SAGE Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC
Taking Baghdad: some US Marine memoirs of the invasion of Iraq
Abstract: The figure of the marine is not only the embodiment of US militarism, but also a major icon of popular culture. The Marine Corps was prominently deployed in the invasion of Iraq, as it has been in all major US military enterprises. But while there has been much and ongoing discussion about that war, less attention has been paid to its increasing impact on mainstream American culture. In this groundbreaking account, the author reviews and analyses the ever-growing body of literature produced by marines themselves. The article reveals a disturbing picture of pornographic violence, certainty in US military right and, crucially, an increasing turn to rightwing Christian fundamentalism as both imperative and justification for the war. Keywords: Carey Cash, Carlos Hathcock, Christian fundamentalism, Donovan Campbell, Fallujah, Ilario Pantano, Jack Coughlin, Seth Folsom, Tyler Boudreau, Vietnam war
The US Marine Corps is arguably the most potent symbol of American militarism. Throughout its history, the corps has been very publicly engaged in America’s wars; in the words of the marine hymn, waging war from ‘the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli’. Indeed, for many Americans, the flagraising on Iwo Jima in 1945 has come to symbolise the heroism and sacrifice that led to victory in the Pacific War. The Marine Corps also occupies an important place in American popular culture. The marine is an American icon. While
John Newsinger is Professor of Modern History at Bath Spa University and author of The Blood Never Dried: a people’s history of the British Empire (London, Bookmarks, 2006).
Race & Class Copyright © 2011 Institute of Race Relations, Vol. 52(4): 30–43 10.1177/0306396810396580 http://rac.sagepub.com
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 31 young men might join the army, they become marines. They are transformed into members 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 from Iwo Jima to the Iraq invasion was actually titled American Spartans.1 There is, moreover, an interesting cross-fertilisation between marine culture and mainstream popular culture. Steven Pressfield’s bestselling novel about the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, was recommended reading within the corps. It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that he should be asked to contribute the foreword to David Danelo’s Blood Stripes, an account of the Iraq occupation and insurgency from the ordinary grunt’s point of view. Danelo inevitably dedicated the book to ‘all who follow the Spartan Way’. In 2007, Pressfield published his The Afghan Campaign, a novel chronicling Alexander the Great’s conquest of Afghanistan, with obvious lessons for the American military today.2 One important component of popular militarism in the US is the marine memoir. This constitutes a large and growing body of writing recounting experiences of the Pacific War, Korea and Vietnam. The popularity of this literature increased dramatically in the late 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, many of the memoirs of the Vietnam War that appeared in that period can be seen as part of the rehabilitation of that conflict orchestrated by the American Right. These books appear to be feeding on an apparently insatiable demand for accounts of American military prowess. What this essay will examine is some of the marine memoirs that have appeared recounting the experiences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath: Seth Folsom’s The Highway War, Jack Coughlin’s Shooter, Carey Cash’s A Table in the Presence, Ilario Pantano’s Warlord, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One and Tyler Boudreau’s Packing Inferno. ‘The wrath of God’ Running through Seth Folsom’s account of the invasion of Iraq, The Highway War, is a concern with his own capacity for command. Folsom was a lieutenant, commanding a company in a Light Armoured Reconnaissance battalion. He had some initial doubts about the war: ‘I just didn’t think the United States had built a strong enough case to go to war.’ But once President George W. Bush had declared his intention to invade, any reservations were put to one side. Folsom was caught up in the general enthusiasm. He describes the marines’ response to Bush’s declaration: ‘Marines stopped what they were doing and positively roared with delight. The air was electric. You could feel the excitement all around … There was shouting everywhere.’ America, Folsom felt, was going ‘to stand up to this asshole’, Saddam Hussein. Once the invasion gets under way, it soon becomes little more than a military procession, 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, Folsom estimates 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
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advantaged invaders were able to kill their opponents with comparative impunity. Folsom provides a graphic account of an Iraqi ambush, an episode that in many ways exemplifies the whole invasion. His company comes under small arms 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, spraying thundering volleys of cannon-fire and rockets into the tree line and the building facades. Pass after pass, the helicopters punished the built-up area in front of us, the bricks twinkling like Christmas tree lights from the impact of the high explosive rounds. Returning for another run, the gunships took turns launching TOW missiles, which smoked back and forth wildly before entering the building’s windows and detonating inside. Magnificent clouds of 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 bomb and ‘the ground … shook as an enormous cloud of black smoke shot into the air’. His own armoured vehicles poured ‘rounds into the buildings and the surrounding tree line’. Folsom later told his commanding officer that it ‘was like fucking Hollywood’. Eventually, having exhausted their capacity for destruction, 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 alive and loving every minute of it.’ Later, he admits to some doubts as to whether their response had been proportionate or whether they had overreacted. They had suffered no casualties in the ambush, but had brought down a terrible retribution on the Iraqi village. He acknowledges that they had, in effect, ‘swatted a fly with a sledgehammer’. Folsom writes that he ‘didn’t want to think about how many civilians inside the village might be dead or dying because of me, and I blocked the question from my mind’. Folsom also provides testimony to another aspect of the American experience of the invasion, the religious dimension it had for many of the participants. We shall return to this, but for the moment it is worth noting that in the course of the campaign, Folsom was baptised, kneeling before the battalion chaplain: ‘As the water ran through my hair and down my face in tiny rivulets, my shoulders slackened. The great weight that had borne down on me began to lessen. I felt rejuvenated … I suddenly felt at peace.’ He felt at peace, in his own words, with calling ‘the wrath of God down upon the men who had opposed our advance through Iraq’. This testimony is all the more remarkable because Folsom, always a thoughtful writer, does not wear his faith on his sleeve. Indeed, he generally treats it as a private matter. For many others, as we shall see, the war was very much 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 doubts at its end. He feared that the Iraqis would ‘soon resist our presence’ and that the Americans might well find themselves ‘battling … the impoverished, oppressed people we had come to save’.3
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 33 ‘Thou shalt kill’ Folsom’s memoir is, in many ways, a conventional junior officer’s account of combat, thoughtful, introspective, but also acknowledging, somewhat guiltily, the excitement of battle. Jack Coughlin’s Shooter is very different. It obeys a completely different set of conventions and provides a much more visceral account of combat. Coughlin was a marine sniper and his memoir is written very much as part of a popular sub-genre, the sniper’s tale. There is a perverse, indeed pornographic, fascination with the exploits of men who kill large numbers of other men from a distance, but can still see their faces when they die. Numerous books have been written to satisfy this fascination. The ‘legendary’ marine sniper Carlos Hathcock, with ninety-three ‘confirmed kills’ in Vietnam, has been the subject of two celebratory biographies, Charles Henderson’s Marine Sniper and Roy Chandler’s Carlos Hathcock:‘Whitefeather’. And there are numerous other sniper memoirs. In Shooter, Coughlin explains how his job differs from that of other combat soldiers: Through the powerful telescope of my rifle, I see the expressions on the faces of my victims at the moment I quench that spark of life in their eyes. You don’t dwell on that point, because you are just doing your job, and the sniper’s one-time commandment is ‘thou shalt kill’. We soften the ultimate severity of what we do in vague terms such as ‘removing the threat’ and ‘controlling the battlefield’, which puts us fully into the military matrix, where national security interests easily scrub away any personal guilt, like soap and water removing a spot of dirt. When he kills someone, he insists, ‘I feel nothing at all, other than a bit of professional satisfaction’. He doesn’t have nightmares, but he does have ‘the occasional surprise nocturnal visitor’ when those he had killed, ‘vague acquaintances … show up for a while and then leave again’. Shooter contrives to have it both ways, first of all insisting on sniping as just another job from which one can take professional satisfaction, but, at the same time, delivering up something more pornographic to its readers. One example will demonstrate this: Squeeze, bang, recoil, eye still in the scope, and this AK-toting asshole took it right through the chin, the bullet drilling a hole the size of a silver dollar in his head and sending teeth and jawbone fragments flying out of the skull and onto the desert floor. Whatever this is, it is not ‘professional satisfaction’. Coughlin insists that he derives no pleasure from killing, indeed, ‘only a homicidal maniac would do so’, but Shooter is clearly and calculatedly written for a readership who derive pleasure from reading graphic accounts of ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fictional’ killing.
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Coughlin, a marine sergeant, welcomed the invasion of Iraq, having swallowed the Bush administration’s various pretexts 100 per cent: ‘We all believed Iraq would probably smack us at some point with chemical and biological weapons’; ‘we considered Saddam Hussein to be our Hitler’; and even that it was ‘better to fight the terrorists in Iraq than in Boston’. His only worry was that the invasion would not actually take place, as ‘the liberals tried to turn this whole thing into another Vietnam’. This was not to be and Coughlin got the opportunity to practise his craft, killing in the process more people than he cared to count. One characteristic of military pornography is a fascination with the hardware of the killing process. Coughlin’s account of the first Iraqi soldier he killed is a good example of this: I took a breath, partially exhaled, and gently squeezed the trigger. Almost instantly, my 173-grain round of Lake City Match ammunition exploded in his chest, and he spun round and was thrown backward as if slammed by an invisible baseball bat. On another occasion, he kills two Iraqis operating a machine gun. The first is shot ‘two inches below his head, and the soldier’s knees buckled and he slumped over dead’. The second: ‘I again squeezed the trigger and this time watched as the bullet exploded from my rifle with a muzzle velocity of more than 2,550 feet per second.’ The Iraqi is ‘slammed completely round, a sure-kill shot’. There is a strong sexual charge to some of his accounts of killing. This goes beyond any mere celebration of masculinity. One example will make the point, as he prepares to shoot an Iraqi soldier: My mind was unconsciously wheeling through the sniper’s mantra of S – Slow, Smooth, Straight, Steady, Squeeze – and the rifle seemed to fire on its own. My bullet bored perfectly into his chest, and its heavy mass penetrated his major blood-carrying organs, crushing and destroying tissue. That created a hole that is called the ‘permanent cavity’, and then the bullet exploded, sending small jagged fragments spinning off in erratic paths that shattered his organs. Had to hurt. The concern here is clearly with the titillation of his readership. There is a pleasure on display that once again goes way beyond mere professionalism. While, so far, ‘the hunting had been good’ and Coughlin had demonstrated his prowess as ‘a destroyer of men’, the war turned sour at a bridge over the Diyali River. Here, he and his fellow marines shot up a succession of civilian vehicles for fear of suicide bomb attack. The horror overwhelmed him: ‘I don’t remember all of the cars and trucks that were dealt with that day.’ Nevertheless, his own testimony is that the slaughter left him ‘as lifeless as a zombie … I was consumed in the totally unfamiliar world of a waking nightmare, and my only thought was of a faith-shaken prayer. Oh, my God, what have we done?’ For all the
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 35 bravado that Coughlin had sustained throughout most of Shooter, the book ends with relief at leaving the corps in 2005, and its closing words are, ‘I will never fight again’. Coughlin’s Shooter is, in the end, more interesting for what it is than for what it has to say about the invasion of Iraq. The book is clearly more concerned with satisfying the expectations of its target readership than with actually making sense of his war. After the relentless celebration of his prowess in killing so many Iraqi soldiers, it suddenly comes up against an episode that this particular military genre cannot deal with, cannot do justice to. One consequence of this is that, at the end of the book, one is left with the feeling that we know no more about Jack Coughlin and his experiences in Iraq than we did at the beginning.4 ‘Into a fiery furnace’ While Folsom and Coughlin’s memoirs are very different, they are nevertheless both conventional representations of particular kinds of military writing. Carey Cash’s A Table in the Presence is something different, something new. There are no similar accounts of the Pacific War, of Korea or of Vietnam. Although one has to be careful about exaggerating its importance, nevertheless, the contention here is that it provides startling evidence of the strength and influence of the Christian Right on the American military and on American society more generally.5 Carey Cash was a US Navy chaplain serving with the marines during the invasion. His A Table in the Presence is, in his own words, ‘the story of how God Almighty revealed His unmistakeable presence on the battlefield’. Cash was a witness to miracles. The men of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, with whom he served had, ‘like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego … walked into a fiery furnace’, but ‘the true God’ showed them ‘His peace, empowerment and divine protection’. The miracles that accompanied the invasion range from the mundane (a lost Bible found) to the spectacular (heavenly reinforcements turning the tide). For Cash, God’s intervention on America’s side was crucial in bringing about the Iraqi collapse, and this intervention was ensured by the prayers of millions of devout Americans back home. According to Cash, there were ‘thousands, maybe millions, of prayer warriors’ praying for victory on the home front: Prayer was the unseen force behind every victory, whether tactical or spiritual that we experienced … While we fought the physical battle against fleshand-blood enemies, it was our mothers, fathers, wives, children, friends, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, and countless others, who were fighting the spiritual battle on our behalf. Around the clock, from the moment our wheels touched down into Kuwait to the moment we crossed the line of departure into enemy territory, and to the moment we entered the dangerous outskirts of Baghdad, the American people were with us … lifting us up in prayer to Almighty God.6
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This is a remarkable social phenomenon that certainly deserves further study. At the moment, what we have here are anecdotal accounts, but the fact is that churches across the US organised daily prayers for the safety and success of the American troops invading Iraq. One of those prayer warriors, Glenn Thomas, has provided his own account of the part prayer played in the American victory. In his God Saw Them Through, Thomas records how at his own church, the Lovejoy Gospel Church, the pastor organised a prayer team of seventy members to ensure continual prayers for the safety of his son David, a young marine. The Thomas family all prayed together for God to give ‘David, his buddies, and the men of his company and battalion supernatural strength and endurance like the prophet Elijah received’. Elijah, Thomas confidently informs his readers, was ‘the first human in recorded history to break the four minute mile … and he did it for seventeen miles’. Their prayers were, they believed, answered. On one occasion, the Holy Spirit actually gave Glenn Thomas a reassuring vision: ‘I saw David with his combat gear and a transparent bell-shaped shield was all around him, covering him completely … God was divinely protecting David.’ More generally, the low casualties suffered by the Americans were ‘simply miraculous’.7 Cash’s A Table in the Presence is intended to show those ‘prayer warriors’ back home that their efforts were successful and that the marines he served with were worthy of them. The parable of the lost Bible is carefully crafted to this end. In one of the Alpha Company vehicles, Corporal Hardy was always reading to his comrades from his pocket Bible. It was passed around, passages were discussed and it had become ‘a reminder that God was with them’. One night, during a terrible storm, the Bible was lost outside the vehicle and they had to drive off without it. The following day, when they returned to the same area, Hardy found the book: The strangest thing of all was its perfect condition. The Bible had been dropped from the vehicle onto a dirt road. It had been assaulted for hours by 70 mph winds, carrying stinging sand, rain, and hail. It had been lying on a road that, for the past two hours, had borne the weight of every vehicle in the convoy. Still the Bible had not moved an inch from where it had landed. And it was not torn. It wasn’t even wet. Corporal Hardy told his comrades that this was ‘a sign from God … God has put a shield around us’. It was clearly a miracle, or, just possibly, Corporal Hardy had pretended to lose the book in order to reassure any doubters in the vehicle. Cash, of course, had no doubts: this was ‘a Bible that refused to be lost’. For Cash, God intervened in combat to protect America’s soldiers. There was no other way to explain their low casualty rate. During the invasion, the 1st Battalion suffered only two fatalities. God reached out to protect many other men from harm. Cash provides a number of examples. There was the corporal
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 37 who had AK-47 rounds pass either side of him and ‘could only believe that he had been protected by the Lord’, and the lance corporal who was hit by an RPG and should have been ‘instantly obliterated’ along with all the men around him, except that ‘God had other plans’. A sergeant was shot in the head, but the round only rattled around in his helmet, leaving him unharmed, proof that ‘our men had been shielded in ways none of us could fully understand’. Another sergeant’s vehicle was hit by an RPG that exploded and engulfed the crew ‘in a scorching wall of heat and flames’, but no one was injured. Cash highlights one particular episode involving Corporal Hardy’s vehicle on the streets of Baghdad. The vehicle’s atheist crew member Zebulon Batke saw an Iraqi only twenty-five feet away aim an RPG at the vehicle. Then, instead of firing, the Iraqi just ran away. ‘Hardy just kept smiling and pointing to the worn leathery Bible … “I knew it … I knew it when we found it in the storm. God was going to protect us. What did I tell you? He did it!”’ Batke, the atheist, had experienced ‘a dose of the miraculous … that led him to faith’. Most impressively, in one engagement, the battalion was reinforced by ‘a steel wall’ of heavenly armoured vehicles that promptly vanished once the battle was over. Cash insists that everyone there ‘all believed they had been in the midst of a modern-day miracle’.8 A more convincing account of the low casualty rate than divine intervention is provided by two former marines, Bing West and Ray Smith, in their account of the invasion. ‘The Iraqis’, they write, ‘weren’t lacking in courage or individual armament – but they were lacking in teamwork, leadership, tactics and marksmanship’. Indeed, ‘their occasional successes depended on the law of averages’. This was reinforced by technological disparity. West and Smith describe how, on one occasion, three Iraqi 122mm rockets were responded to with seventy-two radar-guided rocket-assisted projectiles each containing 108 bomblets. ‘The arithmetic’, they note, ‘was daunting. The Iraqis had fired three rockets – the Marines answered with 7,776 bomblets.’9 What is important about Carey Cash’s account of the invasion, however, is that it is not just a personal testimony to the man’s beliefs. Christian fundamentalism has a strong presence in the American military, arguably an even stronger one than it has in American society at large. Since the Vietnam War, the chaplaincy has been captured by the Christian Right. One account by Stephen Mansfield insists that the US military today is ‘the most religious Army’ since the Civil War. He writes of how, after the invasion of Iraq got under way, Amid the reports of victory and death, tales of faith arose from the battlefields. Newspapers reported Bible studies, prayer meetings and standingroom only worship services in the American camps. Magazines ran photos of Marines being baptised in the Euphrates River and fully armed soldiers kneeling in prayer before going out on patrol. There were accounts of a worship service on the eve of the battle for Fallujah with Christian rock music blaring and uniformed worshippers raising their hands in praise of their God.
Race & Class 52(4) Some chaplains who had served in earlier conflicts reported that they had never before seen such spiritual hunger among troops at war.10
This was not the whole story, of course. While one should certainly not underestimate the Christian fundamentalist presence in the US military, there were more marines untouched by this ‘spiritual hunger’. An essential account of these other marines is provided by the embedded journalist Evan Wright in his Generation Kill: living dangerously on the road to Baghdad with the ultraviolent Marines of Bravo Company.11 Nevertheless, the strength of religiosity in the US military is something new and attention must be paid to it. ‘An unforgiving meat grinder’ What of the memoirs of the occupation? This was a very different experience. After a triumphant invasion, the Americans found themselves confronting an insurgency that they were only poorly equipped to fight. Indeed, everything they did only served to make the situation worse, so much so that one academic authority on counterinsurgency has described Iraq as ‘a textbook example of how not to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign’.12 The memoirs of the occupation support this conclusion. Warlord: no better friend, no worse enemy is an account of the occupation, not the invasion. It was written by Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, the first marine to be charged with the murder of Iraqi civilians. Former marine Pantano, a successful businessman, re-enlisted after 9/11. The war he found himself involved in was very different from what confronted the invasion in 2003. He wrote that Iraq ‘had become an unforgiving meat grinder, a kill box the size of California’. At Fallujah, the insurgents had killed four American mercenaries, cut down by AK fire while still in their SUVs. The MUJ dragged the bodies into the street and burned them with gasoline. To celebrate, the savages strung up two of the blackened corpses from the steel girders of a bridge … I told my guys, ‘it’s “fuck America” time up there’. The battle for Fallujah, ‘Hue City on the Euphrates’, does not go well. His men watch as a convoy comes back from the city: We waved greetings, but none of the Marines waved back. We watched in mournful silence as vehicle after vehicle with bullet-scarred windshields thumped by on tires flattened by heavy fire. One Humvee towed another. I saw bandaged Marines inside. There was dark liquid dripping from one vehicle. Transmission fluid? Blood? This looked like a scene from Black Hawk Down. Fallujah ‘had become the symbol of the insurgents’ fuck you defiance’.
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 39 Pantano’s response was extreme. In his account, he wrote of how his sniper training had made him aware of ‘the psychological power of fear as a weapon’. This insight seems to have informed his conduct in Iraq. As far as he was concerned, ‘the world will not like us if we are nicer. No. The world will like us better if we win.’ Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans were regarded as ‘just victors’ in the second world war, but ‘only because we won. If we had lost, we would be barbarians who had perpetrated an Asian holocaust.’ Given this view of the world, his response to the Abu Ghraib scandal was perhaps predictable: if you were in there, ‘then you must have done some grisly shit’. Moreover, while crushing a little of their Arab machismo by having some female MP corporal ridicule the size of their dicks might seem like a war crime back in New York and Washington … the fact was such techniques had probably helped obtain information that had saved both American and Iraqi lives. On 15 April 2004, Pantano led his men on a raid. While his men carried out a house search, uncovering a quantity of weapons, he stopped a car from driving away. The driver and his passenger were handcuffed and, according to his sergeant, Pantano proceeded to trash the vehicle. He ordered the plastic cuffs to be cut and that the two men should get back in the car and then fired two full magazines into them. He later claimed that he was making them search the car (it had already been searched) and that they had attacked him. He left a cardboard notice on the vehicle that read, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy’. Pantano was charged with murder, but the charges were later dismissed. He told the BBC: ‘I’m a New Yorker and 9/11 was a pretty significant event for me. Our duty as Marines is, quite frankly, to export violence to the four corners of the globe, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.’13 ‘Hard eyes and stone faces’ Donovan Campbell’s Joker One is very much a Christian soldier’s account of the occupation. He was a platoon commander in Ramadi and was to find his faith seriously tested. Whereas God had seemed to smile on the invasion, the occupation was a very different experience. His response to a firefight in August 2004 demonstrated the strain he was under. His unit had suffered no casualties despite the ferocity of the exchange, so that: on that day I believed that God had been watching over us. Up to that point, even with the horrors I had witnessed I retained faith, if only barely. Every time events made me ready to throw in the towel, a small miracle happened – like anti-tank rockets missing our floor – or I saw something supernaturally beautiful in the actions of one of my Marines.
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His platoon had a ‘pre-battle ritual’ where they would all stand or kneel at prayer before going out on patrol. Indeed, as he confesses, at this time, he actually believed that if you prayed hard enough, God would keep you alive: ‘I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie, who, if you just fed the proper incantations would give the sincere practitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.’ The marines were expected to implement a ‘hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency strategy. For Campbell, all this came unstuck in Ramadi on 6 April 2005, when they found themselves confronted by what amounted to a general insurrection. On that day, ‘despite our daily kindness … the citizens of Ramadi had come out of their houses and actively tried to kill us … hundreds if not thousands of males ranging from teenagers to fifty-year-olds had grabbed their family assault rifles and … taken potshots at the US forces’. By the end of the day, twelve marines were dead and ‘we had lost all faith in our tactics as emissaries of kindness’. Such are the realities of military occupation. After a later fatal incident, Campbell observed his men ‘with hard eyes and stone faces, fingering their weapons … They wanted revenge on our faceless enemy and on the fearful citizens … they wanted revenge on the whole miserable city of Ramadi.’ Nevertheless, he insists that his men never descended to ‘the level of Abu Ghraib’. For his own part, Campbell wrestled with his faith, considering whether or not to ‘throw in the towel on God’. Eventually he decided that the only way to make any sense of it all was to hold on to the belief that everything was ‘in the service of the infinite, of a personal deity who cared and who intended the best for his people’. Reassured, he strapped himself ‘back into the responsibilities of leadership’. By the time of his battalion’s tour in Ramadi, they had suffered thirty-four fatalities and over 300 wounded. They had, of course, killed hundreds of Iraqis. Nevertheless, Campbell insists that he and his men had remained throughout motivated by ‘love’.14 ‘The great dupe’ Tyler Boudreau’s memoir Packing Inferno is subtitled The unmaking of a marine. In many ways it provides one of the most thoughtful, if somewhat rambling and discursive, accounts of what went wrong with the US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. Boudreau very self-consciously identifies his experiences with Dante’s Inferno, a book he had thrown into his kit without any real thought when preparing for his tour in Iraq. His account is part of the process of unpacking Inferno. As far as Boudreau was concerned, the hearts and minds strategy came up against one insuperable obstacle: the nature of the Marine Corps. As he observes, ‘for all our talk of gaining popular support … we didn’t train like we meant it’. Instead, they were obsessed with ‘killing, in bringing violence to bear, and on surviving’. This ‘squeezed us into a state of mind that guaranteed our inability
Newsinger: Taking Baghdad 41 to accomplish the mission’. To be able to kill men, you had to dehumanise them (and, in the process, he acknowledges that you also dehumanised yourself), but ‘there was a catch this time – a flaw in the program. This wasn’t supposed to be a real war. This was supposed to be a liberation.’ Despite all the hearts and minds rhetoric, ‘the ubiquitous danger in Iraq combined with the interchangeability of civilians and insurgents effectively transformed all Iraqis into the enemy’. We were told that we were in Iraq ‘to do good deeds’, he writes, but then we actually arrived in the country and found ourselves fighting insurgents. Every casualty suffered saw our humanity ‘overwhelmed by a yearning to kill. It is surely difficult to help a people you would prefer to shoot.’ The consequences were disastrous, both for the US troops on the ground, but even more so for the Iraqi people. Although Boudreau’s account is free of religious concerns, despite his being brought up a Catholic, he observes somewhat incredulously how ‘all our bases were named after saints when I arrived in the country in 2004 … our bases weren’t just posts, they were bastions of Christianity’. He writes of how ‘the damn thing turned into a holy war before our eyes … Religion may not have been the genesis of the war in Iraq, but its fervour unquestionably stoked the flames of our fury.’ He is not writing about Islamic fundamentalism here, but about the American version of Christian fundamentalism. What was to ‘unmake’ Boudreau as a marine was his ambivalence, an ambivalence that derived from the contradiction between a hearts and minds strategy, on the one hand, and the reality of extreme violence, on the other. He writes that, ‘the psyche starts to split’ when one is trying ‘to find some happy medium between the extremes of violence and kindness’. In the end, he did not know ‘what I wanted, or who I was, or whether I cherished the killer in me or despised him’. He describes how, on one occasion, looking out from his command post, he saw an Iraqi man and woman leave their home waving a large white sheet. His sergeant told him that he had to keep a close eye on the men in case one of them could not resist shooting them. ‘I was glad somebody was watching us’, he writes, ‘I might have found an excuse to take shot too’. He had violent mood swings: There were moments when I looked into the eyes of the Iraqi people that I saw in the street, and I could not bring to mind anything more beautiful. Other times, those same eyes brought a bile-like hatred up from my gut and it burned in my mouth, as acid burns. It burned away my humanity and cleared the way for that craving to kill, that taste for blood … I was torn by the war. According to Boudreau, there were less up close and personal atrocities in Iraq than had occurred in Vietnam. There was no ‘ears for beers’ culture. Nevertheless, he believes that the ratio between Iraqi fatalities and US fatalities may well have exceeded that in Vietnam. The reason for this was that the US casualty rate was low compared to Vietnam, while most Iraqi casualties, both civilian and
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insurgent, were inflicted by ‘bombs and indirect fire’. This casual killing from a distance seems to have been a particular hallmark of the Iraq occupation, but there were still inevitably soldiers who, in the words of British journalist Oliver Poole, went ‘feral’. And, in the end, what was it all for? In his last chapter, Boudreau turns to the example of Smedley Butler, the highly decorated Marine Corps general, who, in the 1930s, moved to the Left politically and confessed to having been ‘a racketeer for Capitalism’. While Butler had spent his life making South and Central America safe for Wall Street, the Iraq war was all about oil. In October 2007, the former head of US Central Command General John Abizaid, who had had responsibility for Iraq, freely admitted in public that the war ‘is all about oil, we can’t really deny this’. As Boudreau observes, this insight was never shared with the men doing the fighting. They were very much under the impression that they were ‘fighting for freedom and democracy’. It was all ‘a great dupe’.15 References
1 2 3 4 James A. Warren, American Spartans (New York, Free Press, 2005). There are hundreds of books on the US Marine Corps and its history. Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire (London, Bantam, 2000) and The Afghan Campaign (London, Doubleday, 2007); David J. Danelo, Blood Stripes (Mechanicsburg, Stackpole, 2006). Seth Folsom, The Highway War (Washington, DC, Potomac, 2006), pp. 12, 73, 194, 235–6, 242, 354. Jack Coughlin, Shooter (New York, St Martins Griffin, 2006), pp. 28, 29, 74, 80, 83, 204, 223. Other marine sniper books include Charles Henderson, Marine Sniper: 93 confirmed kills (New York, Stein and Day, 1986); Roy Chandler, Carlos Hathcock: ‘Whitefeather’ (New York, Iron Brigade, 2000); Joseph Ward, Dear Mom: a sniper’s Vietnam (New York, Ballantine, 1991); Craig Roberts, The Walking Dead (New York, Grafton, 1990); three volumes entitled Death from Afar produced by Roy and Norman Chandler (New York, Iron Brigade, 1992, 1993, 1994); and many others. Craig Roberts has also written a book on the Kennedy assassination from a sniper’s perspective, The Kill Zone: a sniper looks at Dealey Plaza (New York, Consolidated Press International, 1994). There are also two compilation volumes of marine sniper interviews and reminiscences from Iraq: Mike Tucker, Ronin (Mechanicsburg, Stackpole Books, 2008); Milo S. Afong, Hogs in the Shadows (New York, Caliber, 2007). See, in particular, Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right (New York, New Press, 2004). Carey H. Cash, A Table in the Presence (Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson, 2004), pp. 70, 162. Glenn Thomas, God Saw Them Through (Lake Mary, FL, Creation House, 2004), pp. 37, 37, 61, 127. Cash, op. cit., pp. 109–11, 204–15. Bing West and Ray L. Smith, The March up: taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division (London, Pimlico, 2003), pp. 120–1, 169. Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of the American Soldier (New York, Tacher, 2005), pp. 9–10, 33. Evan Wright, Generation Kill: living dangerously on the road to Baghdad with the ultraviolent Marines of Bravo Company (London, Bantam, 2004). Thomas Mockaitis, Iraq and the Challenge of Counterinsurgency (Westport, CT, Praeger Security, 2008), p. x. There is a large body of literature on the military fiasco that the occupation became. The later ‘surge’ that supposedly turned the war round is mythical, in my opinion, and it was political rather than military factors that were crucial.
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13 14 15 Ilario Pantano, Warlord: no better friend, no worse enemy (New York, Threshold, 2006), pp. 43, 139, 198, 199, 246, 247, 367. Donovan Campbell, Joker One: a Marine platoon’s story of courage, leadership, and brotherhood (New York, Random House, 2009), pp. 6–7, 98, 99, 188, 189, 229, 235–6, 302. Tyler Boudreau, Packing Inferno: the unmaking of a Marine (Port Townsend, Feral House, 2008), pp. 24–5, 42, 55, 75, 78, 98, 154, 204–5, 206. Boudreau’s website is available at: <http://www. tylerboudreau.com>. For Oliver Poole’s account of his visit to the marines in Haditha, see his Red Zone (London, Reportage Press, 2008), pp. 121–7. One interesting observation he makes about US troops more generally is that he ‘saw an awful lot of soldiers reading the books of Tim Lahaye’ (p. 116). As he points out, these remarkably popular novels are a cultural phenomenon in the US, but are virtually unknown elsewhere. They are Christian fundamentalist apocalyptic thrillers, both seriously weird and incredibly reactionary.