May 21, 2013
Confessions of a Former Republican
Posted on Sep 11, 2012
By Jeremiah Goulka, TomDispatch
To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines. We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den. Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.
As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory. (I would eventually edit a book of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.) I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that “war is hell,” it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and—whatever those misinformed peaceniks said—we made the world a better place.
But then I went to a war zone.
I was deployed to Baghdad as part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues. My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group on Washington’s terrorist list.
This was the “surge” period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me. The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the “wire.” Controlled detonations of insurgent duds. Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.
Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD. It turns out that it doesn’t take much.
That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it. From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools. Millions displaced.
Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence. People were assigned the wrong roles—“Why am I building a radio station? This isn’t what I do. I blow things up…”—and given no advance training or guidance. Outgoing leaders didn’t overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again. Precious few contracts went to Iraqis. It was driving people out of our military.
This incompetence had profound human costs. Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds were innocent—wrong place, wrong time—or, poor and desperate, had worked with insurgent groups for cash, not out of an ideological commitment. Aware of this, the military wanted to release thousands of them, but they didn’t know who was who; they only knew that being detained and interrogated made even the innocents dangerously angry. That anger trickled down to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. It was about as good an in-kind donation as the U.S. could have made to insurgent recruitment—aside from invading in the first place.
So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds. I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment. But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.
Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn’t aware of the U.S. ever doing anything that might demand an apology. Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there’s no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name—calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage (“stuff happens”)—or if you believe that American force is always applied righteously in a world that is justly divided into winners and losers.
A Painful Transition
An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion. I think I finally understand what it means. We see different realities, different worlds. If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are that we aren’t talking about the same things. I think this explains much of modern American political dialogue.
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