The Ground Truth
By Paul Street at Dec 02, 2006
I've just seen a documentary film that blew me away. The flick is called “The Ground Truth.” It's a study of the war on Iraq with particular reference to the experience of U.S. GIs and abundant interview footage from troops who have turned against the terrible war-crimes they have witnessed and in some cases committed.It is not for the faint of heart. The occupation is as bad as you thought; it may be worse. It's basically a fascist operation. I think I missed the first few minutes, but here are some of the things I saw:
- The basic training of troops being sent into Iraq has involved the routine use of explicitly racist and ethnic terms (“rag-heads” and hajis”) and motivations to turn troops into people who are prepared to kill real and perceived enemies (the latter group typically including civilians) in Iraq. According to one GE remembering a scene where he and his comrades murdered a few Iraqis at a check point, “we didn't care…we called them Hajis/”
- GIs in basic training get caught up in a fascistic “group dynamic” led by drill sergeants who lead them in chants and songs that speak explicitly about “Kill, Kill, Kill!” in regard to children, families and whole towns. After enough exposure to this genocidal “group dynamic,” one GI reports, “you just go with it.” “Everything is associated with killing,” another GI relates. “I wanted to kill” by the time he was deployed, one ex-soldier recalls. To kill others was his objective – and end in itself.
- Military authorities indoctrinated troops deployed in Iraq with the idea that “we're here because of 9/11…either as revenge or to prevent future 9/11s”
- Some GIs deployed in Iraq are “trigger happy” and just “look to shoot” whoever they can.
- One GI reports witnessing and experiencing “peer pressure” to kill: “They'd tease you if you didn't have a kill that day,” he recalled.
- One ex-GI reports an incident where a U.S. solider induced an Iraqi child to get in front of an Army truck and then ran the child since military instructions say “keep on driving over people standing in front of your vehicles.”
- One GI reports experiencing cognitive dissonance when he realized that he'd been trained to fight against an armed enemy and realized that “you're killing a family.”
- GIs receiving fire from snipers were ordered to just take out whole buildings, shooting massive amounts of bullets indiscriminately into Iraqi homes and apartments.
- One GI returned to his base looking depressed and haggard. When a superior officer asked him what was wrong, he said “today's been a bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.” The superior officer responded by saying, “No solider, it's been a good day.”
- One returned GI went to get counseling from a military psychologist with problems he was experiencing because of his involvement in killing large numbers of innocent Iraqi civilians. When he told the psychologist about his issues, she said, “I can't help you. I don't deal with conscientious objectors.” The GI exploded, telling the “mental health professional” that SHE was CRAZY to think that opposition to the murder of innocent civilians was conscientious objection to war per se.
- Numerous returned GIs related experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance because of the contradiction between (a) people in the U.S. telling them they are “heroes” and (b) their knowledge that they committed terrible war crimes in Iraq. “I felt like a monster,” one GI reports of his return to the imperial “homeland.”
- One GI (I think his last name was Lucy) returned home physically intact but psychologically crippled. Before he hung himself to death, he spoke frequently about his remorse over killing an Iraqi girl.
At one point in the movie, the film's producers reproduce footage from behind an airborne camera (in a drone perhaps?) showing the distant ground images of maybe 20 or more Iraqis walking through a street intersection. You hear a spoken order to destroy these people and then a countdown to the launch of a missile. You see a big explosion that destroys all of the Iraqis. Then you hear the voice of a young white male, one of the military personnel involved in the attack. He says “Dude.” He says it in a very awestruck way. It's like a video game, he knows, but this time it's real. Those were actual flesh and blood human beings he just eliminated with the flick of a switch.
A lot of the guys are coming back with severe emotional problems. There's a whole bunch coming back alive with terrible injuries that would have killed GIs in Vietnam. Many GIs are having a terrible time getting the Veterans' Administration to attend to their needs. The military is horrible when it comes to seriously acknowledging and tackling the severe mental health issues experienced by returning GIs.
For many of the troops interviewed by “The Ground Truth,” meaningful reentry is impossible without a gut-wrenching process of recovering their stolen humanity. One returning solider cries as he expresses his heartfelt sense of remorse to the people of Iraq. He wonders if he can forgive himself for not resisting his superiors' orders to “kill, kill, kill.”
There is a powerful gender dimension at work here as these troops – who you can see hugging each other at protest marches and rallies – come to sense that recovering their sense of humanity means shedding the hyper-masculinist cult of imperial butchery that was devised to make them into killers. These troops give you hope.
Watching this terrible and painful movie, I found myself stepping back from my usual instinct to blame everything on the ruling elite. Don't get me wrong: Cheney, Rove, Rumbo, Wolfowitz, Bush, Franks, Perle, Feith and the rest deserve the worst fates imaginable. They are the true and ultimate war criminals.
But it's also true to no small extent that We the People of the United States – everyday ordinary hard-working Americans – did this. We just haven't paid elementary rigorous and morally engaged attention to history and world affairs on the level that was required for us to exercise the degree of basic national and international citizenship necessary to stop either the terrible criminality that “our” troops have been ordered and trained to inflict or the misery that has been inflicted on those troops. There comes a time for people on the left to talk in a serious way about everyday Americans' personal responsibility. Americans we have no business distancing ourselves in shocked horror from what these troops have been ordered to do in our name and on our dime. Please watch this movie, fellow Americans and understand that these are your goddamned tax dollars at work. This is your empire, baby and you are going to have to own it before you can reject it.
We have no business discovering all over again that “our” troops don't actually serve the causes of “freedom” and “democracy” and actually end up violating other people's sovereignty and killing innocent families, children and women. That's what the founding settlers' long genocidal Indian Wars did. It's what we did in the Philippines at the turn of the last century. This is what the Vietnam War was all about. We attacked and destroyed countless innocents in Korea, Panama, Serbia and countless other venues that have been graced by our glorious noble and humanitarian interventions. It's all there to learn about for anyone who cares. You can start by going to Barnes and Noble and picking up Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. Another good one is James Loewen's book Lies My Teacher told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Yes, it's tough to fund the time and the right material sometimes, but….it's not THAT tough. I've tried to teach my fellow Americans about it all for many years and most of them haven't wanted to hear about it. And I'm tired of making excuses.
Yes, I've written at length and over and over again abut the obstacles to popular understanding of past and current events…the well-known “consent-manufacturing” role of corporate media in narrowing the spectrum of information and analysis…. the way that big money's veto power filters out candidates who might seriously confront interrelated crimes of Empire and Inequality…the way that high school history texts and classes filter out vital information in their desire to whitewash the record of an inherently and always GOOD America....the crippling effects of ridiculously long working hours on Americans' capacity for learning and being effective citizens. I'll probably write more and more along these lines.
But I'm getting sick of it, to be candid. We did this…we let this happen and we – all of us – need to take basic personal and collective responsibility for understanding what is done overseas in our name and then for opposing – by any and all means necessary – the commission of future crimes like the one that are being so terribly visited (most directly at present in the world) on the people of Iraq. Even many, perhaps most, of us who have a good grasp of the required information and a strong moral opposition to imperial policy have too commonly retreated into our own private and personal space, pursuing our own career and/or emotional and/or spiritual and/or economic or psychological advancements and comforts while the planet bakes and Baghdad burns. What do you want to tell your grandchildren about what you did to oppose the murder of Iraq or the related assault on the polar ice caps or…[fill in your favorite crime]? That you voted for the corporate-imperial Democrats in the fall of 2006?
I happen to think that the impeachment, removal, and incarceration of Team Bush is a vital step in embracing that vital sense of responsibility to the world and to ourselves. It's not about revenge or “gotchya.” I don't mind a little revenge when it comes to people like Bush, but it's about using existing constitutional procedures to acknowledge terrible crimes and to prevent further and future criminal abuses of power by the “leaders” of the world's most powerful state.
I also happen to think that we would be further along the path of embracing the required moral and democratic responsibility if we were to bring back the DRAFT. A “volunteer” army is at once a poverty draft army and a mercenary army. If the American people want to live in an imperial and therefore heavily militarized state – and personally I don't think they should – then I think it is only fair and reasonable that people from all socioeconomic cohorts and not especially from the lower and working-classes – should be equally expected and likely to “serve.” I suspect that Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) is right when he says that the U.S. would not have invaded Iraq if middle- and upper-class teenagers and young adults had been required (through the draft) to kill and die in that illegal, racist oil invasion. Besides filling the ranks with more soldiers in a position to question the absurd racist and fascistic claims (“you are in Iraq to kill rag-heads and avenge 9/11 solider!”) and orders, the introduction of a genuine citizens' army would make it much more difficult for mainstream America to distance itself from the terrible things we ask our troops to do to others and to the intimately related terrible things we do to our troops.