This was the "surge" period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me. The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the "wire." Controlled detonations of insurgent duds. Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.
Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD. It turns out that it doesn't take much.
That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it. From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools. Millions displaced.
Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence. People were assigned the wrong roles -- "Why am I building a radio station? This isn't what I do. I blow things up"" -- and given no advance training or guidance. Outgoing leaders didn't overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again. Precious few contracts went to Iraqis. It was driving people out of our military.
This incompetence had profound human costs. Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds were innocent -- wrong place, wrong time -- or, poor and desperate, had worked with insurgent groups for cash, not out of an ideological commitment. Aware of this, the military wanted to release thousands of them, but they didn't know who was who; they only knew that being detained and interrogated made even the innocents dangerously angry. That anger trickled down to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. It was about as good an in-kind donation as the U.S. could have made to insurgent recruitment -- aside from invading in the first place.
So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds. I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment. But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.
Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn't aware of the U.S. ever doing anything that might demand an apology. Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there's no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name -- calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage ("stuff happens") -- or if you believe that American force is always applied righteously in a world that is justly divided into winners and losers.
A Painful Transition
An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion. I think I finally understand what it means. We see different realities, different worlds. If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are that we aren't talking about the same things. I think this explains much of modern American political dialogue.
My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality. To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their "just" desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn't actually work that way. I think this shows why Republicans put so much effort into "creat[ing] our own reality," into fostering distrust of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics, and why they won't let a campaign "be dictated by fact-checkers" (as a Romney pollster put it). It explains why study after study shows -- examples here, here, and here -- that avid consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than people who use other news sources or don't bother to follow the news at all.
Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful. I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned. I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer (because those weren't mentioned in the media we read or watched).
My transition has significantly strained my relationships with family, friends, and former colleagues. It is deeply upsetting to walk on thin ice where there used to be solid, common ground. I wish they, too, would come to see a fuller spectrum of reality, but I know from experience how hard that can be when your worldview won't let you.
No one wants to feel like a dupe. It is embarrassing to come out in public and admit that I was so miseducated when so much reality is out there in plain sight in neighborhoods I avoided, in journals I hadn't heard of, in books by authors I had refused to read. (So I take courage from the people who have done so before me like Andrew Bacevich.)
Many people see the wider spectrum of reality because they grew up on the receiving end. As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, "No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man."
Others do because they grew up in families that simply got it. I married a woman who grew up in such a family, for whom all of my hard-earned, painful "discoveries" are old news. Each time I pull another layer of wool off my eyes and feel another surge of anger, she gives me a predictable series of looks. The first one more or less says, "Duh, obviously." The second is sympathetic, a recognition of the pain that comes with dismantling my flawed worldview. The third is concerned: "Do people actually think that?"
Yes, they do .