Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs


In House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, Staff Sergeant David Bellavia—a gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war—casually recounts how in 2004, while his platoon was on just its second patrol in Iraq,

a civilian candy truck tried to merge with a column of our armored vehicles, only to get run over and squashed. The occupants were smashed beyond recognition. Our first sight of death was a man and his wife both ripped open and dismembered, their intestines strewn across shattered boxes of candy bars. The entire platoon hadn’t eaten for twenty-four hours. We stopped, and as we stood guard around the wreckage, we grew increasingly hungry. Finally, I stole a few nibbles from one of the cleaner candy bars. Others wiped away the gore and fuel from the wrappers and joined me.

This incident is notable mainly for the fact that the platoon stopped; from the many accounts I have read of the Iraq war, when a US convoy runs over a car, it usually just keeps going.

In Chasing Ghosts, Paul Rieckhoff, a graduate of Amherst who led a platoon of Army National Guardsmen in Iraq, describes going out on routine house raids in the summer of 2003 during which his men broke down doors, zipcuffed all the men in sight, and turned rooms upside down in the search for weapons, few of which they ever found. These raids, Rieckhoff writes, “were nasty business. Anybody who enjoyed them was sick. Sometimes I felt like I was a member of the Brown shirts in Nazi Germany.” As Rieckhoff later discovered, some of his men were stealing cash found on these raids—a practice that, as other accounts suggest, is not at all uncommon.

In Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army, Kayla Williams, an Arabic-speaking military intelligence officer, tells of attending an interrogation session in Mosul in the fall of 2003 in which US soldiers remove the clothes of a prisoner in a cage and then mock him: “Mock his manhood. Mock his sexual prowess. Ridicule the size of his genitals.” The soldiers flicked lit cigarette butts at the prisoner and smacked him across the face. Williams later learned that a prisoner died in the same cage she had visited.

These anecdotes could be multiplied many times over. They come from the many books that have been written about the Iraq war by the soldiers who have served in it. In no other war have so many books by soldiers appeared while the fighting was still going on—accounts written not just by generals like Tommy Franks but also by lieutenants, sergeants, reservists, and privates. Such works have been largely ignored by the mass media, which is too bad, for they provide a grunt’s-eye view of the war that is often far richer, and rawer, than anything available in our newspapers or on TV.

As probing and aggressive as the reporting from Iraq has been, it is subject to many filters.…

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