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Saddam's Heroes

Saddam's Heroes

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Published by Don Gomez

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Published by: Don Gomez on Oct 11, 2012
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07/14/2014

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The near total defeat of the Iraqi army in Kuwait and the general uprising that followed

resulted in an externally forced demobilization. Many who were not killed in the Gulf War

simply shed their uniforms and returned home. Soldiers who fought through Iran, Kuwait, and

now the US, were left to fend for themselves.

During my interviews, the issue that elicited the strongest emotions was the idea of ‘lost

youth.’ Unless they were killed, injured, imprisoned, or successfully deserted, Iraqi soldiers who

were of ‘fighting age’ in 1980 were likely serving in the military until the end of the war with

Coalition forces in 1991. Conscription meant they were forced to squander their youth serving in

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a broken military under a corrupt regime in an unjust war with little to show for it during or after

their service.

Despite the unpopularity of the war, the ‘war generation’ supported and were proud of the

Iraqi military (Jabar, 2004: 126). Throughout the war and after, Iraqi society often gathered to

express pride in the military through public displays of patriotism. In a nod towards the feeling

of solidarity between the Iraqi army and society, a former Iraqi general boasted with nostalgia

“We were 27 million Iraqis and 27 million soldiers!” (Steavenson, 2010: 71).

Not all veterans recall that same nostalgia. When I asked Alwar about the benefits of

military service, he stated bluntly “It is better to be out of the Army, or [better yet] to have never

served at all.”

Once, while on departing his home to return to the front, Kareem’s father poured water

on the ground in front of him as a sign of respect.17

At this, Kareem exploded in anger. “I felt like

spitting in his face!” Kareem exclaimed. Fed up with the war and the army, Kareem was

disgusted by his father’s gesture. Kareem felt his father was blinded by state-inspired patriotism

and did not truly understand the reality of the war.

While high ranking Iraqi officers and hardline Ba’athists might express pride in their

personal service to the country, enlisted Iraqi soldiers rarely share the same sentiment

(interviews). Mahdi, Kareem, and Alwar all expressed the same reasons for feeling no sense of

pride in their service; 1) the war with Iran was unjust, 2) the politicization of the Iraqi army

degraded professionalism, and 3) Saddam took all the glory. Mahdi relayed the sentiment of Iraqi

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17 Kareem says this is a common Iraqi ritual.

soldiers who deserted in 1991: “If we were killed, no one would support us. And if we win,

Saddam will take the glory. So why are we fighting?”

In a hypothetical conversation on ‘pride,’ Alwar and Kareem both agreed that if there had

been some tangible benefits of military service, such as pensions or job assistance, they may feel

differently about their service.

Early in the war with Iran, veterans could expect to receive a small pension and the

families of martyrs received substantial financial assistance and the promise of free university

education for surviving children (Library of Congress, 1988). As the war progressed, benefits

were significantly reduced or stopped altogether (Jabar, 2004: 130). By the end of the Iran-Iraq

War, only wounded veterans could expect to receive any government compensation, and even

that was limited or non-existent (interviews).

Interviews with Iraqi medical personnel reveal a generation suffering from a range of

untreated war-related mental health issues, including phobias, anxiety, panic, depression,

restlessness, insomnia, post-traumatic stress, and suicide (Steavenson, 2010: 2-3). When I raised

the issue of mental health, the topic was laughed away as a luxury. “Everyone in Iraq needs a

psychiatrist, not just the veterans” Kareem said. Echoing a problem common to military

communities, Alwar described the mental health stigma that exists concerning seeking treatment;

“Even if someone is having problems and wants to seek help, he won’t because it is seen as

weak.”

Without state assistance, veterans struggled to reintegrate with society. Eager to return to

normalcy, but unable to find work, many veterans vented their frustrations in the streets. Early

veterans were described as “violent” and “intolerable,” often displaying a “clannish” solidarity

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with other veterans when faced with civilians, police, or state authorities (Jabar, 2004: 132).

Despite this, Iraqi society generally viewed the war generation with tolerance, forgiveness, and

sympathy. “Everyone felt sorry for veterans because we spent all our youth time in the army and

at war” Mahdi said to me on the subject of relations between veterans and Iraqi society. That

initial feeling of sympathy eventually turned to apathy, as Iraq’s problems grew so widespread

that few segments of society were spared. The overwhelming defeat in Kuwait, the mass

desertions, and the general uprising provided Saddam and society with cover to ignore the needs

of veterans.

Returning veterans never bothered establishing formal or informal veteran organizations.

Mahdi described the situation after the wars as “every man for himself.” Alwar and Kareem

looked puzzled when I asked about Iraqi veteran organizations. “Why would we want to

remember the war?” they said.

The wars quickly became a topic to be ignored. The absence of veteran organizations

meant veterans lacked a space in which they could discuss the war privately among themselves.

Despite the war being the defining event in the lives of an entire generation, it is routinely

ignored. During my discussion with Kareem on talking about the war, he angrily shouted “My

wife lost three brothers in the war! How can we talk about it?”

Whereas some Iraqi officers remember their military service with nostalgic pride, many

veterans attempt to shed their memories through actively avoiding the experience. Participating

in the war consumed their youth, which is typically characterized as “lost.” The war experience

should be a “liminal” one, but taking on that identity (the veteran) is often refused (Simons,

1999). There are seemingly no efforts to reclaim the lost youth through remembrance, as no

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veteran organizations, formal or informal, have been established. The absence of “serious talk,”

or even “profane talk” suggests proper reintegration would be extremely challenging at best.

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