A letter from a reader about Showing 'the truth' about U.S. soldiers in Iraq

July 22, 2007:

As all good liberals know, U.S. soldiers are baby-killers and their superior officers are corrupt – a tiresome myth nonetheless retold in Philip Haas' independent film highlighted in PAW (Books and Arts, May 9). The article states that the film's intent is to "get behind the headlines" and determine "what is the truth," and of the specific scenes mentioned in the lofty pursuit of such "truth," the following are included: U.S. service members as child-killers ("American soldiers throw two Iraqi teenagers off a bridge during an interrogation"), an Army intelligence officer whose implied moral defects lead him to give up on pursuit of accurate intelligence, and a protagonist who is a U.S. Army officer portrayed as "corrupt." What's more, "a kid gets shot and nothing is made of it." 

           As I was deployed to Iraq's Sunni Triangle in 2005, please allow me to add some truth at odds with Haas' artistic flight. As chief psychiatrist of a combat support hospital, I found that one of the most common causes of combat stress in soldiers reporting for counseling stemmed from the presence of children in the conflict. In one notorious incident, insurgents shot up a minivan driven by an innocent Iraqi family, leaving two adults and five children inside dead or bleeding. They then set up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] around the van, with several members of the family still alive inside, and placed a call for assistance. When U.S. and Iraqi National Guard forces responded to aid the victims, they came under an ambush of IED attack and small-arms fire. It is a sad fact that children are involved in war in many ways – as witnesses, as victims, as orphans, as cover for movement, and occasionally as enemy combatants. 

           Our men and women in uniform were deeply affected. Often, soldiers would remark that the sight of an Iraqi child, hurt or grieving, reminded them of a son or daughter or niece or nephew back home. In counseling them for stress-related symptoms brought on by the images, events, and memories of children in a war zone, I realized I couldn't take away their suffering, but I could help alter the meaning of it. I reminded them that the mental pain they felt for the children victims of war was the result of having a heart and having compassion, and it is better to feel the pain of a child's suffering than not to have a heart and feel no such pain. 

           Thus, Haas' cinematic portrayal of American soldiers as child-murderers and indifferent to the pain of wounded kids, though perhaps having a quality of "truthiness" to those who seek validation of such views, rings false, malicious, and dishonorable to this writer, who's been there and seen the opposite qualities in our fighting forces. It is high time we all recognize that when wartime atrocities do occur they usually represent failings of flawed human nature under conditions of extreme stress; they are most certainly not representative of the character of the American soldier, or the policy of the U.S. Army. I have seen breaches of proper conduct punished swiftly and severely. 

           When I was over there, the overwhelming majority of the Iraqis I met supported coalition efforts to rebuild their country, and passionately despised the insurgent minority bent on fomenting instability and destroying the already debilitated infrastructure. This ground truth – that one side was trying to build infrastructure such as water purification plants and the other side was shooting up families for ambush bait – exposes as ludicrous the thesis of Haas' film, in which he self-admittedly "tries to dispel the idea that there are good guys and bad guys." 

           If all this indeed be – to quote the article's subtitle – "getting behind the headlines," then indeed the truth is no more than whatever tired, old myth a filmmaker wants it to be. 

Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve
Vienna, Va.

Editor's note: An abridged version of this letter was published in the July 18, 2007, issue of PAW.

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