Iraq, 20 years out: An account by a U.S. Marine


March 20, 2003: I remember watching the shock and awe campaign. I was 16 years old and already had plans to join the United States Marine Corps. I trusted the news that was presented like an ad campaign on the daily networks—WMDS, brutal dictator, links to al-Qaeda. These were good enough reasons to bring down a government in my mind at 16; thankfully, the smart bombs had gotten so much more accurate since we last bombed Iraq in the ’90s. Generals were on the TV telling us that civilian casualties would be minimal. The Iraqis yearned for democracy and would welcome our troops with open arms, once the elite Republican Guard was taken care of. The government would fall and the people of Iraq would be liberated, free to choose their own destinies moving forward without someone as evil as Saddam Hussien being in power.

The year is 2005: My friends in high school, several teachers, and various others tell me that I am not a good fit for the Marines, that the war in Iraq is unjust—look at the reports of the civilian casualties. They try to reason with me that this decision isn’t just, moral, or honorable.

I signed up anyway. “There were casualties in World War II, and look at Europe now, a bastion of democracy and freedom, almost as free as we are here in the USA, and that was thanks to the sacrifice of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Sure we never found the WMDs or the links with al-Qaeda, but bringing a country democracy once we root out those pesky terrorists, the Iraqis will be liberated, free to choose their own destinies, moving forward without the shadow of terrorist political oppression.”

It’s March 2006: I finally am here; I was deployed with my unit to a hotbed of the insurgency. I was to be here for nine months, stationed at a forward operating base in the center of the city of Fallujah. At boot camp just months earlier we were told of the heroics of the battle of Fallujah, some of the closest house to house fighting since the battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. I was ready to do my part to liberate the Iraqi people, to make sure they could choose their own destinies free of the coercion of the terrorist element.

We did a pretty standard rotation of units, I met the folks that had just been here for nine months, wanting to gather as much information as possible from them during the week we were together. I badgered them with questions: What are the people like? How do we earn their trust? Did your interpreter teach you much Arabic? Do you think you helped? How amazing is it to see the kids being back at school? Even the young girls?

A higher ranking enlisted guy took me to the side; I was asking all the wrong questions. If I wanted to survive I should be asking, how many terrorists are in the city? How do I spot one in a crowd? Was there much cooperation between the local population and the insurgency? Repeated regularly when going over rules of engagement: It is better to be judged by 12 than to be carried by six. Who gives a shit about this country, just get home alive.

A quote from “Black Hawk Down” was repeated over and over, “Once bullets start wizzing over your head, politics go right out the window.”

We quickly learned how the unit there got “information” about the city. They would roll up on any group of “military aged men,” which was basically anyone who wasn’t an obvious child , point our guns at them, force them against the wall, search them, and start yelling in bad Arabic questions like, “Where are the terrorists? Where are the guns? You know where the bombs are?” It never led to any information that I remember, but one thing stuck out: One of the guys in my unit used to be in the NYPD. He said this was not that different from what he did in the city, only he could arrest more people there.

April 2006: I get shot at for the first time. A small group of kids, three or four of them, maybe 16 years old, took a few shots at us from a roof top and then ran off. My unit charges the house that we think they shot at us from. We kick down the door, the family inside is terrified, we do not have an interpreter with us. We start screaming at the family, trying to ask where they went. No one has a strong grasp on the language; you can see that the family is trying to make sense of what is going on but cannot answer the questions, even if we are asking the questions that we think we are. Someone says, “I bet they are hiding something.” We ransack the house—looking for guns, wires, money, anything that can link them to the gunshots that might have come from their rooftop. There is nothing there, we find nothing, we leave the house a complete mess.

The first inklings that something was wrong started to form in my mind. If we are liberating these people, why are they all so scared of us? Why didn’t we get more training on how to communicate? One of the core tenets of our democracy in the U.S. is that we have rights. If we are trying to bring democracy here, why don’t we have to follow some sort of bill of rights? Why does it seem like all we care about is finding the insurgents that never really seem to be here? If I were these kids, wouldn’t I come to a roof top and shoot at the heavily armed people occupying my city?

As the months go on, people in my unit get killed, and this changes the way most of my unit thinks about the city: “Fuck this place! I just want to get home alive!” “I don’t care what I have to do to see home again!” “Why the hell are we here? Can’t these people figure out their own shit?”

The idea that this is all wrong in my mind continues to solidify. There is a gas shortage here in one of the most oil-rich countries in the world. We aren’t here to liberate these people; that was never the intention. I finished my deployment. I was lucky, I got to come home. I am not proud, I did not help those people, the city is worse than when I got there.

December 2007: The start of the biggest financial crisis the country has seen in decades. Tens of thousands of people lose their homes, more lose their jobs. Poverty rises. The government bails out the banks.

October 2011: We “withdraw” troops from Iraq. I cry. I know now that the reasons to get into the war never panned out. I know now that it was almost certainly to ensure American economic hegemony. I know that the government and media lied to get people like me to support the war effort and it worked. I had read “War is a Racket” by Smeldy Butler, one of the most decorated Marines to ever wear the uniform: “WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” The quote stays with me. I lost many friends in Iraq; I lost more to suicide once we got home.

War is a racket. The profits of it are handed out to a tiny minority of people, and the working class around the world suffers for it. If you know how to look for it now, you see the media companies, the ones owned by the people that profit from war, beating the drum for the next invasion—after Iraq it was Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Venezuela. Now we see the fear that the media tries to drum up about China or Russia.

We, the working class of this world, have nothing to gain by falling into the traps I did in high school. We must say no to war for profits. We cannot continue to let those driven by profits decide who we should be scared of. I know I have more in common with those boys that shot at me from the roof in Iraq than I do with anyone who would send us to shoot at each other.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. government decided we should invade Iraq. It is estimated that 1 million Iraqis died during the U.S. occupation of Iraq; 4550 Service members died and many more by their own hand after their deployments. What does the working class of either nation have to show for this river of blood? Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, the cost of food continues to skyrocket, rent is basically unaffordable, and most millennials think home ownership will not be possible for them. The cancer rates in the city of Fallujah, where I was stationed, have risen overall by four times, and childhood cancer rates have had a 12-times increase.

Over the 20 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, we have seen the rich continue to get more for themselves and give less to everyone else. We have seen one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich in human history. Yet still, these are the people that in our current society get to make the decisions about war?

This system can no longer stand. With global pandemics, war, climate change, and the myriad of other issues that are facing humanity, we cannot continue to have a system that lets people profit from ending human life and the destruction of this planet’s ecology. We must find a way to take the illusion of power out of the hands of the few and put it in the hands of working classes. We have a world to win, a world where the use of the surplus that our work provides is decided democratically, not used to create machines that have no purpose but to kill.

I bought the ad campaigns, both of the U.S. military and of the media, that lied to get us into a war. Do not fall for the same traps that I did; we must resist imperialist war every turn we can. No war but class war!

Photo: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Leave a Reply