Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Journalists and POWs

I can still remember what the guy from Reuters looked like even though it was just a few minutes in 2003 that I saw him. We stood near the circled vehicles of the battalion headquarters looking at a group of POWs one of the companies had just brought in, somewhere still a few days south of Baghdad in the remnants of the worst sandstorm Iraq had seen in a century. The sky was still dark brown-red but our faces were no longer being scoured. They were the first I’d seen, real live Prisoners of War.

The man from Reuters, or maybe it was the AP, was a skinny white guy in his late twenties or early thirties with sandy blond hair, wearing khaki pants and a white t-shirt under his kevlar vest. He'd been with our unit for a few days and I was curious about him, and he was standing near the POWs when I wandered up to them so I approached him. He asked me questions about the war, about my feelings towards it, towards being there. I wanted to feel validated, intelligent. I wanted him to see me as more than just some dumb grunt, so I tried to win him over with my knowledge of the situation. I told him that I couldn’t understand how we ended up here on such flimsy evidence. I can see now that a part of me felt a bit crazy in that confusion . My understanding of reality up until then had informed me that our government did things on the up and up, and that we wouldn’t invade a foreign country unless it were a real and significant risk to national security. But the evidence that had been presented in making that case didn’t feel convincing or compelling enough to justify a war, and yet there we were, in that sandstorm in the middle of Iraq, and it was a little bit insane, and I wanted this college-educated reporter to validate me on that. In some ways I felt more closely aligned with him than the soldiers around me who weren’t questioning, who were just going along and following orders. Of course, truth be told, I was going along and following orders too, I was just bewildered by the whole thing. Maybe I wanted this guy to explain it to me, but I think he was just as confused as I was.

It was among the most surreal moments of my life. In the middle of the desert at war, the sky darkened by floating dust particles that filtered out all hues of blue or green, a man from the international press beside me and some POWs just right over there. I was surrounded by people who didn’t feel like people. The journalist wasn’t just some dude, he was a conduit to the world, and my words might pass through that conduit. Did they? I have no idea. The POWs weren’t just dudes either, they were men that had been fighting us and now were our prisoners. We had to take care of them, but also we sort of hated them. The Iraqi soldiers had killed some of us by that point.

At a lull in the conversation I walked from the reporter up to the POWs, getting right up in the face of one of them. I stared at him, wanting to be intimidating. I snarled at him with my sunglasses on as I smoked my cigarette less than a foot from his face. I was surprised to see something like humanity in him—he was young, 18 or 19, soft looking and scared, with no idea what was going to happen to him, surrounded by American armored vehicles and with an American Staff Sergeant in his face trying to intimidate him. Even though I hadn't believed the war necessary, I'd still dehumanized the enemy, yet there he was. A trembling kid, standing arms bound behind him in flex-cuffs with a few of his buddies. Or maybe they didn’t know each other, but it just seemed that way because their skin color was the same different than mine. I backed away and, less intimidated myself, set aside the intimidation pose, but stayed looking at them, more curious now, like viewing animals in the zoo.

In the moments that followed I mostly felt confusion. What do we do with them? In our custody now, we were responsible for housing them, feeding them, giving them medical treatment, and keeping them safe, even though they were maybe trying to kill us just hours or days before. Almost six years in the army by that point, I’d spent untold hours, weeks, months in training, out in the field, studying, sitting in classes on tactics, maneuvers, skills, weapons, etc., but no one had ever once said what was to be done with POWs. Their existence was a sort of overwhelming uncertainty as I stood there before them, though I eventually realized that someone must know, someone must have realized that there would be POWs taken, that we would have to take care of them, and I wondered what the plan was.

Because we were still an invading army. We hadn’t yet made it to Baghdad. Saddam was still in power, and now, with who knows how many tens or hundred miles left to go, we have POWs to babysit. What the fuck do we do with these men? A thought had gone through my mind before I walked up to them, before I saw their humanity, it would’ve been a lot easier if we’d just shot them, but now it was clearer that of course you can’t do that. No, now their lives were our responsibility, like pets, and either we’d have to bring them with us somehow, I thought, or leave men behind to guard them. Who’s trucks would they ride in? Not mine! Or how would we link back up with the men who stayed behind? I shook my head. Not my problem to solve, maybe there's an MP unit that knows what to do and will take them off our hands for us.

As I turned, starting to head back towards the familiarity and relative certainty of my truck, my team, and my mission, the reporter asked, “What do you think about them?”
“Fuckin’ crazy shit, man,” I said, and walked away.

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