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Friday, June 18, 2004

Another Soldier's Thoughts

This email has been making the rounds. I recieved it from a civilian contractor for the Navy, but it has been reported on and elsewhere. Without further ado:
30 May 2004
Dear Friends,

This is my third letter from Iraq. I have been working myself into the right mood to do this. Today is the day. In my last two letters I have leaned toward being as upbeat as possible. This time will be different; today I want to talk about Memorial Day, but I will start off by giving my perspective on the Abu Ghraib prison problem.

First off, the investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib began back in January. That is why the first court martial was ready for trial in May. The senior people here knew about the investigation; the rest of us didn't. By the time the media "broke" the story, the investigation was almost done and the soldiers who had committed the abuses had already been rotated home.

Second, I (we) don't see all the news coverage that you in the states see. I do see some Fox News and CNN. Fox editorializes toward the right wing; CNN is the voice of the anti-war movement. I wonder that if CNN had been around in 1942 we might all be speaking German and Japanese. I can tell you this, everything I have heard on CNN is so biased, negative, and out-of-touch that I will never watch CNN for the rest of my life. That being said, when the rest of us found out about the abuses we were shocked and sickened. I think maybe more so than people back home because we are here; these are the people I see every day. The people I see every day who are going out to fix: schools, hospitals, reservoirs, power plants, and sewer systems. They do these things risking sniper fire and hidden explosives. These soldiers are not a handful of bad apples like those at Abu Ghraib, these soldiers number into the thousands. Now think for a second, how much have you seen about that on the news? I believe Abu Ghraib should have been reported, but when I see the fixation of the media on the actions of a few, when the courage shown in reconstruction and the restraint shown in combat by thousands of our people is never shown, I believe this is inexcusable. For the real story of what our people are doing here, go to Click on Coalition News and then Humanitarian Efforts.

Third, what happened on that cellblock of Abu Ghraib is what happens when leadership is not out walking around. That is true in the military or in college dorms. I haven't seen it reported in the news, but other soldiers turned in the soldiers who did this. If the dirt bags that committed those abuses had been turned loose among the troops here it would've been ugly. I haven't heard any comments about them coming from soldiers that didn't express a hope that they would get the maximum punishment. A few leaders need to get demoted too.

As per the "outrage", if you were "outraged" by this, good. I was. However, I would like to ask Arab governments and our own media elites, "Were you just as outraged by what happened under Saddam? If so, you didn't show it."

Here is what people need to understand: the interrogation of prisoners of war is a little tougher than what the typical thug gets by the local police. I went to Survival, Evasion, Rescue, and Escape (SERE) School back in 1995. I am more proud of completing that course than anything I have ever done. Also, I would never do it again. After playing hide and seek with "bad guys" in California in March, we all got caught, knocked around, froze, went hungry, sleep deprived, threatened with worse, and then interrogated.

Here's the deal: when interrogation is done correctly, people don't break so much as they leak. (The purpose of SERE is to teach you how not to leak. That is the classified part of the school.) The interrogator wants them to leak in a way so that the prisoner doesn't even know he is leaking. When someone breaks, as opposed to leaking, they usually give out a data dump of gibberish and then physiologically shuts down. A good interrogator avoids that. If you hurt them or scare them too badly, they quit leaking.

Interrogators ask the same question about ten times, ten different ways. Disoriented people leak and they don't even know it. What most Americans think of when they think of POWs being interrogated is what they remember of our pilots in North Vietnam. The abuse our people went through in Vietnam wasn't to get intelligence; it was to exploit them for propaganda purposes. I mention this to put the term "abuse" in context. When a terrorist here in Iraq or jaywalkers back in the states report jailhouse "abuse," what does it mean? When we catch a guy red-handed restocking his weapons stock and question him, withholding his TV privileges isn't enough. He won't be happy, but neither will he be destroyed or scared for life. He will tell his buddies, "I didn't tell them anything." In fact he will have told us a lot.

As I said, I had to work myself into a mindset to talk about this. To work around horror without out letting the horror seep into your soul is a spiritual battle. This week I worked with a National Guard soldier who had to clean up after a convoy of civilian aid workers were killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) went off on the road into Baghdad. He is a carpenter in civilian life, but this week he was out on a highway picking up arms and legs while watching out for snipers. He was cleaning up after monsters. Some other young Americans were put in charge of guarding monsters and then became monsters. Care of the soul is serious business.
That is part of the reason why I became a Navy Chaplain.

The other reason is the people. The folks I have known in the military are more interesting to be around than anybody else I know. This leads me to Memorial Day. Earlier this month I went to Camp Cooke at Taji. (To lend perspective, Taji is really north Baghdad; I am in west Baghdad.) The 39th Brigade (Arkansas National Guard) is stationed there. I didn't know any of them, but I wanted to see my home-state Guard here in Iraq. So I badgered my way into flying up there for two days. They are stationed in the old Iraqi army air defense school. Unlike downtown Baghdad, the old air defense school was turned into rubble. It is getting better, but it was like living in a junkyard.

Their first month in Iraq was tough. These soldiers patrol the roughest part of Baghdad. While I was there, the Chaplain of the 39th told me this story: One of the old troopers who came was a 52 year-old Sgt. who had already done his 20+ years and had retired. But his son was in the 39th, and when the father found out they were coming over here, he reenlisted. On their first week in country, Camp Cooke was attacked by rockets and the first rocket that landed killed the father.

I was born in 1958 and came of age when the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement were both in full swing. It has taken me years to put this into words, but I believe that as bad as that war was, the legacy of the anti-war movement was worse.

The anti-war movement gave rise to the moral superiority of non-involvement and non-commitment. While that may have worked to help draft-dodgers sleep at night, it's not much of a strategy of how to go through life. Taken to its logical conclusion the message is: don't commit to your county, don't commit to your spouse, and don't commit to your kids, church, or community. Don't commit to cleaning up your own mess or any cause that demands any more from you than rhetoric. This was the mindset in which our country was firmly stuck. Until 9/11, some woke up.

Kids came down and joined the service. To the dismay of some of their teachers, parents, and the media elites, they came down here and raised their hand in front of the flag. And they are still coming to the shock of the non-committers. The Marines have more enlisting than their two boot camps can handle.

And we are all here together for Memorial Day 2004. Old National Guardsmen, grandfathers, and single moms, Texans and Mexicans, Surfers and Rednecks. A few weeks ago an Illinois National Guardsman, mother of three, was hit six times, saved by her body armor, but lost part of her nose. She stayed on her 50 caliber, firing on the bad guys, protecting the convoy. She said she was thinking of her kids and the guys she was with.

Commitment is love acted out. It is sad that the non-committers missed that. They and their moral high-ground haven't been near a mass grave. The kids I see and eat with every day still want to help this country, in spite of getting shot at while doing it. That is love acted out. You either get it, or you don't.

During my time in Iraq I won't be able to see any of the Biblical sites that are here. But a few weeks ago in Taji I got to stand on some holy ground, where a father died when he went to war just to be with his son.

Sincerely yours,

Steven P. Unger
Multi National Corps-Iraq

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