Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Road North

By the time we headed north from Kuwait into Iraq, I had already accepted that this was probably going to kill me. It was fate. The night we sat outside our tents in Kuwait watching Iraqi SCUD missiles course through the sky – that’s when it hit most of us so clearly. This was huge, it was violent, and most of us probably weren’t going to make it home. What’s just as strange, though, is that we were okay with it. I know I became a better Marine then. I stopped caring about myself and started caring about my surroundings, my brothers, and the war.

When we crossed the LOD [line of departure], my lucidity reached its peak. We’d stopped being stupid and sobered up immediately. We stopped telling horrible jokes and started paying close attention. We were about to drive squarely into chaos and potentially to our own deaths, but we knew what we had to do. We were more alert than ever, perhaps hypervigilant is the best word for it. We were more attuned to our surroundings that I’ve ever been before, or since, actually. We were ready. We had to be, too.

Not fifteen minutes after we got across the border into Iraq on highway one [now MSR Tampa], we started seeing the cost of war in its fullest. The roads were lined with cars, most of them either destroyed by aerial bombing or abandoned. A number had burned completely, leaving the sickeningly black husk of a human being literally melted to the steering column. Some of the bodies on the ground were burned, too. Every now and then we’d see one still on fire; the smell was god awful. Their clothes were incinerated completely, and they were just lying in the road, beside it, or in the small hamlets that are all over southern Iraq.

But what I remember the most is their teeth. Even though they were blackened beyond recognition, their teeth stayed a stark white or off-white. I think that’s when I first understood why they use dental records for forensic identification. Apparently teeth can survive anything. After a time, I didn’t really see bodies, I saw another set of teeth. Seeing the corpses everywhere was a real wakeup call, though. I realized how fragile life was – and how tough teeth are. It was weird.

When we got into the small towns and little villages, there were bodies everywhere in those areas, too. Not as many burned bodies, but still…bodies everywhere. It was like driving through a cemetery where they completely neglected to bury anybody. But it was amazing. There, with people lying dead all around, were Iraqis lining the roads and cheering as we drove by. I have no idea where they got them, but a bunch waved little American flags. I had a hard time understanding it; how they could be surrounded by absolute death and carnage, people laying dead where they fell, and still parents and children alike cheered us and welcomed us. On the edge of one small town, there was a huge stone mural of Saddam, and there was crowd out there throwing rocks at it and trying to knock it down. That’s why they were happy, I guess. They weren’t living under an oppressive dictator anymore.

As we drove by them standing there in a sea of bodies, as they cheered for us, it felt amazing. It felt like we were doing great things and God was watching us, like He was with us, and that He honored what we were doing, too. I sort of felt ordained. We wanted to help them. Even though we were running out of food and water of our own and everything was rationed, we’d still give the kids whatever we had. We could do without for a little while. They’d lived without their whole lives.

Pushing north was truly a wave of emotions, and I’d say this was the highest point. I was elated. As they were cheering us and trying to properly say “USA,” I think it was the closest I’ve been to altruism. We had a purpose, and it was good. We weren’t doing something for reward or even for good pay – God knows we don’t get much. We were doing it because it was right

A lot of the dead were Republican Guard. You could tell it by their uniforms – the olive drab with the black helmet. I think just as many were innocent though, like they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was hard to say, since we started seeing uniforms lying all over the place. Some of them were stripping off their uniforms and still fighting. Either way, the extent of the carnage was daunting.

I remember passing an oil well that had been set on fire. It was a good distance off the highway, but you could see the soot and oil smoke sending up a dark plume that filled the whole horizon. We’d been joking and acting stupid before we saw that, but then we just went silent and stared. I remember wondering why the hell we all found a single, burning oil well so incredibly mesmerizing, but whatever. We forgot to pay attention to anything else but that oil fire. If they’d attacked us right then, we’d have all died. We forgot to maintain our perimeter for a while, which was stupid. Thankfully, though, we didn’t get hit.

But that was right along the southern border. The second we started moving further north, it all changed again. People started hating us.

It was a complete reversal from the cheering and the crowds directly along the southern border. Either there were refugees walking south and trying to surrender to us, or it was combatants fake-surrendering. They’d walk up to us with their hands up or just looking relaxed, and then they’d pull out AKs from under their clothes and start spraying us. Thank God they can’t shoot straight, or a lot more of us would be dead. They never aimed. We did, though. And we didn’t miss.

We also started to see our own dead and wounded, which normally would have been awful, but we didn’t have the luxury to think about it. We had to push, we had to keep our heads in the game, and we had to be alert. Don’t stare, don’t think about it. Put it aside for later. We all did that. It’s the only way you can endure seeing your own dead and dying brothers and not completely lose it. We’d be driving along and see a humvee or some other vehicle shot up, and Marines lying on the side of the road with a few corpsmen [medical personnel] policing up the bodies. Sometimes we’d have to stop and help them “spread-load” the gear on the disabled vehicles.

We’d move quickly. A team of us would jog up to the disabled vehicles, form a chain, and then just stack everything in our trucks, slash the tires, cut the fuel lines, and leave. Considering how completely messed up the situations were, it still amazes me how flawlessly we moved. It was automatic. Nobody bitched or dragged their feet. We all knew what we needed to do, so we did it. Period.

Not only were there more of our own dead and plenty of fake surrenders, but they also started shooting at us. We’d be just driving along not bothering anybody, and suddenly a head would pop up from behind a small berm and a Bedouin would fire a shot or two at us. Mostly inaccurate potshots. Sometimes we fired back, and sometimes we were sort of like, “they’re too far away to bother with. Forget it.” And we’d keep going. We always kept going. We moved almost continually for 37 days or so. Just driving, sleeping in little 15 minute powernaps, then somebody would wake us up and we’d take a turn on watch. We’d sleep at night, but that was only 2-3 hours and I don’t think it really constituted sleep. It was like a nap that just left you more tired. If it wasn’t for the adrenalin, we would have all just passed out from exhaustion.

As we got nearer to Nasariyah, the hostility towards us intensified. We were driving through a small town once down this narrow road between high buildings. There was a long straight stretch, and then the road took a sharp turn to the right and kept on going. Sure enough, we got ambushed in there, and we started taking concentrated fire.

I remember seeing this dead Iraqi lying in the street with an AK-47 next to him, and then all of the sudden a woman runs out of a nearby building. She was wearing a white hijab and bright blue skirts. I remember wondering if that dead Iraqi was her husband, her brother, her son… I didn’t know. Then she dashes over to the body, picks up the guy’s gun, and starts running and firing at another part of our convoy. I wasn’t myself then, and neither was she. She became a target and I became the shooter.

I remember everything being quiet in my head, and looking through my sights at her. She was running perpendicular to me, so I gave her a 2-3 inch lead and pulled the trigger. The head exploded with a splash like the kind you get when you stomp in a puddle. The body dropped immediately. I didn’t think about it for a long time after that. I’d think about it plenty later, though.

I never regretted shooting her, or anything else I did, because I knew it was the right thing to do at the time. But, I do regret that it had to be that way. I felt badly, though. We weren’t just shooting targets, we were taking lives. I personally had ensured that some child was now motherless, and another mother was now missing her daughter. I don’t glorify what I did, because it wasn’t glorious. It’s unfortunate that circumstances had to come together as they did.

It’s strange. There in Iraq, the close brush with my own death and seeing the death of others – this was when I started feeling the most alive, and where I developed empathy. Those dead men on the ground had mothers, and even though they may have been trying to kill us, I somewhat respect that they stood up for something. I respect that they believed in their cause and willingly put it above their own wellbeing. I obviously don’t agree with them, but they were still human, and they had souls. Now they’re dead for their beliefs.

The part that bothers me the most is that if things were different, if circumstances weren’t as they were, I’d be sharing tea with these men and women. I’d be passing a hookah pipe around the room and we’d be laughing and talking. We would be friends, not sworn enemies trying to kill each others. I’m not sorry about anything I did, but I’m sorry that it had to be that way. They were people, too.

As we kept moving north around Baghdad, there were other firefights, and more random shots fired at us, and some our guys were injured and a few were killed. Our health started to fail from weeks with insufficient sleep, but life was simple. I remember when they announced that Baghdad had fallen. My sergeant said, “Well, Baghdad fell! Let’s get the hell out of here boys.” Obviously, we didn’t. The mission continued.

But even as I got more and more sick and I started turning yellow from jaundice, it was good there. People loved us in one place and hated us in another. They shot at us sometimes, or stood in a field of their own dead (killed by us), and cheered us as we drove by. My emotions followed our reception, actually. When they cheered, I felt justified and right. Like we were welcome and wanted. When we were being shot at and I shot back, I felt like a demon for a moment and I hated myself. Then I buried it and kept gunning. I chose to think about it later. It’s amazing what the mind can do to your body. You can tell yourself almost anything and believe it.

I’ll remember the experience for the rest of my life, but not the parts that people might think I would. Yes, I’ll think about shooting that woman sometimes, or I’ll think about the other firefights. I’ll damn sure miss my friends I made in the Corps – especially those that didn’t make it home. God knows there’s enough of them.

What I’ll remember the most, though, is my family, my brothers. I’ll remember the surreal experience of having very little, but being content with what I had. We didn’t need iPods and computers; we needed each other, and we had that. Those men were my family more than any other.

We’d be perched on MRE boxes or ammo crates, talking, laughing, sharing stories and telling jokes. We’d play spades or euchre and share the crap we called food. We were surrounded by bodies and death and tragedy – including our own – but we were safe somehow. We had each other. I had my brothers, my rifle, my platoon sergeant. I belonged, they belonged, and we all accepted each other. We didn’t need anything else. I felt alive for the first time, because now I knew what death was.

It was beautiful that all the petty squabbles that Americans dwell on were forgotten. We didn’t fuss about politics anymore. We were at war. We didn’t argue about celebrity news, because we were trying to stay alive and keep each other alive, too. It didn’t matter our backgrounds, or that one of us grew up rich or that another grew up in completely fucked up homes.

We had a Mexican in my team, and a Jew, a black dude, and I was the white guy. Nobody cared. We all wore the same uniform and bled the same color. They were brothers, and they would die for me just as quickly as I would die for them. There weren’t frills, and we liked it. We made fun of each other constantly, slept in holes and smelled like barn animals, but we loved each other, and we were wholly united towards a single cause. I wish America was like that – people getting along and caring about each other.

But as for me, I became simultaneously human and humane over there. In the midst of death, I found life and I grew to cherish it. I don’t take it for granted and I wish others didn’t, either. We are all mere moments and small circumstances away from death, horror, and permanently altered lives. I received my baptism in hell out there, and now I can appreciate heaven. For now, that’s amongst my brothers; my dysfunctional family. We’re one body with many parts. Only one thing torments me about that road north. One thing. It’s that I’m still alive – a single guy without a wife or family – yet my friends – loving fathers and loyal husbands – are not. I wish heaven had taken me instead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Here's the News

As of approximately an hour ago, I have received word that I am formally approved for return to Iraq as an embed journalist. This has been a long and frustrating process, but now extremely rewarding. I have a little more than three weeks to make any final (all) preparations.

Many will probably wonder why I, having somehow survived three tours already in Iraq, wish to return there at all. As I have stated before, it draws me – powerfully. And this return is different. No longer am I making any valuable contributions to the war effort; instead I am telling stories.

The precise details of my embed are limited at present, but I will be spending at least three months in the northern provinces of Iraq embedded with combat elements operating in those areas. I am uncertain with which branch(es) of the military I will embed. Though I may be partial to the Marines, I am unconcerned about this. They are all human beings, all Americans, and all doing participating in something far greater than themselves. That is the fundamental draw. I want people to know them, to know their stories, their struggles, successes, adventures and horrors. This, above all else, is my passion.

The fact, however, is that I am doing this “pro bono.” I am not earning a paycheck in the slightest. I will pay for my own flight, my own body armor, “press” uniforms, photographic equipment, paper, communications devices, and so forth. I do not begrudge this, but it is going to hurt my wallet to an extent. Body armor alone will gouge me at least $2,000. The flight to Kuwait is the second largest expenditure. I consider this a superb use of my savings, frankly, and I intend to keep doing this until I go broke.

This being said, here is my request: if you like what you read on this blog, if you enjoy the stories, the profiles, the heartfelt emotions from veterans who have struggled for a voice, I ask that you consider donating to help fund my journey. I am not going for myself, for profit, publicity, or for fun. I am going for the stories that need to be told. While I will not rely on donations, they would certainly alleviate an enormous financial burden as I pay my own way to Iraq as a photojournalist. The “donate” link is now plastered all over my website, my three blogs, and you have my utmost assurances as a man on a mission that any donations I receive will be directed specifically and solely to the funding of my overseas embed. This is where my heart lies. It just so happens it’s not where the money lies. I’m following my heart, however, now cash.

The fact that this opportunity has presented itself at all is fairly astounding, considering I have only seriously pursued any sort of writing for seven months, and casually for only a few months more. I will speculate (with confidence) that God’s hand is heavily involved in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. I am praying He also goes with me. I’ll need Him.

I welcome questions of any sort, and will do my best to answer them as promptly as I am able. Please consider that these next few weeks will be somewhat hectic as I make preparations to depart for a fourth tour. Please also pray for my family, who while wholly supportive of my endeavors, is now preparing to watch their only son depart for another tour in a combat zone – this time unarmed. I wouldn’t mind prayer, either, to be forthright. The destination may be the same, but everything is different. I am no longer part of the brotherhood; I am the enemy: a journalist poised to misquote their personal conversations and use them for profit. This will be my biggest hurdle in-country.

So, this is the news. I have just over three weeks to get my affairs in order (again). I will make every attempt to keep writing throughout this, but I can offer no guarantees. Writing habits in-country will also necessarily change. I will provide updates and further elaboration as I am able.

*The "donate" link is at the top right of this blog

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Why Do We Bother?

In a move which by most standards is wholly counterproductive to the success and credibility of their nation’s government, Iraq released on Sunday an Iraqi militant (Laith al-Khazali) held in connection with a 2007 attack that left five US servicemen dead. (Read article here).

The incident, in Karbala in January 2007, involved twelve gunmen in five SUVs, attired in “American-looking uniforms" and carrying "U.S.-type weapons,” who after navigating perimeter checkpoints, opened fire on US troops. One was killed outright, and four other servicemen were taken hostage by the gunmen, who fled the scene. A short time later, three of them were found dead in a neighboring province, and a fourth was found with a grievous gunshot wound. He died en route to the hospital. The Iraqi government, however, is apparently not particularly concerned with this.

Laith al-Khazali was detained by US troops in March, 2007, and at some point turned over to the Iraqi government for imprisonment and trial. On Sunday, an Iraqi government spokesman stated that he was released in a “gesture by the Iraqi government as part of the national reconciliation process with militant groups.” Yet according to the US military, the militant group al-Khazali represents, (League of the Righteous, also known as Asaib ahl al-Haq, or AAH), has no quarrel with the Iraqi government. AAH militants instead ”oppose foreign military forces in the country.” What reconciliation, therefore, does the Iraqi government expect to accomplish by this gesture? Accepting AAH has a state-sanctioned militia?

Additionally, AAH may now be contributing to sectarian and regional division in Iraq. AAH militants were at one time in good standing with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, but their recent cooperation with the Iraqi government has branded them an enemy to Al-Sadr and his enormous militia. Will these two groups now focus their activities on each other? If so, then the Iraqi government has accomplished nothing more than inciting further acts of violence by its own people and against its own people. And now, one more known fighter (from a group which incidentally has ties with Iran) is free to contribute to this chaos.

The inexplicable decision to release this militant speaks volumes about the Iraqi government, their poor choices, and potentially a total ineptitude at self-governance. For a culture that proudly claims the Babylonian Hammurabi as their own, a man reputed with establishing the philosophy of “Rule of Law” (and that no single person is above it), they are boldly demonstrating their total disregard for due process and justice. This incompetent government, mind you, is the very one under which US security contractors now fall. Will they receive similar clemency in a “gesture of goodwill” towards the United States, or will they be somehow subject to a different standard? Ignoring justice once severely undermines, if not destroys the credibility of the entire system. For lack of a better way to put it, the Iraqi government is now negotiating with terrorists – specifically those that have proven their lethality and intent on violence. Why would they wish to gain the allegiance of such a group?

The collateral damage from this gesture will be immense. What incentive does the US military now have to exhibit any confidence in the Iraqi justice system? Why should the US hand over militants at all, if odds are these same men will be soon back on the streets committing heinous acts against whatever victims they choose to hate? How do the Iraqis intend to appease the five families now missing a loved one?

At its core, this decision is a blatant insult to the efforts of US servicemembers to improve a country long plagued by corruption, ruled by dictators, and subdued by fear. Does the government’s disinterest in justice fairly represent the country as a whole? If so, why aid those who don’t wish for any aid? If a freely-elected government clearly indicates they don’t care about those that ensured their freedom, then why bother preserving it? Finally, why help a country that is completely unwilling to help itself? This is not a gesture of reconciliation; it is devolution to shameless sycophancy.

To Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, and Pfc. Johnathon M. Millican: rest in peace. A few of us still give a damn.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

An Unappealing Hypothesis

Over the past six months, my writing has frequently been on subjects that fairly raise the accusation that I am unhealthily fixated on a small portion of the veteran community that seems to readjust poorly to civilian life. While they may indeed represent a relatively miniscule percentage of veterans, it in no way diminishes the importance of understanding their situations, their plight, and their struggle for readjustment and understanding. The truth is, incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is on the rise. It necessarily demands attention.

Perhaps the best question would then be “why?” Why are more veterans confessing their difficulty with return to civilian life? Why are VA hospitals packed with young men and women who have not adjusted well following their tenure in a combat zone? And why, above all else, are they committing suicide at such astronomical rates (the VA estimates that 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year)? These are challenging questions, however, and reams of documents have only barely scratched the surface of the matter.

There is one explanation for this tragedy that has somehow escaped the vast majority of public attention. For lack of a better term, it could be referred to as “national absolution.” One reason it may be often ignored is that it casts a great deal of blame and no doubt makes a number of people extremely uncomfortable – or vehemently defensive. In a nutshell, troops are not receiving a unified statement of “well done” from the public. Opinions on the war are too sharply divided.

Since wars became a part of “civilized” society, so also have ritual cleansing ceremonies and grand victory celebrations for the returning warriors. The individual performance of the warriors was irrelevant, as was perhaps the overall victory in the war itself. What was universally agreed, however, was that the warriors had served well, acted selflessly, and participated in a conflict essential to the survival and wellbeing of the society. But this doesn’t happen anymore.

Though few realize it, by the time the last US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the percentage of medical evacuations from the combat zone for psychological trauma (PTSD) was nearly identical to the percentage of civilians in the United States that fiercely opposed the war: approximately 55%. The close correlation cannot be ignored. Though oceans apart, stateside disagreement with the merit of the war was exacting a heavy toll on the troops. It is difficult to put one’s heart behind a cause that only a moderate percentage of one’s own countrymen support.

And while the reception of veterans now is much improved over that during the Vietnam War, strong opposition persists nevertheless, and even a veteran purposefully shielding him or herself from all news sources will still encounter day-to-day conversations that reflect the division. One’s service, therefore, does not settle easily as a noble act, but one of intense controversy.

As a consequence, many veterans are left with three options: they may oppose the war and agree that it was a poor idea and they the victims if a misguided foreign policy, they may spend the remainder of their days attempting to justify their national service, or they may simply remain silent on the matter. None are terribly helpful, however, and deprived of a country which unanimously supports her servicemembers, the actions of a few short years are denied their proper place as distancing memories and held forever in the forefront of the heart and mind. “Did I do well? I think I did, but these other people say I did not.” There is a tormenting lack of closure.

This is an unquestionably unpopular hypothesis because it casts blame for an epidemic of PTSD on all those who are fairly exercising their rights to free speech. Yet perhaps they are misdirecting their anger. As I have quoted before, a wiser man than I once stated, “the warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.”

Yet there now appears to be little distinction between the warrior and the war, and the warriors are the ones bearing the burden. According to widely publicized remarks, they aren’t noble men and women who took an oath to their country and its citizens; they are instead a lot of misinformed young persons who have acted as instruments for the government’s maligned intents. Such presumptions, however inaccurate and unfounded, are wounding. There is no peace with one’s war, but a continued battle to justify it within one’s own heart and before one’s own countrymen.

The human body and mind are extremely resilient, and capable of surviving unfathomable injury. And veterans, like few others, are immeasurably tough. What is most challenging to shake, however, is the pervasive fear that their service has all been for nothing. The citizenry they swore to defend loudly declares they needed no defense. There is no longer a country at war, but a few men and women fighting one, and a very large and vocal percentage of the country that aggressively opposes it.

Those who have served well are not returning home to peace, but to a myriad of questions, accusations, and even taunts. Patrolling on foreign soil, wearing body armor and carrying a rifle at the ready was only the first battle. The greater war is actually waged stateside, against ridicule, misunderstanding, and a crowd of citizens who appear to go out of their way to devalue the high character of those who willingly sacrificed personal ambition for the preservation of their country. Yet that country, ignoring the beauty of her warriors, does little to receive them.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Explain the Purpose

In November 2004, after one unsuccessful attempt by the US military earlier in the year to drive out a strong insurgent presence in Fallujah, Iraq, the situation had grown truly dire. More than any other city in Iraq, Fallujah was so packed with insurgents that the US military officially considered it an insurgent stronghold. Several months prior, four private US contractors were ambushed and killed there, their bodies desecrated and dragged through the streets, and then proudly hung on a bridge. It was a taunt, and one that the US military would directly address.

After extensive preparation, the city was cordoned, civilians were permitted to leave, and as roughly 5,000 insurgent fighters dug in, laid IEDs and booby traps, and transformed mosques into strongholds, over 15,000 US troops readied to clear the city of insurgents indefinitely. They anticipated heavy resistance. In fact, the Marine Corps doctrine estimates that Military Operations in an Urban Terrain (MOUT) will result in an 85% casualty rate. Nevertheless, the city needed to be silenced.

On November 8th, Marines, soldiers, and Iraqi forces began advancing into the perimeter of the city, immediately encountering a caliber of insurgent fighter rarely seen in Iraq. They were well-organized, prepared, and they stayed to fight rather than fire and run. Their preparedness was astounding, as were their elaborate fighting positions, IED “daisy chains,” and deadly booby traps on nearly every door. Snipers audaciously inflicted heavy casualties from mosque towers, necessitating intense airstrikes by US fighter jets.

With ferocious surgical precision, the combat forces – mostly Marines and Army Cavalry – moved from house to house, eliminating insurgents hellbent on fighting to the death. Tragically, took many Marines with them.

On November 13th, Marine 1st Sergeant Bradley Kasal, traveling with a Combined Anti-Armor platoon, heard an explosion of small arms fire erupt to his flank and turned to observe Marines tearing out of a nearby building. There were wounded Marines pinned inside, they yelled, held down by some number of insurgent fighters. Kasal drew his pistol, fell in on a stack of Marines rushing to their aid, and plunged into the building.

After taking down an insurgent in the first room, he and others moved rapidly to aid the wounded Marine in the next room, whereupon he was shot repeatedly in the legs and fell. Unable to stand and losing blood, he still dragged himself over to the injured Marine and, as the insurgents threw grenades to finish them off, he shielded the young Marine with his own body, receiving at least 40 shrapnel wounds. As he lay bleeding out on the floor, other Marines continued pushing through the house, firing as they maneuvered on the insurgents upstairs.

As the Marines kept firing, Kasal yelled encouragement to those still clearing the building, refusing medical attention until the other wounded Marines around him were first treated. When he finally consented to evacuation, they lifted him and dragged him out, his pistol still tightly clenched in his hand. He had lost 60% of his blood.

Throughout the battle for Fallujah, these acts were common, as Marines and soldiers encountered fierce resistance, took casualties, and mounted brave rescue missions to free the wounded laying in harm’s way. Kasal later was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery and selflessness. He has since undergone 21 surgeries to save what remains of his leg.

In another area of the city, a good friend of mine nearly died as he was singularly targeted by multiple snipers. One bullet pierced his uniform, but amazingly, none hit him.

One Marine captain, leading his company through some of the thickest fighting, lost thirteen of his troops. Elsewhere, a Marine sniper, removing his helmet for a clearer shot through his scope, was promptly shot through the head and killed. My great friend, his spotter laying beside him, is still grieving to this day.

To the south, my unit came under attack by Zarqawi’s forces, long-since escaped from Fallujah.

In the city, the carnage continued, and another friend held his wounded comrade in his arms as he died. 94 other US troops were similarly cut down in battle, and 560 were evacuated with injuries. Despite their losses, they successfully secured the city, killed an estimated 1,350 insurgents, and captured roughly 1,500. The intensity of the house-to-house fighting in the battle for Fallujah was historical, rivaling that of the 1968 battle for Hue City in Vietnam. And as before, the US military proved its skill and valor before a well-armed enemy.

Yet now, less than five years later, as the injured still recover from their wounds and the bereaved still dearly miss their fallen loved one, the battle is being recreated as a video game (click here for the article).

To my surprise, the Marines and soldiers involved in the battle have been enthusiastic about the effort and provided as many facts as they are able. They want the game to be realistic. The families of the fallen, insulted that the tragedy of war that claimed their sons would so quickly be transformed into first-person shooter entertainment, are loudly protesting. No game, they say, does justice to the fighting, and no player will ever understand the gravity of the battle. The game developers, despite the controversy, continue to seek sponsorship and millions of dollars for marketing. They claim it will honor those that fought for Fallujah. How, I ask? Games are intended for entertainment, not historical enlightenment. If they wish to learn about the battle, ask a veteran.

And so, less than five years after Iraq’s bloodiest battle, socially awkward teenaged boys eagerly await the arrival of perhaps the most realistic combat game yet, and developers seek a successful business venture. But the Marines and soldiers in the Battle for Fallujah just want their story told. The key question, however, is this: is anybody truly listening, or are they looking for their latest fix of mindless entertainment? Another Marine friend put it quite eloquently: “It’s not just stupid shooting; it was a war, and my friends died there. That’s not a game; it’s an insult to my brothers.”

“War is awful. Nothing, not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. War is wretched beyond description and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality. Whatever is won in war, it is loss the veteran remembers.”
- Sen. John McCain

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved