Persistent Myths of Combat
We condition the poor and the working class to go to war. We promise them honor, status, glory, and adventure. We promise boys they will become men. We hold these promises up against the dead-end jobs of small-town life, the financial dislocations, credit card debt, bad marriages, lack of health insurance, and dread of unemployment. The military is the call of the Sirens, the enticement that has for generations seduced young Americans working in fast food restaurants or behind the counters of Walmarts to fight and die for war profiteers and elites.
The poor embrace the military because every other cul-de-sac in their lives breaks their spirit and their dignity. Pick up Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. Read Henry IV. Turn to the Iliad. The allure of combat is a trap, a ploy, an old, dirty game of deception in which the powerful, who do not go to war, promise a mirage to those who do.
I saw this in my own family. At the age of ten I was given a scholarship to a top New England boarding school. I spent my adolescence in the schizophrenic embrace of the wealthy, on the playing fields and in the dorms and classrooms that condition boys and girls for privilege, and came back to my working-class relations in the depressed former mill towns in Maine. I traveled between two universes: one where everyone got chance after chance after chance, where connections and money and influence almost guaranteed that you would not fail; the other where no one ever got a second try. I learned at an early age that when the poor fall no one picks them up, while the rich stumble and trip their way to the top.
Those I knew in prep school did not seek out the military and were not sought by it. But in the impoverished enclaves of central Maine, where I had relatives living in trailers, nearly everyone was a veteran. My grandfather. My uncles. My cousins. My second cousins. They were all in the military. Some of them—including my Uncle Morris, who fought in the infantry in the South Pacific during World War II—were destroyed by the war. Uncle Morris drank himself to death in his trailer. He sold the hunting rifle my grandfather had given to me to buy booze.
He was not alone. After World War II, thousands of families struggled with broken men who, because they could never read the approved lines from the patriotic script, had been discarded. They were not trotted out for red-white-and-blue love fests on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day.
The myth of war held fast, despite the deep bitterness of my grandmother—who acidly denounced what war had done to her only son—and of others like her. The myth held because it was all the soldiers and their families had. Even those who knew it to be a lie—and I think most did—were loath to give up the fleeting moments of recognition, the only times in their lives they were told they were worth something.
“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’” Rudyard Kipling wrote. “But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.”
Any story of war is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor. I do not know of a single member of my graduating prep school class who went into the military. You could not say this about the high school class that graduated the same year in Mechanic Falls, Maine.
Geoff Millard was born in Buffalo, New York and lived in a predominately black neighborhood until he was eleven. His family then moved to Lockport, a nearby white suburb. He wrestled and played football in high school. He listened to punk rock.
“I didn’t really do well in classes,” he says. “But that didn’t seem to matter much to my teachers.”
At fifteen he was approached in school by a military recruiter.
“He sat down next to me at a lunch table,” Millard says. “He was a Marine. I remember the uniform was crisp. All the medals were shiny. It was what I thought I wanted to be at the time.
“He knew my name,” Millard adds. “He knew what classes I was taking. He knew more about me than I did. It was freaky, actually.”
Two years later, as a senior, Millard faced graduation after having been rejected from the only college where he had applied.
“I looked at what jobs I could get,” he says. “I wasn’t really prepared to do any job. I wasn’t prepared for college. I wasn’t prepared for the workforce. So I started looking at the military. I wanted to go active duty Marine Corps, I thought. You know, they were the best. And that’s what I was going to do.
“There were a lot of other reasons behind it, too,” he says. “I mean, growing up in this culture you envy that, the soldier.”
Any story of war is a story of elites preying on the weak, the gullible, the marginal, the poor.
His grandfather, in the Army Air Corps in World War II, had died when he was five. The military honor guard at the funeral had impressed him. As a teenager, he had watched the burial of his other grandfather, also with military honors. Millard carried the folded flag to his grandmother after receiving it from the honor guard.
The pageantry has always been alluring. “We marched a long time,” Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who fought in World War I, writes in Journey to the End of the Night:
There were streets and more streets, and they were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us on, bombarding us with flowers from café terraces, railroad stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in all your life! And then there were fewer patriots . . . . It started to rain, and then there were still fewer and fewer, and not a single cheer, not one.
And nearly a century later it is the same.
When Millard told his mother he wanted to be a Marine, she pleaded with him to consider the National Guard. He agreed to meet with the Guard recruiter, whose pitch was effective and simple: “If you come here, you get to blow shit up.”
“I’m seventeen,” Millard says. “I thought being in the military was the pinnacle of what coolness was. I was just like, oh, I get to blow up stuff! I signed up right then and there on the spot. But the interesting thing he didn’t tell me was that the ‘shit’ that he referred to would be kids.
“They don’t teach you when you’re in land mine school that the overwhelming percentage of victims of land mines are little kids. Because, like, in the States, a little kid will chase a soccer ball in the streets. And overseas, a little kid will chase a soccer ball into a minefield. Whether, you know, it happens in Korea or Bosnia or Iraq, kids get killed all the time by land mines. They get maimed by them. And that’s just a reality of our military industrial complex. We put out these mines. We have no concern for what they do.”
Not that this reality intruded on his visions of life in the military when he began.
“I just thought of it like this stuff you see on TV where cars blow up and stuff like that,” he says.
For Anthony Swofford—author of Jarhead, a memoir about being a Marine in the first Gulf War—the tipping point came when the recruiter, who assured him he would be “a fine killer,” told him he could book a threesome for $40 in Olongapo in the Philippines. “I’d had sex three times and been the recipient of five blow jobs and fourteen hand jobs,” he writes. “I was sold.”
But sometimes there’s no need for a recruiting pitch. The culture does enough to make war, combat, and soldiering appealing.
Ali Aoun was born in Rochester, New York. His father is Lebanese. His mother is from the Caribbean. He says he wanted to be a soldier from the age of nine. He was raised watching war films. But even antiwar films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket celebrate the power and seductiveness of violence. He wanted this experience as his own. He says no one pushed him into it.
“I enlisted,” he explains. “It was something I always wanted to do, although I got more than I bargained for. You never really know a woman until you jump in bed with her. It’s just like the Army: you never really know about it until you enlist. It’s not about defending the country or serving our people. It’s about working for some rich guy who has his interests.”
At first Millard liked the National Guard. He was able to enroll in Niagara County Community College as a business major, where he signed up for an African American studies class thinking it would be an easy A. He read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He read Frederick Douglass.
“It was the first time I’d really started to read,” he says.
He was in the African American studies class when the attacks of 9/11 occurred. His wrestling coach came into the room to tell him he had been activated. He went home. He packed his bags. He thought about combat.
“I was pissed,” he says. “I was like, they attacked us. I was ready to go to war.”
But he was confused from the start.
“I really wanted to go to war with somebody, because we were attacked,” he says. “But the one question I couldn’t answer was, who were we going to go to war with?”
At first he did military funerals. Then he was called up for Iraq. He was by then a sergeant and was assigned to work in the office of a general with the 42nd Infantry Division, Rear Operation Center. He became, in military slang, a REMF—a rear echelon motherfucker. He was based in Tikrit, where he watched the cynical and cold manipulation of human life.
‘It’s not about defending the country or serving our people. It’s about working for some rich guy who has his interests.’
He relates the story of a traffic-control mission gone awry when an eighteen-year-old soldier made a bad decision. He was sitting atop an armored Humvee monitoring a checkpoint. An Iraqi car approached, and the soldier, fearing it might be carrying a suicide bomber, pressed the butterfly trigger on his .50 caliber machine gun. He put two hundred rounds into the car in less than a minute, killing a mother, a father, a four-year-old boy, and a three-year-old girl.
“They briefed this to the general,” Millard says. “They briefed it gruesome. I mean, they had pictures. And this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says: ‘If these fucking Hadjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.’
“If you lift your rifle and you look through the sights and you see a person, you can’t pull the trigger,” Millard says. “But if you lift your rifle and you look through the sights and you see a fucking Hadji, then what’s the difference.
“That’s a lot of what I saw in Iraq,” he says. “These officers, high-ranking officers, generals, colonels, you know, the complete disregard. They knew all the stuff that happened. They got all the briefings. They knew what happened. And they either didn’t speak up, they didn’t say anything about it or they openly condoned it. When Iraqis got killed, to them, it was one less fucking Hadji around.”
Millard’s thirteen months in Iraq turned him into a passionate antiwar activist. He is the cofounder of the Washington, D.C., chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War and served as its president for three years. He has taken part in numerous antiwar demonstrations around the country, was one of the organizers of the Winter Soldier hearings, returned to Iraq on a humanitarian aid mission in 2011, and now directs a homeless veterans initiative.
The briefing that Millard and his superiors received after the checkpoint killing was one of many. Sergeant Perry Jeffries, who served in the Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq after being called out of retirement, said the killing of Iraqi civilians at checkpoints was routine.
“Alpha troop and Balad Ruz shot somebody at least once,” he says, referring to a troop detachment and to the soldiers manning a checkpoint in a small Diyala Province village. “Somebody else on what we called the Burning Oil Checkpoint, they shot somebody with a .50 cal, shot a guy once, and then several times.”
Killing becomes a job. You do it. Sometimes it unnerves you. But the demons usually don’t hit until you come home, when you are lying alone in bed and you don’t dare to tell your wife or your girlfriend what you have become, what you saw, what you did, why you are drinking yourself into a stupor, why you so desperately want to forget your dreams.
The disillusionment comes swiftly. It is not the war of the movies. It is not the glory promised by the recruiters. The mythology fed to you by the church, the press, the school, the state, and the entertainment industry is exposed as a lie. We are not a virtuous nation. God has not blessed America. Victory is not assured. And we can be as evil, even more evil, than those we oppose. War is venal, noisy, frightening, and dirty. The military is a vast bureaucratic machine fueled by hyper-masculine fantasies and arcane and mind-numbing rules. War is always about betrayal—betrayal of the young by the old, of idealists by cynics, and of soldiers and Marines by politicians.
“The biggest misconception about the war is that the soldiers care about politics,” Jeffries says. “The right thinks the soldiers want support. They want to feel good. They want everybody to fly their flag and have a bumper sticker and go, ‘Rah! Rah! Rah! I support the troops. Yay, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’ The left thinks the soldiers all want to run off and get out of there, that they’re dying in a living hell. I think that most of the soldiers are young people that are having a decent adventure.”
But, he goes on, “They may be having a very hard time. They’re frustrated about the amount of resources they have been provided—how many hours of sleep they get, how nice their day is, whether they get to play their PlayStation or read their book at night or whatever. Like any human, you’d like to have some more of that.”
Yet, while soldiers don’t want to be forgotten, the support-the-troops brigade only maintains the mythology of war on the home front by pretending that we’re actually all in it together, when in fact it’s overwhelmingly the poor, powerless, and adrift who suffer.
Jeffries has little time for lawn chair warriors: “I remember hearing that somebody said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a barbecue to support the troops.’ I heard about this when I was in Iraq. I said, how the hell is that going to support me? It’s not doing anything. Don’t drink beer. Send me the beer. It’s not doing me any good to have you drink it. I still don’t like the yellow ribbons.”
It is no surprise that soldiers sometimes come to despise civilians who chant patriotic mantras. Those soldiers may not be fans of the remote and rarely seen senior officers who build their careers on the corpses of others, including comrades, either. But to oppose the machine and risk being cast out of the magic circle of comradeship can be fatal. Fellow soldiers are the only people who understand the psychological torment of killing and being shot at, of learning to not think at all and instead be led as a herd of animals. Those ostracized in war have a hard time surviving, mentally and physically, so most service members say and do nothing to impede the madness and the killing.
If veterans speak of terrible wounds, of lies told to make them kill, of evil committed in our name, we fill our ears with wax.
Jessica Goodell came to understand that torment only too well, as she relates in her 2011 memoir Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq. Goodell wasn’t poor. She grew up in a middle-class home near Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother worked at home. But her “universe fractured” when she was sixteen and her parents divorced. She could barely continue “the motions of everyday existence.” She was accepted at Ithaca College her senior year, but just before graduation a uniformed Marine came to her high school. He told her he had come to find “tough men.”
“What about tough women?” she asked.
By that afternoon she was in the Marine recruiting office. She told the recruiter she wanted to be part of a tank crew but was informed that women were prohibited from operating tanks. She saw a picture of a Marine standing next to a vehicle with a huge hydraulic arm and two smaller forklift arms. She signed up to be a heavy equipment mechanic, although she knew nothing about it.
Three years later, while stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in the desert town of Twentynine Palms, California, she volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps’ first official Mortuary Affairs unit, at Al Taqaddum Airbase in Iraq. Her job, for eight months, was to “process” dead Marines—collect and catalog their bodies and personal effects. She put the remains in body bags and placed the bags in metal boxes. Before being shipped to Dover Air Force Base, the boxes were stored, often for days, in a refrigerated unit known as a “reefer.”
Her unit processed six suicides. The suicide notes, she told me in an interview, almost always cited hazing. Marines who were overweight or unable to do the physical training were subjected to withering verbal and physical abuse. They were called “fat nasties” and “shit bags.” They were assigned to other Marines as slaves. Many were forced to run until they vomited or to bear-crawl—walk on all fours—the length of a football field and back. This would be followed by sets of monkey fuckers—bending down, grabbing the ankles, crouching like a baseball catcher, and then standing up again—and other exercises that went on until the Marines collapsed.
Goodell’s unit was sent to collect the bodies of the Marines who killed themselves. They usually blew their faces off with assault rifles in port-a-johns or in the corners of abandoned bunkers or buildings. She and the other members of the Mortuary Affairs unit would have to scrape the flesh and brain tissue from the walls.
Goodell fell into depression when she returned home. She abused drugs and alcohol. And she watched the slow descent of her comrades as they too tried to blunt the pain with narcotics and self-destructive behavior. She details many of her experiences in Shade It Black, a term that refers to the missing body parts of dead Marines, which she colored black on diagrams of the corpses.
In a poignant passage, she talks about what it was like for her and a fellow Marine named Miguel to come home and see all those yellow ribbons:
We’d frequently pass vehicles displaying the yellow ribbon ‘support-our-troops decal,’ but we never once mentioned it. We probably passed a hundred or more decals—two hundred if you count the multiple decals decorating the cars of the more patriotic motorists—and yet neither of us even once said, ‘Look, more support from the citizenry. Let’s give the ‘thumbs up’ as we pass.’ . . . I knew that these people on their way to work or home or dinner had no idea what it was they were supporting. They did not have a clue as to what war was like, what it made people see, and what it made them do to each other. I felt as though I didn’t deserve their support, or anyone’s, for what I had done. . . . No one should ever support the people who do such things.
Stateside “support” not only reflects the myths of war, but it also forces Goodell and her comrades to suppress their own experiences:
Here we were, leaving the ribbons behind us as we sped up on our way to Hell, probably, where we would pay for the sins these magnetic decals endorsed. There was an irony of sorts shaping the dynamic between our ribbon decal supporters and us. They were uninformed but good people, the kind whose respect we would welcome—if it were based upon something true. It was when we were around them that we had to hide the actual truth most consciously.
Those who return to speak this truth, like Goodell or Millard, are our contemporary prophets. They struggle, in a culture awash in lies, to tell what few have the fortitude to digest. The words these prophets speak are painful.
As a nation we prefer to listen to those who speak from the patriotic script. We prefer to hear ourselves exalted. If veterans speak of terrible wounds visible and invisible, of lies told to make them kill, of evil committed in our name, we fill our ears with wax. Not our boys and girls, we say, not them, bred in our homes, endowed with goodness and decency. For if it is easy for them to murder, what about us? It is simpler and more comfortable not to hear, to wish only that they would calm down, be reasonable, get some help, and go away. We brand our prophets as madmen. We cast them into the desert. This is why so many veterans are estranged and enraged. This is why so many succumb to suicide or addictions. Not long ago Goodell received a text message from a Marine she had worked with in Mortuary Affairs after he tried to commit suicide. “I’ve got $2,000 in the bank,” the message read. “Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.”
War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans; calls for sacrifice, honor, and heroism; and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. From a distance it seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a bit part in the great drama of history. It promises to give us identities as warriors, patriots, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.
But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion, and pain. Human decency and tenderness are crushed, and people become objects to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded all combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naïvely blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts, becomes stark. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It might let us see, although the cost is tremendous.
By Chris Hedges