Collateral damage

I’ve just finished The Deserter’s Tale by Joshua Key (“as told to” Lawrence Hill). It’s a memoir of a U.S. soldier from Oklahoma who was sent to Iraq in 2003 and became so disgusted with the war and the conduct of his own countrymen (and himself) that he deserted and fled with his family to Canada, where he still awaits a court appeal to see if they’ll be able to stay.

The descriptions of what went on in Iraq are horrific and would shake any faith in humanity. I don’t know if they’re true, or how much they may be exaggerated, but given Abu Ghraib, some of the prosecutions of soldiers going on now, and the stories that came out of the Vietnam War and every other war, if Key didn’t actually see everything he says he did, I’m pretty sure someone else did.

I realized while reading that on some level I bought the line that everything possible is being done to protect civilians, and on another level I’ve known this couldn’t be true. Wars and armies are not organized to protect civilians; they’re organized to kill enemies. But as long as I believe the lie I don’t have to work very hard to change things. I can file my taxes and help fund the war instead of taking a stand and facing the consequences.

Key talks about knowing right from wrong and yet often doing wrong anyway. Clearly belief and even values are not enough in many circumstances. A lot of the beating, robbing, raping, and unprosecuted murders Key describes happened in part because the soldiers were pumped up and sent out to find weapons that aren’t there and to fight enemies they hardly ever get to fight. The insurgents attack and run, or plant bombs and hide, or blow themselves up. The civilians are the only people left for the soldiers to take out their fear, anger, and humiliation on. This may also explain in part why Iraqis are now killing each other. It’s easier for Iraqis to take out their fear, anger, and humiliation on their neighbors than the U.S. soldiers. (I know the religious reasons as well, but they’ve managed to live together peacefully at other times.)

How often do those of us under more “normal” circumstances fail to live up to our values and take out our fears and angers on the innocent? Adler said that seeing suffering and wrongdoing in the world is an opportunity not only for action but also for looking in ourselves and recognizing the potential for cruelty within each of us–forewarned is forearmed, or so we hope. I don’t know how I would act if I were a soldier in Iraq under these impossible and increasingly indefensible circumstances. Support our troops–get them home and get them help.