Four returning American soldiers and their wives talk about their family at war for the last eight years during the Iraq War. Photography, Audio and Production by Max Becherer. This is a long version of a report to be published at Menshealth.com
This month America must wrestle with the meaning of the drawdown of U.S. combat troops in the seven-year war in Iraq. The media, the U.S. government, the American people and even I myself, who as a journalist spent much of the past seven years covering the conflict, must try to wade through the staggering numbers and terrible tragedy that the war has wrought in an attempt to take some meaning from it all. The figures speak for themselves: some 4,400 American soldiers gave their lives; tens of thousands of American soldiers paid with life-long wounds; the U.S. taxpayer shelled out $900 billion. Still more staggering, however, is the number of Iraqis who were killed during the war—with estimates running from 50,000 to as high as 80,000. Numbers that should be heartbreaking are numbing.
On my recent trip to Iraq, any clear success was hard to see. Iraqis continue to suffer through the summer heat with just a few hours of electricity a day. Suicide attacks still kill crowds of civilians and assassinations remain commonplace. Yet in the middle of the chaos, the U.S. endeavor in Iraq has convinced one group of Iraqis to embrace the American vision for the country and make the struggle for the future of Iraq their own. It strikes me that members of Iraq’s security forces stand as the answer to the 4,400 white headstones in cemeteries across America. The impression left on the minds of these Iraqi men is the actual sum of all other intentions. It is the thousands of little interactions between one American and one Iraqi that, in many ways, may be the sole bright spot in a war still searching for its legacy.
Below are the translated interviews of four Iraqis who took up arms alongside the Americans to fight for the future of Iraq. These men put their trust in the Americans who came to their country. These men suffered the most visible of physical wounds to mark their sacrifice, wounds that so many American soldiers suffered themselves. Their words are translated from Arabic to English with as faithful an interpretation as I could find. They serve as a window into their perspective. Each sentence is borne from hard experience. Each word helps fill in the blanks to the question, “What was it all for?”
Job: Iraqi Army Soldier
Injury: Double leg amputation above the knee
Q: How were you injured?
A: “I was injured in the area of Abu-Ghraib. I was with the cohort II, army brigade 24, the sixth division. During my duty an explosive resulted in amputating my two legs. The Iraqi Army took me to the medical unit in our division. The friendly side, (the Americans), were there by accident at the headquarters and transferred me to their headquarters and then to the Ibn Sina American military hospital. I am indebted to them. My injury was very serious and they saved my life. I saw some of the American doctors but unfortunately I don’t know their names. I wish I could have stayed in touch or seen them because I am in their debt. I wish to see them now.”
Q: Did you work with the Americans?
A: “Yes, we always made joint raids with the friendly side in the area of Abu-Ghraib and we had very good situations with them because they are nice and educated people. One time an American soldier told me: “Whenever I see you, you are smiling. Why do you smile?” I told him that I’m like this. I like to smile. He said: “That’s what I like about you. You’re always optimistic.” I had many American friends, but I only knew them by face. They came sat beside us, laughing and chatting. I chatted with them. I used to play aikido, we used to chat, but unfortunately I didn’t memorize their names. I only know their faces, we used to laugh and chat only.”
Q: Is it the right time for the Americans to withdraw and do you believe that the Iraqi army is capable of taking over?
A: “Iraqi soldiers are loyal and they can take over but the Americans, because they have advanced weapons and because they are the first in the world, they are capable of defending Iraq and there is no need for them to withdraw now. We care about what the people want. Naturally, the people do not want an occupation but the American side came as a liberating country not as an occupying country. Some mentalities, because they are not aware of many things, believe as we used to think during the old era, but this is wrong. They are not occupiers. They are liberators and they rid us of something my children nor I would not have been able to get rid of. They rid us of something that we can say is like Azrael. (note: Azrael is the death angel but he means it in a negative way, meaning they rid us of a terrible nightmare).”
“…..back to the army. First, the Iraqi government: we haven’t formed a government yet. We have no government yet. See how long now. No president, no parliament speaker, no prime mine, no members. The country is in between. Let’s form a government, have an army with enough equipment that is capable to control terrorists. Till now we don’t have this. We only have salaried soldiers in the street with weapons. What’s their job? No job. That’s what we have. If we were like the American army controlling the situation I believe the Americans would not stay after that. They themselves would have left.”
Q: Who helps and cares for your at home and at the hospital? The psychiatrist told us you tried to commit suicide twice. What is the reason?
A: “When I was first injured, the friendly side was treating me and they were nice, they didn’t make me feel my handicap. They understood the situation. They knew how to deal with me. But when I moved to Iraqi hospitals … I was thrown like, God save you, any animal, nobody taking care of me. Finally, I, personally, and my family because they are concerned for me, moved me to a private hospital. I was spending my own money. Instead of saving money for my future, it seems it is not my destiny to save this money. I spent all my money on treatment. I saw that suddenly from a whole person I became half a person’s body. I felt depressed and thought of committing suicide more than once. I had tried to do something for myself, for my children and the future. Now that I’ve become handicapped how would I be able to work or get something for myself, because by nature I like to depend on myself. I don’t like to ask people to bring or do things for me. You know Iraq has become a country of rich and poor. Rich people benefit but the poor have no luck in this country. We do all we can just to make an honest living, but no luck in this life.”
Q: Who helped you get over this phase?
A: “Most of the time, my family were talking to me saying this is God’s fate. Then I thought let me start a new life. The most important thing is that I am alive. When one thinks of other people’s worse tragedies one’s own seems less tragic. I saw other disabled persons who are helpless. It’s good I had my hands and brain to help me. I started accepting what happened. My mother helped me most, my father, my brother and sister, for example, brought me the things I wanted. As a person who treated me, my superior helped me become stronger, a gentleman with us at the Muthanna airport, Abu-Fatma, the psychiatrist, sort of quieted me down and told me that God willing things were gonna be alright. He helped me to sort of get over the injury.”
Q: Do you regret the injury?
A: “It is not a matter of regretting something that happened to me. It’s God’s fate. I sort of regret and do not regret. In the case of friendly side, the American and European countries, soldiers are dear, if something happens to them or if they suffer an injury like mine they provide them with the house, the car, things they need, special places, they lead a comfortable life. In our case in Iraq when I go to the street people look at me. When I wanna get married, when you ask for someone’s hand in marriage they ask you what is your future, what will the Iraqi government give you so that we can guarantee our daughter’s future? Look, I regret only one thing. First of all, I didn’t find attention from the Iraqi government. Suddenly, this soldier becomes like a torn paper that they throw away. No rights. They do not think: “This soldier. What happened to him? Here. Take a piece of land, take a car, etc..” So that one feels taken care of because I found attention from the Iraqi government. We used to stand a lot in the sun, we walked the streets at night while people slept, we didn’t know when we would die, we jeopardized our lives for our country and after that we were thrown away like waste.”
Q: What do you want to tell the American or European people?
A: “As for the American side, they are the country of humanity. I prefer they find me a solution to rid us of our suffering. Some simple help because we can’t find much in this country.”
Job: Iraqi Army Soldier
Injury: Right arm amputation above elbow.
Q: How were you injured?
A: “One day while on patrol in Mosul in May of 2005 a car bomb exploded near me.”
Q: Can you tell me the names of US soldiers who shared the fighting with you?
A: “Yeah, I remember my friend with whom I played. We always met, chatted, sat in the room, went out on patrols together. He always depended on me. He told me: “Mohamed. You have a big body.” And, Rice, a dark American. They like me very much because I have a big body, I was with them all the time, and I am fearless. I went with them anywhere. They like me very much and they went out on patrols with me.”
Q: Do you believe it is suitable for the Americans to leave Iraq? Is the Iraqi army at the present time able to take over from the Americans?
A: “I believe it is not suitable for the Americans to leave now. Because Iraq is now in a crisis and if they leave it would be chaos. Iraqi airplanes now do not fly. It has to be an American airplane to provide protection in case of street wars or anything. American airplanes protect the country. I believe it is not in Iraq’s interest if the Americans leave.”
Q: Do you mean that the government at the time being is incapable, still new?
A: “The government now is not able. The government is now in dispute. It hasn’t managed to form its own government, let alone being able to protect the country from a sectarian war. If the Americans leave I don’t believe there will be more security, I don’t believe there will be more security than now.”
Q: You now suffer from your wounds. Do you regret this or are you proud because the sacrificed?
A: “I am proud of this, because I didn’t go for something that’s not good. I gave my blood and right arm and hand for Iraq, and secondly for my family and for them to live the right way. I didn’t do something wrong. I am proud of this thing because I sacrificed for my country and family.”
Q: What do you think for the future?
A: “My optimism for the future is that I sacrificed for Iraq, even if my children and grand children, as long as I gave this thing, even my son will be used to sacrifice instead of taking another path. He will consider that that’s what his father did and he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps.”
Q: Who helps you at home, your family, your friends?
A: “When I first was wounded, the right help came from my family but after some time there were problems. I then got married, and when I got married I felt comfortable. My wife, you know, my social and married life are now comfortable, thank God.”
Name: Major Hussin Brisam Eidan
Job: Member of the Anti-Terrorism Forces, At Special Operations Head Office.
Injury: Left leg and finger amputation
Q: How were you injured?
A: “My injury occurred on the 3rd April, 2009. It happened as I was going on leave. A bomb was planted in my vehicle in Al-Sadeyya. My car actually belongs to the Government. It’s a civilian car. After driving for half an hour, from Al-Sadeyya to Al-Karrada, The blast took place. They took me to a few hospitals. Ibn Al-Nafies Hospital was the first. Then, to Al-Kendi Hospital. Then, the Military Unit took me to Ibn Sina Hospital inside the Green Zone. Which is run by the American Friends. And there, the left leg was removed, as well as my finger.”
Q: Did you work with the Americans?
A: “Yes, we were in combat together. At most of our missions we were with the Friends.”
Q: Can you remember any of their names and what you did together?
A: “Many names come into memory, as I worked together with our Friends. I served with Friends in all my missions, all but one as I recall, and that was for trial purposes. They wanted to see if we could do it without the Americans. One was Major Glayman, he worked with me for a while. And when my injury took place, he was there, and visited me at the Ibn Sina Hospital. Our Friends were serving for three months each with us, then they got replaced by another team. So, there are more names than I could tell you. There’s Major Sam, Captain Ben, Major Lemon, many names.”
Q: Do you believe that the Iraqi army is capable of taking over security?
A: “Yes, now the Iraqi Army is almost fully in charge of security tasks, except with logistic support and Air support, as we get that from our friends. So, once there is political stability in the country, and a “government” is formed, it would be possible for the Friends and Multi-National Forces to leave. And the Iraqi Army will be in control of the situation.”
Q: Is it the right time for the Americans to withdraw?
A: “At this time, this is not possible, as there is no political stability.”
Q: Do you regret the injury?
A: “I’m definitely proud of this because I offered this to my country. I have chosen the military career due to my passion for this line of work. Expecting I could be injured or even killed. This is all part of our duties. Because we raid major strong criminals, so, we were expecting this. Expecting that we, officers, would receive injuries. We expected this.”
Q: Do you receive good care at the clinic? Is your care expensive?
A: “Not for money, everything here is for free. Because the center is a military installation, and is under the Ministry of Defense. So, it’s for free. So, they look after us, but they seem to be a bit short on funds. They could use some improvements of some material, equipment, training courses to affiliates…. All this would make better this center and improve its function.”
Q: Is there anything you want to tell the American people?
A: “I request from the American Government, or the American Embassy, to provide support to our injured men in Iraq. Because we lack some equipment as I told you. Also, there isn’t that much attention. I’m requesting a US Visa to receive medical treatment in the U.S. because I saw the American wounded who came to visit a few times. They had artificial limbs, and acted as if they didn’t lose any limbs, and walked naturally. There was even a Captain who said, ‘After this trip to Iraq, I’ll be heading back to Afghanistan to visit my unit to thank those serving in my unit in Afghanistan.’”
Name: Nashaat Abas Hassan
Job: Member of the Sawa or the “awakening” militias created by the Americans as a way to bring Sunnis to the side of the Iraqi government and away from extremist groups. These groups continue to function under the Iraqi government.
Injury: Partial right foot amputation
Q: How were you injured?
A: “During a clearing operation I was with American soldiers. I volunteered to help search a house suspected of housing militants. When I entered the building a mine exploded and wounded him. The American military took me away on a helicopter to an American medical hospital.”
Q: What is the training you obtained from the American and the Iraqi armies?
A: “We received good training from the American army. They trained us on fighting and weapons. After that, the American forces gave us the authority to shoot at or arrest armed persons we see. Compared to this, the Iraqi forces took away our weapons and gave every four persons one gun. That’s why when we saw armed persons we weren’t able to shoot them except with an order from the Iraqi forces.”
A: Do you believe this is a suitable and good time for the Americans to leave Iraq?
Q: “It is not a good time for the American forces to withdraw. It is not a good time for the American forces to withdraw because sectarianism would return. The militias also still exist and operate. It would be dangerous. It is preferable for them to stay until the government is formed and the militias are over.”
A: Do you trust the American army or the new Iraqi army?
Q: “I trust the American forces through their promises and what they say to us. They fulfilled their promises to us. As for the Iraqi forces, they haven’t done anything. They broke the promises they made to us.”
Q: You, of course, now have a permanent injury from the time you fought with the Americans? Are you proud of this thing, of having done this thing or do you regret it?
A: “I regret this thing that I’ve done. But I am proud that I wasn’t martyred because that would make Al-Qaeda happy, if we are killed, I mean. That’s why I have now returned to my work.”
Something about the flags and brass bands was familiar. The grass under the boots of Gen. David H. Petraeus had me thinking about the backyard, poolside, barbeque my sister would be throwing on this day. That’s when Dusan Vranic, the veteran AP photographer, bumped into me with his dangling cameras and frayed photo vest. “Haven’t we seen this before?” he said. Then I remembered. In September of 2008 he and I had arrived at the old Saddam Hussein Palace in Baghdad for the change of command ceremony from Gen. Petraeus to Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. The world’s largest chandelier hung from the ceiling and soldiers crowded every corner of the massive hall to get a look at two generals who had pulled off the unlikely feat of pulling Iraq away from an all-out civil war and bringing it to a slow simmer of unrest, slow enough to make speeches that said everything but “victory.”
Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates addressed the crowd that day.
“When General Petraeus took charge 19 months ago, darkness had descended on this land. Merchants of chaos were gaining strength. Death was commonplace. Around the world, questions mounted whether a new strategy – or any strategy, for that matter – could make a real difference.
As we all remember too vividly, those early months of the surge were tough. Casualties were high. Troops moved out of fortified bases and into the communities they were charged to secure – 24 hours a day in the thick of an unrelenting fight. You all had to adapt – and adapt you did. The principles of counterinsurgency were embraced at every level. Our guns and steel were matched by flexibility, creativity, and hard-won knowledge of a culture where shame and honor often mean a great deal more than hearts and minds. To these classic methods were added groundbreaking approaches never before seen or conceived in the history of warfare.
Slowly, but inexorably, the tide began to turn. Our enemies took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget. Reinforced and fortified by our own people, the soldiers of Iraq found new courage and confidence. And the people of Iraq, resilient and emboldened, rose up to take back their country.”
Under a July 4th sun, and in the shade of pine trees, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was not in attendance. It was Gen. Petraeus who gave the keynote address to the gathering of Afghan and international civilian and military dignitaries.
General David H. Petraeus said:
“As each of you knows well, we are engaged in a tough fight. After years of war, we have arrived at a critical moment. We must demonstrate to the Afghan people, and to the world, that Al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world. And with the surge in ISAF forces and the growth of our Afghan partners, we have a new opportunity to do just that.
We are engaged in a contest of wills. Our enemies are doing all that they can to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people. In so doing, they are killing and maiming innocent Afghan civilians on a daily basis. No tactic is beneath the insurgents; indeed, they use unwitting children to carry out attacks, they repeatedly kill innocent civilians, and they frequently seek to create situations that will result in injury to Afghan citizens.
In answer, we must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and ISAF forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win. That is our clear objective.”
Even the speeches of the day sounded the same. The only difference today is the one that really matters. This is not Iraq.
If the difference in Iraq was that, as Secretary Gates says, “… the people of Iraq, resilient and emboldened, rose up to take back their country,” in the course of five years, then it is a hard question to answer as to why the Afghan people have not grown tired of the war in nine years and rise up to take back their country. An even harder question to face is if they do rise up to take back their country, who will they chose to wrestle it from?
Visit my “Critical Moment: Afghanistan 2010″ Photo essay: