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Iraq: Act Without Thinking

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Berkeley residents have made two superb documentaries about the long-term impact of the war in Iraq: No End in Sight and Soldiers of Conscience. No End in Sight asks Why did the occupation fail? It considers Bush Administration decisions that turned the Iraqis against the U.S. and guaranteed the rise of the insurgency. Soldiers of Conscience asks What is this war doing to us? It studies the impact of Iraq military service on the lives of four soldiers and, by extension, all Americans. No End in Sight reprises questions addressed in recent books and articles, notably Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor and The Assassins' Gate by George Packer. The documentary examines six decisions that guaranteed the occupation would fail: not sending enough troops to keep the peace; moving responsibility for the occupation from the Department of State - where advance planning had been done - to the Department of Defense - where no planning had been done; not stopping the looting; not establishing an interim Iraqi government; De-Ba'thification - prohibiting all members of Saddam's Ba'th Party from holding public office; and disbanding the Iraqi Army. Charles Ferguson - the director, producer and writer of No End in Sight - dissects these decisions by interviewing many of the principals: notably former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former Iraq Ambassador Barbara Bodine, former Iraq Czar Jay Garner, former Iraq Army liaison Paul Hughes, former head of the National Intelligence Council Robert Hutchings, and Senior DOD Executive Walter Slocombe. What emerges is a familiar story: the White House was locked into their view of Iraq and didn't want contradictory information. No End in Sight tells this tragedy from the perspective of Americans who wanted to do the right thing, who believed our mission was to free the Iraqi people and to establish a model democracy. Many of the interviewees were career civil servants but some are military men and women who risked their lives in Iraq; notably Marine Lieutenant Seth Moulton whose poignant words end the film: "Don't tell me that [this] is the best America can do. That makes me angry." Soldiers of Conscience was produced and directed by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan. The documentary considers the moral/psychological impact of military service in Iraq. It begins with a remarkable statistic: in World War II only 25 percent of American soldiers who had a chance to fire their weapon at the enemy, actually did so. The military saw this as a problem and developed "reflexive fire training," a technique to condition American soldiers to kill without thinking. In the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars, the firing rates went up until 85 to 95 percent of American soldiers were willing to fire on the enemy. No one has compiled statistics for the Iraq war but the firing rate is believed to be near 100 percent; the film's grim images of Iraqi dead and wounded appear to confirm this. Soldiers of Conscience observes, "The problem with reflexive fire training is that it bypasses the moral process." Camilo Mejia, one of four U.S. soldiers whose experience is the heart of the documentary, chillingly recalls shooting a young Iraqi without thinking. Mejia, Joshua Casteel, Kevin Benderman, and Aidan Delgado all decided they were conscientious objectors and requested an end to their military service. Casteel and Delgado were quickly ushered out. Mejia and Benderman first served time in jail. Interestingly, both Casteel and Delgado changed after serving at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Benderrnan and Mejia came to their decision after returning to the U.S. and reflecting upon what they'd seen and done in Iraq. While Soldiers of Conscience provides fascinating insight into the moral dilemmas posed by military service in Iraq and the brave decisions made by four soldiers, it leaves unanswered an important question: what are the long term moral/psychological affects of reflexive fire training? Statistics indicate that record numbers of Iraq war veterans suffer from psychological ailments, most notably Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. (The Army suicide rate is also at a 26-year high.) This has burdened the agencies charged with helping our veterans. It also has had a negative impact on our economy, as many of the psychologically impaired returnees cannot resume their former occupations. No End in Sight and Soldiers of Conscience demonstrate that America now practices decision-making that bypasses the ethical process. We teach "reflexive fire training" so that our soldiers will kill without thinking. No End in Sight proves that high-ranking Bush Administration officials made snap decisions about the occupation of Iraq without adequately considering the long-term consequences - they fired without thinking. That's what's profoundly disturbing about both of these excellent documentaries: they provide further evidence that America abandoned critical thinking in Iraq.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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