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What Was I Fighting For?
Editor's Note from The Nation: The following commentary is based on an interview by Z.P. Heller, editorial director of Brave New Films.
I was on liberty in Australia, dancing at a club I can't remember sometime around midnight, when it happened. The music shut off and an announcement came on: "America is under attack. Head back to your ships." This was the worst--the impossible. This was September 11, 2001.
Back at my ship, ambulance sirens blared. Hundreds of Marines stood on deck, anxiously awaiting word. Someone said the Pentagon had been attacked. My platoon sergeant stood up and delivered a fiery speech filled with "No one [expletive] with America!" and "We're going to kick some ass!" Later that night, the same sergeant turned to me asked me if I was ready.
Without giving it a second thought, I replied, "This is what I joined for."
Flash forward to a few weeks ago, as I recalled those words testifying before Senator John Kerry and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I sat where a young Kerry was once seated as he awoke the nation to the grim realities of war in Vietnam. I explained to the committee that I always desired to serve my country, ensure basic freedoms and fight for justice and the American way. This had been my dream since childhood, a way to honor my Mexican immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to give my family a better life, a way out of an East Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by gang violence. Yet what I witnessed and experienced during a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan followed by another in Iraq has forever shattered this once noble ambition.
As an infantry rifleman in the Marines Corps, I saw so much of these wars through nightly patrols. We were trained to approach a point of interest on foot, coordinating with translators whose sole vested interest in supplying us intelligence was to earn money and aid. We would gather information that often proved faulty, and question locals to the point we felt comfortable conducting a raid. After receiving an order, we would ransack homes, destroying windows and doors, chairs and tables, families and lives--detaining and arresting anyone who seemed suspicious. The problem, of course, was that it was impossible to distinguish militant Taliban members or Al Qaeda from innocent civilians. Everyone became a suspect.
In one instance, my squad leader gave me orders to pursue possible terrorists leaving the scene in which we had established a perimeter. My four-man fire team and I followed these suspects undetected for about 100 yards along an exposed ravine. When we were four feet from them, I drew my M-16 and pointed it directly at their faces, yelling, "Get down on the ground!" We beat them in search of nonexistent weapons, breaking limbs in the process. Later that day, I learned these men were innocent. Another time, my squad and I detained, beat and nearly killed a man, only to realize he was merely trying to deliver milk to his children. These raids compelled me to tell Congress we have been chasing ghosts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Amazingly, these patrols were all the same, whether I was in the desolate desert near Camp Rhino--the US-led coalition's first strategic foothold in Afghanistan--or stationed outside Basra in Iraq. The terrain was different, but what remained the same was the manner in which we carried out missions, the unconscionable acts of violence and collateral damage that followed, and the ever-present paranoia that every Muslim could be a terrorist. These raids even ended the same way. We would compensate the family whose home we had invaded, offering to fix or pay for broken furniture before moving on to the next village, where kids would throw rocks at us and give us the finger. To my knowledge, I never detained or arrested anyone guilty of a crime.
I witnessed firsthand the ineffectiveness of US military strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I didn't fully grasp the extent of these failed foreign policies or our government's deception until I returned home from war. Realizing there never were weapons of mass destruction, and that we would have difficulty tracking terrorists even if we had committed all the troops in our military, I felt as though my patriotism had been exploited for political gain. A select few were profiting from these wars, while the majority of Americans shouldered the enormous tax burden.
To me, the lesson learned in Afghanistan and Iraq was that the US flexed way too much muscle. We have ships, planes, helicopters, tanks, hovercrafts, trucks, Humvees--everything imaginable. But how effective is such military might against extremists who blend in with innocent civilians and fight guerrilla warfare? Moreover, how effective can it be when we leave civilians little alternative but to support extremists?
That is why the proposed $94.2 billion supplemental war-funding bill will be a complete waste of taxpayer dollars, as we continue to pursue a military solution for a political problem. Similarly, the 21,000 additional more troops will be a "drop in the bucket" in Afghanistan, as my esteemed colleague Andrew Bacevich has said. Bacevich, a retired colonel who served in Vietnam and lost a son in Iraq, sat next to me at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He urged Congress to question the effectiveness and immense cost of fighting the "Long War" in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Congress must hear more voices like ours before escalating the war in Afghanistan any further. More veterans need to speak out, and as a society we must get beyond the public perception that veterans are a product of war. We are not a product. We took an oath to serve and protect, to make sacrifices for the greater good. It's an oath everyone ought to honor, and not just by thanking us for our service. In my mind, we are not seeing more veterans speak out because there is a sense that if they do, they will be letting go of something they truly believe in; they will be going back on their oath and their sacrifices will have been in vain. That is not the case.
A number of veterans and I are forming a group called Vets for Rethinking Afghanistan. We will voice our dissent in Congress, testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and meet with any Representatives willing to listen. We will raise awareness about how our military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been counterproductive. We will express the dire need for the Obama administration to provide both an exit strategy and a more clearly defined mission and we will explain how dangerous it is for the US to use humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip to advance a flawed military agenda without giving diplomacy a real chance. Please join me in this cause.