What Was Asked of Us

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March 7, 2007

"I found myself in a highly civilized world ignoring the Vietnam War . . . . Nobody I knew even talked about Vietnam, making it a very difficult situation to return to." ~ Oliver Stone, movie director and Vietnam veteran

Imagine yourself, never having left America before and only recently out of school and, suddenly in a foreign land. Now imagine yourself as a heavily-armed, heavily-armored teenager, sweating under 50 pounds of gear in 110 degree heat, having to tell a beaten, occupied people what to do. Imagine not knowing the local language. Imagine having conquered that country, having the war declared 'over' and then having the fighting intensify.

What Was Asked of Us, by Trish Wood and Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller, mostly succeeds in putting the reader into the boots of the conquering US soldier on the ground. And then puts the reader into the body armor as occupiers.

'Most of the time I was pretty calm . . . . At other times I had to be in the middle of a bunch of Iraqis that weren't doing what you wanted them to . . . . It's a frustrating situation to have to act outside of your nature,' said cavalry scout/sniper Garett Reppenhagen. 'The reasons why soldiers do half the shit they do is mostly out of fear of punishment . . . what motivates these kids is fear of being punished.'

We discover Reppenhagen is among the most reflective soldiers interviewed, one of the more confessional voices in a revelatory book.

Some soldiers admit a thrill of combat. Like USMC veteran Matthew Winn. 'I'm glad that I joined and got to see some combat . . . . I don't think I was ever scared. I know it sounds like a typical guy, but I don't think I was ever scared. Combat was just something I always wanted to do, and I enjoyed doing that. I had adrenaline--I guess I'm an adrenaline junkie, but it was fun.'

Yet the war eventually took a toll on everyone. As war veteran Hemingway once wrote: 'The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.'

'I started bawling,' admitted Ken Davis. I just started crying. And I said, 'God, you picked the wrong guy for this job. You picked the wrong guy to be in this country.' Davis found himself at the center of the Abu Ghraib atrocities. He tried to report the abuses to his superior but was told to shut up. 'Military intel is in charge of the entire compound,' a lieutenant told him. After the scandal exploded, Davis asked: 'I don't believe it was just a few bad apples. I'm not that gullible. I am not going to be lied to by a government that I would have given my life for in Iraq.'

Infantryman Joseph Hatcher concurred. 'We're in the country for the oil . . . . There is no connection to 9/11. There's no reason for us to be there. We're walking down the street telling people we're there to help them, and all night long we just kill each other. If I was a citizen there and someone came in and tried to take over my country, take over my city . . . . I would be out on the street with every single one of them.'

In country from Feb 2004 to March 2005, Hatcher admitted his bias. 'I have so many problems with this war and this military, and this government. It's hard for me to talk about it because I don't know where to direct my frustration.'

Mostly the frustration spills from the pages of the book, much of it directed at the mission, or lack of one.

'You know, by the time I arrived in Iraq, I realized we weren't going in after WMD, I was there as a cop, a fireman, a sewage-waste manager,' said Brady Van Engelen. Shot in the head, he survived.

'Our idea was to use the neighborhood people to come out and clean the garbage up,' said Jonathon Powers, about his stint in Baghdad. 'It would have cost us just forty dollars a week to pay for trucks, garbage bags . . . . It turns out the CPA wouldn't give us the forty dollars a week . . . . We kept looking at each other like, what the fuck are we doing? They needed a sewage solution. Forty bucks a week for a fifty-thousand person sector and we couldn't get it done.'

A sense of hopelessness soon overshadows the initial optimism of the interviewed soldiers. 'We deal with, like, stress in situations like that in strange ways,' said Reppenhagen, reflecting on the futility. 'I don't know, its just--'Shit, did you see that kid's arm? That fucking thing went right over the fucking Humvee.' In situations that are just so horrible, sometimes all you can do is laugh.'

'These kids are really putting themselves on the line and you feel bad that you can't do more for them,' Said Army surgeon Earl Hecker. 'This is an injury war . . . . I saw injuries that I'll never forget. This is the secret side of the war. Nobody knows about it. Nobody talks about it. Nobody addresses it. Nobody looks at it.'

Readers might think I'm over-emphasizing the negative, that the book cannot be as overtly anti-war as I imply. I'll leave it to each of you to decide for yourselves. My only complaint(s) is: the 30 soldiers interviewed are rarely identified by rank and they are too few. There should have been more of them. No one can fault them for their candor, however.

'Right now there's this cold and calculated side of the war that just accepts tragedy for what it is, and doesn't dwell on its sorrowful nature,' observed Army guardsman, Benjamin Flanders. 'This is what happens when people speak to each other with rifles.'

To their everlasting credit, the interviewers left a hefty dose of soldierly rage in the pages. This book is not your typical, PG friendly local newspaper, and thank God for that. All the profanity--and war is the biggest profanity of all--is left intact.

'What the fuck was this for, you know,' wondered Jeff Englehart. 'What the fuck was this for? I hope Bush is happy.'

'The 'Support the Troops' ribbons on vehicles began to look like swastikas,' Reppenhagen added, once back in the USA. 'Because it's really 'Support the War,' not 'Support the Troops.' It's a guilt-free way of saying: 'I've done my duty. I support the troops. Look, I've got the sticker,' when it's a bunch of bullshit.'

'I don't like to admit that I was directly at hand hurting people,' confessed Garett Reppenhagen. 'In the end I couldn't stand up to my convictions and I went . . . . I don't think it's going to be anytime soon that I can just let myself off the hook . . . . If I really, really get into it, I don't think that I'm going to come back out of it for a long while. America might have to change before I can change.'

What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War

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Douglas Herman's picture
Columns on STR: 133

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.