Iraq Through Night-Vision Goggles
As we digest the WikiLeaks revelations, a new book offers the soldiers' perspective.
For anybody of my generation, the term body count possesses a reek of association that will never quite be dispelled. The hideous photographs of Vietnamese corpses laid out as if after a shooting party, the brilliant reporting by men like Kevin Buckley on bloody campaigns like Operation Speedy Express (in which the announced toll unsettlingly exceeded the number of Vietcong who were even supposed to have been alive in the first place)—all this put body count on a moral level with collateral damage to mean slaughtered civilians, a euphemistic name for a filthy business.
The Pentagon learned almost too well from that disgrace, keeping figures but not releasing them, a practice that continued until very recently. But this led to an outcome that was grotesque in a different way. Since the first engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have been fed a morbid two-tone diet, consisting either of the full names of our own casualties, printed every day, or reports of actual or possible civilians who have fallen victim to our own firepower. (Variants of this menu were a) very exhaustive coverage of those episodes when psychopaths wearing our own uniform slipped their leashes; b) an impressive amount of space given to those in our ranks who became afflicted with war-related mental illnesses of a different kind; and c) acts of violence carried out by privatized forces who were employed by us and sported guns but not uniforms.)
I don't see any reason at all to object to the stress laid on the above. But it began to seem a touch surreal when wholly unconstrained by balance. Were there no Taliban or al-Qaida or Mahdi Army soldiers who found the strain too much for them, or wondered how long they could go on taking this proportion of dead and wounded, or even wondered whether what they were doing was justifiable? And why should the combats in Afghanistan and Iraq be the only conflicts in history where at least one rough measure of battlefield outcome—the comparative casualty estimates—was never to be published?
So I was interested to read recent reports from certain provinces of Afghanistan in which NATO spokesmen coolly offered numbers about the number of Taliban who had managed to get themselves martyred, together with speculation about whether this attrition had anything to do with the willingness of certain jihadist leaders to consider talking about a truce. (Of course, it's often hard to be sure of their thought processes. Sunday's New York Timesquoted a Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, justifying an assault on the U.N. compound in the city of Herat. One reason, said this eloquent envoy, was "a United Nations report that said insurgents had caused a majority of civilian attacks"! I note in passing that even the United Nations now feels some responsibility to be objective about these things.)
Objective is not the word one would select for either the aims or methods of WikiLeaks. I was interested to read that one of Julian Assange's deputies recently resigned over his decision to give the crass title "Collateral Murder" to a video from Baghdad. But no careful reading of the latest blizzard of documents could support any conclusion except that the verdict on responsibility for the murder of innocents is the same for Iraq as the United Nations' conclusion about Afghanistan.
The continuing bloodbath is chiefly the result of an obscene alliance between the goons of the previous dictatorship and the goons of a would-be-future theocratic one. From the very first day after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, without ever issuing so much as a manifesto or a bill of grievances, this criminal gang awarded itself permission to use high explosives, assassination, torture, and rape against a population that was given no moment of breathing space after three decades of war and fascism. Who can forget the main episodes, from the murder of the U.N. envoy to the attempted sabotage of the country's first-ever open election to the deliberate destruction of the Shiite holy places in Samarra and elsewhere? (The Shiites did not behave so atrociously in response, but when some of them did, as WikiLeaks unsurprisingly "reveals," they were backed by the homicidal clerical dictatorship in Iran.)
Now, unless you can make yourself believe that the doomed, imploding Saddam regime would somehow have managed a peaceful transition from itself to something else in a society that it had already maimed and ruined and traumatized, you have to consider expressing a bit of gratitude to the coalition soldiers who were able to provide some elements of that breathing space and to prevent the next regime from being worse even than the preceding one. At a time when it seemed to many people that Baghdad had already become worse than Beirut and Rwanda combined, I tentatively wrote of the coalition forces as "the militia for those who have no militia," a description that I claim the surge partially vindicated.
This week sees the publication of a truly extraordinary book, written by men who consciously thought of themselves that way. Nightcap at Dawn: Soldiers' Counterinsurgency in Iraq was collectively written by a group of highly intelligent warriors and appears under the collective byline of J.B. Walker; it is privately published with all its proceeds devoted to military families. You can shop for it here. (I should mention that I was peripherally involved in advising on its publication.) These recollections, pooled experiences, and shared sacrifices constitute the most authentic account yet produced of the Iraq battle as viewed through night-vision goggles, gun sights, meetings with tribal and clan elders, attempts to succor innocent victims and to guard voters, and much besides. Its vernacular is blunt but not crude. In the most vivid firsthand manner, it confronts the appalling difficulty of fighting an enemy to whom human life is no concern at all and to whom the opportunity to prove this every day is a boasted military advantage.
Not long ago, I read an interview with Julian Assange in which he declared his ostensibly journalistic objective to be that of "ending" the war. Most edifying. The easiest way of ending it would be for one side to cease fighting it. (That almost happened in Iraq before the surge, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida claimed control of a province or two.) I have an intuition that I know which side Assange wishes would capitulate. Call it an instinct if you like. And perhaps one day we will decide that we do not care who runs Mesopotamia or the Hindu Kush or the Khyber Pass or, indeed, how they run it. Even when that great and peaceful day dawns, we will still have to admire those of our volunteers who fought so hard to make sure that the decision was not a walkover.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of soldiers in Iraq by AFP/Getty Images.