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"Taking Baghdad: some US Marine memoirs of the invasion of Iraq" by John Newsinger

"Taking Baghdad: some US Marine memoirs of the invasion of Iraq" by John Newsinger

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Published by CEInquiry
Race & Class, Vol. 52(4): 30–43
Race & Class, Vol. 52(4): 30–43

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: CEInquiry on Sep 25, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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SAGELos Angeles,London,New Delhi,Singapore,Washington DC
 John Newsinger 
is Professor of Modern History at Bath Spa University and author of
The BloodNever Dried: a people’s history of the British Empire
(London, Bookmarks, 2006).
Race & Class
Copyright © 2011 Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 52(4): 30–4310.1177/0306396810396580 http://rac.sagepub.com
Taking Baghdad: someUS Marine memoirs ofthe invasion of Iraq
The figure of the marine is not only the embodiment of US militarism, butalso a major icon of popular culture. The Marine Corps was prominently deployedin the invasion of Iraq, as it has been in all major US military enterprises. Butwhile there has been much and ongoing discussion about that war, less attentionhas been paid to its increasing impact on mainstream American culture. In thisgroundbreaking account, the author reviews and analyses the ever-growing bodyof literature produced by marines themselves. The article reveals a disturbingpicture of pornographic violence, certainty in US military right and, crucially, anincreasing turn to rightwing Christian fundamentalism as both imperative and justification for the war.
Carey Cash, Carlos Hathcock, Christian fundamentalism, DonovanCampbell, Fallujah, Ilario Pantano, Jack Coughlin, Seth Folsom, Tyler Boudreau,Vietnam war
The US Marine Corps is arguably the most potent symbol of American milita-rism. Throughout its history, the corps has been very publicly engaged inAmerica’s wars; in the words of the marine hymn, waging war from ‘the Hallsof Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’. Indeed, for many Americans, the flag-raising on Iwo Jima in 1945 has come to symbolise the heroism and sacrifice thatled to victory in the Pacific War. The Marine Corps also occupies an importantplace in American popular culture. The marine is an American icon. While
Taking Baghdad
31young men might join the army, they
marines. They are transformed intomembers of a warrior elite, into a different breed of men, into America’s Spartans.Indeed, a recent popular account of the Marine Corps’ combat history fromIwo Jima to the Iraq invasion was actually titled
 American Spartans.
There is,moreover, an interesting cross-fertilisation between marine culture and main-stream popular culture. Steven Pressfield’s bestselling novel about the Spartansat the battle of Thermopylae,
Gates of Fire
, was recommended reading within thecorps. It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that he should be asked to contributethe foreword to David Danelo’s
Blood Stripes
, an account of the Iraq occupationand insurgency from the ordinary grunt’s point of view. Danelo inevitably dedi-cated the book to ‘all who follow the Spartan Way’. In 2007, Pressfield publishedhis
The Afghan Campaign
, a novel chronicling Alexander the Great’s conquest ofAfghanistan, with obvious lessons for the American military today.
One important component of popular militarism in the US is the marine mem-oir. This constitutes a large and growing body of writing recounting experiencesof the Pacific War, Korea and Vietnam. The popularity of this literature increaseddramatically in the late 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, many of the memoirs of theVietnam War that appeared in that period can be seen as part of the rehabilita-tion of that conflict orchestrated by the American Right. These books appear tobe feeding on an apparently insatiable demand for accounts of American mili-tary prowess. What this essay will examine is some of the marine memoirs thathave appeared recounting the experiences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and itsaftermath: Seth Folsom’s
The Highway War 
, Jack Coughlin’s
, Carey Cash’s
  A Table in the Presence
, Ilario Pantano’s
, Donovan Campbell’s
 Joker One
 and Tyler Boudreau’s
‘The wrath of God’
Running through Seth Folsom’s account of the invasion of Iraq,
The HighwayWar 
, is a concern with his own capacity for command. Folsom was a lieutenant,commanding a company in a Light Armoured Reconnaissance battalion. He hadsome initial doubts about the war: ‘I just didn’t think the United States had builta strong enough case to go to war.’ But once President George W. Bush haddeclared his intention to invade, any reservations were put to one side. Folsomwas caught up in the general enthusiasm. He describes the marines’ response toBush’s declaration: ‘Marines stopped what they were doing and positively roaredwith delight. The air was electric. You could feel the excitement all around …There was shouting everywhere.’ America, Folsom felt, was going ‘to stand upto this asshole’, Saddam Hussein.Once the invasion gets under way, it soon becomes little more than a militaryprocession, sweeping aside weak opposition with overwhelming firepower.Throughout the whole campaign, Folsom’s company only suffered one fatality –and he was killed by an unexploded US cluster bomb. At the same time, Folsomestimates that he and his men killed ‘between seventy-five and a hundred’ Iraqis.This was a colonial war, a wholly one-sided affair, in which the technologically
Race & Class
advantaged invaders were able to kill their opponents with comparativeimpunity.Folsom provides a graphic account of an Iraqi ambush, an episode that inmany ways exemplifies the whole invasion. His company comes under smallarms fire at the village of Az Zubadayah. They call down a devastating response:Minutes later the four Cobras passed low over the company’s heads, spray-ing thundering volleys of cannon-fire and rockets into the tree line and thebuilding facades. Pass after pass, the helicopters punished the built-up areain front of us, the bricks twinkling like Christmas tree lights from the impactof the high explosive rounds. Returning for another run, the gunships tookturns launching TOW missiles, which smoked back and forth wildly beforeentering the building’s windows and detonating inside. Magnificent cloudsof black, white and grey smoke billowed up from within the village.They call down 155mm artillery on the village, an F/A-18 drops a 1,000lb bomband ‘the ground … shook as an enormous cloud of black smoke shot into theair’. His own armoured vehicles poured ‘rounds into the buildings and the sur-rounding tree line’. Folsom later told his commanding officer that it ‘was likefucking Hollywood’. Eventually, having exhausted their capacity for destruc-tion, the company drove away from the scene of the ‘battle’ with ‘shouts of“Ooh-rah!” and “Kill” … laughing and yelling our heads off … We were aliveand loving every minute of it.’ Later, he admits to some doubts as to whethertheir response had been proportionate or whether they had overreacted. Theyhad suffered no casualties in the ambush, but had brought down a terrible retri-bution on the Iraqi village. He acknowledges that they had, in effect, ‘swatted afly with a sledgehammer’. Folsom writes that he ‘didn’t want to think abouthow many civilians inside the village might be dead or dying because of me, andI blocked the question from my mind’.Folsom also provides testimony to another aspect of the American experienceof the invasion, the religious dimension it had for many of the participants. Weshall return to this, but for the moment it is worth noting that in the course ofthe campaign, Folsom was baptised, kneeling before the battalion chaplain: ‘Asthe water ran through my hair and down my face in tiny rivulets, my shouldersslackened. The great weight that had borne down on me began to lessen. I feltrejuvenated … I suddenly felt at peace.’ He felt at peace, in his own words, withcalling ‘the wrath of God down upon the men who had opposed our advancethrough Iraq’. This testimony is all the more remarkable because Folsom, alwaysa thoughtful writer, does not wear his faith on his sleeve. Indeed, he generallytreats it as a private matter. For many others, as we shall see, the war was verymuch a Christian war, aided by God’s literal intervention on the American side. Just as Folsom had reservations at the start of the invasion, so he had doubtsat its end. He feared that the Iraqis would ‘soon resist our presence’ and that theAmericans might well find themselves ‘battling … the impoverished, oppressedpeople we had come to save’.

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