Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Latino soldier's memoirs of Iraqi "collateral damage"

With every passing of Memorial Day, Chicanos, mexicanos, green-card holders and immigrant Latinos enter the U.S.'s military with hopes for acceptance by American society, driven by their newly adopted patriotism, and with aspirations to grub-stake their own American dream. Unfortunately, along with this comes our sometimes even naïve complicity to use the weapons of war on innocent civilians who are too often dark-skinned peoples not unlike us.

I read a piece this week that affected and impressed me such that I asked and received permission from to share parts of it with La Bloga readers. Two weekends after Memorial Day, seems a fitting time to post the following, adapted by Chris Hedges from his just released Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians (Nation Books),
co-authored with Laila al-Arian. (Hedges is former Middle East Bureau Chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute.)

What impressed me most was not only Hedges' strikingly insightful and brutally compassionate analysis of what the Iraq War has done to American soldiers and Iraqi citizens, but more the words of Camilo Mejía, who became the first American veteran of this war to refuse service. (Mejía, originally from Nicaragua, became a permanent resident. In 1995, at age 19, he joined the Army and served nearly 9 years. In 2003 he was sent to Iraq. Mejía applied for a conscientious objector discharge after five months in Iraq, was charged with desertion, and served nine months before being released.)

You may not agree with the views expressed in my opening paragraph, and I am reviewing neither Hedges' nor Mejía's books for you here. You can do that for yourself for the reasons Hedges expresses in his last sentence below. Go here to read Hedges' entire piece or find out more about his book, as well as here to learn more about Mejía and his memoir, Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía. And if you choose, let us know your thoughts. My own thoughts became confused as I read. I couldn't keep from hearing parallels between the attitudes and treatment of the Iraqi people there, and we and our brethren here in the U.S. But maybe that's just me.

Collateral Damage by Chris Hedges [excerpts]

Sgt. Camilo Mejía, who eventually applied while still on active duty to become a conscientious objector, said the ugly side of American racism and chauvinism appeared the moment his unit arrived in the Middle East. Fellow soldiers instantly ridiculed Arab-style toilets because they would be "sh-tting like dogs." The troops around him treated Iraqis, whose language they did not speak and whose culture was alien, little better than animals.

The word "haji" swiftly became a slur to refer to Iraqis, in much the same way "gook" was used to debase the Vietnamese and "raghead" is used to belittle those in Afghanistan. [Bloga note: haji is an honorific for those who make the pilgrimage to Mecca.] Soon those around him ridiculed "haji food," "haji homes," and "haji music."

Bewildered prisoners, who were rounded up in useless and indiscriminate raids, were stripped naked and left to stand terrified for hours in the baking sun. They were subjected to a steady torrent of verbal and physical abuse. "I experienced horrible confusion," Mejía remembered, "not knowing whether I was more afraid for the detainees or for what would happen to me if I did anything to help them."

These scenes of abuse, which began immediately after the American invasion, were little more than collective acts of sadism. Mejía watched, not daring to intervene yet increasingly disgusted at the treatment of Iraqi civilians. He saw how the callous and unchecked abuse of power first led to alienation among Iraqis and spawned a raw hatred of the occupation forces. When Army units raided homes, the soldiers burst in on frightened families, forced them to huddle in the corners at gunpoint, and helped themselves to food and items in the house.

"After we arrested drivers," he recalled, "we would choose whichever vehicles we liked, fuel them from confiscated jerry cans, and conduct undercover presence patrols in the impounded cars.

"But to this day I cannot find a single good answer as to why I stood by idly during the abuse of those prisoners except, of course, my own cowardice," he also noted.

Iraqi families were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son. Soldiers shot holes into cans of gasoline being sold alongside the road and then tossed incendiary grenades into the pools to set them ablaze.

"It's fun to shoot sh-t up," a soldier said. Some opened fire on small children throwing rocks. And when improvised explosive devices (IEDS) went off, the troops fired wildly into densely populated neighborhoods, leaving behind innocent victims who became, in the callous language of war, "collateral damage."

"We would drive on the wrong side of the highway to reduce the risk of being hit by an IED," Mejía said of the deadly roadside bombs. "This forced oncoming vehicles to move to one side of the road and considerably slowed down the flow of traffic. In order to avoid being held up in traffic jams, where someone could roll 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."

At one point the unit was surrounded by an angry crowd protesting the occupation. Mejía and his squad opened fire on an Iraqi holding a grenade, riddling the man's body with bullets. Mejía checked his clip afterward and determined that he had fired 11 rounds into the young man. Units, he said, nonchalantly opened fire in crowded neighborhoods with heavy M-240 Bravo machine guns, AT-4 launchers, and Mark 19s, a machine gun that spits out grenades.

"The frustration that resulted from our inability to get back at those who were attacking us," Mejía said, "led to tactics that seemed designed simply to punish the local population that was supporting them."

* * *
Mejía said, regarding the deaths of Iraqis at checkpoints, "This sort of killing of civilians has long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment."

Mejía also watched soldiers from his unit abuse the corpses of Iraqi dead. He related how, in one incident, soldiers laughed as an Iraqi corpse fell from the back of a truck. "Take a picture of me and this motherf---er," said one of the soldiers who had been in Mejía's squad in Third Platoon, putting his arm around the corpse.

The shroud fell away from the body, revealing a young man wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole in his chest.

"Damn, they really f---ed you up, didn't they?" the soldier laughed.

The scene, Mejía noted, was witnessed by the dead man's brothers and cousins.

The senior officers, protected in heavily fortified compounds, rarely experienced combat. They sent their troops on futile missions in the quest to be awarded Combat Infantry Badges. This recognition, Mejía noted, "was essential to their further progress up the officer ranks."

This pattern meant that "very few high-ranking officers actually got out into the action, and lower-ranking officers were afraid to contradict them when they were wrong." When the badges -- bearing an emblem of a musket with the hammer dropped, resting on top of an oak wreath -- were finally awarded, the commanders brought in Iraqi tailors to sew the badges on the left breast pockets of their desert combat uniforms.

"This was one occasion when our leaders led from the front," Mejía noted bitterly. "They were among the first to visit the tailors to get their little patches of glory sewn next to their hearts."

[Final thoughts from author Hedges]

"Prophets are not those who speak of piety and duty from pulpits -- few people in pulpits have much worth listening to -- 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." (© 2008 Chris Hedges)

Rudy Ch. Garcia


msedano said...

damn. that is truly disgusting, to think of these officers stealing valor with unearned CIB. when i see a soldier with that blue badge, i throw them a mental salute in recognition of what they went through to earn it. now when i see a high-ranking officer with the badge i'll question their honor. that's really some sad stuff, owing, probably, to a few bad apples.

norma landa flores said...

The vivid images and language used to report A Latino Soldier's Memoirs of Iraqi, serve as a harsh reminder, that poor people of color continue to fight each other
for mere bread crumbs.

The economy is bad. Los pobres need work. So, they callously kill other people of color in order to get a few more bucks added to their military checks. And in the meantime time, los ricos get richer y los pobres get poorer.

I agree with Professor Sedano. "That's really sad stuff, owing, probably, to a few bad apples." But those rotten apples aren't falling far from the mainstream American society's materialistic values, right? What a hell of a price to pay for acceptance!


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Anonymous said...


"It´s better to be tried by twelve
Than carried off by six,
All ethical remorse to shelve
For which there is no fix--

It was an accident perforce
But this is bloody war,
And violence proceeds on course
For that´s what we are for.

It is not the securement of
Some high idyllic vision,
For peace and brotherhood and love
Are not part of our mission.

If startled, if confused, however
These innocents go down,
As part and parcel to endeavor
As soldiers aye have known."