The occupation of Iraq

As the Iraq War grinds on, we are seeing an increasing number of reports involving the torture, rape, or murder of Iraqi civilians by US soldiers. This should not surprise us. War is ruthless, cruel and dehumanizing—almost by definition. War brutalizes, and the damage it inflicts on nations penetrates deep into the social fabric of the victors as well as the losers. War does not build nations; it destroys them. Democracy and war are not compatible.


Younis Salim Khafif pleads for his life. “I am a friend,” he cries. “I am good.” The Marines shoot him anyway, along with his wife and daughters. Only 13-year-old Safa is spared, as she faints and is left for dead, covered with the blood of her mother who was trying to shield her from the bullets.

The Marines had already slaughtered the family next door. They had pumped nine bullets into 76-year-old Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali, leaving his intestines spilling out onto the floor.

Twenty-four unarmed Iraqis would be gunned down in Haditha that day, the victims of US soldiers on a rampage. Don’t look so shocked. This is war.

Good Guys

When we first invaded Iraq, public pride and optimism were sky-high. We saw ourselves as liberators and heroes whose mission was to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. Our leaders led us to expect a quick, clean “conflict,” with smart bombs and “surgical strikes” where only the “bad” guys got hurt.

While we were slapping our now-faded “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” decals on our SUVs, no one told us the occupation would last for years.

No one told us thousands of US soldiers would die, along with tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. When we were waving our flags and ignoring the warnings of some of our war-shy European allies, it did not occur to us that tragedies like Haditha and Abu Ghraib were sure to happen.

Iraqi children

But now reality has intruded on our little national fantasy. We are rediscovering the truth about war—that it is brutal, and it brutalizes both sides. Torture, rape, murder and the wholesale slaughter of innocents will always remain inherent elements of war, no matter how we may try to “civilize” it with good intentions.

When we choose this path, we must accept the horrendous destruction of human life and dignity that it inevitably brings. While caught up in the dizzying cycle of violence, of retaliation and counter-retaliation, we will find that we are not always the good guys we like to think we are.

There are no good guys in war. There may be good causes, but all participants tend toward barbarianism on the battlefield. Click To Tweet

The line between right and wrong blurs when men and nations are caught in the web of war. Some of us opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, not because we rejected the specious assertions made by the Bush administration, but because of this very fact: there is no good war.

In the logic of war, everything is acceptable except losing.

Democracy Assassins

When US Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee speaks about the danger of troops becoming “indifferent to the loss of a human life,” he is being disingenuous at best. The military mission is to kill people. Modern soldiers are trained using special techniques designed to ensure they pull the trigger when the time comes. A soldier who cannot dehumanize the “other” will not be able to perform on the battlefield.

“As military professionals, it is important that we take the time to reflect on the values that separate us from our enemies,” says Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the number-two US military officer in Iraq. The fact is, on the battlefield there isn’t much that separates us. War can turn both sides into monsters.

There is a fine line between a terrorist setting off a car bomb in a crowded marketplace and a warplane dropping 500-pound bombs on a farmhouse full of people on the supposition that some of them might be insurgents.

At its heart, war is a series of atrocities. We only hear about the ones that get media attention. Don’t blame the soldiers for atrocities. Blame war. Blame the macho politicians and militarists that continue to promote this failed institution—and its inevitable brutality—as an instrument of foreign policy.

Graffiti is scrawled across one of the now-deserted homes in Haditha: “Democracy assassinated the family that was here.” You can’t win hearts and minds with bullets and bombs.

Nation building can’t be accomplished by war, unless you plan on holding the nation together with authoritarian leadership and the instruments of violence. Functional nations require trust, dialog, compromise and mutual respect—all the things that war negates.

When the politicians try to sell us the next war, we need to stop and think carefully about the consequences before we so easily offer our support. Despite their persuasive assurances, we should understand that the success of the mission will be uncertain, its duration unpredictable, atrocities inevitable. Because this is the nature of war.

July 29, 2006

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Text on this page by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Attribution: James L. VanHise –
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