“The Ground Truth”
The Army You’ve Got
The great myth about the military—any military anywhere in the world—is that it’s an honorable gig. Not usually. Maybe the aim of the military, on rare occasions, is honorable: the defense of one’s land, the defense of a great, lived ideal (as opposed to a theoretical or utopian one, as in most of the 19 th and 20 th centuries’ revolutionary movements). In the 20th century, only World War II comes close to defensible necessity. And since? As far as the United States is concerned, not a single war rates, although Korea is a close second: it had the backing of the United Nations, compliments of a boycott by the Soviets. But Vietnam? Those rogue Central American interventions oiled by the likes of Ollie North? Beirut? Haiti? Panama? Gulf War I and the Iraq War? Not even close.
Soldiers who took part in those wars did the honorable thing only in so far as they answered the call to duty. But the wars’ objectives were not nearly as honorable. None of the wars involved the defense of freedom (defending standards of living, which was the purpose of Gulf War I, is an entirely different thing, and an indefensible one when the defense is accomplished on the back of others’ lives). None of the wars was justified. Certainly, what soldiers did in those wars, what they fought for—as opposed to the valor and heroism shown on the battlefield which, again, has nothing to do with the greater aim, with the war’s objectives—was not heroic. In those wars, soldiers did what they were trained to do: kill, but with no greater purpose than killing, except when taking in account something equally as criminal: the protection of limited, immediate and opportune interests—corporate, political, economic. What, in the end, did the United States achieve through the “liberation” of Kuwait but the restoration of a playboy monarchy?
The war of choice in Iraq is for the United States a new low in its annals of criminally conceived wars. It would be laughable to hear American soldiers currently deployed in Iraq being referred to as defenders of freedom, as protectors of an ideal, as defenders of the United States, if the assumption wasn’t so tragically the opposite of its claim. Soldiers are participating in the criminal crack-up of a nation, the weakening of American security and the concurrent diminishment at home of those vaunted liberties we’re allegedly fighting for. They’re also putting their training to work, killing Iraqis, and doing so through the collateral skills learned along the way: the dehumanizing of Iraqis, the rampant killing of civilians, the epidemic humiliation of “hajjis”—children, women, men, it matters not. When soldiers get home, if they get home, they’re obviously changed men and women. Not only because thousands of them will have lost limbs. But because you don’t turn eighteen, nineteen, twenty and twenty one year olds into killing machines then expect them to get home, switch off the killing instinct, and adapt to civilian life as if nothing had happened. And not bitch about it when things don’t go quite as planned, because the Pentagon doesn’t want to hear about it.
But that’s what the military expects the men and women it has used up to do. Go home, get lost. The other truth about honor and dishonor in most things military is this: when a soldier has done his time, the military is done with him. It doesn’t care how his adaptation back into civilian life is going. It doesn’t check. It doesn’t call. The men and women no longer exist for the Pentagon, except as backdrops to the occasional parade: as more fodder for ulterior aims, which are to entice more young men and women to join what is irredeemably a lost cause.
What I’ve done here is summarize the basics of “The Ground Truth,” the documentary by Patricia Foulkrod. As Stephen Holden described it in the Times,
The movie comes to a boil with its firsthand stories of combat. One soldier after another recalls being encouraged by senior officers not to distinguish between civilians and the enemy. The film’s most gung-ho marine, who went to Iraq for the thrill of combat, recalls his personal turning point: when he killed an Iraqi woman who was approaching his tank only to discover afterward that she was clutching a white flag. Another tells of being screamed at by an Iraqi civilian carrying his brother’s head, which had just been blown off. But the film’s most disheartening testimony comes from soldiers who returned from Iraq emotionally and mentally shattered only to encounter resistance when seeking treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. One tells of being dismissed by a counselor with the words, “We don’t treat ‘conscientious objectors,’ ” after he voiced his anguish at having killed innocent civilians. These collected stories portray the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration as understaffed, underfinanced agencies responding with a shocking indifference to the needs of those who have served honorably. […]There’s nothing sadder than to hear a disabled, disillusioned soldier, his life in ruins, wondering what he was fighting for.
If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, it’s never not time. If you still cling to illusions about America’s higher calling in Iraq, or about the military as somehow an institution of American life uniquely distinguished or virtuous—if you still think that widespread, murderous and intentional killing of civilians by American forces isn’t part of the Pentagon’s playbook—then it’s not just merely time to watch “The Ground Truth.” It’s intentional self-delusion not to. But then, there could be no lingering support for the Iraq war and this administration, as there still is among a small but festering minority, without tumblers of self-delusion.