One Veteran's Voice

26 February 2006

Independence Day, 2004

Today, July 4, 2004, 2nd platoon’s Lieutenant was personally relieved of command by the brigade commander, Colonel Robert Abrams (for whose father, incidentally, the M-1 Abrams tank is named). The platoon leader’s crime was flying an American flag on the radio antennae of his humvee while driving through Baghdad. Colonel Abrams, passing the other way, noticed the flag, contacted the convoy via radio, stopped the convoy, and personally reprimanded and relieved the platoon leader on the shoulder of the Baghdad highway. One part of me can only laugh inside at my leaders, both the lieutenant, who should have known better--as there is a standing order against flying flags, and at the brigade commander, who relieved an able and fearsome warrior of his duties, sending him packing in shame, and probably terminating any chances that the army had of keeping him as a career officer. Lieutenant B., the officer relieved of command, is an intelligent and idealistic man, generally considered by the common consensus of the soldiers of Alpha company to be the most squared-away lieutenant in the company.

One soldier, upon hearing the news, was outraged, proclaiming, “What, are we supposed to be ashamed of our flag?” He has a point. In past wars, it was considered the greatest shame for a retreating army to lose its colors to the enemy. And now, in the 21st century, the United States Army not only does not carry into battle the colors of the nation every soldier is sworn to defend, but it disciplines those who try. On Independence Day, no less. Clearly this is a new kind of war.

I understand the reasoning behind the Colonel’s decision-- we do not want to be viewed as occupiers or usurpers, especially not after our formal status as occupiers ended when the Iraqi government was supposedly given sovereignty. But this begs the question-- if we are not an occupying army now, what are we? When I enlisted, I swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I did not sign up to police the streets of Baghdad, or to help these people discovery democracy. To tell the truth, I don’t really care if the Iraqis ever experience democracy. If they wanted it so badly, they would have fought for it themselves. If there is a war against true terrorists here now, it is because we drew them to Iraq by our presence and actions. There are also terrorists in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, and every other country in this region. No stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were found, and there is no convincing evidence that Saddam’s regime collaborated with Osama bin Ladin in the attacks on 9/11. Iraq was not a significant threat to our constitution or way of life, certainly not more than North Korea, China, Iran, or Syria. What are we doing here? What am I doing here? These are the questions I keep coming back to, and keep putting aside. I just don’t know.

Other people here know that something is rotten, and Lieutenant B.’s actions were a protest of sorts against the contradictions of our policies. We are told in briefing after briefing that we are not only American soldiers, but diplomats for America. Lieutenant B. decided he’d rather be a soldier. Every enlisted soldier I spoke with was outraged and disgusted after hearing that Lieutenant B. was relieved for flying the flag. The junior officers, while publicly keeping with the party position, were angered as well. It’s hard to know what the senior officers think, they sit as aloof kings on high. Deep in their camouflaged hearts, I suspect they know, but they must take their orders, as well. Soldiers are many things, but most of them, at a gut level, cherish the ideal, however mythical, of the selfless patriot-- and most soldiers would argue that even in this age of cynicism and apathy, there is something good and true in the American spirit worth fighting for. We all volunteered, after all. Telling a soldier he can’t fly his flag creates, at worst, a mercenary, and more likely, a cynic.

Some colonel who tells me I can’t fly my flag can go to hell. Sometimes I can’t decide who I’d rather put a bullet through, a terrorist ruining my beloved homeland from the outside, or the mindless politicians ruining it from within. I have more respect for the enemy-- an al-Mahdi Army militiaman, fighting for what he truly believes against overwhelming odds with limited equipment and pay, than I do for members of my own chain of command. Many are politicians at heart, and not warriors.

Nothing since I’ve arrived here, even participating in the deaths of innocent people, has troubled me so deeply about this war. What are we doing here? Am I on a year long loan to the Iraqi people, risking my life for a populace who does not trust my country, or even want its help? Fuck them. Fuck the Iraqis. Fuck the idiots who put me in this situation. Fuck myself for putting me in this situation.

Summer here is hotter than anything I could have imagined back in the states. I spent two summers in the field at Fort Hood, deep in the heart of Texas, but it did nothing to prepare me for the inferno that is a Baghdad summer. Life simply stops in the city during the heat of the day. People conduct their business early in the morning or in the evening, but from the hours of 11-4, the streets are empty. Why we even bother to conduct missions during this time is beyond me, but we do. Even the enemy is indoors, out of the sun. The tanks are unbearably hot during the day, and we try not to touch them if we don’t have to. If we do, we wear gloves. A sweaty hand is better than a burned hand. The Iraqi summer has about as much effect on day to day life as I imagine a Siberian winter must. It makes it incredibly difficult to do even the most routine tasks. During the day, while the Iraqis are sweating indoors, probably cursing us for the lack of promised electricity necessary for air-conditioning, the one amenity that makes my life tolerable, we torture ourselves by conducting business as usual. We truck ice across the city, from camp to camp, and climb ladders into guard towers to bake for six hours, wrapped in Kevlar, all the while chugging ice water to keep the body’s core from overheating. When the ice runs out, we get pissed. When the generators, air conditioners, play stations, and laptops go out, we get pissed. When I take my BDU top off while working on the tank, and start to loosen up and cool down. the Sergeant Major gets pissed and give me a lecture about uniform and discipline. Then he walks back in the direction of his air-conditioned office, issuing more “on the spot corrections” along the way. Now I’m pissed at the Sergeant Major, and at the army, and at the stop-loss that’s keeping me involved in this army and in this goddamn motherfucking shithole of a country, and in this soul-sucking bitch of a war that’s seeming more and more like a nightmare I can’t wake up from, and I’m pissed cause no one really seems to care, and most of all I’m pissed at myself because I can’t stop feeling sorry for myself.

“Fuck this place, man. Fuck Iraq. Fuck these Haji motherfuckers.”
“Yeah.” My gunner, working beside me on the tank, affirms the sentiment.
“Can’t wait till the next time one of ‘em takes a shot at me. I’m gonna blow his fucking head off and like it. This shit is making me crazy man.”
“I feel you. Fuck Iraq.”

I’m pissed at this shitty country, and at my shitty country. I can only begin to guess at who or what the Iraqis are angry at. According to Colonel Robert Abrams, the flag is one possible source of their wrath. The flag of my country is stitched on the right shoulder of my uniform, as per army regulations. The flag of my country is not flown from my vehicle, as per Army regulations. Maybe the Iraqis are angry at the hypocrisy. I know I am. Maybe just being in this place, this hot, stark, dusty, shitty, war savaged place, is enough to get anyone angry.

Why am I here? I volunteered for it.
Why am I angry? I volunteered for it.
Why are they angry? I am here.
When will we leave? When they stop hating us.
It makes my head hurt.

This whole place is simmering, and one day it’s going to boil over.

6 Other Voices:

One Salient Oversight said...

Good story.

While it was probably right that the Lieutenant got roasted, I don't think he should've been relieved of his command. I'm no soldier, but it appears as though the guy's sin was to butt against the powers that be with some form of patriotism.

If I'd been that Colonel I would've reprimanded him and told him that if it happens again he'll be removed from command and all that stuff. Then I would have toned down a bit, asked him how his unit is going, asked him of any problems he knew of that I could help him with, and then told him that I was counting on him to lead his men well and do his job for America - leaving him feeling a bit raw for getting me angry but respecting me for my questions.

2/27/2006 12:59:22 AM  
The Statistics said...

Who knows what was going down behind the scenes. Seems like the power of a few individuals is so complete that personal grudges can be carried out for the smallest slight (is that an oxymoron?).

To comment on your final words. Shit is boiling over now. Again good foresight.

See you in Mobile maybe?

the heretic

2/27/2006 06:29:05 PM  
julie anna said...

Good post. I have to agree that there is a lot of bullshit in the Army...You know, I just want to trust in my president, I want to believe he's looking out for the best interest of America. But there are some things that just don't make sense and I am not blind to it.

3/02/2006 05:44:52 PM  
KatieG said...

it is boiling over right now.

you have amazing talent. keep writing.

3/02/2006 08:46:12 PM  
Elmo said...

Vote for Elmo

3/06/2006 09:37:33 PM  
Gabriella said...

"The flag of my country is stitched on the right shoulder of my uniform, as per army regulations. The flag of my country is not flown from my vehicle, as per Army regulations."
The hypocrisy is downright sickening, extremely frustrating, and completely unnerving. If a soldier is expected to defend their country and to be proud of it, why not show that, and on the fourth of July, I think he had a right to raise the flag. I feel a lot of questioning, frustration, disgust and uncertainty in your words...and they are well deserved. The situation as it was in 2004 and as it is now is not right, not valid, and not justified. I agree whole heartedly that we NEED to bring all the troops home now...freedom should not be forced...

3/12/2006 11:20:48 PM  

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