What are some famous controversial photos that maybe shouldn’t have been taken?

The pictures of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Abu Ghraib is a large prison in Iraq. During the time of the Iraq War, it became a housing facility for American prisoners of war, as well as maintaining its role as a prison in an attempt to maintain order in the country following the collapse of the Hussein regime. Housed there were convicted terrorists, murderers, robbers, and rapists, but it was the US Army staff which brought the prison its most infamy.

Early in the Iraq war, soldiers of the 320th Military Police Battalion, an Army reserve unit far from the front lines of the conflict took over command of the facility. Prior to their arrival acts of barbarity by Iraqi prison officials was not uncommon. It was, in fact, a practice in Middle Eastern society prior to the American’s intervention to take pictures of people in humiliating situations, and to release the photos as a means of shame and humiliation to force coercion. In tribal societies, this works well and it was something the Hussein regime had long practiced. Having an image of a woman, in this case a woman holding a leashed naked Iraqi, I should add, greatly increased the value of the for such a work. Culturally, a women was of an inferior status, so to be depicted in such a demeaning manner by ta women was particularly offensive to Arab Muslims.

When the Americans took over, they were advised to continue the practice. Abuses under the American Army command included being forced to pose nude in demeaning positions, evidence of violence, inducing fear with military working dogs, and mocking poses with female guards. These practices, however, go against the law of war and several levels of military law and justice, as well as standing against many treaties, so when leaders in the prison took the advice to continue the status quo for the Hussein regime, they did so without good judgement or the legal leg to support their actions. This is why investigations for the prison were already underway before news of them began to circulate with international media, which had mostly been tipped off by these very same investigations.

Following the investigation, members of the 320th Military Police Battalion was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with prisoner abuse. The United States Department of Defense removed seventeen soldiers and officers from duty, and eleven soldiers were charged with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. Between May 2004 and March 2006, these soldiers were convicted in courts-martial, sentenced to military prison, and dishonorably discharged from service. Two soldiers, Specialists Charles Graner and Lynndie England, were sentenced to ten and three years in prison, respectively. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the commanding officer of all detention facilities in Iraq, was reprimanded and demoted to the rank of colonel.

In April of 2004, information about the goings on at the prison began to become public, following earlier stories by the Associated Press. When the news broke, it detailed images of prisoner abuse at the prison not long after the war began.

After the pictures were released, the conversation about the war collapsed. In spite of the Army’s clear message through the imprisonment of the offending Army personnel, and the demotion of one of their Generals, the story that was told by the pictures was that this was acceptable practices for the United States military. This was detrimental to the war effort in that it unfairly misrepresented the rest of the military, myself included, in our efforts to help Iraq stabilize following the removal of the Iraqi Saddamist regime. It was never viewed as a rogue act of an undisciplined and reckless unit, but as representative of the entire United States military, and, to quote a commentor below, “…but it showed the true face of USA…” This radical hyperbole defined the war for many people even today, but the story the pictures told, rather than the truth, dramatically changed the ground war.

The United States military could not really advocate itself as a force for good when this event existed. It cast a very bright light on the decisions of an extremely small group of people in the military. Within the Iraqi population, it made a sound argument that this sort of behavior was the way of the new imperial dictator, and fed propaganda against the American occupation and populist government.  The pictures generated hatred and animosity as the images touched on very deep cultural sensitivities, beyond the obvious human reactions to them. This escalated insurgency activity and fed the increasing terror campaign for three more years before the “Surge” of 2007. In the United States, the event fed the anti-war rhetoric, silencing many supporters of the conflict and empowering those who were never behind the war in the first place with new evidence to support their views. After quickly toppling the government under Saddam Hussein and breaking grounds towards a stable and free government, the legacy of the American involvement in the country was forever damaged by Abu Gharib.

This was a tragedy on many levels. First, the actions of a very few marred the image of the United States’ mission and the conduct of its servicemen. The Marines have a saying, “No greater friend; no worse enemy.” This led many potential allies to think not in the terms of no greater friend, but that the Americans are simply an enemy to be feared. Resistance from that point on, was assured based on these pictures alone. Further, it painted the entire conflict as one of cruelty, forever ignoring the extreme effort that American and coalition forces went to minimize harm to civilians and attempt to rebuild the Iraqi way of life. And even furthermore, painted the hyperbolic assumption that all Americans were really like this.

Second, it was  a tragedy of justice in that it made it impossible to accurately judge who the just were. I will remind readers that the photos are of not just political prisoners of war, and certainly not of poor innocent Iraqis, but of convicted criminals under Iraqi courts. Some were guilty of war crimes under Saddam and some after the war began in 2003. Others were convicted murders, rapists, and all manner of citizens harmful to their own people. In truth, being tied to a leash and paraded around in some humiliating fashion was a far lighter offense than those suffered by many of their victims. You won’t find much remorse from me in the way they were treated, other than that the Americans were obligated by treaty not to participate in such acts. That said, even if these were the vilest of men, that message never got through. When they were masked, their identity was hidden along with all of their individual crimes. When their clothes or uniforms were removed, you remove their allegiances, in some cases to the criminal organizations that committed acts of terror and treason against the Iraqi people.

People can hate a face of a known killer, and they can hate anyone who wears a certain uniform. They couldn’t identify with a murderer, but to them, this was just another defenseless man. There was nothing that stopped them from identifying with just a naked man. Once you look at the picture, you only see illogical cruelty; there is never a question why did that person get into prison in the first place. The pictures didn’t capture their own atrocities, but clearly communicated human suffering they experienced at the hands of people who obligated to at least protect them, be it justified on any level or not. When we no longer saw them as criminals of the most terrible nature, we only saw people, or in this case, martyrs of the American war machine. Quick to forget who these men were and what they did, it was easy to look to those others pictured, cavalier and in American military uniforms as the unjust. I’m not saying that what the American soldiers tasked with overseeing the Abu Gharib prison did was morally justifiable. I’m just not very sorry for the individuals pictured. What I am sorry for is that the stupid actions of the soldiers caused anyone who saw them, both American or Iraqi, to forgive the evils of the men pictured for the story that was immortalized in their imagery.

The seminal tragedy in this is that it made sound the argument that the Americans should not have been in the war, and were incompetent to see it through. It increased pressure to forcing them out of the country long before Iraq was ready for them to leave. In this way, it opened the door to the premature departure of American forces, therefore leaving the door open to terrorists and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to invade and conquer vast swaths of Iraqi territory and empowering them to spread terror throughout not only the Middle East, but also throughout the world into the rest of Asia, Africa, and even Europe. I’d like to hear rational arguments, not for whether or not we should have been in Iraq, but that the world is a better place now that we have given in to emotions and retreated from the region. Having said this, it isn’t just that these pictures should not have been taken. The event they recorded never should have happened. At the bare minimum, they cost the American and coalition forces years on top of the conflict. They fed emotional reactionaries into fleeing the nation with no reasonable objectives adequately met, and worst of all, led to point where far more evil crimes are being committed today.


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A Marine and Iraq Veteran reviews The Hurt Locker… (This Won’t be Pretty)

I wanted to make it clear that to veterans, The Hurt Locker is one of the worst movies about war ever made. It’s simply a really terrible film. If you combine the over the top spectacle of Inglourious Basterds, the rampant and unjustifiably cruel depiction of military veterans of Brothers, the complete lack of justifiable research into actual battlefield conditions of Inglorious Bastards, you have the Hurt Locker. This movie marvelled in one thing only – it was made to play on the emotions of moviegoers who want to feel like they cared about the military over the past 10 years, but never actually invested any time into understanding the conflicts in which they were involved, i.e. people who actually didn’t know or care anything about the veterans or what they are doing overseas during the years it mattered.

I mean, every movie gets some things wrong when converting from real life to the big screen. Inglorious Bastards didn’t even pretend it tried, though. The Hurt Locker, however, took great pains into bringing in quality researchers and advisors and then just said, “Screw it. We’re doing whatever we want, anyway.” and then telling the world that they did great research. Honestly, it was ludicrous that they marketed this as accurate on any level.

I just want to make one glaring point of contention I have with the movie. I was in a unit that had EOD teams both times I deployed to Iraq. I can tell you that each and every single time that an EOD team rolls out, they do so with a large team of security either in the form of military police or infantry. That means as many as four vehicles, loaded with troops, each and every time. That one fact, that single completely unavoidable reality, completely negates the entire movie. I mean watch the movie and ask yourself at any of the dozens of thrilling plot moments, “Hmm… I wonder how this would be different if there was fifteen people with guns, rocket launchers, and air strikes available?” Remember that scene where he just so happens to also be a sniper? Or the one where he and the other bomb techs just go retarded and start kicking in doors like they are infantry? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Quite frankly, someone wanted to tell a very particular story and when confronted with the facts that it wasn’t possible, they did it anyway and no one knew better to care. I still consider it a crime that so many people are so ill informed of the conflicts of the past decade and a half that they believe this movie depicts any semblance of reality for EOD teams in Iraq. Frankly, if you’ve already seen it, you can’t be helped. If you haven’t and care at all about the military and veterans, or even doing a good job telling an accurate depiction of events that were happening at the very same time the movie was made, never ever do.

I’m sure from a perspective of cinematography, it probably pushed the industry forward somehow, but as far as communicating one of the most important social issues of our time, not to mention an ongoing conflict at the time, it failed so miserably, it set veterans issues back ten years. I want people to look at it this way. We have seen LBGT rights and issues get a lot of press and people are now trying very hard to see things from their perspective. It’s not acceptable anymore to portray them as the wildly stereotypical flamboyant clowns circa the era of Robin William’s “The Bird Cage”. They’re people who deserve respect and to be portrayed in a realistic manner. However, the veteran population is allowed to be portrayed in any manner in which the world pleases to fulfil their narrative, from bloodthirsty murderers like (Battle for Haditha), psychologically scared societal dangers (Brothers), impossible killing machines (American Sniper). Now, why is it that I brought in the LBGT stance into this? Because veterans outnumber the estimated homosexual population in the United States by at least 2:1. Why is it that one group is allowed to be so egregiously stereotyped when the others aren’t?

The Hurt Locker is everything wrong with how veterans are portrayed. It combines all of the negative biases people associate with veterans into one compact two hour blockbuster. They’re ruthless killers, they’re psychologically damaged, they’re unreliable, they’re dangerous to their team members, all they are good for is fighting. Given that we have not seen a military movie come out in the last ten years, that I am aware of, that features war veterans who aren’t any of these things, in fact, that may have benefited from their time in service, is it no surprise to people that they are having such a hard time integrating to the society that sent them to war in the first place?

Basically, the Hurt Locker is nothing more than war pornography. It makes people who want to see an action movie which portrays broken and desperate American soldiers suffering pointlessly not feel bad for enjoying it because the movie pretends to be bringing attention to these issues. Sadly, most of these issues are exaggerated to the point of ad absurdum because of movies like this, but that is the only context most Americans now have. The Hurt locker failed miserably in that they set out to make a modern war movie about real veterans issues, but not doing any quality research, not showing realistic veteran’s perspectives, not showing respect to real people at the time, and not communicating the real nature of a war that was currently still happening.


American-Sniper-2014If you enjoyed the review of Hurt Locker, make sure to check out my review of American Sniper. They did a lot better.

Review of American Sniper from Marine Iraq War Veteran

unnamedJon Davis is a US Marine Corps veteran writer, focusing on the topics of US veterans and international defense. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Forbes, Gizmodo and elsewhere. He is also a writer of military science fiction with his first book, The Next War, due out early this year. You can follow Jon Davis via his personal blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts, and can support his writing via the web donation service, Patreon.

Why has ISIS still not been defeated even after a year?

You ever notice kids burning ants?

America, the whole Western world really, is kind of like that kid. And the ant, well I think you are smart enough to know that is one of those jihadist terrorist murdermongers. Like the kid with his glass, we send over our multimillion dollar planes on their many thousands of dollar sorties, to drop a few $80,000 missiles to kill a few bad guys armed with AK-47s hiding in a hole. It is a massive, massive difference in force being brought to the table. That’s awesome, right? I mean, realistically, what could that ant really do to the kid?

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to realize where the strategic problem here lies. We won’t win the war on the “ants” by killing a few of them individually with our multimillion dollar “magnifying glasses”. Honestly, once the kid realizes that everywhere he looks, there is going to be a few more ants, he’s going to get bored, and eventually, he’s going to get bit by one of those little suckers he never saw coming in for a cheapshot. Mom will probably go into a panic and make the kid come back into the house. “I killed 10 ants.” The little boy proclaims to an ambivalent family. A doting Mom might even say, “Oh, good job son. You can do no wrong.” never thinking of the ants in her yard again.

The truth is that Mom, the family, and the little boy don’t get what has become obvious to everyone else. There is an infestation going on which is going to have to be handled by taking out the mounds.

Now we run into enough problems that I am going to drop the analogy momentarily. After all, killing an ant mound would involve something like dousing the mound in some lethal poison or putting out traps to poison the queen, which I am pretty sure the human comparison is laying down a cloud of chemical weapons gas or poisoning the water supply. I think that is a bad idea, genocide you know… just to be clear.

It does need to be said that there is a mound that does exist. What makes it so difficult to defeat, in this case, is the fact that this isn’t a physical mound that we could even just wipe off the map. This is a “anthill of ideas” or to paraphrase Sam Harris, “The Motherlode of Bad Ideas“.

What you have is a system that has adopted forced coercion over the local population, which essentially means that you can’t trust the locals, because they are more afraid of being murdered by the terrorists than they feel safe knowing that you are around. The Islamic State also runs its social circles in a way that is more or less, and I am not exaggerating, like evil Kremlin spies mixed with the Nazi secret police all headed by Fundamentalists Islamic Preachers. It’s seriously sick and a forceful means of taking over communities in a way that looks peaceful to outsiders, assuming we didn’t notice the beheadings of apostates, stoning of wives, or the throwing of homosexuals off of buildings. Compound this with the fact that Islamic terrorists have also adapted terrorism into their tactics since at least the 1950’s in their fight against the French in Algeria where the killing of moderate leaders and those influential opposed to them is commonplace. As I said, this compounds the problem because it kills off those Muslim leaders who would advocate for the removal of the Islamic State, while silencing opposition within the community.Over time, all of this combines to have an extremely negative effect of literally transforming a population of 1.5 billion people.

To put some data to that statement, here is a graph of a poll done in the Middle East of mostly Arab Muslims. While the world should still delight that most the graph is red, it still showed that as many as 11% of Muslims in that region actually support what the IS is doing.

If you were to say that these percentages held true for the entire Muslim population that would be around 140 million people. So that you know, that couldn’t be said thirty years ago, so something is going on terrible in that part of the world.

Ok, now we have a broader understanding of the problem. We aren’t just dealing with the terrorists who are dressed up like, well, terrorists.

We are actually dealing with fanaticized populations who are either all being systematically converted, or, more than likely, are too terrified ( i.e. terrorism) to speak out against the ruling regime. That means, getting back to that, “You can’t trust the locals” idea, that everyone in the region is complicit with the Islamic State, like I said, either because they are fundamentalists or because they are simply trying to buy their security through favors to the madmen who have proven over and over that they would kill them if they didn’t.

Circling back to happy metaphors, that means that 90% of these ants you see below, are actually good people; terrified people, but good people nonetheless. 2% are no holds barred murderous terrorists. The 8% or so remaining are just wrong headed and given maybe a few more generations, might see that throwing homosexuals from three story buildings is socially unacceptable. That said, all 100% of them, in some capacity, are furthering the aims of the Islamic State, whether through willful alliance or forced submission. With that in mind can you spot the terrorists?

No, but because of the 90% of the people who haven’t yet been purged through annihilation or forced refugee status, we can’t exactly go the way of the Amdro option. In case you don’t realize, Amdro is a powerful fire ant killer that wipes out whole mounds dead with a chemical cocktail of 10,000 kinds of unnatural unpleasantries. If you’re slow, I’m making an allusion to the nuclear option, or as some people have said in dumber parts of the internet, “Glassing That Desert”. Speaking of depraved acts of callousness, by the way, a recent Amnesty International report currently showed that something like 1 in 120 people alive today are living in refugee status, and no one seems to care unless I write a post with cute ant cartoons.

Having said all this, I understand that it is a difficult problem. What I don’t understand, is how with the best minds in the world supposedly working to solve this problem, President Barack Obama made it clear after speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during the Group of Seven (G7) nations summit in Germany less than a month ago, that he still doesn’t have a plan to deal with it. Whatever your personal view on whether the United States and the West going to Iraq should have happened, we are now and for many years to come, tied to the fate of that region. We, like so many others, have major responsibilities there. 

That’s why so many people like me are so very disappointed with the overall work done by the White House and the State Department over the last six years to quell these exponentially growing international disturbances.

While there have been many victories for the Obama legacy, it can’t be understated enough that Iraq will stand as one of the greatest black marks on his record going right back to his original speeches saying that the United States should pull out as quickly as possible before he even reached the presidency. Given the mess with the IS, it is pretty obvious now that it was a mistake to just uproot and leave. I’ve made the point before that the United States didn’t leave as much as the Iraqis offered terms of their stay that were unacceptable, and the administration did little to prevent it. The problem that myself and many political analysts have had, was that there was very little done to attempt to negotiate out of that situation. This leads many to assume that the situation was just a convenient out to fulfill campaign promises to leave Iraq by the 2012 election, while also having the political insurance for later that it wasn’t “technically” the fault of the Obama State Department if anything bad happens later, headed at the time by Hillary Clinton. It’s an issue of bad faith. The administration left Iraq, knowing that they couldn’t handle their own security at the time.

Look, it was made obvious to me growing up since sex ed class, pulling out is never an adequate form of protection. As an Iraq vet, now watching the region I served in overrun by terrorists, I can’t help but ask why it was allowed that after years of bringing that country into a state of order, it was allowed to descend back into utter chaos though negligence of the highest order. Yes, it was in a state of order when we left, which is proven most ironically by the very site dedicated to showing how much we failed there.

Now, the website iraqbodycount.com is publishing data showing that some areas of Iraq are facing worse carnage than they ever experienced during the Bush era.

17,049 civilians have been recorded killed in Iraq during 2014 (up to Dec 30). This is roughly double the number recorded in 2013 (9,743), which in turn was roughly double the number in 2012 (4,622). These numbers do not include combatant deaths, which even by the most cautious tallies have also seen a sharp rise in 2014.

Yet, we still have no plan. What’s worse, is that the movement being carried on by the Islamic State is one which is easily spreading outside of Iraq and Syria. Now, IS militants are attacking and pushing out major population groups in Libya more than two thousand miles away from Iraq and separated by at least three countries. I honestly don’t know why people aren’t talking about this more.

While the President’s team has surrounded himself with a lot of very good press recently, it just seems like there isn’t time to deal with what is, realistically, the most vital issue threatening world security today. In the words of his current Secretary of State, John Kerry, made in one of the most outlandishly uncalled for attacks on the single group of Americans doing the most to prevent the spread of fundamentalist terrorism, the United States military:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Well, the administration hasn’t done their homework and they haven’t made an effort to be smart, so now, as Kerry predicted in 2006, they’re stuck in Iraq.


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Facts and Misconceptions about what is a Wounded Warrior.

Approximately what percentage of veterans have a service level disability?

USMC Cpl. Raymond Hennagir looks to pass the ball, during a wounded warriors practice inside the Karen Wagner Sports Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to prepare for the Warrior Games.  For The News & Messenger
USMC Cpl. Raymond Hennagir looks to pass the ball, during a wounded warriors practice inside the Karen Wagner Sports Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to prepare for the Warrior Games. For The News & Messenger

It’s really high, but not for the obvious reasons people suspect. The reason for this isn’t because we all suffered from some car bombing, like a few of the warriors pictured above. Those numbers are actually quite low relatively speaking. The reason is more connected with day-to-day type work environment disabilities. For most, it is simply the chronic bodily maltreatment over the course several years in the military.

Take my example. I am about as average as a Marine deployed to Iraq probably gets. I am not yet thirty, but I have to see a chiropractor regularly like I was fifty. My back issues started literally weeks after my second deployment to Iraq. We traced the cause to wearing an eighty pound flak jacket, supported entirely on my shoulders, for eight hours a day, seven days a week. Turns out, in the bullet proof vest industry, you have to have a balance between ergonomics and ballistic protection. In a risk/reward scenario, I prefer back pain. That injury rated me 10% service connected disability.

Another one came from hearing damage I suffered from being a rifle and pistol coach for two years, literally standing inches from weapons going off all day. We had hearing protection, but there is only so much the 25 cent softies can do.

That is realistically what happens to most of the military injured. The jobs are just hard on the body. That isn’t to say that all people are as lucky as I was. The records are very clear in that in the wars, so far, there have been 6,845 dead, and 52,300 wounded. That being said, what doesn’t help anyone is the almost criminal misrepresentation by news agencies such as the Huffington post, making numerous posts saying that because of injuries like this, a million troops are now counted as “wounded from combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Huffington has taken an extremely liberal definition of the word “wounded” by misquoting this definition from the International Business times:

“All that can be said with any certainty is that as of last December more than 900,000 service men and women had been treated at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics since returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

VA Stops Releasing Data On Injured Vets As Total Reaches Grim Milestone [EXCLUSIVE]

To be clear, if I were to break my leg tomorrow for something that happened six years after leaving the military, and go to a VA hospital to see if there is anything they could do to help me, I could count in this number. However, in the Huffington Post article: 6,845 Americans Died and 900,000 Were Injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Say ‘No’ to Obama’s War., an article with the seemingly intended purpose of arguing against intervention against the ISIS ( the Islamic terrorist nation and their murderous tirade through the Middle East) based on half truths and misinformation. The writer, H. A. Goodman, blatantly links this figure of 900,000 wounded with the Pentagon quote that more than half to two-thirds of Americans killed or wounded in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been victims of IED explosions” implying that upwards of 400,000 to 600,000 people were wounded by roadside bombings. Being that the actual figure of people wounded by roadside bombs is somewhere closer to maybe 20,000, as a veteran, I’m appalled by the way Huffington Post is misrepresenting us.

The reason for this rant on the HP is because they are doing a severe disservice to actual veterans by misrepresenting what is going on with us through their politically agenda layden postings. In other articles, they’ve expounded on this figure, stating that everything from a single episode of dizziness to actually being shot counts as being “wounded in action”. Meanwhile, public perception of ailments such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) has turned into something that makes people so aware of the problem, that instead of understanding the diseases and the realistic numbers behind them, people just assume we are all broken from the neck up. Also, being that somewhere around only two million deployments of individuals occurred in either Iraq or Afghanistan, this 1 million wounded number that keeps being brought up gives the illusion that fully half of all veterans nearly died or are seriously messed up from going to Iraq or Afghanistan. Since these veterans, in reality, faced less than a 1% chance of ever being injured in the war, it doesn’t help me if I go in for a job and have to face the silent prejudice of “probably has PTSD” because of poor reporting like this. This is the disservice that selective, agenda based reporting like this is doing.

Shame on you Huffington Post. Be better.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part VII

The Scope of What Humanity Was Capable Of

The last thing I would want to talk about is how war makes you fully aware of just what people are capable of. It will shed any naivety you had about the nature of this human condition. You will come face to face with the reality that there are people out there who are willing to kill their own people just to further their political goals. Writing that sounds like the plot to a movie or something, but it is real. War forces you to learn about massacres like Al-Anfal Campaign and the destruction of the Marsh Arabs way of life. As a child, I could never have imagined such hate, or simply, such practicality absent the value of human life and suffering. As one of the graphs I shared earlier showed, the vast majority of those killed in Iraq were done so by other Iraqi. Worse, was how many people would do so for religious agenda. The depths of depravity of some of the ideas rolling around over there is mind boggling, not to say that the ideas pervade only in Iraq.

What’s really painful though is seeing that your own people aren’t immune to being horrible people either. It always gives me pause to see so many people who are simply aware of so much extremely important information because it is hidden from them, or worse, because they refuse to acknowledge the blinders they have about it. Atrocities go by and people turn a blind eye because it doesn’t fit into the narrative they believed to be true. I’ll be frank, in being there, I believe Iraq was important and we should have been there. I’ve been very open that there were many things we should have done differently and are to blame for many failures in it (With the benefit of hindsight, should America have invaded Iraq in 2003? and Who is responsible for the mess in Iraq today?) but simply saying it was a mistake because you don’t know a better way to do it is a failure in itself. I am not going to try and convert anyone on this matter. I’ve made my arguments many times, but I do think it would improve everyone’s perspective to see it through the eyes of another, an Iraqi Kurd who view the war beginning in 2003 as the first time his people ever had the chance to have freedom and equality in Iraq. Yad Faeq’s answer to In the end, did the U.S. bring freedom, democracy, prosperity, or security to Iraq?

Leaving my soapbox, war gets very personal when you experience month after month working with, living with, eating with, suffering with, and enduring with the same people day, after day, after day. It makes you aware of what people, individual people can really be like. I’ve had Sergeants who doctored their Marine’s performance reports to make their troops appear as failures, so that they could be seen as disciplinarians when there was nothing to punish and miraculous improvements months later. I’ve seen Marines sabotage each other for a pointless position within a fire team. I’ve seen Marines so piss drunk that they had be thrown into a car with their kids watching on a platoon family function. I’ve seen people get pregnant on purpose so that they could avoid a deployment, many times. I’ve seen incompetence, cover-ups, affairs, and mountains of bureaucratic nonsense a mile high, preventing anything from being done.

Perhaps the worst of it was when I was pulled from a counseling with a therapist about what I had gone through in Iraq. My father-in-law past away in a violent accident three days before I was supposed to come home. I was sent home early, three days early, to handle the affairs. The deployment was rough and losing your father at the end of it like that was miserably traumatic. You are robbed of any happiness in seeing your family at all. It was literally the worst period of my life. While speaking to the therapist I received a call that I was in trouble for not being a formation for the platoon that I was longer a part of. That’s not true. I hadn’t spoken to the therapist. I was one step in the door when I found out I was supposed to be in some dumb formation because the Staff Sergeant in charge didn’t realize that I was no longer part of his unit. He forgot to file the paperwork and simply hadn’t noticed I hadn’t been there for over a month. I never went back to speak to the therapist. The sad thing,that wasn’t even the worst part of that story.

What also surprised me was how bad people could be to people they loved. You’d be shocked at how little people in the military seem to care about things like marital fidelity. Knowing who was sleeping with whom was like some deranged version the kids game Guess Who. I remember one guy, a pretty high ranking member of my platoon, come home to a huge sign welcoming him home by his wife and daughters. A few days later, that sign wasn’t taken down. It was ceremonially torn in half. I also thought “Dear John” letters were a myth before being deployed. What surprises me, though, is a phenomenon where some observers have stated that Dear John letters seem to happen more frequently when the war is generally not understood or approved of at home. It would seem they are another subtle way that our inability to understand a conflict affects the lives of those who must endure them. That doesn’t excuse the women who make the lives of their men harder during one of the hardest times they will ever experience because they aren’t getting enough attention, or because their friends don’t feel it is the moral thing to be with them anymore. Yes, it’s true. It happened far more often than I would like to believe. By the way, having the real name of Jon doesn’t help in war. It leaves one irrationally paranoid of such things.

But it wasn’t all bad. Just as I saw the ugliness of the people around me, and the horrors true villains would visit upon each other outside the gates, I saw goodness in people as well. I was signed up for civilian care groups by my family. What followed after that was a flood of mail from dozens, maybe a hundred or so, people I had never met. They sent me food, socks, writing material, playing cards, candy, storage bins, Santa hats… just about anything you could imagine. One old Vietnam Marine somehow smuggled me a full flask. I just so happen to be one of the only non-drinking Marines alive, but I honored his wishes nonetheless. It was all sent to some random Corporal none of them knew. I was pretty overwhelmed. It was a pleasant surprise to see so many people in support of what we were doing, especially by 2007 when the war was old news. Eventually, the letters became too much. I couldn’t keep up with them and failed to be able to correspond to them all. I became very guilty about all the attention and my failures to correspond, so I tried to share in the blessing. I wrote some of them back and told them how taken care of I was, but told them of members of my platoon who weren’t getting mail from anyone. It was nice to see some of the younger ones feel that sense of importance they had been lacking. Eventually I built a wall in our eating area of the entry control point, from a piece of plywood. On it I would just staple up all the letters. I felt that the attention wasn’t really being directed at me, but just anyone these these kind altruistic samaritans could get a hold of. I made the wall of letters. I kept most the candy, though. No one ever told me thank you for the wall, but from time to time I would see them staring at it while they didn’t know I was looking. I’d like to think that in hard moments of that deployment, there were many, that they had that reminder that regardless of what the news and media were saying, there were still many, many people who loved us for what we were doing.

I didn’t really need them. I had my own personal fan club. My wife had special abilities to make a person feel at home in the middle of a warzone. First off, she bakes. Her chocolate chip cookies have always been the pride of our household and famed within any community we have been a part of. She would make me a fresh batch every week for the lunches that she prepared for me every day. She is really old fashioned and I am thankful, undeserving, but thankful. That sort of thing doesn’t happen when you go to Iraq, though. It wasn’t that the food there wasn’t palatable. I’ve mentioned that. It just wasn’t made with love. 6,000 miles didn’t stop my Jennie, however. She searched online the whole time I was gone to discover ways to help make our lives better. Imagine my surprise when one day I opened a flat rate box and saw a bag filled with chocolate chip cookies that must have been shipped weeks ago. About a third were reduced to crumbs, but those that remained were still fresh. That wasn’t possible. Jennie had read that you can ship cookies and keep them from getting stale by placing torn pieces of white bread in the packaging. The cookies will pull moisture from the bread and arrive weeks later as if they were baked yesterday. Yeah, it really works. When I was at my lowest, around the first Christmas when I was really away in 2005, she was still taking care of me. One of our Sergeants found out his wife had had an affair or left him or something. He was a jerk, but that still sucks. It left a lot of us married guys a bit shaken up. I received a flat rate about that time with “Do not open until Christmas.” The 25th of December rolled around, no special day when every day is exactly the same in Iraq, and I found a quiet corner of the COMM bay. There I saw little baggies filled with weird stuff. There was a CD – “The Sounds of Christmas”, with Christmas music and carols. A bag with little nuts and twigs, cinnamon and pine cones – “The Smells of Christmas”, a photo album with memories of growing up on Christmas morning for the two of us – “The sights of Christmas” as well as the few we had spent together. It was a bittersweet moment, but one that made me appreciate what she meant to me. You really don’t know the peaks of what humans are capable of until you’ve known the love a good woman. I learned that from war and have appreciated it ever since.

The last thing I learned was the value of the friends you make over there. These are a few of the guys from the “Lance Corporal’s Tent”, the guys who were the lowest ranking dudes who just didn’t matter at all in our little tent. We were weird and stupid and had fun just getting each other through. One is a rocker, one a psychiatric casualty, another became one of my lifelong best friends. One nearly got so sick that we thought he was going to die, but he refused to go home. One even lived a whole successful enlistment hiding the fact that he was gay, living a life of service under the auspices of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

War taught me to respect individuals like these, the warriors themselves. In a modern society like the United States, people are free to join or they are free to go on about their lives peacefully. No one makes you enlist here, so it is strange to imagine that there are people who do it willingly. These people accept risk as a given part of their lives. The possibility of death, be it much smaller than most people realize, is a realistic threat to their future, as is maiming and the potential of injury and psychiatric trauma. No one wants this, but it is an unavoidable acceptance. To be quite honest, those risks far outweigh any benefits like college. There are easier ways if you only want to get a cut-rate education. The pay also sucks, if you haven’t heard. These guys were my friends, but in the grand scope of things, they were much more. They deserved to be called heroes. None of them had to fight either, but I know with absolute certainty, that any one of them put themselves in the places where fighting was necessary. They all did after all.

In reflection, I realize that these individuals have immense value to the world. Their willingness to sacrifice, if not physically, than of the time with their families , from comfort and security is something special itself. Their willingness to do unpleasant things to horrible people and suffer themselves in doing so helps ensure a measure of security for others. In that security, prosperity grows, but rarely for the veterans themselves. The very idea that a 19 year old kid from one of the most educated, wealthiest countries on the planet, would give up years of his life, as well as endless opportunities to find enjoyment and comfort, is surprising. That he or she would willingly instead train, suffer, and endure hardship to be armed and equipped to fly all the way over to some other part of world to do whatever their country asks of them, is profound. That fact alone scares the piss out of anyone who would raise a weapon against such a person.

Few people would do that, though we who live safely know that someone must. The fact that kids like that exist still baffles me. Absent the politics, absent the discussion of if we should have gone to war then, or if we should go war to now, or in the future, to me, is irrelevant when you think about what these people are doing. These young men and women and their willingness to do something is important. They actually do things rather than just talk about things which should be done by someone. The actions they take have real significance and make history. They voluntarily put themselves at great personal risk for simple ideals like their country, or freedom, or even just pride. This willingness to do things others wouldn’t for values others only talk about truly showcase the scope of what humanity is capable of and the value of the fighting man to all the rest of us.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part II

You Learn How to Eat Anything Put in Front of You

There is a lot of truth to Dan Rosenthal‘s quip that grown men will wait in line for a juice box and some reheated macaroni to eat in the dirt. When you are starving and have been working in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable, food tastes really good, regardless of what it actually tastes like. I’ve always said the best flavors on any food are free and starving. You’ll eat anything, even the artificially tasteless food given out by the food preparation experts that were the cooks. It was apparently like that because people could be allergic to things with flavor, so why bother and just remove all of them. Regardless, even they tasted delicious depending on what you had endured for the last few days. Essentially, flavor is inversely related to suffering endured. Remember that. It might save your life.

I remember when I first arrived in Iraq I went to the dinner one day with one of my Corporals and the two Gunnies. The Gunnies were much more experienced than either us and this was far from their first war. Still, everything was new to me. I was surprised to see the size and scale of the chow hall. There is a few moments of cognitive dissonance when you enter the chow halls in Iraq. They are much larger and more effort put into them than anything you endured during training. It was better than what was offered in Yuma training, anyway. I stood in line and took what was offered. There was something fried and something green. Fork ready, I sat down and prepared to eat when the Corporal among us asked me if I knew what it was I was eating. He pointed to the fried nugget like objects on the plate. I looked, examined, and thought for a second. I hadn’t the foggiest clue.

“You know, I don’t care. I expect you to tell me they are fried goat intestines or camel testicals or something, but I just don’t care at this point. I’m hungry and they’re fried so I am going to eat them.”

I took my fork and skewered one, put it in my mouth, and attempted to identify the flavor. I wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t bad. So I went on to eat another.

“Oh… well, they’re mussels… like what people scrape off the side of ships.”

“Hmm…” I said with the mystery meat still filling my mouth. “Well, that’s not so bad when you go in assuming it was fried camel balls now is it?”

The Gunnies just laughed.

The truth was, I was always a very picky eater until I joined the Marine Corps. That said, in the worst of times, food was actually pretty good. Maybe by the end of boot camp I just wasn’t that picky anymore. During training it was bland, but bland isn’t exactly the same as bad. It’s just eh. By 2005 MREs, Meal Ready to Eat, are pretty good unless you just have really bad luck. You can mix and match, trade up and there was even a cookbook that circulated on how to juryrigg oddly appetizing if not aesthetically displeasing concoctions. For instance, cocoa powder and creamer make pudding! And you can make grilled cheese with spreadable cheese, two breads and the engine block of a humvee as well. Let that depressing thought boil for a minute. Perhaps it was just something you get used to, but I enjoyed them most of the time.

What I actually miss was the chow halls. Yes, I miss them and those who have been over understand. I wanted to mention this because this fact would probably surprise most people who have the wrong idea of what the war was like. If you were lucky enough to be on one of the big bases for a while you would get to eat at the chow halls which were these massive cafeterias. They served food so good I was actually in a state of shock that this was what war was like. I’m really serious about this and most won’t believe, but we had steak every week and the first time I ever experienced lobster or pecan praline ice-cream was in Iraq. I know that wasn’t everyone’s experience, but as I said, I was lucky.

I have heard since coming back that a lot of people are angry about this. Most Marines will tell you about how they had it so much worse. Most really didn’t since the majority never even went to Iraq and still a lot would never want to admit that we had it this good. That said, there were many who had it really rough, and I respect that. Getting sent out to Hit or Camp Korean Village in 2005 was no small achievement and the accommodations, even two years into the war were, shall I say, not yet 5 star quality. That said, if that is one of you reading this, really, my heart goes out to you. You have the gratitude of the nation for what you endured. Congratulations. Here is your medal and a cookie. Please pass the ketchup.

Having said all that, many people who never deployed, as well as many who were never part of the military at all, cry foul at the egregious spending of the Department of Defense on $50 dinners for the military. I don’t know if those figures are an exaggeration or not, or just some idiot who took the military’s entire food budget, including facilities, staff, transportation, plus food and then just divided it by individual meals. I also don’t know people just don’t understand how logistically hard it is to get food that passes American health standards in that sort of quantity to warzones, but if you are one of those people who think there is something wrong with the fact, perhaps you should consider this. Literally the best thing that could happen to me on any given day was having waffles with peanut butter smothered in hot syrup with a side of eggs and an orange for breakfast. Imagine that. That isn’t just a good breakfast, that is the guaranteed to be the best thing that will happen to me that day. The only good things I could imagine on most days revolved around food and phone calls. I hadn’t seen my wife in months. I lived in a tent, slept on a cot, my roommate didn’t bathe, my bosses were [expletives deleted], and I caught athletes foot a month ago from the showers that I will never get rid of. I hadn’t had a day off since I got here and oh, did I mention that we got bombed on a semi-regularly basis? This meal and more importantly, the twenty minutes of renewing socialization where my friends and I can unwind, is all we have. What more do you want to take away from us?

That question aside, there is a rational reason for the “enormously superfluous” spending of the US military on the grounds of food. Basic comforts, where they could be controlled, greatly affect troop morale. During Vietnam and World War II, the vast majority of people who became casualties were not because they suffered gorey bullet and shrapnel wounds. They weren’t casualties in the normal way respected by non-military folk, but were actually psychiatric casualties succumbing to stresses far outside the expected normal human experience. As it turns out, the Brits may have solved this first in World War I where they would cycle troops out of the trenches every ten days or so to the rear where they could have hot food and showers for a few days before going back. It seemed that they were the first to fight a war like that without suffering the impossible to imagine psychological damage that we are only now starting to understand. Basically, food isn’t really a luxury. I was surprised how often, during times when we would be way, way out there in extremely inconvenient conditions, some officer would go so far out of his way to make sure we had “hot” chow. I didn’t feel we needed all the attention, but sometimes, Hell itself couldn’t stop these men. After researching and understanding the mental effects of war on warriors, I’m starting to see that they did this for more than just purely altruistic good leadership. In those situations, it may be another inoculation, this time against future mental breakdown from prolonged poor morale in the middle of a warzone.

So the next time you hear someone say that it’s stupid that people in a war zone are getting to eat so good, at least consider that there is probably more to that decision than that the General just likes ice cream. Perhaps you should remind the person complaining so much that spending a little on food for a deployed service member is far less than spending on a lifetime of potential psychiatric disability payouts. It might actually do well to remind them that at the end of the day, they still get to go home while probably never feeling the pressures military guys feel the moment they leave the chow hall.


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What lessons can people learn from being in a war?

The recent documentary The November War asks the question, “Do you believe a warrior ever truly comes back from war, or will a part of him always remain there?” This question is asked by the documentary maker, himself a veteran of the Second Battle of Fallujah, to fellow members of his platoon ten years after their experiences in the battle that changed the direction of that war. There was no clear answer given by the Marines, but they all agreed that warfare and battle do have a permanent change on the warrior who goes through them.

As far as real lessons, I don’t know. I can’t say there are very many brief bullet points, rules of thumbs, or quiet meditations that can be summed up in few words that describe what one learns from war. None that I know that are meaningful absent the context behind them. It isn’t that you won’t learn from war. War is one of the most fundamentally evolutionary events that a person can endure, and something so uncommon for most people that there is ample opportunity to gain wisdom from the experience. It’s just that no one experiences it the same. It will have a profound effect on you and what you take from it can be many different things. I think, for my experiences at least, a person can’t come back the same as he was before war. It will change you. It can grow you and it can take things away from you. Many come back worse for the experience, while others are given direction for life, a sense of purpose or a new understanding of the world which people who haven’t been a part of the war will never understand. It took many years to realize it and come back to a state of normalcy after my time in Iraq, but I am glad for the opportunity to do what few would undertake willingly. I believe I am a better person for it, not for any particular lesson I might take from the event, but just for the complete change it gave me.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure to clarify that I am not, by my own definition, a “combat veteran.” I was deployed to Iraq twice in 2005 and 2007 in places very near where the fighting was going on. 27 kilometers from my base was Fallujah, 10 as the crow flies, which then was a hotbed of terrorist activities. Surrounding the base in other directions, the insurgent cities of Habbaniyah, and Ramadi. The second time I went I was on a base between the cities of Hit, Al Baghdadi. and Haditha. Though these regions were center to Al Anbar and Nineveh provinces, known to the military as the Sunni Triangle and the source of the worst resistance, I myself, never saw combat. I was part of a unit that oversaw base operations for Marine helicopter units which would fly out to all these cities and help infantry win battles as well as the army’s evacuation teams. My role was very far behind whatever lines of combat existed.  The worst I ever saw were a few rockets land a hundred yards or so from where I was, which were scary but not immediately dangerous by the time I was aware of them, as well as the midnight care flights of dead warriors being flown out of Al Anbar in black bags bound for home long after the heat of battle had subsided. I never came face-to-face with any enemy and never had a need to fire my weapon in anger. I was trained and equipped with all the tools and willingness to fight, but always needed just on the precipice of where fighting was happening.

Though for many, this disqualifies much of my experience as irrelevant to warfare, I am thankful for having had the opportunity to be so near the fighting, but never be fully blooded by it. I feel fortunate that my experiences allowed me to be a part of war while not becoming overwhelmed by it. Though I was ashamed of my passive role for many years, I now realized it gave me the intense training and viewpoints to survive it, while affording me the objective distance to view warfare less as an event, and more as a science of humanity and a practical thing which must be studied and understood. I could objectify it and understand it, while not being overly jaded and traumatized by it. Because of this, I have been able to gain an understanding that many combat veterans are too close to see and that most civilians could never fathom. In the last several years since my war has ended, for me at least, I have been able to use this to help others understand the truth of war, and have been extremely fortunate to help other veterans come to peace with their experiences, as well.

I appreciate The Huffington Post for asking myself and others this question and providing me with the impetus to share what war has taught me in as complete a single place as I can. I’ll warn though, if a simple Top 10 Lessons Warriors Gain From War three minute read was what they wanted, they have come to the wrong place. These warriors, many my fellow veteran friends on Quora, have shown this to be one of the few questions capable of producing volumes without ever being complete. My answer will be no different. My belief is that if one truly wants to gain understanding of experiences so unique and so important to the world they live, they had better be prepared to endure the full scope of the pandora’s box they have opened. That said, years of research and reflection on the matter have left me with much to say, some of which I would like to share with you now.