Followup on Tal Afar

by Kieran Healy on February 22, 2005

More correspondence, this time from a soldier stationed in Iraq who saw my “recent post”: about the terrible shooting in Tal Afar. I reproduce the post below the fold. I should say that I can’t verify the identify of my correspondent, but I have no reason to doubt what he says about himself.

Before I even start to explain my motives for writing I must say that I am very left leaning, and completely opposed to the war in Iraq.  However I am a member of the United States Army, a signal soldier.  I did not join because of my extremist national pride, nor because of the fervor surrounding our post 9-11 nation.  I am now an enlisted soldier because after High School I was denied scholarships due to the fact that my family’s income wasn’t in a low enough tax bracket and my father wanted me to appreciate the struggle involved in supporting one’s own education.  That ought to be a sufficient background for you.

At present time I am stationed in Iraq, this is my second tour, I was here for the ground war.  As I said before I don’t agree with this, but I must fulfill my obligations in order to eschew incarceration and enjoy the full benefits of a decent education.  It is without a doubt a horrific thing when children are torn from their parents and siblings due to war, and it is absolutely unjust if this occurs due to a twitchy trigger finger.  However, as the front gunner (the soldier manning the front .50 caliber machine gun on the front of all convoys), I realize that at times we must do what we abhore (or is it sans “e”) the most.  At every chance I get I wave people off the rode at wait till the last minute to even fire a warning shot (although I must admit this happens quite often), and unless it is under the most dire circumstances will I fire upon another human being (which I have not yet done).  It is my belief that the s oldiers in Tal Afar were doing what was right. If in fact the soldiers in Tel Afar properly escalated their use of force, from hand signals, to pointing their weapon, then firing warning shots, and the car still continued, then the final step was to engage and kill the driver of the vehicle.  As terrible as that sounds, the car could have been a VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device) instead of a family, and that would have led to several dead and wounded soldiers.  From my point of view when it comes down to the wire, regardless of all my political and moral standards I feel it necessary to respond in a manner that will protect the lives of those around me as well as my own. 

This is not a justification for war, nor a seal of approval for all actions taking place in Iraq.  It is merely meant to shed some light upon the actions taken by the soldiers in Tal Afar, if in fact the story we have been given is correct and unadultered.  As a soldier, working along side soldiers, I felt it my responsibility to share my opinion with you.  Not all of us are morally or ethically unsound, nor without hearts, some of us here are just trying to make it out alive.

As I said in reply, I posted about this because it was such a terrible accident, not because I wanted to single those particular soldiers out for blame. I certainly don’t want to condemn the soldiers serving in Iraq in general. Events like this happen in war zones even when everybody follows the rules — which is one of the reasons, I think, why the present administration should be condemned for committing its forces to Iraq under the circumstances they did.



jet 02.22.05 at 2:05 am

I always wonder how people make it into the military with attitudes like “…but I must fulfill my obligations in order to eschew incarceration and enjoy the full benefits of a decent education.” Can taking out school loans and working part time be worse than risking your life and sanity in a war you don’t believe in?

But otherwise that was a great response. If that was really from an enlisted soldier, he writes better than most college grads. And certainly made a compelling explanation for the underling circumstances of those pictures that made you want to cry.

Either way, I hope he makes it home safe and uses the hell out of his GI Bill studying physics, poetry, or chasing skirt.


John Emerson 02.22.05 at 2:39 am

I opposed the war from the beginning, but nothing that has happened since has increased my opposition. You know that bad things will happen in wars, which is why you oppose them except as a last resort. (Abu Ghraib was probably avoidable, but Bush signalled his intention of doing that kind of thing very early, and people like Dershowitz egged him on.) The occupation is actually less messy than I expected.

The soldier’s response is typical of non-pacifists in the military who believe that their obligations must be honored. He knew from the start that he wouldn’t be able to pick and choose what he did once he was in. His opposition to the war presumably doesn’t rise to the level of believing that it’s a criminal war requiring opposition at any cost.

The use of material incentives, which are often rather paltry, to fill the military strikes me as problematic in the long run. People who gamble on no war are screwed when war does come.


Kieran 02.22.05 at 2:56 am

he writes better than most college grads

Yeah, I know. He doesn’t sound like he needs a college education.


John Emerson 02.22.05 at 3:24 am

Writing seems to be, in part, a knack. I have a young friend who did poorly in HS, has never been to college, and doesn’t read much, but he writes very well. Basically all you have to do is get him to drop some bad habits, such as wisecracks and cliches.


jodm 02.22.05 at 5:59 am

While I feel sorry for this person for being somewhat anti-war and yet having to fulfill his “obligations” to murder and oppress, this statement reeks of typical westerner superiority. Somehow the life of him and his buddies is superior to that of the average car full of people. I know if my family and I were driving along and an invading stormtrooper started yelling in a language I don’t understand, and waving his weapon around, I’d probabably panic and try to get out of there as fast as I could.

If the person who submitted this response is reading these comments: you are not opposed to the war. You are opposed to missing out on the finer things in life. And that makes you a monster.


MFB 02.22.05 at 6:35 am

Well, if you’re a soldier with a gun and people are trying to kill you, you are liable to shoot. And if you are operating in an environment full of civilians, a lot of civilians are going to get killed.

I don’t think it’s Western superiority; I think it’s self-preservation.


Mill 02.22.05 at 6:43 am

Well, yeah, jodm, he does care more about his buddies than random folks in a car who were acting in a way indistinguishable from suicidal terrorists. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. All of us value the lives of those we are closer to than the lives of those we are not. You, for instance, don’t really care in any meaningful way about all the people who could be helped if you gave up the obviously cushy existence that allows you to post comments on blogs, and instead went to work as a nurse in Africa or something. And I’m the same, if not worse.

It’s just that an actual shooting is more graphic and direct, so it allows the middle class to tut-tut over it. After they see it on their big plasma screen.

The solution is clearly to end war. That way, we can ALL pretend that our choices don’t harm anyone else on the planet. Ignorance is bliss!

Responding to an earlier comment: it’s not that weird to prefer risking one’s life to getting saddled with college debt, especially if you want to study something that won’t pay off big afterwards, and especially especially if you’re young and don’t really take the threat of death of seriously.


andrew 02.22.05 at 7:48 am

What mill said. Every word.


andrew 02.22.05 at 7:52 am

Except the last ‘of.’ I can’t abide that.


robbo 02.22.05 at 1:09 pm

No, sorry, deciding to fight wars for George Bush — or just signing up for the military hoping against reason that George Bush won’t put you into battle — is not morally equivalent to taking out student loans and working part-time. Many people manage the latter. My wife, for example.

And opposing war really has nothing to do with being middle class and tut-tutting what’s on a plasma screen. What a presumptive argument. It’s appalling that so many people find ways to come off like they’re more honest or pragmatic by offering rationales for why America must kick the shit out of some Third World country every few years. We don’t even try to imagine what could be done with the hundreds of billions of dollars and the hundreds of thousands of lives we devote to “defense” each year. That is to say, the military-industrial complex has us right where they want us.

A country full of scared people trying to act tough. Sad little cheerleaders.


abb1 02.22.05 at 1:40 pm

Killing a bunch of people for a decent education, huh. That’s a new one to me; why not just rob a bank then, it would seem a bit more efficient and honest.

On the other hand, once you found yourself in this situation, you’ll do what you have to do to survive, no question about that.


Philboid Studge 02.22.05 at 1:59 pm

I can’t stomach the argument of people who claim they are “really” in the military for some higher motive. Higher education? Right, there’s no other way to get through college. I suppose one could get a job, take out a loan …? Nah, let’s sign on to follow orders without question, even if those orders require us to kill strangers — then whine about how we had no “choice.” Why should I support the troops again?


jet 02.22.05 at 2:15 pm

Several of you are being extremely harsh on this soldier. What if he signed up in the Summer of 2001. George Bush ran on a platform to be less interventionist than Clinton, so it would have made sense that joining the military under Bush would have been safer than joining under Clinton. Or what if he joined before the Iraq invasion looked like a certainty? Afghanistan certainly had fewer critiques than any war I can think of.

Robbo writes
“It’s appalling that so many people find ways to come off like they’re more honest or pragmatic by offering rationales for why America must kick the shit out of some Third World country every few years.” Are people offering rationales for invading Afghanistan and Iraq that differ from the arguments used in the national debate? Are you offering “rationales” for why they are wrong? Are you implying they are making excuses instead of coming to decisions through rational deduction? Or would you claim that no opinion but yours can be reached by a sane thoughtful mind? If you came here to change minds or add to the debate, your kung-fu is weak. “A country full of scared people trying to act tough. Sad little cheerleaders.” Very weak.

And for once, I agree with Abb1. It is incomprehensible to me to join the military for the sole purpose of having your education paid for.


tina 02.22.05 at 2:15 pm

Right, there’s no other way to get through college. I suppose one could get a job, take out a loan …? Nah, let’s sign on to follow orders without question, even if those orders require us to kill strangers — then whine about how we had no “choice.”

This attitude is not only annoying, but also quite ignorant. Federally subsidized student loans are very stingy these days, and as the letter-writer mentioned, not all students are eligible. Expensive, unsubsidized loans are not available in unlimited amounts, either, and college tuition is rising far faster than inflation.

Working one’s way through college is simply not the same option that it was two decades ago, and it is not an option that is available to everyone.


Philboid Studge 02.22.05 at 2:21 pm

Tina: I paid off my student loan about three years ago — it hasn’t changed that frigging much since then. These people who claim to sign up for the sole purpose of getting through college are seriously deluded — and morally bankrupt. Better they should become drug dealers or hookers, frankly. Why should I support the troops again?


John Emerson 02.22.05 at 2:21 pm

I think that the soldier’s assumption was that neither war nor the American military are essentially evil, but that this war is a bad one.

I kow someone who joined the military because his alternative was hoeing crops all his life.

Entering the military for school benefits is not “a higher motive”. Just a practical one. Enpirically it’s true that young people don’t fear death, but that doesn’t make it less weird. That’s why they wreck cars, rob banks, and dabble in heroin too. Entering the wartime military for the benefits does not seem rational to me except for the poorest of the poor.


Philboid Studge 02.22.05 at 2:25 pm

I kow someone who joined the military because his alternative was hoeing crops all his life.

Hoeing crops would have been the honorable alternative. Unless he truly believes in the objectives and means of the military.


jet 02.22.05 at 2:27 pm

I don’t think that is an argument you want to make. The last 20 years have seen an incredible growth in the number of regional and community colleges. These schools offer accredited hours at far less cost than larger state schools. And there aren’t many states where can’t find a school that meets your needs at less than $100/hour. And if you can’t shoulder the burder of $100/hour loans, education just isn’t that important to you. I mean, come one, your getting a college education for less than an average car. And that is too expensive?


Clayton 02.22.05 at 3:36 pm

Like some of you, I do not want to say that somehow the goal of paying for college justifies taking up arms in a morally objectionable war.

That being said, I think it is important to keep in mind that in the not so distant past, few could have predicted that we would be engaged in a conflict such as this one. I only have one friend in Iraq at present, but he is over there because of a commitment he made years ago through the Army national reserve. This was a commitment he made during the Clinton administration. I think it is fair to say that he signed on years ago harboring the mistaken impression that he wouldn’t be called to serve in the capacity he now serves in. Was this foolish to make a deal with the Army? Yes. Were there other ways to pay for college and start a family? Yes. Nevertheless, at this point, he had to choose between deployment and desertion and I think this is what really kept him in.

It still seems to me, and I suspect that it seemed to him like this too, that this still does not constitute an excuse for deploying, but it does complicate matters a bit. I don’t know what the author’s situation was, but I think it is a bit much to liken his deployment to bankrobbery or drug dealing.


Mark 02.22.05 at 3:50 pm

> Better they should become drug dealers or hookers, frankly.< Holy crap. The condescending tone of moral superiority in some of the comments here is unbelievable. A lot of us on the left dislike this type of attitude when we see it in right-wing writers (eg: Free Republic, The Corner, etc.) Why is it okay for us to take this tone? I don't mean to single out Philboid Studge - much of this thread is deeply depressing.


dan hardie 02.22.05 at 3:56 pm

If any of you feel that the United States should not possess Armed Forces, then stop paying taxes – or at any rate that proportion of your taxes that goes on defence: ie, put your money where your mouths are. If you do feel that the United States should possess Armed Forces, stop sneering at a young man who joined up and who is honestly describing what is going on there.


WeSaferThemHealthier 02.22.05 at 4:11 pm


Perhaps it’s a case of mistaken (cyber) identity, but aren’t you ( or weren’t you ) in favour of Operation Iraqi Freedom? If so, what did you think making the omelette was going to imply?

Of course, that this particular event was going to happen at that location at that time couldn’t have been predicted, but it was easy to predict that in the course of OIF, something like this was going to happen. Did you not accept that when you supported OIF?

If not, then you weren’t in favour of the war as it was most likely to be concretised, you were in favour of the war as it should have been concretised if only we lived in an ideal world.

If so, stand proud and tell us: ” This is worth it.”


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 4:17 pm

If so much of this weren’t so offensive, it would be high-comedy.

First, I guarantee that, if you watched body bags and torn-up bodies of your fellow soldiers/Marines passing by even once, and then saw a car coming to checkpoint without slowing down, 99/100 people reading this site would open fire. The other 1-percent consist of saints and the terminally-depressed.

Second, unless you are a committed pacifist, there’s nothing wrong with joining the military as a kid–and for many kids, it’s like bringing a camel to water (it was for me: I was a smart-ass, 150 IQ kid from shitty, inner-ring suburban home who’d played sports, smoked pot, and listened to lots of Replacement/Clash & I left Marine Corps boot camp as an honor graduate): unless you’ve been through (especially Marine Corps, but any will do) boot camp, you have no idea how it can turn you right side up. (Side note on writing: you have to dig pretty far into the military idiot pool to break the crust of alert intelligence you will find in many young military personnel. When life and death are at stake, you learn to pay attention–and attention is half the battle of intelligence–and what strikes you as uncommon in this kid’s writing would strike you as expected competence in the Corps, where as 20-year-olds you are expected to lead, teach, lecture, etc.) As for student loans, if your parents are unwilling to cosign, and they are middle-class, you will find it very difficult to get student loans that make sense. That, combined with fact that you will have a chance to grow up a bit more before coming to college (the Marines I knew in school did MUCH better than average, and had way more fun), makes it a much better deal than those questioning it believe (there is a big shocker though: GI Bill counts against your Pell/Stafford allotment and if you are a reservist you must be on active reserve to collect your GI Bill disbursements — especially tough if, like me, you spent almost three of your six years on active duty. I left money on the table just to get out of the Corps, so take it for what it’s worth, prospective Marines).

Finally, if you have any imagination at all, you will realize that, when faced with a war you do not support while you are in service, there are many other moral vectors in play and that it’s difficult in the extreme to say, “no.” Remember: Wittgenstein fought on the wrong side in World War One and Socrates was a war hero who fell shamefully silent on the Milesian question–neither of them were morally-bankrupt idiots.


abb1 02.22.05 at 4:35 pm

The condescending tone of moral superiority in some of the comments here is unbelievable.

atrocities have been committed in Iraq. A guy writes a letter defending his position in respect to his and his comrades participation in these atrocities. He explains but doesn’t show much regret; he’s doing it to eschew incarceration and enjoy the full benefits of a decent education. I think the ‘enjoy the full benefits of a decent education‘ part is a bit objectionable, wouldn’t you agree? Why would it be condescending to point it out?


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 4:45 pm


First, I don’t think the kid is defending the atrocities — struck me, in fact, as finding them atrocious. What he was trying to do was put a frame around the pictures you see — to give them a rich, lived moral context. To scorn him is, in fact, not only condescending but wrong. Even if, as I do, you oppose the war and think that the military-industrial complex could use some serious core ideology revision and much greater democratic oversight, to blame someone for the position they find themselves, per se, is silly — to call them a “monster” is cruel, ridiculous, and stupid (yes, you jodm). Now, if he had said, or meant, “What’s offing a few ragheads if it pays for my college?” then it would be open season on his own cupidity/inhumanity…


Philboid Studge 02.22.05 at 4:53 pm

Gosh, Mark. I don’t mind you singling me out, but it would have been nice to read some form of rebuttal at least, rather than just a tsk-tsk at the supposed “condescending tone of moral superiority.” Tell me how a gun-for-hire is morally superior to a prostitute, assuming the goals in either case is financial? I know drug dealers personally who do not sell to minors and are disconnected completely from organized crime. How are they worse than someone agreeing to kill other people because that’s the best way he can imagine paying for his education?

Why should we support the troops again?


maurinsky 02.22.05 at 4:54 pm

abb1, I don’t think the writer’s letter was objectionable at any point. The military can offer a lot of benefits aside from paying for one’s education – my brother-in-law probably would have ended up in jail if he hadn’t joined the military, which straightened him right out. I am opposed to this war, and I don’t like war in general, but I don’t think his motives for joining the military are spurious. This soldier has a difficult enough job serving under a CIC as inept as Bush, I don’t think he really needs someone sitting safely stateside telling him how wrong he is to serve, and how he should just go into debt if he wants to go to college.


MQ 02.22.05 at 4:56 pm

It’s simply not fair to blame young people trying to preserve their own lives under fire for the consequences of Bush’s policies. The death of innocents is the entirely predictable consequence of “unleashing the dogs of war”; you can’t make the front line soldiers who are actually in the toughest position of all responsible for getting rid of all those consequences for you. THe morally culpable people are the leaders who got us into an unnecessary war and then horribly mismanaged it to boot. At the same time we can’t let “supporting the troops” stop us from highlighting the steady flow of atrocities like Tal Afar. They are the best way to help people see through the stupidity of the “hey, Saddam was bad, so war is good” arguments from the right.

As for joining the military…in the decade before Iraq the U.S. military had been used in lots of humanitarian interventions and justifiable/rational wars (e.g. Afghanistan). A young person might make a perfectly reasonable bet that this pattern would continue. Also, frankly I think it would be a very bad thing for the future of the left if only right-wing people went into the military. It’s a critical social institution, we need people on our side who understand it well.

So I support that kid, although I hope he thinks long and hard (and ethically) about the reality of what he is seeing in Iraq. Beyond just what he has to do to preserve his own skin.


Dan Hardie 02.22.05 at 5:12 pm

Abb1: ‘A guy writes a letter defending his position in respect to his and his comrades participation in these atrocities.’

You lying muppet: what he actually said was ‘At every chance I get I wave people off the rode at wait till the last minute to even fire a warning shot (although I must admit this happens quite often), and unless it is under the most dire circumstances will I fire upon another human being (which I have not yet done).’

It’s quite clear that the guy hasn’t committed atrocities and is trying his damndest to act as decently as possible towards civilians under life-threatening circumstances: and here you are insulting him. Just stop posting and have a word with yourself, because you are losing your decency here.

Joel, you may not believe this but the British Army and Royal Marines don’t have *any* equivalent to the GI Bill at all; just a ‘resettlement’ package which adds up to nothing for those guys (the majority) who spend only three or six years in. Guys who have been in, say, the Royal Signals or Royal Engineers do very well for themselves on the whole because they get an excellent technical education; Paras and infantry have unskilled manual labour or the security industry to choose from, and a lot of them find civilian life very hard to cope with. If anyone in the UK gave a stuff about the military, this would be regarded as a national scandal- every time there is a survey of the homeless in London, it turns out that a high percentage are ex-Forces.


Anderson 02.22.05 at 5:21 pm

Killing the parents in the Tal Afar incident was not an “atrocity,” if by that abb1 has the usual meaing of moral blame attaching to the soldiers.

It was a horrible, haunting example of the FUBAR kind of shit that happens every week in any war. Which is why decent governments don’t start wars unless they have to. Which is why the U.S.’s government is not a decent one.

But to seriously suggest that what the soldiers did, on the facts we have, was wrong, is contemptible. And I write as someone permanently haunted by the little just-orphaned boy in those photographs, one of thousands of children we’ve orphaned over there, in our bogus war. It’s not the soldiers’ fault, and I really wish that every commenter on this thread who thinks otherwise could be drafted into street duty in Mosul.


Philboid Studge 02.22.05 at 5:24 pm

Somewhere in the area of 100,000 innocent Iraqi citizens have died at the hands of American soldiers. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to put at least some of the responsibility on the soldiers themselves. They did volunteer for this sort of thing after all. “They’re just following orders,” though, right? Hmm…Where have we heard that before?


abb1 02.22.05 at 5:27 pm

The guy says that he is completely opposed to the war in Iraq. I take it as that as far as he is concerned, being there and killing people there is unjustified in general.

I don’t have a problem with him staying there to avoid incarceration. I don’t have a problem with him trying to do whatever he needs to do to get out of there alive. I would do the same.

But to do it to enjoy the full benefits of a decent education – that is: not enlisting back in 2001 in order to enjoy the benefits, but being there now in order to enjoy the benefits – I find a bit unseemly.

Is this really so arrogant on my part?


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 5:30 pm

Dan –

I remember the Royal Marines very well — and was very impressed by the fact that they were sleeping in worse conditions than the US Marines (there was good business selling them cots). What I also remember, however, was our astonishment when they told us what they were paid: much higher scale than US forces. As for homelessness, etcetera — unquestionably, this is true for all soldiers/marines: as witness the difficulties our correspondent in Iraq has in getting a fair hearing here among the wise crowd at Crooked Timber (so, so aptly named w/r/t this thread).


A Hermit 02.22.05 at 5:34 pm

“Events like this happen in war zones even when everybody follows the rules —- “

That’s the hear tof the matter right there. War always involves unintended consequences, usually bad ones. I don’t think one can blame the individual soldiers in an incident like that’; if you feel your life and the lives of your comrades are in danger you have to act. But even if everyone (and I’d be surprised if everyone does) in such situations waits until the last possible moment, and does all they can to avoid hurting innocents it is inevitable that sometimes they will guess wrong and kill the innocent.

That’s why it should always be viewed as the last, desperate resort and not as a useful policy tool. This is what the war fans don’t seem to appreciate. War always creates tragedies, no matter how good the intentions or how noble the cause. To enter into a war which is not absolutely unavoidable is a terrible crime.


WeSaferThemHealthier 02.22.05 at 5:52 pm


While I’m not sure how much this particular soldier can be blamed or if soldiers serving in Iraq right now are deserving of much blame, I do wonder when they could be blamed.

Generally, if soldiers are deserving of praise when things go well, should they not deserve blame when things go badly? Right now, it seems that soldiers are bear responsibility if and only if things go well. When things go badly, it’s the politicians’, the media’s, the academics’ fault. I realise that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan but could you indicate just what the conditions for praise/blame are when it comes to soldiers.

Do you think that there are ( looser ) conditions under which soldiers can be praised and ( stricter ) conditions under which they may be blamed?


a different chris 02.22.05 at 6:07 pm

>No, sorry, deciding to fight wars for George Bush

I’m sorry, but I almost *voted* for George W. Bush. And I can’t imagine the the direction, magnitude and number of, as Joel Turnipseed put it, “moral vectors” this guy has to deal with.

Our strength and weakness as liberals (as opposed to Leftists)is our habit of never being 100% convinced of and absolute truth. If I was this kid, I see me arriving at exactly the same state he is in – putting down my gun has serious moral implications too. Start with breaking the mutual “got your back” bond with your comrades, and go to the point of “what if I’m wrong, or what if this war was wrong but we can’t turn back” &etc.

Kerry was written up for 20 kills in ‘Nam and he came back and helped (or singlehandedly if you can believe the wingnut fantasies) put paid to the whole adventure. If he had just spent his time there avoiding combat he could never have done that.

Joel, I do disagree with this strongly: “as witness the difficulties our correspondent in Iraq has in getting a fair hearing here among the wise crowd”.

This IS a “fair hearing” – because it presents many different interpretations and forces the participants to support or knock down each one. We won’t arrive, like a jury, at a final truth here, but this is the proper way to evaluate him. If the thread just consisted of your comments and my “attaboy” (because I agree with you 100%), what the hell would that be?


John Emerson 02.22.05 at 6:14 pm

One of the salient facts about American life is that poverty is punished worse than evil is. Hoeing onions may be honorable, but it’s very low-paid and your kids don’t get educated because you move several times a year.

I’d like to see an overview, but everything I know tells me that education has become increasingly harder to finance over the last two decades.

In every argument of this type I’ve ever had, there’s someone who says “I did it; why can’t everyone do it?” For me to take that type of self-centered anecdotal evidence seriously, I’d have to see a lot of details.

From a non-pacifist, non- anti- American point of view, I thought that the guy’s letter was pretty sensible. He probably shouldn’t have said “totally” opposed, since that may be read to imply that he means that it is a criminal genocidal Nazi war. you can be pretty strongly opposed without thinking that.


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 6:17 pm

wesaferthemhealthier (uh, no doubt the latter, but the former is of some questioniable status),

I’m not looking to write a second book about war, but here’s what I think: war is wrong, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances happen, and so all societies train their young men (and, frequently, women) to be warriors. Warriors, once trained, are committed to their countries, each other, and to their own conception of themselves as warriors (to name just three of many other constituents). Not only are they committed to these things, they are part of them (I take a very deep view of Aristotle’s “politikon zoon” – and the attendant “body politic,” the best exemplar of which relation was Socrates’ sacrifice in the Apology). Which is to say, we not only wear the uniform of our country, but the country wears us.

This being the case, each act of war is incredibly complicated, and each atrocity of war carries in its anguish many moral tensions. Blame exists, unquestionably, but that blame is shared by several corporate organisms of which we are part (including those whose wronging ascribes us that blame). To tease apart the specifics is to tease apart both society and the self… and should be done w/greatest generosity & imagination possible if we want to avoid becoming horrible charicatures and, to the extent that we destroy the framework for what makes a good life good, destructive monsters ourselves.

(on preview: chris — of course, should have said, “among some of us here.”)


John Emerson 02.22.05 at 6:26 pm

Shame on you, different chris, even for “almost”.


jet 02.22.05 at 6:31 pm

Philboid Studge pulled this out of his ass: “Somewhere in the area of 100,000 innocent Iraqi citizens have died at the hands of American soldiers.”

Your propoganda is lame. That 100,000 number wasn’t attributed to just US soldiers. That was part of a range of total estimated civilian casulties. And since it is the insurgents who are going out of their way to target civilians, you’d be hard pressed to claim American Soldiers were even responsible for a majority. So, yes, your bullshit was detected.


WeSaferThemHealthier 02.22.05 at 6:38 pm


Would you apply that to other countries’ soldiers in other wars?

Reading you post, I saw that one should have a debonnaire attitude towards judging soldiers but I didn’t see even a rough standard.

Praise and blame often looks like this:
Soldiers participated in this war. This war gave ( overall ) good results: It’s really the soldiers we have to thank.

Soldiers participated in this war. This war gave ( overall ) bad resutls. Soldiers had nothing to do with this.

There is a point where generosity and accontability cannot be reconciled. That’s the point I’m asking about.


dan hardie 02.22.05 at 6:43 pm

A different Chris: people are putting this serviceman down as the moral equivalent of a ‘hooker or a drug dealer’ (philboid), putting words into his mouth (abb1): I think they’ve behaved disgracefully. My apologies and respect to the guy himself, if he reads this.

Joel: I think that UK pay is a bit higher, but US benefits (food, living quarters, etc) are incomparably better. There is no UK equivalent to the cheap goods that you get in PXs in the US bases: just NAAFI shops where you get a small range of goods (chiefly chocolate and an immense quantity of porn) at pretty much the same prices you would pay in a civilian shop. The worst food I have ever eaten in my life was at Catterick School of Infantry. From what I’ve seen, the British Army does quite a good job of looking after its long-service NCOs when they retire, but a bad job of setting something up for the poorly-educated 21-year-olds who leave it every year. Do you think that the GI bill works well for those US servicemen who leave after a few years? Or is it like the UK- guys with technical qualifications get good civvy jobs, infantrymen have big problems?

Philboid, you’re a liar and a moron:The Lancet survey, which has been extensively debated here, did not come close to saying ‘100,000 innocent Iraqi citizens have died at the hands of American soldiers’.The 100,000 figure is for likely excess deaths, including casualties from all sources plus rises in the death rate from disease, medicine and electricity shortages, etc.

“They’re just following orders,” though, right? Hmm…Where have we heard that before?’Okay, Philboid, anyone who wears or has worn military uniform is Eichmann, since, after all, we ‘only obey orders’. Everyone who disagrees with you, everyone whom you dislike, is a Nazi. Nazi, nazi, nazi. If idiots like you, and Ken Livingstone, and the joke President of Ireland- the professional victim Mary McAleese- have their way, we may as well all agree that the use of Nazism as a source of historical reference is entirely worthless.


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 6:48 pm

… and my answer is: it takes generosity to understand how much any act of war destroys the actor as well as those acted upon; how much the moral questioner of that actor shares in that blame; that to even ask moral questions of those in wars (or, really, any moral question), in a non-cheap, non-destructive way, must be done w/tremendous concern for the fact that there is no such thing as a purely individual self and that moral autonomy is a matter of degree (and is like sine of angle of accord with society over self). Your two examples of judgement should never occur, on my view, and accountability is not possible without generosity (go ask a homeless vet about the source of his greatest anger & frustration).


Michael 02.22.05 at 6:50 pm

You know, abb1, philboid, if some guy writes a letter to say that he’s fighting, not by choice, in a guerilla war in which civilians are routinely killed as an inevitable consequence of insurgent tactics, and that he deals with it by doing everything he can not to kill civilians short of the point where he’s likely to be killed himself—well, my first reaction is not to shout, You monster! at him.

I loathe this war—any war—about as much as anybody. One of the many reasons I loathe it is that it places fundamentally decent people in positions in which self-preservation forces them to do awful things—and encourages by reaction a moral degeneration in them, simply out of the need to maintain psychological integrity by not facing up to the full measure of what they’ve done. This writer, thank God, seems to have escaped that moral degeneration, so far, and for that one has to wish him the best.

The question of whether, and how, soldiers deserve blame is in many respects (short of the deliberate commission of war crimes) a false one, anyway. Ask yourselves the political question: Do you want this correspondent, and the others in the military like him, on your side or not? It may give you a fine glow of self-righteousness to condemn him: but a genuinely Left response to this letter would note the class issues it raises (funny how the blame-the-troops “Left” feel entitled to declare those issues nugatory) and find a way, simply as a practical matter, to be in solidarity with the guy.


abb1 02.22.05 at 7:00 pm

…putting words into his mouth (abb1)…

I protest: I where did I do that?

I quoted:

Before I even start to explain my motives for writing I must say that I am very left leaning, and completely opposed to the war in Iraq.


At present time I am stationed in Iraq, this is my second tour, I was here for the ground war. As I said before I don’t agree with this, but I must fulfill my obligations in order to eschew incarceration and enjoy the full benefits of a decent education.

These are exact quotes in the right context. What are talking about, Dan Hardie?


dan hardie 02.22.05 at 7:05 pm

Abb1, you wrote: ‘A guy writes a letter defending his position in respect to his and his comrades participation in these atrocities.’

There is not one (1) sentence, phrase or word in the letter from the serviceman in Iraq in which he says that he or his comrades have ‘participat(ed) in these atrocities’. You put words into his mouth. Clear enough for you?


joel turnipseed 02.22.05 at 7:10 pm


the form of his argument was:

if Dx –> Jx & Lx

where model is:

if I desert, then I go to jail and lose benefits

your complaint rests on his having made, and you quoted him partially as having done so, the argument:

if desert, then lose benefits

The conjunction of the consquent matters & I’d say there’s a certain lack of charity in ignoring that… especially when others are calling him a foolish monster.


dan hardie 02.22.05 at 7:20 pm

Joel, my main point was that Abb1 gave a grossly inaccurate summary when he said ‘‘A guy writes a letter defending his position in respect to his and his comrades participation in these atrocities.’ The guy did indeed offer a defence of the Tal Afar shootings, as probably justified (like him, I’d say they were justified, if horrible, if the troops did everything they could to stop an oncoming vehicle). There is no conceivable way that the guy said he or his mates had ‘participated in these (or any) atrocities’. That was flat-out misrepresentation by Abb1.


abb1 02.22.05 at 7:36 pm

OK, Dan, fair enough. Instead of ‘atrocities’ I should’ve called it ‘the terrible shooting in Tal Afar‘, because Tal Afar is exactly what this letter is defending/explaining.

Now, I don’t want to type too much here and I already said a few times that individual soldiers certainly should defend themselves as they see fit; however, please consider that invading a country and then killing people there (even in self-defense) is still an atrocity on the great scale of things. And these soldiers who kill people in self-defense do participate in these atrocities. Yes, it’s not their fault to the extent that they are forced to be there, but it certainly is their fault if they understand it but still are staying there for the money. That’s all there is to it.


abb1 02.22.05 at 7:44 pm

OK, Joel, whatever. He didn’t have to mention the benefits of a decent education as a reason, and that’s the only line I have a problem with. Not a big deal, forget it.


Donald Johnson 02.23.05 at 12:27 am

Okay, I wasn’t going to object to Jet’s comment on the Lancet piece–it gives an estimate of 100,000 excess deaths (taking the mid-range value) and you really can’t use the data in the study to come up with a precise breakdown on who is doing the killing. But then Dan Hardie jumps in and says it is complete BS to say 100,000 deaths at the hands of US soldiers. Well, sorry, but that’s a possibility. Taking the Lancet mid-range number (which excluded the Fallujah sample), you have 100,000 deaths, 60,000 from violence and a large fraction of those from Americans. Now include the Fallujah sample. You can’t say for certain what that represents, except that in a sample of 32 neighborhoods there was one where around 20 percent of the civilians died. So it is possible that the death toll is well over 100,000 and possible that the majority were caused by Americans.
And careful targeting by Americans, my rear end. Pentagon officials were quoted in the NYT some months back saying that there was a bright side to collateral damage. There’s virtually no American coverage of what our bombs are doing–Seymour Hersh said the bombing rates went up every month from June or July to November last year, but who or what are they hitting? God knows.

So anyway, the Lancet study did say that the death toll in Iraq might be well above 100,000, and that many of these deaths were women and children and it it is entirely possible that the vast majority were from American bombs. Whether that is correct or not is another question.

As for the debate about the soldier, I don’t feel like I can judge him. That’s not to say that he might not be wrong–I just don’t think I’d be any better in his shoes. Quite possibly worse, in fact–I might shoot up cars on less provocation if I was scared enough. or perhaps more likely, just freeze up or fall over in a dead faint. It doesn’t sound like he’s done enough to oppose the war, but with more advantages, neither have I.


robbo 02.23.05 at 1:24 am

The soldier who wrote the letter seems to be an extremely diligent, competent, humane, and respectable human being. I’m not questioning any of that. I believe that most soldiers are, in fact, very good people. But I don’t support the fact that my country now spends about $421 billion a year, plus whatever this war costs on top of that, to turn these fine people into the type of casualty described by Joel Turnipseed.

Joel wrote:

it takes generosity to understand how much any act of war destroys the actor as well as those acted upon.

Sorry if it’s not clear, but this is precisely what I try to understand. It’s what I find incredibly frustrating about our country’s insistence that the Soldier represents the unquestionable epitome of manhood, decency, and the American way. Yes, we need a military, but will anyone who’s arguing against me agree that the American military has grown far beyond the level that every other country spends to defend themselves against outside aggression? Last I checked, our military spending amounts to about what the rest of the world spends, combined. That’s quite simply out of control.

Yes, I know people whose best choice in life has been to enter the military. My father, for example. The thing is, he went to great lengths to disabuse me of the all-pervading notion that becoming a soldier is the most fine and noble thing a young person can do. And now as a middle-aged person, I firmly believe he was right. That’s right, he was a soldier, and in American society nobody questions a soldier, right?

I’ll hold my viewpoint in the face of people like “jet” who think my “kung-fu is weak.” Whatever you say, my friend. Just keep ridiculing all voices of dissent and keep encouraging those young people to “be all that they can be” and join the “Army of One.” They are the sacred cows of American society whose motives and actions must never be questioned. It will be so romantic and noble when they give it all up to become the next “destroyed actor.”


andrew 02.23.05 at 6:24 am

Location, people, location.

Smug assessments of this soldier’s stance on the war would be comparable to a Swedish citizen’s assessment of an American’s stance on capitalism or the world order.

‘You’re an American citizen and you say you’re a progressive?! Ha! What nonsense! Who says you _have to_ live in the most imperialistic, war-mongering state in the world?’

The question, always, is how ethical can one afford to be in a given time and place. The posters on this thread who have chosen to ignore this fact have demonstrated a profound arrogance. And arguments which demonize a soldier – especially one who is thoughtful, articulate, and critical of the war machinery which he’s but the tiniest of cogs in – follow the same structure as those which demonize inner-city criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc. The liberals on this thread who (would) call this young man a monster demonstrate perfectly the way in which American liberalism and American conservatism are two sides of the same dirty coin (ie, the capitalist myth of individualism); little separates the two and each is reinforced by the other.


BadTux 02.23.05 at 7:31 am

First, to the people who whine that this soldier shouldn’t be in Iraq: It wasn’t his choice. It was your choice. Now I hear you saying, “But I didn’t send him to Iraq!”. Yes you did. Yes you did. You did, and I did, and your neighbor did, all of us did. We are pathetic, overfed, lazy, jerks who pound on keyboards and think that means something, but not a single one of us has the guts to put our bodies on the line to end this war. We could end this war, all of us, if we had the guts. If 2,000,000 people descended on Washington D.C., and stood in the streets around the White House, just stood there, day after day, week after week, month after month, if after each person gets beat down by a cop gets replaced by another person, this war would end. This war would end. The people of America will not hold for Americans being shot down in cold blood in the streets by soldiers in tanks. But we don’t have the courage. We don’t have the courage of Ukrainians who stood out in the streets in cold and snow to protest a stolen election. We don’t have the courage of the Serbians who braved death every day to protest the Butcher of the Balkans until the day he was forced to leave. We’re a bunch of apathetic fools who make brave sounds but are, in the end, a bunch of gutless cowards, afraid to risk all for what we know is right. And we get the nation we deserve.

If you are going to look for the person responsible for atrocities in Iraq, look in the mirror.

But you won’t. I know you won’t. Because other than a few moments of utter honesty, I don’t either. So we blame the victims. So we blame the victims. We are truly pathetic.

– Badtux the Irate Penguin


abb1 02.23.05 at 8:39 am

And arguments which demonize a soldier […] follow the same structure as those which demonize inner-city criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, etc.

I have never seen anyone glamorizing inner-city criminals, drug addicts or prostitutes. Never heard anyone calling hookers brave, honorable, admirable and so on.

If everyone around me started calling them that, I might’ve switched to doing a little demonizing myself.


dan hardie 02.23.05 at 10:14 am

Shorter Donald Johnson: The Lancet study does indeed prove that US troops may have killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians, so long as one entirely ignores what the authors of the study actually said about Fallujah and attributes to them the desire to reach entirely false conclusions.

Shorter Abb1: Did I insult a young man in Iraq who is behaving bravely and honourably? Not a big deal, forget it. If I feel so morally superior to everyone, it’s because I hold myself to such high standards.


abb1 02.23.05 at 11:12 am

No, Dan, I don’t feel superior and I don’t think criticizing a soldier for citing one of the reasons for participating in a war he’s completely opposed to as enjoying the benfits of a decent education – I don’t think by criticizing him I’m holding him to such a high standard. I think it’s a quite reasonable standard. I am sorry you feel this way.

Also, we don’t know if he’s ‘behaving bravely and honourably’ or even if this person exists at all; this is just a letter someone wrote. So, maybe you should just stop fantasizing and cool off a bit.


Darren 02.23.05 at 11:56 am

A chap called John Allen Paulos in his book Once Upon A Number makes the throw away comment: “freedom of expression should not be measured by how likely the average person is to be silenced but, by how likely someone with something to say is.”

If this is the case, isn’t the story at the beginning of this thread just a distraction?


dan hardie 02.23.05 at 12:44 pm

Abb1: ‘we don’t know if he’s ‘behaving bravely and honourably’

Soldier in Iraq:’At every chance I get I wave people off the rode at wait till the last minute to even fire a warning shot (although I must admit this happens quite often), and unless it is under the most dire circumstances will I fire upon another human being (which I have not yet done).’

So I’d say he was behaving bravely and honourably. Oh, what’s that you say? Having posted half a dozen comments reproving him for this that and the other you don’t think he exists? If anybody has a spare straw, Abb1 would like to clutch it.


abb1 02.23.05 at 1:13 pm

Well, the way I see it, I am criticizing a motive/rationalization expressed in the letter and you are defending an imaginary person against my criticism by attacking me and without addressing the substance of my criticism.

So, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I am indeed an arrogant SOB. So what? Do I have a point or not?


jet 02.23.05 at 1:15 pm

Dan Hardie,
Ease up Cap, he’s just a little tyke. You keep on like that and your like to permanently injury him.


beowulf888 02.23.05 at 3:23 pm

Sorry, I don’t think you have a point. Yes, this soldier’s statement may have been poorly worded. And, yes, his motives for serving in the military may or may not be construed as selfish. But you fail to give this soldier the benefit of a doubt under circumstances that are very trying. He’s on the front line — where suicide bombers look like civilians — heck, they are civilians. No matter how unjust and FUBARed this Iraq debacle is, you are criticizing his motives, when he is the one who has to make split-second life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. I think you need to look within yourself at your own moral compass if you can’t find compassion for both the soldiers AND the victims in this incident.


abb1 02.23.05 at 4:11 pm

Well, if you read my comments again, you’ll see that I specifically – starting from the very first comment (IIRC) – specifically admitted that in respect of ‘split-second life-or-death decisions on a daily basis’ I have absolutely no problem here.

Moreover, I even accept a choice of participating in a war you are completely opposed to vs. going to jail.

But participating in a war you are completely opposed to for 100,000 bucks worth of education (even as a partial reason) I don’t accept, sorry, whether you do have to make split-second decisions and risk your life every day or not. No absolution from me, sorry.

OK, I feel much sillier than usual writing this stuff. And it’s all your fault, Dan.

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