Tomgram: Chris Hedges, War and Occupation, American-style

American soldiers have long scrawled messages to the enemy on the bombs they were about to deliver. In the The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes reminds us, for instance, that “Little Boy,” the bomb that would inaugurate a new age over Hiroshima, “was inscribed with autographs and messages, some of them obscene. ‘Greetings to the Emperor from the men of the Indianapolis,’ one challenged.” (The Indianapolis, a cruiser which had transported parts of Little Boy to the island of Tinian for assembly, had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine only a week earlier and most of its crew had died at sea under gruesome circumstances.)

Recently, my eye was caught by a report on just such “autographs and messages” from our most recent war. A Washington Post piece discussing the air war over Baghdad and the Hellfire missiles the U.S. military has been regularly firing into the vast Shiite slum, Sadr City, these last months included this passage:

“At a sprawling air base on the outskirts of Baghdad, Edens, Katzenberger and their colleagues live in small trailers surrounded by blast walls, play volleyball on sand courts and eat at an outdoor food court. Many of the pilots are in their 20s. The pilots sometimes scrawl messages on the five-foot-long missiles strapped to their ‘birds.’ During a recent visit to the base, a reporter saw a missile addressed to ‘Haji,’ an honorific for people who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Many U.S. soldiers use it to refer dismissively to Iraqis and Arabs in general. Someone wrote ‘rock this thang’ on another.”

“To refer dismissively…”: This is the Post’s polite way of describing the bedrock racism — the demeaning of the enemy (and hardening of the self) — that is essentially bound to go with any counterinsurgency-cum-neocolonial war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few know this better than Pulitzer Prize-winning former war reporter Chris Hedges who, along with Laila al-Arian, has produced a remarkable new book, Collateral Damage, America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians (officially published on this very day). Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the Iraq war and occupation, it lays out graphically indeed and in their own words the American system of patrols, convoys, home raids, detentions, and military checkpoints that became a living nightmare for civilians in Iraq. Think of their book as a two-person version of the Vietnam-era Winter Soldier Investigation, this time for a war in which Americans have seemed especially uneager to know much about what their troops, many thousands of miles from home, are really doing to the “hajis.”

The following piece — with echoes of Hedges’s classic work War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning — has been adapted from his introduction to the new book. Tom

Collateral Damage

What It Really Means When America Goes to War

By Chris Hedges

Troops, when they battle insurgent forces, as in Iraq, or Gaza or Vietnam, are placed in “atrocity producing situations.” Being surrounded by a hostile population makes simple acts, such as going to a store to buy a can of Coke, dangerous. The fear and stress push troops to view everyone around them as the enemy. The hostility is compounded when the enemy, as in Iraq, is elusive, shadowy and hard to find. The rage soldiers feel after a roadside bomb explodes, killing or maiming their comrades, is one that is easily directed, over time, to innocent civilians who are seen to support the insurgents.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.


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