Friday, January 23, 2009

An Unwelcome Question

Written approximately one year ago (so some sentiments expressed may be now inaccurate):

Well, it’s 10:23 PM on a Friday night. For lack of something better to do, I will attempt to tackle one of the more difficult subjects to discuss about The Burning Question. My sister asked me a reasonable question today – asked why I was being so vague and evading an answer. Well, I will tell you.

“How many people have you killed.” Let me be more specific why it is a difficult question to answer, to give a simple number.

Because if I have killed a single person then I have been responsible for ending a mother’s years of investment, for canceling a father’s life-dream, for likely robbing a family of a father, a wife (or wives) of a husband. Am I suggesting that he did not deserve it? That is between him and God. I do my job, and this is all that has been asked of me.

It’s difficult because I don’t ever want to be proud of the number of human lives I may have taken. It’s also difficult because I don’t want people to respect me more (or less) for answering.

And the water is cloudy, folks. Never cut and dry. This isn’t the Revolutionary War. This isn’t Europe where there were clear machine gun nests in fortified positions. This is guerilla warfare. This is terrorism. Terrorism, by the way, is the use of force and violence against military and NON-military personnel (innocent civilians) to promote political changes, governmental changes, and the perpetuation of a cause (usually an extreme one). Guerilla warfare is similar, but these non-uniformed, unconventional combatants restrict their aggression to regular military forces. They do not target civilians. Well, Iraqi fighters target whomever they damn well please. It could very well be their neighbors, another tribe, another family, a man who has more than them and therefore must be the enemy and in cahoots with the Baathist party, a Sunni against a Shiite, or the other way around. Take your pick. They all, however, universally hate Americans. We, the Zionist pigs, we great evil Satans spreading our poison of free speech and universal suffrage. How dare us. We are always the targets. Men who have been targeting their neighbors for years will momentarily unite to shoot at us. And when we pass, they’re back at it. They’re stupid. But I digress.

Who is Charlie? Who is the enemy? Where did those shots come from? Which direction? What window? What floor? Did you hear anything?

“No,” they say. “This neighborhood is safe. We love Americans. We would never shoot at them.” We step outside and promptly get ambushed.

I have fired numbers of times. I have rarely seen Charlie.

I have maybe only once or twice caught a glimpse of him who is our decided enemy. I see him as he may have fired a couple shots (which I never saw) and fled. They never stick around, because it means death. They run. Where’s Charlie? Running away after pissing us off. My fire has been mostly suppressive, a show of force, supportive, rarely directed at a specific human target, enemy or otherwise.

I did not go through Fallujah. That would have been a different story. We weren’t fighting the dedicated freedom fighters, those that chose to make their final stand in that disgusting city. We were fighting cowards who ran all the time.

So have a killed the enemy? I don’t know. I’ve fired a lot of rounds into a lot of buildings, through a lot of windows, in the general direction of received fire, into a lot of cars…


Drivers in Iraq are, by far, the most foolish in the universe. And they frequently pay for it with their lives.

Here is where I have done the most shooting, and must now live with it.

The roads are dangerous places. We, the US Marines, own them. The Army did not, so we had to “reteach” the locals that they were ours. It took a month of ramming cars off the road, destroying humvee bumpers and hoods, smashing headlights, waving our guns, and firing warning shots. But they learned. We owned the roads because it was safer for everybody. If you pull over and get out of the way when we come, you’re not going to ram into us and blow up. It’s simple. Move out of the way, and we know you’re not a threat (at least until you try something stupid).

Part of being an occupying force is a mission tasking known as “presence patrols.” Just drive or walk around and get blown up. Look for trouble; stir it up. Travel in vulnerably small groups so as to attract fire. Look weak, prove them wrong. Just be out and about.

We got those missions all the time. They tried to hype them up and call them “counter mortar patrols,” but we all knew what they really were. Boring. Very long, uneventful, and boring. We hated them.

Inevitably, we would stop at some point and just begin random searches of oncoming traffic. Reinforce the front end, the rear end, search cars, and either turn them around or search and let them through after determining them non-threats. Very boring.

But there were a few times when this was not the case. Those were the times when the cars didn’t slow down, when we were holding a defensive perimeter around an area and traffic was not permitted through. They’d inch close. Or they’d never slow down. They just keep coming at you. There are just a couple of seconds that the machine gunners and the boys on the ground have to make a decision: how close before we shoot. Are they a threat or do they simply not see us….how are we to know?

We make what seems like the best decision at the time. There is a line at some spoken or unspoken distance from us when we know that they clearly see us, have ignored all our signals and commands to stop, so we shoot. And it’s ugly.

It’s typically a gun/tow team. This is two humvees. One usually has a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in it, the other has a TOW missile system (rarely used). Those TOW trucks also have a M249 SAW (a 5.56mm light machine gun). And all those on foot have rifles. When the decision to shoot is reached, we usually all open up. It is an absolute mess.

When the vehicles roll to a stop (as it always does, riddled with bullets and destroyed), we quickly perform a precursory search and check for obvious weapons, for survivors, and for possible reasons why they might be trying to run us down.

And herein lies the tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen a single hostile vehicle approach my position. The humvees in front of me, yes. Those behind me, yes. Those a kilometer down the road, certainly. Me: no. My “aggressors” were all simply unobservant or didn’t think a humvee roadblock applied to them. Some will insist that they never saw us. Those few that survive.

Now what? We have a car full of civilians who don’t appear to have guns, bombs, or other questionable material. But they ran our checkpoint. We were met with an ugly choice: Us or Them. We choose Them and choose wrongly, we all die, blown into small, unrecognizable pieces. It’s certainly happened before.

We choose Us and we are wholly justified in doing so. But it may also mean that we have chosen to take innocent lives. But what are we to do? Take a risk and let them pull up to us and say hello? We cannot do that. I am charged with the protection of all the Marines, Sailors, and civilians around me. I cannot take make that gamble. We play US versus Them and we always win, at the expense of Them.

THIS is why I don’t to answer this question. I have no moral qualms with dispatching the enemy. It’s necessary, it is the result of their own aggression, not mine. But to wrestle constantly with the decision to shoot/don’t shoot is difficult and stressful; and those who are cut down as a result of their own foolishness haunt my memories.

I remember when an ambulance came speeding towards us late one night. There was a firefight going on, but we weren’t a part of it. It was taking place between Iraqi forces and Iraqi insurgents. All we did was shuttle up the Iraqi National Guardsmen (who were later referred to as Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, and now as the Iraqi Army). So we’d shuttle these guys to the fight. They were terrified. Scared. And we dropped them off and held back. Even then, having never fired a shot before in a combat zone, I felt that we were abandoning them in their hour of greatest need. If nothing else we could have set a good example and run towards the fire, assaulted through the objective. But we did not.

So we hung back, as ordered, and waited.

This was OIF II. During OIF I, the initial reinvasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Army Forward Observers (FOs) used to hitch rides in ambulances and travel around US positions to mark them for artillery and mortar fire. It was rotten, but highly effective. The end result is that veterans of that push to Baghdad lost complete confidence in the neutrality of the Red Crescent (Muslim symbol that adorns all ambulances)…

This ambulance refused to stop that night. We ran out, screamed for them to stop, and eventually they started to come to a halt and turned off their headlights. As we started to approach the vehicle to search it (and ensure that there were no insurgents, wounded or otherwise) in the vehicle, they turned on their headlights and began to accelerate again. I ducked. I knew what was coming.

Four Combined Anti-Armor Team vehicles opened up on them. That’s two .50 caliber machine guns, two M249 SAW light machine guns, and half a dozen rifles. The vehicle was quickly halted. There were two survivors, but they didn’t live long.

Before they were taken away (by other Iraqis, to an Iraqi medical facility, where they most likely died), I remember hearing them cry for help, beg for our assistance. Yet we had just shot them.

But what are we to do? It’s dark, there’s a firefight going on, there is shooting, flashing lights, and one of the most heavily-armed Marine infantry units standing by to intervene. And there is one unarmored, thin-skinned civilian vehicle not complying with our orders.

There’s your firefight. Those are your casualties.

Was this the experience at all checkpoints? Every car shot up a non-threat? Not at all. There were some cars and trucks that blew up. But most did not. Yet the occupants always died.

So don’t ask me how many people I’ve killed, because I don’t exactly know. What I DO know, however, is that a sizeable percentage were non-combatants.

I remember the car that kept creeping closer and closer to our front position of my guys. He wouldn’t stop. For some reason none of us chose to shoot. He stopped maybe 30 feet in front of us. Had he been hostile and detonated, we would have all died. For some reason we did not shoot him.

We quickly ran up to the vehicle and inspected it, ordered the driver out. We didn’t need an interpreter. He spoke English. He was also extremely upset.

“Do you realize that we almost killed you?”

He stuttered out that he understood – very shaken – and understandably so. He had two beautiful children in the back seat of his vehicle. His little daughter, maybe six or so, was among the cutest child I have ever seen. All little brown-eyed girls with sun-coppered hair are cute. She had almost died.

“Why didn’t you stop?”

He didn’t know. He didn’t think he needed to. He was a doctor. A dermatologist. He almost died. We told him to go away.

He, and his lovely children, were almost casualties.

These are the shootings that stick with you.

I am not haunted by all this, as surprising as it might sound. I am not wallowing deep in despair because of these tragedies or near-calamities. What I cognizant of, however, is how much events such as these prolong the whole conflict. Incidents such as these generate enemies at a rapid rate. The trouble is, however, I don’t know what can be done about it. Our benevolence, our patience, our hesitation at a checkpoint may cost us our lives. Yet our caution may reward us with more enemies. You go right ahead and take your pick.

I got out.

But there’s more…

I would have much preferred enemy everywhere. Because then it’s incredibly easy. It eliminates the moral dilemma, simplifies conflict, and would hasten everybody’s return home. There would be no protracted war, no dithering with attempts at humanitarian efforts, no infuriated civilian population. But, we had no such fortune.

I do prefer to live with some questions than with the knowledge that my hesitation at a checkpoint caused the death of my friends. I thank God that this is not the case, indeed. I did my job, for what it was worth, but I would have liked to do more.

Don’t ask me how many I’ve killed because I don’t like my answer. It’s ignoble. It’s complicated. It’s ugly. I’d love to say, simply, “lots.” But it isn’t that easy. I’m ashamed with my answer. I was an Infantry Marine; I want to say I did more, because then there would be fewer enemy. There are many who can say they definitely did their job. I was rarely afforded the opportunity. I wish I was more observant, more watchful, more alert, more savvy. I was always looking the wrong way, in the wrong place, or on the wrong side of town. And I am ashamed.

So every time those around me, with truly good intention, attempt to rank me among the great heroes, the proud-serving fighters of ages past, I grow frustrated. I feel I have not earned the title. I did and saw but little. They endured hell. And I am still humbled in their presence, though not entirely one of them. Yet nor am I entirely a civilian. I’m caught in the middle.

Why do you think I was insane enough to volunteer for a third tour? Because I love flying around the world on military chartered flights? Because I love the desert in the summer? Because I love getting shot at? Hardly. I was giving it one more go. One final effort to actually earn the title that I had been given upon my return in 2005. Veteran. I had hoped that maybe I would have the opportunity to kill enough to actually deserve that hallowed label, if nothing else but in my own mind.

Yet I did not. I was confined to a base, which turned out to be a great experience, but I didn’t see it as such at the time. All that effort to extend my contract, the volunteering, writing a 75 page research proposal that put me in the most dangerous places, the most dangerous vehicles in the most vulnerable units. A clever ruse to soften my self-dissatisfaction. Maybe there I would have an opportunity to kill the enemy.

But how many is enough? What’s the magic number? When would I have been satisfied that I earned my title? 10? 100? One confirmed kill?

Perhaps it is just as well I have been forbidden this opportunity.

What would have been enough? Selflessness, whatever that means. But I have little.

I do not feel any better having shared this. I have horrified my readers, distanced myself from them, and accomplished little more than frustrating myself. Don’t ask me this question, because I don’t like my answer, and neither will you.

But you may set down your phones now. There’s no need to call and have them take me away. I am not a deranged veteran, a deeply disturbed warrior returned to fit in but poorly in a society that reveres me and is simultaneously repulsed. I’m not going to run out and hurt others, nor will I hurt myself. I am simply frustrated. I had joined the Marines with high hopes of satisfying my OWN burning question – am I a warrior? a hero? a man? But I was unable to answer that to my satisfaction. That is why I’m frustrated. That question, MY question, is not so easily answered by participating in a war. It is only made more confusing.

How many did I kill? Not enough.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Not even the Marine Corps can make a man a whole person, or even a self-realized person.