Sunday, September 08, 2013

War is a Racket

Olga García Echeverría
A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes
–Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler (1881-1940)
From War is a Racket

Living Death
From "The Horror of It: Camera Records
of War's Gruesome Glories"
Published in War is a Racket

Years ago, I was offered a job teaching English to a group of war veterans in East Los Angeles. At the time, I had no previous experience working with veterans. I did, however, have very strong feeling about the military. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan infuriated me, and although I logically knew the soldiers themselves were not to blame for these wars, the idea of working with ex-military unnerved me.

But I needed work. I took the job with the veterans warily, envisioning a classroom full of testosterone-driven-Rambo-types. In my worst nightmare, they would show up to class donning military fatigues and bad buzz haircuts, all of them suffering from pro-war indoctrination and PTSD.

It didn’t quite pan out like that. Nobody ever showed up in fatigues, and although a couple of them did have bad haircuts, everyone in the class was pretty cool.

Although my classes were predominately male, I did have a couple of female students during my two years of teaching. One of these women was a Vietnamese-American single mother wanting to go to college to study nursing. Like so many other young people, she had joined the army because she needed steady work to support her daughter and her mother. Another woman was a Chicana from East L.A. who could have been my prima. She had been in ROTC in high school and then she joined the military to get away, to go somewhere, anywhere, she said.

Most of the students were young people in their 20’s and 30’s returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but there were also Vietnam vets and even one elderly student, Raul, who had fought in WWII. Several of the older veterans were fervently anti-war. Raul, in particular, made it a point to talk and write about the “war hype.” As the oldest veteran in the room, Raul outranked his fellow classmates. Even if they disagreed with him, they respected him. An explosive had deformed a good portion of Raul’s face in war. That same explosive had killed several of his good friends who were standing just a few feet away from him, so despite the countless operations through the years and the scars, he considered himself very lucky. Still, his war scars, the invisible ones, he said, would never really heal. Like the General Smedley Butler of WWI who retired and became an anti-war advocate, Raul wanted everyone around him to know that there were no good wars and that his experience in the military had taught him that war was a racket.

In our English class, we read poems and short excerpts. The students dug Langston Hughes because he was down to earth. They liked “The Things They Carried, although it was, in their words, “way too long.” We went over things like sentence structure, subject-verb agreement, punctuation. Mostly, we practiced writing from personal experience. “Let’s make a class chapbook of your work,” I told them repeatedly. The concept seemed foreign to them, but I encouraged them to keep writing, and they did. They wrote about wanting to find a good job or go to college. They wrote about their kids and the challenges of raising preteens and teens. They wrote about getting divorced. They wrote about early traumatic educational experiences. They wrote about struggling with English. They wrote about graduating from high school and joining the military. With the exception of Raul and a couple of other students, though, they overwhelming never wrote about their war experiences. I was curious about this and one day I went into to class and asked them why. They all looked at me like I was retarded. “Why would we want to write about that?” One student asked, his tone tinged with anger. “It’s too messed up,” another one said. Silence filled the room. I encouraged them to try, told them how important their stories were. The American public needed to hear more about what was happening in places like Iraq from the perspective of soldiers. But when I only got blank stares, I backed off. It had taken Raul, who was in his 80’s, a good 40 years to be able to pen some of his war experiences. What did I expect from these young students/ex-soldiers who were surely suffering from PTSD?

A couple of weeks later, one of the students came to see me after class. He was a native Angelino with immigrant parents from Mexico, but he spoke very little Spanish and he always called himself a Hispanic-American. He was divorced and had two children. His dream was to become a police officer, but he couldn’t pass the writing test, which was part of the application. Twice before he had taken it and failed. I’m not crazy about police officers, but I wanted to help this student regardless. He was a nice man and everyone deserves a shot at their dreams, no? I’d also seen his writing improve a great deal in the past months. “This next time you’re going to pass that test,” I told him and I could tell he was beginning to believe it.
At the end of our study session, he opened his folder and pulled out a typed sheet of paper from one of the side pockets. “I wrote something,” he said, sliding the paper across the table towards me. I looked down and saw the words Karabala, Iraq in bold. I wanted to say something teacher-y, but even before reading his words, I knew he had handed me something very personal and fragile. I suddenly felt very emotional. All I could do was look down at the paper, smile, and say, “Thank you.” He got up quickly, gathering his things. “You know, I’ve never written anything about Iraq before. It was crazy writing that. Really crazy. I got all…well, just read it. But read it later, okay? Not right now. I have to go pick up my daughter. Tell me what you think. Maybe you can help me fix it and you can use it for one of those chatbooks [he meant chapbook] you’re always talking about. Or do whatever you want with it, but just don’t use my real name.”

Karabala, Iraq
by Sergeant X

I have had many significant times in my 38 years of life, but one is cemented in my brain. It happened back in 2003 while I was a part of offensive operations in the Southern region of Iraq.

It all began while I was standing guard near the city of Medina; it was 12:30 in the morning when a call came through our satellite radio. Apparently, a young woman was caught in the middle of a firefight between Marines and Iraqi soldiers. At the moment that was all the information we had gathered. Twenty minutes later the call came over the radio that the girl, who was 14 years old, had been shot in the stomach by Iraqi automatic gunfire. The Marine on the other side of the radio said that they were going to bring her to our position in hopes of treating her wounds. We didn’t have a doctor with us, but we did have a combat medic who was trained in paramedic procedures. I was not prepared for the wounds that were about to be presented to us that night. Our medic prepared a stretcher and bandages and a high back Humvee for the girl’s transport to the airfield.

A red four-door sedan stopped at our front guard shack and two men rushed out with bloody shirts. They were yelling at the guard in their native language: neither the guards nor the Iraqis understood each other. It was apparent that they were related to the girl that had received the gunshots. I crossed the mobile barrier and looked into the vehicle. I was thrown back at what I saw. It was a young girl, no older than 14, cradling something in her hands; that something was her lower and upper intestines. I yelled at the guards to open the barriers and let the vehicle enter the compound. The red sedan entered and our medic quickly assessed the situation. He looked at me with a blank look on his face. I knew that the situation was grim and we only had minutes to get this young girl to the military trauma M.A.S.H. facility.

I made an urgent call on our satellite radio. On the other end was a Major who asked me what the urgent call pertained to. I told him we had a civilian Iraqi girl that needed trauma care immediately. The Major responded with, “Staff Sergeant X, Iraqi civilians are not a priority. You will have to transport her via Humvee.”

I responded, “Sir, if this young girl doesn’t receive care within the hour, she will die!”

“Son,” he said, “there is nothing I do for her; we only have air rescue for American troops.”

I looked at our Medic and asked him if he could advise the Iraqi gentleman of the news. The Medic responded, “Hell no! I won’t do it!”

I have seen American soldiers die, but I was not prepared for this. I mustered all my strength and walked up to the men and in my best translation possible advised them that the young girl was not going to receive immediate care and was probably going to die. They didn’t understand what I was trying to convey to them and insisted we help her. I looked at our Medic and asked, “Is there anything we can do for her?”

He answered, “The only thing we can do is make it less painful for her before she gasps her last breath.”

As I stood there in the middle of the night in Southern Iraq many thoughts came into my mind. I wondered how my parents were. Were my kids okay? Were they safe? Would I make it out of this madness or would I come to my death here in this country and never again see my family? Our medic tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I would give the girl a double dose of morphine, which would not only ease the pain but also stop the girl’s heart in a matter of minutes. At this moment it was clear that the Iraqi gentlemen understood what was about to take place. One of the Iraqi men looked at me, held my hand, and knelt near the young girl. He then kissed her on the cheek. I knelt beside the girl and looked into her eyes as I administered the deadly dose. She seemed to know her fate, smiled and closed her eyes for the last time.

We escorted the dead young girl back to her home. The young girl’s house was handmade from clay and had goats grazing in the backyard. There were candles in most of the rooms, so it was apparent that they had no electricity. It was 3:30 in the morning when we were invited to stay and mourn with the family. The family was large and appeared very friendly, even after such a dramatic incident. Part of the mourning included a meal which consisted of bread that was homemade and filled with goat’s meat. The mourning prayer was typical of a catholic mourning where there is always a family or friend standing near the body, meaning the body is never left alone. After a couple of hours my medic and I left the house. We were emotionally exhausted because we were not able to do more for the young girl.

I have made multiple tours to Iraq and have seen many horrible things, but this one incident has affected me dramatically. Not a day goes by where I do not think about the young girl and our decision to end her life. Did we do the right thing? Or was there more we could have done for her? One thing is for sure, my decision is irreversible and I must live with it for the rest of my life. Godspeed, until I meet my maker.


Anonymous said...

The human touch. We sometimes forget or at times are so busy to reflect how everyone we interact with affects our journey.
Thanks Olga for once again sharing and giving your time to these veterans and us. Some of us don't consider the consequences of war unless directly involved. So easy to turn off the news and disregard the human condition. Big mistake. In the end, in one way or another, "All are punished." Let's hope for clear heads and the best decisions for all. We humans who just want to do what's right.
Blessings always to all veterans and you Olga for caring.

Anonymous said...

What a sad story. Another testament to the hell of war.

"The Iraqi people are not a priority"

Why did the US send troops in the first place?

...because war is a racket...


Anonymous said...

Thank you Sargeant X for facing your fears and finding writing. Thank you Olga your nature, facilitating, witnessing and encourageing with each of your daily steps. Its time we use our voice too. Rest in peace Creators child. We are all to blame.
Shame, shame, shame Bush and Cheney and all you other war profiteers.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Querida Olga--
My heart and thoughts go out to your student and to the family of this young girl. Gracias for posting this student's story. It is in these stories-- these personal details of war that tell us the true story, the true horror of what war is about, what it does to all of us.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

So powerful... gracias, Olga. Mil gracias.