US veterans reflect on their experience of war in Iraq

Dina Samir, Sunday 15 Jan 2012

Facing an uncertain future at home, and wracked by memories of the horrors committed in war, many US veterans question the motives behind eight years of combat in Iraq and say US occupation continues

US iraq
U.S. Veteran Daniel Hutchison during his deployment in Iraq (Ahram Online photo)

More than two million Americans have been deployed in Iraq across the span of the second longest war fought in US history, and which President Obama brought to a close in 2011. Looking back at their experience of the war, US veterans hold differing views and feelings.

Daniel Hutchison, who decided to enlist for the war in Iraq in 2006 as a combat medic after watching a TV interview with the family of an American soldier who lost his life to the war, said, “I didn`t have a wife or kids, so I thought to myself that if Americans that did have those types of responsibilities could make those types of sacrifices, then I needed to do my part.”

“In the beginning I believed that we were going to be a part of bringing democracy to the Iraqi people,” Hutchison added. However, Benjamin Hart Viges, who was deployed to Iraq in 2004, expected that that goal of the war was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. “When Saddam was captured and executed, I was curious to know why we were still there.”

Questioning the real motives behind the war in Iraq, Viges believes it was to control the natural resources of Iraq. Sharing similar beliefs, Alan Pogue, co-founder of the Veterans for Peace chapter in Austin, Texas, believed, “It is Iraq’s oil as well as destabilising a strong country outside of US domination in the region.”

In evaluating the war in Iraq most veterans tend to agree that it was “unsuccessful” for different reasons. “The problem is that the majority of the Iraqi people do not want democracy but rather governance under Sharia law,” Hutchison notes, “I feel once the American security forces are withdrawn that Iraq will go back to pre-2003 and that any accomplishments of destroying terrorist cells will be lost.”

For Viges the war in Iraq was  a “complete crime” that entailed violations of the international laws of war. “I was troubled every time we eradicated a house that ended up the wrong house; I felt we were making it worse every single day we were there.”

Realising how unjust the war in Iraq was, Viges joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), founded by a US veteran in 2004 to advocate against the war in Iraq through awareness campaigns as well as supporting veterans and helping the Iraqi people.

Since its commencement in 2003, the war in Iraq has cost the US $823.2 billion and 4,484 military personnel, The Guardian reported. According to the Iraq Body Count project, estimated Iraqi deaths during the war stands at between 104,080 and 113,728 civilians.

In his article entitled “I am sorry for the role I played in Fallujah,” Ross Caputi, a US veteran who fought in the war in Iraq, wrote that the second siege of Fallujah ruined the city, killed thousands of civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands, poisoned a generation, and plagued the people who live there with cancers and their children with birth defects.

“History has defined the US veteran as a hero, and in doing so it has automatically defined anyone who fights against him as the bad guy. It has reversed the roles of aggressor and defender, moralised the immoral, and shaped our societies' present understanding of war,” Caputi wrote.

The thousands of US veterans returning home from Iraq face many hurdles, including feelings of alienation. “Those who have experienced the horrors of combat can be filled with anger both directed internally and externally,” Pogue noted. Veterans also experience problems in relations with their families. “You cannot tell them what you did, or what you saw, because you do not want to tell them you are a monster,” Viges said.

Besides struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and the emotional baggage of war, veterans are coming back with job skills that do not translate into civilian occupations, Hutchison explained.

Dissatisfied with the US government’s efforts in supporting veterans, Hutchison recalled, “My guidance counsellor told me if you join the military you will have the best benefits available. This is not accurate. While on paper we have a decent amount of benefits, it is very difficult to get them.”

Pogue believes that the military-industrial complex does not want to bear the cost of helping soldiers. “Giving veterans the assistance they need is very costly and the large corporations do not want to pay taxes to support the troops or any other social benefits.”

The decision to end the war in Iraq was generally welcomed by the American public. In a poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press in November 2011, 75 per cent said they supported the decision to withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

Contemplating President Obama’s decision to end the war, Hutchison said, “I feel it was more of a political move than anything, ramping up for the election.”

According to Pogue the war in Iraq “ended in name only,” because of the large number of US soldiers and contractors that remain in Iraq, the large US military force in Kuwait, and the largest US embassy in the world, located in Baghdad.

Viges believes that the US war in Iraq ended but the occupation has not. “Not until every single American element is removed from there,” would the occupation end. If he could go back in time, Hutchison would still choose to join the war in Iraq. “I would definitely opt for helping my sisters and brothers, the most honourable people I have seen in my life.” For Viges, the answer is clear and decisive: “Never.”

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