Andersen: Honesty from the front lines
What I am reading now is not for bedtime — A hundred sheets of printer paper hold the sober reflections of a U.S. Army sergeant describing the year he spent in combat in Iraq.
This unpublished manuscript is on par with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” The style is honest. The content is brutal not for effect but for fact. There is no soft-pedaling the human costs of war.
What gets me about this manuscript is that thousands of veterans carry these stories in their heads and hearts, imprinted there as permanent images, an assortment of mental tattoos.
Most of these veterans have no one to tell their stories to, no one to write them for. Their truths are lodged in relentless memories because there are few qualified listeners to share them, no peers to normalize the devastating things that happened.
I met this veteran/writer in September during a Huts for Vets trip in the wilderness near Aspen. He carried a camera and shot photos of the mountains. He spoke softly and thoughtfully. He told me he was writing a memoir, so I asked if I could read it. His trust has placed it in my hands. I have yet to decide whether that’s a gift or a curse.
I hear a lot of stories during Huts for Vets programs, tales and confessions that need to be told. Spoken stories are ephemeral, but a well-written account reveals with clarity an insider view that is usually hidden.
The story begins with this man’s decision to join the Army, a choice that seems baffling to many civilians. Most of the vets I have met joined for one of three reasons: legacy, patriotism or opportunity.
Many come from families of veterans, so they serve to honor their legacy. Many joined in the aftermath of 9/11 to confront “the enemy.” Many hoped to gain a skill or career or college from the military. Few, if any, knew what they were getting into.
“The pain in this reality trumps anything we could ever pretend to know before coming here,” wrote this Army sergeant.
In Iraq, this man and his team were assigned patrols in a Stryker vehicle, a heavily armored troop carrier with mounted machine guns. They were sent out on the streets of Mosul to draw fire so they could target militants.
When that didn’t produce enough contact, orders mandated walking street patrols. The idea was to provide human bait for a more pronounced response. This writer described almost immediate results: three men were down after assailants opened fire, only to vanish in the streets, a common theme for urban warfare.
The frustration was bitter as these soldiers hungered for reprisals against a ghostly and pervasive enemy. Despite high-tech weaponry and the best of training, there was little they could do.
A new order came in assigning them to a cleanup operation at a “terrorist house” where special-ops forces had “kicked in doors and pulled triggers” on suspected insurgents. What was left in their wake was bloody carnage. The casualties included an infant.
The soldiers peered into rooms pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel. What they saw was too gruesome to describe here. The words in the manuscript are mere black letters, but they are crimson with gore. They fill the image banks with indelible pictures of violent death at the hands of young, impressionable men.
I read on, often unwillingly, forcing myself to confront truths that twist the conscience and wring out the nerves. I came to realize that this manuscript ought to be required reading for every congressman, defense contractor, Pentagon official, policymaker and diplomat who has a role in war.
It should be circulated among voters who cast ballots and especially among citizens who don’t. It should accompany recruitment teams at high schools and colleges. These stories provide the bitter medicine of truth. They have the power to inform, to make us a much stronger, more morally balanced people.
Since democracy requires an informed electorate, there is a pressing obligation to inform citizens about the gritty details of our nation’s actions — no matter how repugnant and painful and damning.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.