Blogs > Cliopatria > Snapshots and Chatter

Jul 2, 2005 7:46 pm

Snapshots and Chatter

My first surprise upon reporting to Fort Benning for active duty was the identity of the folks who greeted me outside the barracks. Two buildings on Kelley Hill now house soldiers called back from the Individual Ready Reserve, while the buildings directly adjacent to the IRR barracks house soldiers in a medical retention unit -- soldiers, in other words, who were injured in combat while in Iraq. It's interesting that the Army has chosen to park those two groups of soldiers side by side.

So I had been on post for thirty minutes when I started talking to a group of those injured soldiers, drinking beer outside the dayroom on a Sunday evening. Their message would be unsurprising to anyone who has been reading the newspaper: You can't tell which Iraqis are going to try to kill you, so you should act on any doubt or suspicion you have by cutting down anyone who makes you nervous. Act on hunches; pull the trigger. It may turn out to be the wrong choice, but it's a wrong choice that you'll live through.

As the days went on, I met other soldiers with similar stories to tell. Sitting in the computer room checking email, I heard a soldier at the next terminal asking an officer if he'd been over there yet. Since the officer had not, and since I hadn't either, the soldier showed us his photos from over there: Image after image of American soldiers cut to pieces by IEDs, missing limbs and missing faces. In a formal training session, we watched videotape footage of other American soldiers being killed in IED explosions; in one clip, the turret of an M-1 Abrams tank took flight, sailing above a massive cloud of dirt and black smoke.

Soldiers who have been in Iraq offer a mixed bag of lessons for soldiers who are going to Iraq, telling us that we'll make a difference and do important work in almost the same breath that they warn us not to trust the ragheads and to drop anyone who makes us feel nervous. We are warned that Hajii is a sneaky little fucker and can't be trusted, that Iraqi soldiers and police are to be kept at arms length or farther, that it's much too easy to be killed. An NCO explained to a class that the ragheads won't understand what you tell them, and you won't understand that little gobbledy-gook that they talk, so the best way to get them on the ground to search them is to kick 'em in the balls or butt-stroke 'em in the face. That they'll understand.

It's difficult to blame American soldiers for viewing Iraqis as ragheads and sneaky Orientals while those soldiers face death and mutilation from sneak attack every day, thousands of miles from home in a place where they don't speak the language and have no education or training in the culture or religion. Another NCO who was injured in Iraq responded to a question last week about the regional differences in fighting by saying that things are apparently different among the Sunnis and the whatever, all those other types of people they've got over there -- the kind of differences, he concluded, that officers have to worry about. For grunts, he suggested, those differences are not worth considering; just be prepared to shoot back when it's time.

I hesitate to begin drawing Big Conclusions based on two weeks of barracks chatter and PowerPoint presentations, but it does seem to me that there's a problem with the idea that American military power is the right tool for a pedagogy of liberation. We are partners in freedom with the fucking ragheads, teaching those sneaky little fuckers about the values of a constitutional republic. Something seems a little off, there.

I also remember reading a news story, just before I left, about an incident in which American soldiers shot and killed an unarmed, 57 year-old high school teacher in Baghdad because they thought she might have been a suicide bomber. After talking with American soldiers who have been in Iraq and have been horribly maimed in Iraq, that mistake seems entirely human and understandable to me. We cannot place ordinary men and women in an untenable circumstance and expect them to exercise more-than-human judgment and forbearance. It is reasonable to expect human beings to be afraid of dying, and it is reasonable to expect them to act against that fear. Again, this suggests some significant implications for a liberationist project that attempts to use heavily armed nineteen year-olds to carry the torch of freedom in the face of daily suicide bombings.

But I have a long way to go, and look forward to the journey. I'm keeping an open mind, and have predictably met many, many soldiers who are smart, highly capable, and worthy of the greatest respect. None of the stories that I've told here are the full story, and none represent the complete spectrum of thought and behavior among soldiers.

More later. I hope that everyone back home is healthy, happy, and productive.

(Cross-posted on Historiblography)
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More Comments:

David Silbey - 7/4/2005

Follow-up note: they're increasing by 30,000 over the next three years, not one year.

David Silbey - 7/4/2005

I'm a bit skeptical of the article you link, because the author does not cite any documents specifically backing up his point about recruiting an extra 30,000 people. Moreover, according to the Army, the recruiting goal for last year (FY 2004) was 77,000, only 3,000 less than it is this year. That suggests to me that 80,000 does NOT include the increased force size and that they will be building that up over a number of years.

(For 77,000, see <>; )

Chris Bray - 7/3/2005

Nicely said, and a perspective I appreciate. This description really resonates -- "a wide, wide spectrum of behavior and attitudes, even in one individual" -- and, as you note, suggests the problem with generalities.

I'm on pass for the holiday weekend, and back among highly educated, upper-middle class urbanites who are asking me about what it's really like in the military: Do you sleep in a regular bed? How often do they come and cut your hair? Do they have showers?

I keep trying to convince people that the military is an ordinary human culture, full of people who are just folks. And I'm not sure that it's working.

William Harshaw - 7/3/2005

Your description evokes my experience in Vietnam (non combat)--a wide, wide spectrum of behavior and attitudes, even in one individual. Paranoia and compassion all mixed. It's made me doubt the generalities often used in describing that episode in history. One observation--there may be a selection bias in the reports--military men under stress sometimes exaggerate their macho side, so blowing away someone of ambiguous identity may be described and not aiding a grandma-san.

Chris Bray - 7/3/2005

My point here was to talk about the predictable tension between chosen means and desired ends. I very much don't think the fault lies largely with the Iraqis -- and I also don't think much of the fault lies with American soldiers, whose position I described as "untenable." The point is that soldiers are understandably and inevitably going to come to take a hostile view of people who are trying to kill them, no matter the reason; to think, then, that military operations can produce partnership and trust in a climate of daily violence is to misunderstand the character ot military conflict. I am making an argument about the apparent effectiveness of democratization by armed force.

John H. Lederer - 7/3/2005

There is some discussion here:

Apparently two confounding factors are (1) the army's retention rate is currently very high (though I seem to have read something about lowering retention standards) and (2) the army's annual goals are higher because of Congress having authorized them an increase of 30,000.

David Silbey - 7/3/2005

Playing with the books. The goal for the month was reduced to about 5600 from about 6600 the previous month.

There's a nice chart at:

Note that the article repeats the line about meeting the recruiting target, but the chart shows the decline in monthly goal.

The yearly goal is 80,000, and they're way behind. Having said that, prime recruiting season is the summer, so the next few months will tell.

Michael Charles Benson - 7/3/2005


The downside of Chris's writing style is that sometimes you can miss the point. Check it out again, Chris's point is that the Army's failure probably has something to do with the tendency of the troops to think of the Iraqis as "sneaky little fuckers" not that the Iraqis are "sneaky litttle fuckers."

Charles Schuyler - 7/3/2005

You wrote: " . . . it does seem to me that there's a problem with the idea that American military power is the right tool for a pedagogy of liberation. We are partners in freedom with the fucking ragheads, teaching those sneaky little fuckers about the values of a constitutional republic. Something seems a little off, there."

There IS a problem with our military power as a teaching aid for "the values of a constitutional republic," tho' from your remarks you seem, mistakenly, to think the fault lies largely with the Iraqis. We invaded their country, and we've killed thousands of them, on what we now know (not just suspect) was a ginned up pretext. Just what lesson are the "sneaky little fuckers" supposed to learn about the values of a constitutional republic?

John H. Lederer - 7/3/2005

As I recall Chris Bray saw much import in the Army's failure to meet its recruiting goals for several months earlier this year.

Any import in the Army seemingly have exceeded its goal last month? One time fluke? Playing with the books?

Chris Bray - 7/3/2005

My sense, based on my experience with the army, is that the choice reflects no thought or calculation at all. The army is a massive institution, with considerable sloppiness and slippage; choices made in one place are implemented in another without consideration. If you have to choose an explanation, the "it just didn't occur to anyone" explanation is always the better choice.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/2/2005

Chris, Do you have any intuition about whether the army made a self-conscious decision that placing barracks for returning wounded soldiers next to those of you called up in the Ready Reserve was a smart thing to do?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/2/2005

It's probably from Johnny Quest: his sidekick (Sikh origin, would be my current guess based on my fuzzy memories and current knowledge) was named "Hadji"

Hadji, in the series, was helpful, nice, and had to be saved sometimes. He had an Indian accent and (again, it's been years since I saw an episode; real geeks will have to fill in the gaps) some odd skills. ... some googling provides me with a character bio for a remade Hadji Singh. Here's a link to a FAQ for the original show which shows that Hadji was pretty undefined.

Manan Ahmed - 7/2/2005

Q: They refer to Iraqis as “Hajjis”?
DELGADO: “Hajji” is the new slur, the new ethnic slur for Arabs and Muslims. It is used extensively in the military. The Arabic word refers to one who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is used in the military with the same kind of connotation as “gook,” “Charlie,” or the n-word. Official Army documents now use it in reference to Iraqis or Arabs. It’s real common. There was really a thick aura of racism.

Hmmm. This is all I could find. So far.

Chris Bray - 7/2/2005

FWIW, "Hajii" is much more common than "raghead," although I've heard both used openly in both casual discussion and formal training. I also have no idea where "Hajii" came from, in this context, and would be interested to hear from anyone who can explain it.

Chris Bray - 7/2/2005

Not a discussion I've had, in so many words. A fair number have wondered out loud why we're there, and a common theme is the one about how we would be fighting, too, if foreign troops were occupying our country. I think at least some skepticism is fairly widespread, but I have no idea how deep or broad it is.

Manan Ahmed - 7/2/2005

Thanks for this report. I am quite fascinated by the "Hajji" denomination. Will have to find out how it entered army parlance. Ragheads, of course, is quite mundane.

David Timothy Beito - 7/2/2005

Fascinating report. How many soldiers you spoke with support withdrawal from Iraq?

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