning home, and that “the rest” of U.S.forces will come home next summer, the battle for rhetoric versus reality will undoubtedly escalate. This“surge” has been mounting and the fanfare of “changing the mission” seems to have taken the upper hand over the reality of what the increase in private contractors and the continuance of tens of thousands of troops means to the Iraqi people.
Various forces are fighting for the legacy of how the Iraq war will be understood. A video that made international headlines, influencing how millions of people around the world will remember the war, was filmed within walking distance of the factory building that we had overtaken.This now-infamous “Collateral Murder” video highlights the contradiction of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Grisly, black-and-white camera footage shows a helicopter mowing down a group of men, some armed, most not, then blasting a van full of people, some children, that had pulled up to help the wounded. In theory, eliminating insurgents to liberate defenseless civilians sounded noble; shown in video, it looks anything but clear-cut or heroic. Not only were two Reuters journalists killed and two children wounded, but voices of soldiers are heard on the radio making fun of the death and destruction. This real footage which shocked and outraged so many, as terrible as it was, was far from the worst of what I saw transpire in Iraq.
And this is why the legacy of what really did, and continues to, transpire in Iraq is of such importance: because saying and seeing — rhetoric and reality — are two enormously different vantages. It’s one thing to genuinely keep a straight face and salute a campaign so unabashedly named “Shock and Awe,” while believing it will rescue an oppressed people. It’s quite another thing to witness actual footage, beyond the slogans and chants, and not to imagine that such instances would be nearly impossible to interpret as acts of good will.
Part of the dangerous brilliance of the marketing of this war was its packaging in humanitarian terms. But the young people who carried it out — some of us with this idealism, some for other reasons — were put through training that dehumanized us to the point where the phrase “winning the hearts and minds of the people” became the punch line of calloused jokes, not the rallying cry of a humanitarian effort. As a result, those of us who bought the idealistic packaging ended up seeing and doing awful, sometimes-barbaric things to the very people we hoped to “save” through superior firepower and higher virtue.
While our political and military leaders still speak of a commitment to the Iraqi people, the commitment that many of these people know is: a decade’s of sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands, which has been explained as “worth it”; what were, at times, indiscriminant bombings; killed, abused, and tortured family members dismissed as “unfortunate” or “tragic, but necessary”; Depleted Uranium’s effects carrying war’s sickness to the next generation; and of the few profiting, while the many suffer.
The horrors that we have created in the lives of the Iraqi people has also come home and haunted our own minds and lives. When the rhetoric that we were serving our country, and should be proud of our accomplishments, failed to drive away nightmares, many times the rhetoric simply got repeated instead of examining reality. A good friend of mine was denied psychological treatment when we returned home. Another was told he’d be punished if he went to talk to a psychologist. Three other people I knew found themselves in mental institutions at one time or another after returning from combat. This only begins to describe the countless cases of war’s effects, at home and abroad, recognized and ignored.
The rhetoric that “we” were good and “they” were evil collapsed into a mire of trying to justify to ourselves that, at least, we were the lesser of two evils. Can that be put into statistics? Are we justified because the numbers of lives our armed forces ruined were smaller than the numbers that can be attributed to Saddam Hussein’s armed forces?
To somebody who once looked at my nation as a bastion of virtue, and who now hopes, despite so many horrors, in the power of common humanity, the answer is a resounding no. Freedom and Democracy cannot be forced on a people against their will; we betray the ideals in this nation’s bloody war for political and economic independence if that myth is perpetuated by the legacy of this war. Even after our military forces leave, the intrusive hand of U.S. foreign policy will obstruct these democratic values from finding genuine ownership in the citizens of Iraq. The hub of information known as the Green Zone might as well have been a different country to the citizens that I lived amongst for 14 months; in all that time, I never heard national politics talked about without sarcasm from the locals.
But beyond nationalism, if success is defined as killing or displacing a few less people, being not “quite as cruel” when we torture, or whatever other dark spots we hope to gloss over, then that darkness will only spread. History’s writers, no doubt, will decorate this war’s legacy with the same rhetoric that began it in the first place.
For those of us who know the reality beyond the rhetoric — whether we had to learn this lesson the hard way or caught on much quicker — the challenge is as great as ever. Calls to fix the world through surges of violence will continue to beckon that liberation or safety or revenge — or whatever the goal may be — is only a series of bombs and bullets and drones away.
To live differently, rather than to talk differently; to let a heartfelt compassion lead us to build friendships and break stereotypes, instead of building weapons and breaking skulls, that is a mission worthy of trying to accomplish. That can mean that we will seek reconciliation with those we’ve hurt. Some have already begun this long process. A group of veterans, including myself, have taken beginning steps with a letter of reconciliation and responsibility to Iraqis. It also means building friendships in other countries at war, or threatened by war, as we’ve done directly with groups like the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers or indirectly through supporting other people-to-people initiatives (such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s work with North Americans and Iranians).
The legacy of the Iraq war is tragic, revolting, and brutal, with pain and betrayal continuing indefinitely. The false promises of humanity and compassion have been exposed, and a humble but firm dedication to peace and reconciliation remain the tools for achieving what bombs and bullets could not accomplish.
Josh Stieber served a U.S. Army deployment in Iraq from February 2007 to April 2008. Upon returning home to Maryland, he learned about conscientious objection. His application for C.O. status was approved in April 2009, at which point he embarked on a “Contagious Love Experiment” six-month walk and bicycle ride across the United States, visiting with community organizations throughout the country.