I wonder what goes through the mind of an Iraq War veteran when someone says, “Thank you for your service.” I wonder if he ever asks himself, “What exactly am I being thanked for?”
Consider what the Bush administration did to U.S. soldiers on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bush and his people, many of whom had avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, knew that many soldiers had serious misgivings about invading Iraq. After all, neither the Iraqi people nor the Iraqi government had ever attacked the United States. In this war, U.S. soldiers were going to be the aggressors.
But American soldiers don’t like looking at themselves as aggressors. They like seeing themselves as defenders, as in defending America from attack or defending our rights and freedoms. That’s why many of them signed up after 9/11.
On the eve of the Iraq invasion, I read a newspaper article that described a Catholic soldier who was in deep consternation about whether he could kill any Iraqi, including Iraqi troops. The soldier was afraid that he would be committing a mortal sin under Catholic doctrine. I was stunned to read that a chaplain assured him that he could kill Iraqis with a clear conscience because he had the right to place his trust in his commander in chief.
What the chaplain was referring to were the pronouncements by President George W. Bush and his cohorts that said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was preparing to unleash a WMD attack on the United States, one that would entail the “mushroom clouds” that come with nuclear explosions.
Why was Bush saying that? Two reasons: He wanted to make it emotionally and psychologically easier for his troops to kill Iraqis and, two, he wanted Americans to support the invasion. Since Iraq was supposedly preparing to attack the United States with WMDs, the idea was that U.S. soldiers could now consider themselves defenders rather than aggressors. They could kill Iraqis under the belief that they were protecting America from an imminent WMD attack. And the American people could, in good conscience, “support the troops” as they invaded Iraq and began killing people (and maiming, incarcerating, and torturing them).
Bush’s strategy was highly effective. In the run-up to the invasion, I recall people saying, “The president has access to information that we don’t have. We have to place our trust in him.”
Neither the troops nor the president’s supporters wanted to believe that the president would lie to them as a way to get them to kill people and to garner support for the invasion. The mindset was: That’s what foreign officials do, not U.S. officials.
And it’s not as if there wasn’t circumstantial evidence of Bush’s duplicity. For example, recall the brutal sanctions that the U.S. government had been enforcing against Iraq for more than ten years. U.S. officials had made it clear that those sanctions, which had killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, were being enforced with one purpose: to oust Saddam Hussein, who had previously been a partner of the U.S. government, from power and install a pro-U.S. ruler in his stead.
It just didn’t occur to the troops or to many Americans that U.S. officials were using 9/11 and the false prospect of a WMD attack on Iraq to fulfill what they had failed to achieve with more than ten years of sanctions (and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children’s deaths).
What went through the minds of U.S. troops who killed people in Iraq when everyone came to the realization that there was no imminent WMD attack or even any WMDs? Indeed, what went through their minds when they realized that Bush, the Pentagon, and the CIA weren’t apologizing for their mistake but instead doubling down with an extended occupation of the country, an occupation that entailed the continuous killing of more Iraqis, under the banner of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”?
Did the troops realize that they had been manipulated into killing people who had never attacked the United States? Did they realize that they were killing people simply as part of a regime-change operation carried out by the U.S. national-security establishment?
Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and the rest of their ilk obviously believed that if soldiers could be made to believe that they were killing people justifiably, everything would be fine from a mental or psychological perspective, even if their belief was based on false and deceptive representations. In other words, tell them a lie, convince them that it’s true, and when they discover the truth after they’ve killed people, they’ll be fine because at the time they killed people, they believed that they were justified in doing so. And then, during the occupation, tell them that they’re killing people to bring freedom to Iraq (for those who weren’t killed) and they’ll continue killing with a clear conscience.
Among the most fascinating justifications that Bush and his people inculcated into the minds of U.S. soldiers was that they were “defending our freedoms” here at home when they killed people in Iraq. In fact, much of the praise that Americans heap on Iraq War veterans today is phrased in that way: “Thank you for your service.” When you ask people what they mean by that, they say, “The troops in Iraq were defending our freedoms.”
But the reality was that neither the Iraqi people nor the Iraqi government was ever threatening to take away the freedom of the American people. They were simply the victim of a violent military invasion, one that many of them resisted by force. When they shot back at the invaders and occupiers of their country, they were looked upon as the “bad guys” who were trying to take away our freedoms here at home. But the fact was that all they were doing was defending their country from an invader that had illegally invaded their country.
The human conscience is a powerful thing. While it seems as though pathological serial killers are able to kill people without any mental reservations or suffering, that clearly doesn’t apply to regular people. I would venture to say that most U.S. soldiers who invaded Iraq were regular people, not pathological murderers. That is, they were well-meaning people who thought they were serving our country and defending our freedoms when they signed up after 9/11.
Yet, notice the large number of U.S. soldiers who have returned from Iraq filled with anger, rage, frustration, violence, drug addiction, and alcoholism. Many of them have committed suicide. That’s because the human conscience is much more powerful than lies and deceptions that public officials placed in the minds of the troops.
But who wants to confront that reality? It’s easier to continue living the life of the lie, thanking the troops for their service and having them respond, “You’re welcome” than it is to confront the fact that the troops, under mindsets based on lies and deceptions fed to them by U.S. officials, killed people who they had no right to kill and then have had to live with the consequences of their actions.
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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