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,

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

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

© 2023 The Nation