For the United States, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be over soon. We will leave behind, after our defeats, wreckage and death, the contagion of violence and hatred, unending grief, and millions of children who were brutalized and robbed of their childhood. Americans who did not suffer will forget. People maimed physically or psychologically by the violence, especially the Iraqi and Afghan children, will never escape. Time and memory will play their usual tricks. Those who endured war will begin to wonder, years from now, what was real and what was not. And those who did not taste of war’s noxious poison will stop wondering at all.
I sat last Thursday afternoon in a small conference room at the University of Massachusetts Boston with three U.S. combat veterans—two from the war in Iraq, one from the war in Vietnam—along with a Somali who grew up amid the vicious fighting in Mogadishu. All are poets or novelists. They were there to attend a two-week writers workshop sponsored by theWilliam Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences
. It is their voices and those of their comrades that have to be heeded now, and heeded in the future, if we are to curb our appetite for empire and lust for industrial violence. The truth about war comes out, but always too late. And by the time the drums begin beating, the flags waving and the politicians and press hyperventilating as they shout out their nationalist cant, once again we have forgotten what we learned, as if the debacles of the past had no bearing on the debacles of the future.
Joshua Morgan Folmar
, 29, a bearded Marine Corps veteran from Alabama who participated in 200 combat patrols in Iraq, sat next to me. He handed me his poem “Contemplating the Cotard Delusion on the Downeaster to Boston.” It begins:
Maybe I’m a walking corpse, or maybe I’m in a coma in
Germany, or Walter Reed, sucking MREs
through plastic tubes, while a few children in Haditha pick up bone
shards from the explosion and trade them like card games for chocolate.
My head droops against the window: face reflecting broken
limbs and stagnant water, blurring against the train’s scratched safety
glass. And somewhere out there is my last combat patrol. And somewhere out there, my dead friends are waiting.
Brian Turner, 47, who was a sergeant and infantry team leader in the 3rd Stryker Brigade in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, wrote poems in a small notebook he carried while he was there. They were published in a collection called “Here, Bullet” (Alice James Books). One lament, called “Ashbah” (a transliteration of the Arabic word for “ghosts”), reads:
The ghosts of American soldiers
Wander the streets of Balad by night,
Unsure of their way home, exhausted,
The desert wind blowing trash
Down the narrow alleys as a voice
Sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
Reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.
None of these veterans are at ease in America. They never will be.
“I live in a country that is so wealthy we can wage wars and not have to think about them,” Turner said. “It is a pathology handed down from generation to generation. We talk about our military. We use words like ‘heroism.’ But when will we start to care about people whose names are difficult to pronounce? The list of people lost is so vast. How do I write about this and share it in a country that does not want to hear it? We want narratives that are easy and complete, ones we can process. We want wars to be recorded the way historians or people who make tombstones in cemeteries do. They give us the start, the duration and end of the war. But for those of us who were in war it does not end. If you talk to my grandfather in Fresno, Calif., at some point during the day you will be in the presence of World War II.”
Combat brings with it trauma for those who inflict the violence as well as those who suffer it. See a lot of combat and the trauma is severe. But the worst trauma is often caused not by what combat veterans witnessed but by what they did. The most disturbing memories usually involve children. War creates bands of ragged, poor, dirty street urchins. The bands wander about the edges of a conflict looking for something to eat. They pick through the garbage dumps. They line the sides of roads begging convoys for food or chocolate. They attempt to sell a few pathetic items to make money. In Iraq they offered American troops “freaky”—the slang for European porn videos—whiskey or heroin (Turner said he doubted there was heroin in the packets). The children lived in fear. They saw their parents, brothers, sisters and grandparents publicly humiliated by occupation troops. They cowered in terror during night raids as troops kicked down the doors of their houses and herded them and their families into rooms where they were made to sit, sometimes for hours, with their arms bound behind their backs with plastic ties. They warily eyed the drones circling overhead day and night, never sure when death would rain down from the sky. They saw brothers and fathers killed. They dreamed of growing up to revenge their deaths.
Children threw rocks at convoys or patrols. They worked as spotters for insurgents and at times they carried automatic weapons. And in the long nightmare of a war of occupation, where every Afghan or Iraqi outside the perimeter of a base was viewed as the enemy, it was not long until children were targets. Soldiers and Marines often threw the bottles they used for urination inside their vehicles at children begging for water along the road.
Folmar said that on occasion children fired air guns at his patrols. The Americans were unable to tell if these were toy guns or real guns and carried out confiscations to avoid killings.