Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
Author's Note: Today, March 19, marks the sixth year that the U.S. has occupied Iraq.
I often bemoan how the the media’s policy of sanitizing combat images and its failure to report what the true face of war looks like have caused the public to be detached from the carnage wrought by the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
For nearly a decade, both wars have largely been reported by the media and explained to the public by lawmakers in statistical terms; thousands of U.S. soldiers killed in combat, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis dead, and three-quarters of a million veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.
Until recently, the press has been prohibited from photographing veterans returning from combat in flag-draped coffins, and funerals for the fallen were likewise off-limits.
But by relying heavily on numbers and press releases as a way of covering both conflicts, the public has been rendered incapable of experiencing or feeling any dramatic element associated with the devastation. It’s a sad truth that the average person is unable to accurately say how many U.S. soldiers have been killed and wounded since the wars began (4,257 dead, more than 31,000 wounded, 320,000 diagnosed with brain injuries).
These are the conclusions I arrived at after reading Marine Capt. Tyler E. Boudreau’s first-person exposé of the time he spent in Iraq and the struggles he and his comrades faced in the aftermath of their deployment.
If Boudreau’s brutally honest, devastatingly accurate, hard-hitting memoir, Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, were read by the powers that be in Washington, D.C. and by the journalists assigned to cover both military conflicts, there is absolutely no way in hell the plight of our nation’s veterans would take a backseat to the issues currently dominating the evening news coverage or the topics of conversations at dinner tables throughout the country.
Boudreau’s book is so powerful and so superbly written that I found myself reading whole chapters twice just so I could study his writing style and ensure that the graphic imagery he describes is forever seared into my consciousness.
What makes Boudreau’s account such a page-turner is the descriptive nature of his prose. Reading it made me feel like I was embedded with the Marine Corps veteran. There were many instances in which I felt my heart beat faster, my eyes well up with tears, my adrenaline pump through my veins.
Describing an oncoming vehicle that may or may not be a suicide bomber, Boudreau writes:
Pulses jumped and our voices grew sharp and edgy. I leaned out the window and aimed my rifle at the truck. We struggled to see inside it, to spot some kind of clue that might tell us with any certainty whether or not the driver was a suicide bomber. My heart was racing. I was breathing hard as it drew closer and closer. Fire? Don’t fire? It was so difficult to know what to do. Will we live? Will we die? This could be it. And the truck drew closer still. And still we couldn’t seem to come up with a decision. There was no one to ask. There was no manual to reference. There was no time to think it over. There was only now, the moment, and we had to decide. In the end we resolved to hold our fire, and I was glad we did. The truck floated quietly past us without exploding into a million bits of fragmentation in our faces. We stared, agog, at the passengers, a family of four or maybe five crammed into the cab staring back at us, all agog as well.
You know that Boudreau was forced to relive his harrowing experience in Iraq in order to write a book as disturbing and heartwrenching as Packing Inferno.
The “story of Packing Inferno was conceived under fire,” exactly five years ago this month, Boudreau writes in the preface to his book. He eloquently describes how before he was sent to Iraq he had packed dozens of books into his “sea-bag,” one of which was Dante’s Inferno, which he said he didn’t recall taking, but nonetheless gave him a title for his memoir.
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