Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Review of “Chasing Ghosts: Fight for America from Baghdad to Washington” by Paul Rieckhoff

I first heard of Paul Rieckhoff and his Veterans organization (at the time called Operation Truth, now known as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA) in February of 2005 when OpTruth started cross-posting stories of Iraq and Afghanistan vets on Music for America’s website. I had been volunteering with MFA, an organization focused on youth outreach through cultural events, for nearly a year by that point, and I was extremely excited to read stories about these wars from soldiers who fought in them. The debates about the wars, especially the Iraq War, were lacking a good dose of reality- with the right accusing all war critics of being anti-American or anti-troop, and the left claiming, amongst other absurd things, that this was “not our war”—and OpTruth seemed like a perfect organization to broaden and deepen the debates surrounding the war while at the same time giving soldiers an opportunity to express themselves.

Over the past year I have been a frequent visitor to IAVA’s site and have become even more enamored with the amazing work and words of IAVA, and especially Paul Rieckhoff. Whether Paul is educating people on the problems facing returning Vets (from PTSD to stop loss to other issues), helping veterans speak out on what they believe, helping get movies made about soldiers, or providing support to Vets who run for Congress, he is always showing the mix of altruism and action that led him, I believe, to become a soldier. (The fact that a portion of every sale is going to HOPE For New Veterans—a project that prevents homelessness among Iraq Vets—is just another example of his dedication to his causes.)

It goes without saying then that I was extremely excited to hear that Paul had released a book looking at the experiences that led him to found IAVA, though when I received my copy I was preparing to skim it for the moment and return to it later when I had more time. Unfortunately for my already crowded schedule, I couldn’t put the book down after the first few pages. I knew that the book would be good, but it was too good to simply gloss over. And so I stole every free minute I could over the next few days and devoured page after page of sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and always informative writing. The war that Paul fought in, and that our armed forces continue to fight, might not be as intense as the Eastern Front of World War II that Guy Sajer wrote about in The Forgotten Soldier or the Pacific Front of the war that EB Sledge wrote about in With the Old Breed, but Paul’s story was every bit as compelling, and much more important for our generation.

Here we have a book which criticizes the war from the perspective of someone who was there, who had to live with decisions made in Washington that more often than not seemed to make things worse on the ground. Paul enters Iraq just days after Bush announces “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, and he details the next fateful year as he saw it on the ground, giving us a unique and important view of the unraveling that has brought us to where we find ourselves today. No matter where you find yourself in the debates about Iraq; if you think it was a stupid move, if you think it was the stupidest move, or if you are… still convinced that invading Iraq was a good idea, everyone needs to try to understand what our soldiers are really facing and being asked to do in Iraq.

One thing that the book does extremely well is give you an idea of the unbelievably difficult position that our soldiers find themselves in. For example, you may have heard about shootings at check points, but have you ever thought about what it’s like for a soldier who is manning one of them? Here’s Paul’s vivid description of what manning a checkpoint is like (from the chapter “Keeping the Peace”):
We faced a litany of potential threats: car bombs, rockets, gunfire. We also dealt with a litany of potential disasters. Every one of us had three seconds to decide the fate of our Platoon, or the fate of a family of Iraqis. We have Rules of Engagement, and know that the enemy doesn’t play by them. Shoot too late and your Squad is torn apart by a car bomb. Shoot too early and you kill an innocent family of five and end up rotting in a military prison for the rest of your life.

A scenario that happened on more times than I can count” a sedan comes barreling towards us. The headlights are out. The car is not slowing down. Maybe the driver can’t see the line of soldiers in the street. Maybe he doesn’t notice the headlights of two Humvees facing him. Maybe he’s extremely drunk. Maybe the car is filled with a hundred pounds of explosives. We wave our flash-lights at the car. But he keeps coming. We scream, yell, and wave our arms. But he keeps coming. We fire warning shots in the air. But he keeps coming. The car is close enough now that I can see the outline of three passengers inside the cabin. But he keeps coming. I think about the fact that last week, another Swaud lit up a car and killed a little girl. The .50-cal rounds blew her head clear off her body. She was wearing a little blue dress. I saw the pictures. But the driver keeps fucking coming. Just a few weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed ten blocks away when a car loaded with explosives ran a checkpoint. One of the soldiers had five kids. Another was nineteen years old and had just gotten married. We fire rounds into the ground feet in front of the bumper. But he keeps coming. There are no alternatives left. The vehicle is close enough that I can see dents in the orange hood.

What would you do?
I think I know what I would do (shoot), and the fact that we don’t hear of many more incidents shows just how amazing the discipline of our soldiers is in a war against enemies who wear no uniforms and hide behind the veil of civilian life.

Paul also expresses frustration in the book about the biases of the American Media, accept it’s not the bias you’re used to hearing about (from the chapter “The Media”):
They never got the other side. The Iraqi side. When was the last time you saw Col. Ollie North interviewing an Iraqi about Operation Kickass or whatever clever name the Army came up with? It would be the equivalent of a reporter covering the story of a white cop shooting a black man in an American inner city, and only interviewing the cops, not the family and neighbors, to get their take on the event. You’d only get 50 percent of the story. And a very slanted 50 percent.

Most of the press sat in the protected palace enclave sharing the same sources and calling themselves investigative journalists. If reporters wanted to the get the real story, they would have to go and walk the streets of Iraq without military protection. They might get their heads cut off, but it’d be a hell of a story.

War reporting should not be about balance. It should be about accuracy. There’s never a perfect equilibrium of good and bad news stories in any situation. People always complain that the news doesn’t show enough good stories coming out of Iraq. That’s because it is a war zone. If you want good news stories, go to Disneyland.
As you can tell from this clip, Paul would be the first to tell you that this book represents only one view of the war in Iraq. But, by giving us the first critical book of the Iraq War from someone who served there, Paul provides us with an incredibly valuable puzzle piece with which to build our view of the conflict.

In the amazing documentary The Fog of War Robert McNamara notes that one of the biggest problems in the foreign policy decision making process is a lack of empathy with the other side. In our current war it is not only a lack of empathy with the other side that distorts our views of the war. Though it is certainly true that our nation lacks even a basic comprehension of Iraqi history and culture, most people in today’s America lack an understanding of what it is like to fight in a modern war or what it’s like to be asked to sacrifice for a national war effort (something which was much less true in McNamara’s time, when the draft was still a reality and military service was still thought of as an important part of citizenship). Chasing Ghosts is thus an extremely important book, coming out at an particularly important moment in the history of our nation.

I’ll leave you with a piece of the speech that Paul gave when he was asked to give the Democratic Radio Address to the Nation, one year after President Bush pulled his “Mission Impossible” stunt.
I’m giving this address because I have an agenda, and my agenda is this: I want my fellow soldiers to come home safely, and I want a better future for the people of Iraq. I also want people to know the truth.

War is never easy. But I went to Iraq because I made a commitment to my country. When I volunteered for duty, I knew I would end up in Baghdad. I knew that’s where the action would be, and I was ready for it.

But when we got to Baghdad, we soon found out that the people who planned this war were not ready for us. There were not enough vehicles, not enough ammunition, not enough medical supplies, not enough water. Many days, we patrolled the streets of Baghdad in 120-degree heat with only one bottle of water per soldier. There was not enough body armor, leaving my men to dodge bullets with Vietnam-era flak vests. We had to write home and ask for batteries to be included in our care packages. Our soldiers deserved better.

When Baghdad fell, we soon found out that the people who planned this war were not ready for that day either. Al-Azamiyah, the area in Baghdad we had been assigned to, was certainly not stable. The Iraqi people continued to suffer. And we dealt with shootings, killings, kidnappings, and robberies for most of the spring.

We waited for troops to fill the city and Military Police to line the streets. We waited for foreign aid to start streaming in by the truckload. We waited for interpreters to show up and supply lines to get fixed. We waited for more water. We waited and we waited and the attacks on my men continued . . . and increased.

With too little support and too little planning, Iraq had become our problem to fix. We had nineteen-year-old kids from the heartland interpreting foreign policy, in Arabic. This is not what we were designed to do. Infantrymen are designed to close with and kill the enemy.

But as Infantrymen, and also as Americans, we made do, and we did the job we were sent there for—and much more.
You can read the rest of the speech here, but you will get a much deeper understanding of both Paul’s position and the War in Iraq if you go out get the book!

Crossposted at Blue Foce

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