Back from the Soulless Void

Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians 

Campbell: But you have this: I remember my unit was coming along this elevated overpass. And this kid is in the trash pile below, pulls out an AK-47 and just decides he’s going to start shooting. And you gotta understand… when you have spent nine months in a  war zone, where no one—every time you’ve been shot at, you’ve never seen the person shooting at you, and you could never shoot back. He’s some guy, some fourteen-year-old kid with an AK-47, decides he’s going to start shooting at this convoy. It was the most obscene thing you’ve ever seen. Every person got out and opened fire on this kid. Using the biggest weapons we could find, we ripped him to shreds…. Everyone was so happy, like this released that they finally killed an insurgent. Then when we got there, they realized it was just a little kid. And I know that really fucked up a lot of people in the head….They’d show all the pictures and some people were really happy, like, “Oh, look what we did.’ And other people were like, ‘I don’t want to see that ever again.’  25

Reppenhagen: It’s just the nature of the situation you’re in. That’s what’s wrong. It’s not an individual atrocity. It’s the fact that the entire war is an atrocity.  48


How do we support the troops?  By listening to the terrible truths about war from the troops who know it first-hand.

This book complements the documentary film of 2006, The Ground Truth, inasmuch as it details through interviews the reckless, willful, and calloused actions of the U.S. military toward the Iraqi civilians.

What matters first and foremost is not “politics”—liberating Iraqis or reconstruction, or anything other than surviving, kill or be killed.  All you care about is yourself and your few buddies and getting back home. (Where you will be miserable, too.)

When people are under such extreme pressure cooker situations, and when they are being shot at by unknown enemies, they reach a breaking point.  And the context might be a convoy, a checkpoint, a raid at 4 am, or in detention center, something goes “SNAP” and abuses and killing ensue.  Whom do you take it out on?

Collateral damage is the death of innocent civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The soldiers are molded into an attitude that is the complete opposite of Ophir’s domain of the moral:   Kill or be killed, we’re good and they’re bad, it’s us versus them.

And the thing is these military tactics generate terrorists because they terrorize:  Bruhns: “And if you find something, then you’ll detain him. If not, you’ll say, ‘Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.’ So you’ve just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you’ve destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes.” [53-54] Westphal: “Imagine thirty-plus U.S. soldiers coming with night-vision goggles, and all of our gear and huge weapons, and shouting. There’s no communication. They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them.” [55]  Westphal: “Most of the people were terrified. You could see it in their eyes. We knew that this was not the way to win the hearts and minds. You don’t come in the middle of the night and harass people and then expect them to give you flowers the next day.”  [70]  It’s like who becomes a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Hedges writes about ordinary Iraqis caught up in the war, but from the point of view—different from beyond the green Zone—of U.S. soldiers.  

I’d like to juxtapose this review with Martha Hess’s book on Vietnam.  Here are a few similarities:

General Westmoreland on Asians’ indifference to life: Fernando Braga: “[The lieutenant] said the reason was that we shouldn’t hesitate [to run over children] because of the way they would treat their children. They don’t value human life like we do and they don’t share our same Western values.” [13]

Mejia: “In order to avoid being help us in traffic jams, where someone could role a grenade under our trucks, we would simply drive up on sidewalks, running over garbage cans and even hitting civilian vehicles to push them out of the way. Many of the soldiers would laugh and shriek at these tactics.” [Xxiv]  Hess’s interview with a Vietnamese person: “In 1965, I was a small child. The Americans were bombing, and many children were wounded and killed. When I was injured by a  fragmentation bomb, an American helicopter took me to the hospital in Danang where they operated on my eye. [p] The Americans shot the children. The children would be playing here on this side of the river, and American soldiers from over on the other side would shoot them. The Americans would cut off the hair of the older people. They drowned people. They shot people and then threw them into the river. This lady here, they pushed her to the ground and cut off her hair. Sometimes they shot people in the eyes. And they would laugh.” [167]

Everybody’s VC:  Magruder: “The enemy doesn’t wear uniforms….. You almost have to assume that everybody’s hostile.” [21]  Flanders: “The enemy can come from any direction. They can come in any form, whether it’s a pregnant woman who blows herself up on soldiers or it’s this car just sitting idly on the side of the road.” [37]  From Hess: “The Americans parachuted soldiers in for mopping-up operations, and when we would pass through the villages where they had been, we would find only bodies—in the trees, on the ground, and women with cloth stuffed in their mouths. The people were gone, only wounded and the dead. You see, when the Americans came through they killed everyone, even children, because they thought they were V. C.—Viet Cong.” [119]

Yet this is the opposite of Vietnam: Many checkpoint incidents went unreported, a number of veterans said. The civilians killed were not officially recoded. The military argues that it is not its role to count civilian dead. Official numbers of killed and wounded Iraqis at checkpoints, for this reason, do not exist. 43

Hedges and al-Arian’s’ book gives us a phenomenology of the U.S. occupation, its “matrix of control” which leads to human carnage and consequences such as the following from Dahr Jamaal’s book: “Our bus headed off the highway along bumpy dirt roads, winding through parts of the town of Abu Ghraib, slowly but steadily progressing towards the besieged city. As we passed a small home in Abu Ghraib, a small child yelled at the bus, ‘We will be mujahadeen until we die!’” 135

To adapt Jon Sobrino, I can say: Outside the dissident veterans, there is for us—who stayed home—no salvation.  Here’s Hedges: “Prophets are not those who speak of piety and duty from pulpits… but are the battered wrecks of men and women who return from Iraq and speak the halting words we do not want to hear, words that we must listen to and heed to know ourselves. They tell us war is a soulless void. They have seen and tasted how war plunges us into perversion, trauma, and an unchecked orgy of death. And it is their testimonies that have the redemptive power to save us from ourselves.”


–Wednesday 26 November 2008


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