copyright © 2007 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
This morning, as I approached the peace corner, two of my fellow demonstrators made mention of the soldiers across the street. Weekly, a throng of Iraq war dissenters stands and pickets on the south side of the street. I position myself on the North end of the avenue. I stand alone. On this afternoon, two young men dressed in Army fatigues, soldiers, situated themselves on the median, yards from where I position myself. They carried plastic bins; patriotic banners were pasted onto these containers. American flags and pamphlets graced their station. The military men collected money from passers-by. They distributed literature. They did their work from the same side of the street I favor.
My comrades in peace and protest were concerned. Perhaps I would not wish to cross over into the abyss of possible confrontations or conflict of interest. I glanced over at the diligent warrior and decided they were as I, people that long for peace. I quickly gathered my sign, pressed the button on the traffic pole, and waited until it was safe to enter the intersection. Cars are my enemy. These fast moving vehicles are, in my mind Weapons of Mass Destruction. People, no matter their attire or philosophical views are not my foes.
Minutes after I took my characteristic stance, held up my sign "Love, Not War" and extended my forefinger and central digit to form the symbol universally acknowledged as "peace" one of the soldiers smiled at me. He faced me and flashed the same sign. Yes, we were on the same side of the street and the issue. Neither of us wants war. We work to bring harmony to a world wrought with distress. The serviceman and I each yearn for global calm.
Throughout the afternoon, I pondered what people might think a dichotomy. I wondered why other picketers thought there might be a problem with my being so near these troops. I reflected; what might those in their automobiles think. Was it likely those in cars would think to wave in appreciation of me was to defy the intent of the military volunteers, or might the travelers consider each of us, soldiers and myself, as joined forces. I observed various notions. I also accepted that some voyagers would see only what they wished to believe, or perhaps we all do.
We may walk down different philosophical paths; yet, I cannot help but believe we are one. We stroll in synch on the same side of a single street.
Days ago, Americans honored our war veterans. On that hallowed occasion, I wept as I thought of all the soldiers that passed. I mourned for those who would die on the battlefields abroad. Grief consumes me as I contemplate those who will take their last breath in transit. I feel such sorrow when I gaze upon a soldier some think fortunate enough to survive. I understand that many have lost the will to live. Those that made the trek and stand strong often tell tales. The war is alive and well within them, frequently for years, even if they appear settled, safe, and secure.
I might muse as many do, "I support the soldiers." However, I understand how trite, contrite, contrived such a claim might sounds, particularly to those that put their lives in on the line, the front line, in the face of great peril as they fight for America's freedoms.
I have infinite faith that each man or woman alive believes in the ethics of their actions, or on the rare occasion that any of us is reactive and engages in the unthinkable, we work to rationalize what we did. Sadly, frequently, we cannot. I have met many a soldier that speaks of how the mission was not what he or she thought it might be. I am familiar with numerous others that, long after, they return home from battle, still believe the cause was just. As I watch these two men collect funds for the fight, for families of the fallen, I wonder; what was and is their experience.
I look over and once more, I am greeted with a smile, a wave, and an acknowledgement that the three of us yearn for world peace. Ah, to be human is to love thy fellow man, and to fight?
Some say aggression is natural. Man by his very nature is combative. Others are certain confrontational behaviors are learned. No matter what we believe, every individual has to grapple with the fact that we are creatures of the Earth, complex, and difficult to understand. However, I believe no one truly wants war or wishes to kill another. Some say they think mass slaughter is an option; however, faced with the possibility, none of us is left unscathed.
Perception, passion, human emotions frequently give rise to errors, crimes against man and nature. People are easily persuaded, pushed, become fearful, and are filled with angst. Each can cause individuals to act against their best judgment or interest. I perpend the soldiers on the Boulevard and reflect. What is their reality. As we exchange glances and consistently acknowledge the other, I trust neither would have said . . .
"I came over here because I wanted to kill people."
By Andrew Tilghman
Sunday, July 30, 2006; B01
" I came over here because I wanted to kill people."
Over a mess-tent dinner of turkey cutlets, the bony-faced 21-year-old private from West Texas looked right at me as he talked about killing Iraqis with casual indifference. It was February, and we were at his small patrol base about 20 miles south of Baghdad. "The truth is, it wasn't all I thought it was cracked up to be. I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it, and I was like, 'All right, whatever.'"
"I shot a guy who wouldn't stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing," he went on. "Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it's like 'All right, let's go get some pizza.'"
As I read these words, I feel a palpable bravado. The boldness expressed for me is that of a man that felt so deeply, he wanted to feel no more. Months after Private Steven D. Green made this statement, he stood outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina. There he pled 'not guilty' to charges of premeditated rape and murder. Private Green was accused of these crimes. In Mahmudiyah, a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and her family fell victim to war and the emotions evoked by such a brutal practice.
Andrew Tilghman, embedded Journalist with the Washington Post wrote of his encounter with Steven D. Green and the tale the young serviceman told prior to his crime. The account was harrowing.
Tilghman describes the circumstances and situation. The correspondent explains he met Private Green in Mahmudiyah, on the edge of the zone known as "The Triangle of Death." It was there that the reporter realized the fear, foreboding of the frontlines. Andrew Tilghman remembers the unrelenting knot death and destruction left in his stomach. He recalls the low morale, the stories of fire, ambush, and the loss of innocence many soldiers and commanders expressed.
The columnist recounts a narrative. The company commander in charge of Green's unit said of himself, he "almost had a nervous breakdown." This trained, experienced, hardened officer was confined to a hotel-style compound in Baghdad for three days of "freedom rest." Without this time away he could not resume his command.
Yet, the journalist notes, he experienced extraordinary camaraderie among the soldiers in Mahmudiyah. Tilghman states, "They were among the friendliest troops I met in Iraq." These troops had been through much together. Washington Post Andrew Tilghman inscribes . . .
When I met Green, I knew nothing about his background -- his troubled youth and family life, his apparent problems with drugs and alcohol, his petty criminal record. I just saw and heard a blunt-talking kid. Now that I know the charges against Green, his words take on an utterly different context for me. But when I met him then, his comments didn't seem nearly as chilling as they do now . . .
Green was one of several soldiers I sat down with in the chow hall one night not long after my arrival. We talked over dinner served on cardboard trays. I asked them how it was going out there, and to tell me about some of their most harrowing moments. When they began talking about the December death of Sgt. Kenith Casica, my interview zeroed in on Green.
He described how after an attack on their traffic checkpoint, he and several others pushed one wounded man into the back seat of a Humvee and put Casica, who had a bullet wound in his throat, on the truck's hood. Green flung himself across Casica to keep the dying soldier from falling off as they sped back to the base.
"We were going, like, 55 miles an hour and I was hanging on to him. I was like, 'Sgt. Casica, Sgt. Casica.' He just moved his eyes a little bit," Green related with a breezy candor. "I was just laying on top of him, listening to him breathing, telling him he's okay. I was rubbing his chest. I was looking at the tattoo on his arm. He had his little girl's name tattooed on his arm.
"I was just talking to him. Listening to his heartbeat. It was weird -- I drooled on him a little bit and I was, like, wiping it off. It's weird that I was worried about stupid [expletive] like that.
"Then I heard him stop breathing," Green said. "We got back and everyone was like, 'Oh [expletive], get him off the truck.' But I knew he was dead. You could look in his eyes and there wasn't nothing in his eyes. I knew what was going on there."
He paused and looked away. "He was the nicest man I ever met," he said. "I never saw him yell at anybody. That was the worst time, that was my worst time since I've been in Iraq."
At the time, Private green had served only four months of a one-year stint. He was resigned to a life that recruiters do not speak of. Servicemen and women intent on signing up young enlistees focus on the best of what we would all wish to believe. The military will train enlistees to do a job. The service will provide security. There is money for college, ample adventures, and a well-disciplined community will help to establish leadership skills.
All that may be true. However, there is a price to pay. The cost of engagement in a cold, cruel war, may be too high. Five months before he brutally sexually assaulted a young woman and slaughtered her and her family Private Steven D. Green said . . .
"I gotta be here for a year and there ain't [expletive] I can do about it," he said. "I just want to go home alive. I don't give a [expletive] about the whole Iraq thing. I don't care.
"See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing."
Private Green, the soldiers that stood across the street from me, and I may not agree completely. We may differ on the broader construct of combat. Nonetheless, it seems to me, those that served in Iraq, those that expect to ship out, military men and women that saw war firsthand in years past, and I each concede war is not wonderful. It does not bring out the best in people. To kill or be killed is not a quest anyone pursues with love or intent.
Private Steven D. Green reflects and expresses his frustration with the Army brass. Green cries out as he contemplates the calls for caution. He states, soldiers are ordered to be prudent, exercise vigilance, even in the most horrific, dreadful, and grave circumstances. The Private ponders when your life is threatened you are commanded to remain calm.
"We're out here getting attacked all the time and we're in trouble when somebody accidentally gets shot?" he said, referring to infantrymen like himself throughout Iraq. "We're pawns for the [expletive] politicians, for people that don't give a [expletive] about us and don't know anything about what it's like to be out here on the line."
Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, in his book published in 1935 wrote, "War is a racket." The two-time Medal of Honor winner continued, "It has always been." The General would find no fault with the assessment Green makes.
Wars are rarely fought for the reasons that are claimed. Those reasons amount to nothing more than bogus excuses, ways to hoodwink the gullible public, and the vilest propaganda designed to incite people to sacrifice their children for a supposedly glorious cause.
The defense of freedom and democracy is one false claim that we often hear in this country. This shameful claim could not be further from the truth.
No one ever bothers to explain how our freedom and democracy are at risk in some obscure little country halfway around the world. That's because the sad and dirty truth is that wars are fought for empire and the financial gain of the few.
I yearn for peace planet wide and I continue to do all that I might to ensure global harmony. Each weekend, I take to the streets to protest the war, just as I did today. The pilgrimage began years ago, before the first bomb struck the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since then much to my chagrin, many innocents, soldier, and civilians have died, all in the name of terrorism. Americans, allied forces, and citizens of the Middle East. It is a challenge for me to understand; who is the fanatic, the foe, the revolutionary, or the rebel. I know not who fights for freedom and democracy, who occupies, or who liberates. For me, if we resort to killing we are as savages. War and combat are incomprehensible to me. Yet, I long to understand.
~ Thomas Edison [Scientist, Inventor]
Soldiers on active duty and off, also struggle to grasp the greater significance. Some warriors resent persons such as I, or what they believe to be my intention, my presumed purpose, or me. Just as those at the peace protest thought the soldiers on the calm city street in America might approach me with resentment or judgment, some of the troops feel support expressed by dissenters is shallow. Five Iraq War veterans spoke of their return to American life to editors of The New York Times.
Q: Are we mature enough as a country to thank those who risk their lives on our behalf while voicing our outrage at the actions of the politicians who put them in harm’s way?
Michael Jernigan: To people who support the troops but not the war — that is your right. But remember there was someone holding a gun who fought so you can have that right. It is tough for me to smile when someone tells me that they support our troops but feel the war is wrong. I stand there and smile and say, “Thank you for sharing your feelings.” I think people say that because it makes them feel better to say it, but they really mean, “Thank you for your service, but really you are an idiot for following that insane president.” It makes me feel belittled. I do not want to hear it. I was a corporal in the United States Marine Corps and I do not make policy so save it for your congressman.
Perception is the truest reality and I believe it is the reason we war. I could have surmised that the soldiers were warmongers, fighters, aggressors, ready to attack and antagonize me. However, that conclusion would be contrary to my basic belief: people are good. I have faith, in the human form, we each error. Emotions cannot be easily understood or controlled. Often, what we feel, what we think true, rules us. Then, later, with regret for what we have thought or done, we rationalize.
This week, as I listened to a National Public Radio interview A Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Grad School, I realized again, the power of the mind, and the role it plays in peace.
Demond Mullins spent a year in Iraq with the National Guard. When he came back, he felt alienated and angry at what he had seen and done in the war. Now Mullins has found a degree of peace in higher learning.
"Academia ... that's where I'm at," the City University of New York grad student says. "Right now, school, books — Weber, Marx, Durkheim — that's my medication."
That's his medication now. But if it's true that there are seven stages of grief, it's fair to say that Mullins is going through several stages of adjusting to his new life.
Upon his return from Iraq, Mullins hoped to resume his life as it was. Yet, he realized this was not possible. He was no longer the same person; his views changed. The way Demond Mullins saw the world and considered himself had been altered.
Before he enlisted and shipped out, Demond Mullins had been a clothing model. This romantic gentleman once followed a girl to Las Vegas. He had plans. Ambitious and reflective, Mullins joined the National Guard to pay for college; he did not join the armed Services to fight. Yet, that is what he did.
when he tried to resume it, Mullins' old friends kept asking questions, like "What was it like when you shot someone?"
"I don't know," he says. "My experiences are not pornography for my friends or for anyone else. I use the word pornography because I feel like it is just the ... exploitation of my personal experiences for someone else's entertainment."
Mullins says he either ignored the question "or I would just say, 'You know, I don't want to talk about things like that' or just say, 'I didn't shoot anybody or whatever.'"
'Stressed Out and on the Edge'
He says he's not sure if he did shoot and kill anybody, though he knows exactly what he did at close range.
"I dehumanized people," Mullins says. "I don't even know how many raids I did while I was there. But during raids you're throwing them up against the wall, you're tying their hands behind their back, you're dragging them out of the bed. You're dehumanizing them in front of their wives and their kids and, you know, the women are crying and the children are crying and you're just like, whatever. Put a bag over their head or blindfold, drag them into the Humvee.
"Certain exhibitions of violence on my part that were probably unnecessary — were definitely unnecessary. But I was really stressed out and on edge at the time and I conducted myself . . . like that."
When he returned from Iraq, Mullins says he felt angry at himself. He broke up with his girlfriend. He spent days in his apartment.
"Staring at the wall. Not eating. I lost about 15 to 20 pounds," he says. "My friends still look at me and like, 'What happened to you?'"
Mullins says he was depressed to the point of being suicidal. Two of his friends have died since their return from Iraq, including one who shot himself in the face, Mullins says.
"To me, that would be the only way that I was capable of doing it because it was fast and it was a tool that I was very familiar with," he says.
Mullins got counseling from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He didn't like it and didn't want to take medication.
He managed to resume college, get a degree and move on to graduate school.
However, the path Demond Mullins took had many twists and turns. Initially, he immersed himself in his anger. Then dedicated to a cause, Demond took action and protested the war. Mullins appeared in an anti-war documentary called The Ground Truth.
"When I first started anti-war activism, it was because I felt guilty," Mullins says. "Because I'd meet people, especially a lot of civilians on the street, and they say, 'Oh, thank you for your service. Thank you for protecting America.' Like, what are you talking about? I wasn't protecting America. I was protecting myself and my buddy, you know?"
After Mullins participated in the film, he felt less of a need to speak out.
And by this semester at graduate school, most of his fellow students and at least one of his professors had no idea of his background.
Demond Mullins is now more reflective, philosophical, and aware. He knows, to authentically assess America and this society, he must study.
Perhaps, the servicemen I watched stroll from car to car on this day, were on a similar journey. Perchance, later, after we all finished our work we would speak, not as peace protestor and participants in war, but as people. For now, they had a job to do as did I. Interestingly, in the abstract we each were motivated by peace.
As I interacted with those in vehicles as they passed I continued to ponder. I am close to numerous Veterans. As friends and as fellow protestors against the current wars, I know many a Vietnam Veteran.
One noble and honorably discharged soldier, whom I first met in cyberspace, again dedicates himself to his country. Jerry Northington aspires to be the Congressional Representative from Delaware. As one who fought in country, he understands the woes of warfare.
Family members engaged in battle during World War II. A nephew is off about to depart for Basic Training. Jason joined the Marines. I cannot imagine what his future holds. Will Jason be injured. Will he return whole, if at all. What will my nineteen year young nephew see, hear, and feel. Will he be willing or able to discuss such an ordeal. I am certain what I have been told by those once there on the frontlines is true. War is not pretty. A soldier cannot fully explain what he or she witness. Combat is experienced. It scars the spirit and deprives a man of his senses.
Soldier describes killing unarmed Iraqi
One of three members of sniper team accused of murder makes a tearful confession during testimony in the court-martial of a colleague.
By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times
September 28, 2007
BAGHDAD — U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Vela spoke in a low voice Thursday at the court-martial for his fellow soldier. Tears slid down the 23-year-old's cheeks and the judge prompted him to talk louder.
On May 11, Vela's sniper team had detained an Iraqi man near Jarf Sakhr, Vela testified. Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley undid the ropes that had pinned the prisoner's arms and asked Vela whether he was ready, he said.
The dark-haired Idaho native told the court he wasn't sure what his superior meant at the time. Vela said Hensley cradled the Iraqi's head, straightened his headdress, then moved away from Vela, who gripped a 9-millimeter pistol.
"I heard the word 'shoot.' I don't remember pulling the trigger. I just came to and the guy was dead. It took me a second to realize the shot came from the pistol in my hand," Vela said.
Vela is one of three soldiers from the same sniper team who are accused of premeditated murder in three shootings this spring. Their cases have provided a picture of mentally exhausted troops and the role they allegedly played in a "baiting program," in which snipers are believed to have planted fake weapons and bomb-making materials, then killed anyone who picked them up.
The alleged tactic was revealed in a hearing in July that eventually sent Hensley and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. to face court-martial on murder charges. The Pentagon refuses to speak publicly about baiting or other such tactics, but insists that military practices are within the law.
"My client is no murderer. He is a victim," said James Culp, Vela's civilian defense attorney, who suspects that baiting contributed to the slaying of the Iraqi man on May 11.
We are all victims of war and those that command young men and women to shoot another being. Enemies, as nameless and faceless as we wish them to be are as we are. They are humans, with hearts and souls. Minds can be manipulated for a moment or for months. People persuaded or unduly influenced to do as they would never have done may commit crimes. Emotions can evoke feelings of fright that cause us to temporarily separate ourselves from our greater wisdom. However, after any of us does the unthinkable, we are left with the memories. Overtime, we reflect on the meaning. Perhaps that is why those that fought in battles are often less likely to resort to combat.
There must be a lesson, a means to communicate the tragedy of war before we engage. For now, I can only propose what I envisioned as a child. As I reflect on the story, The Truce of Christmas, A Silent Night 1914, I understand the power of true knowledge. When people stop and listen to the hearts of others, not the harangue of irrational "intellectualizations," they learn to love. When we see strangers as similar to us, we cannot kill. Indeed, we connect to the commonality that is humankind.
Hence, I believe, world leaders must face each other alone in a room for more than a moment. The argumentative among us must eat and sleep with those they disagree with. Perhaps, if the need to compete overwhelms those in power, they might arrange a chess tournament. A "war game" played on a checkered board might relieve the angst some feel when they argue. Thoughtful battles would do far less harm. Physical and financial wounds would be less severe. This is but a thought. I trust there are infinite opportunities to connect that we might consider. Unquestionably, there must be a better way to learn the lessons of war before a soldier loses a limb.
Jonathan Bartlett, one of 25,000 military persons injured during the Iraq war speaks of his trauma and trials. When Bartlett was a 19-year-old Army Corporal his truck hit a bomb on a road near Fallujah. That was three years ago. The explosion blew off both of his legs. Today, he appears in a Home Box Office [HBO] documentary titled Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. In an interview with Vanity Fair Columnist Austin Merrill, Jonathon shares the conflict within. He explains how the battle has just begun, or perhaps Bartlett plainly states how the battle never ends. Merrill inquires . . .
At one point in the film you say that you'd do it all over again. Then later you say that if given your legs back, you'd move on to do something else.
[Jonathon Bartlett] replies] I would do it all over again if I went back to the age of 18 and they told me, you're going to join the army. I'd say yes. But if they gave me new legs tomorrow, I wouldn't go back. I was 18 and idealistic and naïve and uninformed, and I didn't know how the world works. Now I'm 22 and idealistic and naïve, but I do know how the world works. And I'm not going to go fight in a war that's so badly run, that some people don't give a [expletive] about. There's just so much bad [expletive] going on in this war. I don't want any part of it.
Yet, Bartlett goes on to clarify for him the problem with this war is not the warriors. It is the leaders. Jonathon Bartlett is angry with the Commander-In-Chief and his Cabinet. This soldier believes the nation's leaders did not have a plan. The soldiers were well trained. He was a good trooper.
I was good at being a soldier. I say that with no shame or no boasting. I was good at being a soldier. Mostly because I enjoyed it.
What does being a good soldier mean, exactly?
I could shoot straight, I could ride true, and I could speak the truth. I could fight, I could think. I took care of my stuff. I took care of my vehicles. I looked the part all the time, which is very important. I knew how to talk, which gets you in trouble. I knew how to work the system. I knew how to acquire things. I could take care of my buddies.
Bartlett believes the Bush Administration is at fault, not the soldiers. On this, we would agree. However, when asked of peace protesters and retired Generals that speak out against the conflict he offers a view that befuddles me.
How do you feel when you see people rallying for or protesting against the war?
I think all of them have a massive disrespect for the soldiers who are over there, because they do not understand. They have no [expletive] clue. We don't have a choice. As soon as you sign that paper and swear that oath, we do not have a choice. We go wherever the hell the president and the generals tell us to. People who say if you're against this war you're against the soldiers are displaying their ignorance. Most people don't understand. They just don't get it. You know how many times I've been asked by some stupid person, some civilian, how many people did you kill? You don't ask a soldier that. I was a trained killer. That was my job, man. Somebody has to do it. Being a soldier is a job.
What do you think of the retired generals who have come out against the war? Is that a betrayal?
No! It's good! They should have been doing that [expletive] when they were still in. I don't think it's a betrayal. These generals understand that they have soldiers on the line. The best generals are those who know what it means to be a troopie. A ground pounder. A supply clerk. This administration keeps throwing people at a problem and expecting it to fix it. It's not how things are done. You have to give them a plan. You have to lead them. And these generals understand that. The president does not. The president doesn't have a [expletive] clue.
The clue may be cryptic and not part of our conscious mind. As I stood at the corner, I thought the soldiers were on a peaceful mission. Fellow dissenters were certain there might be a confrontation.
Our view of others and ourselves provides, perspective. Perceptions are profoundly altered. Jonathon Bartlett has long believed military service was in his blood. His mother and father were each in the Navy. Jonathon was trained to protect, defend, and kill, and to consider each of these options tantamount. The young man trusts that Generals understand this. Yet, Mister Bartlett believes there must be a strategy if a mass massacre is to be effective.
Perhaps, that is the paradox. We coach our young to be combative. As a culture, we do not expect world harmony. We do not believe it can exist.
We must acknowledge and accept, what each of us believes affects our idea of war, peace, perpetrators, and protestors. An experience may cause us to blame, to frame friends and foes in a manner that does not make sense to others.
As I reflect on the words of Jonathon Bartlett, I am confused. While critical of those that demonstrate in favor of global accord, Private Bartlett also believes the individuals that think protestors are against the soldiers are in error. The Iraq war Veteran reasons, military leaders must speak out, stand strong, and stress ''we need a plan. The dichotomy befuddles. Perchance, another soldier explained the circumstances best. Sandi Austin discussed her view of the peace protestors.
For the most part, I feel that the majority of anti-war activists focus on our political leaders and not the soldiers. Driving by the anti-war protests I usually see signs the relay messages in support of the troops, but opposing the cause. Perhaps if I still wore a uniform I would feel differently, I might get glares or comments, but because I too am a civilian, I haven’t faced any hostility or felt unappreciated on a regular basis.
I wonder. When people go to war, do they flail at uniforms and forget that a person inhabits the clothing? Might appearances motivate us to engage in battle? As I reflect on the day, I realize, I could have reacted to the olive green and khaki camouflage fabric. The shaved heads, the American flags, the military garb . . . I might have been offended. If I had done as advised, I would have kept a distance. The servicemen might have concluded I did not understand. They too could have chosen to do other than they did. War, on a small scale may have ensued. Instead, each of us gave peace a chance.
Imagine if world leaders chose not to presume, assume, suppose or surmise, if soldiers were not sent off into battle, if we established a Department of Peace and left the Defense Department behind. I can dream and act in accordance.
Perceptions; The Promise of Peace . . .