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Laila Al-Arian Headshot

John McCain Dismisses the War's Collateral Damage

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Sen. John McCain was asked in an interview yesterday when U.S. forces should begin withdrawing from Iraq. "That's not too important," McCain responded dismissively. "What's important is the casualties in Iraq," he continued, referring to the more than 4,000 American troops killed since the invasion. While the Republican nominee has said he would maintain the US occupation of Iraq for 100 years if necessary, he now seeks to soothe a war-weary American public by pledging to keep U.S. casualties at a minimum if he becomes commander-in-chief.

In an interview with David Letterman last April, McCain conceded that the Iraqi death toll was "in the hundreds of thousands." In fact, according to a survey by the well-regarded British polling agency, Opinion Research Business, more than 1 million Iraqi civilians have been killed since the occupation began, a figure significantly higher than previously reported. Even after acknowledging the horrendous toll the occupation has exacted on Iraqi civil society, McCain insists that withdrawal is "not too important." The only factor that McCain deems worthy of concern is American military casualties -- and even the prospect of more dead troops has not deterred him from his war cheerleading.

The impact of the occupation on Iraqi society is a subject that has been overlooked by not only McCain, but by most of his peers as well. The topic of US atrocities against Iraqi civilians is too sensitive, meanwhile, for the mainstream American media to touch. Thus essential questions remain largely unexamined: What do ordinary Iraqis whose lives have been upended by the violence of the occupation want? Do they want American soldiers to remain garrisoned in their cities, indiscriminately raiding their homes, and manning dangerous checkpoints in their neighborhoods? Perhaps the withdrawal of our troops from their country is important, after all.

Six months ago, veteran war reporter Chris Hedges and I embarked on an intensive project to answer these questions. We wanted to document and reveal the ugly, under-acknowledged underbelly of the occupation. To do this, we interviewed more than 50 Iraq war combat veterans on the record about their experiences with Iraqi civilians. Many of them described witnessing, and even participating in, atrocities against unarmed Iraqis. Chris and I discovered that war crimes against Iraqi non-combatants have been far more widespread than is commonly known.

We reported our findings in a new book, Collateral Damage: America's War Against Iraqi Civilians. Our sources comprised the largest number of named eyewitnesses from within the US military to have spoken on the record. In vivid detail, they revealed to us that the U.S. military is not the stabilizing force politicians like McCain have insisted it is. The Iraqis they encountered came to see our military as simply another armed group among many beating a path of bloodshed and misery everywhere it goes to advance its own narrow mission.

Sergeant Dustin Flatt recounted to us the bloody aftermath of a shooting in Mosul in January 2005 that occurred when an elderly Iraqi couple zipped past a checkpoint:

"The car was approaching what was in my opinion a very poorly marked checkpoint, or not even a checkpoint at all, and probably didn't even see the soldiers," he said. "The guys got spooked and decided it was a possible threat, so they shot up the car. And they [the couple's corpses] literally sat there in the car for the next three days while we drive by them day after day."

"It's a battle zone," Flatt continued. "I think Americans don't understand that it's absolute chaos and it's beyond what you can imagine." And sadly, this incident was not uncommon. We heard many stories like it. In each case, the victims were different, but all were nameless and faceless.

Some of the soldiers and Marines we interviewed told us they believed in the war before they were deployed, but once they reached Iraq, they felt they had no mission and no purpose. That frustration often translated into a deep resentment, even hatred, of Iraqis, the very people they were ostensibly sent to help and protect. "I felt like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people," Sergeant Ben Flanders told us. "The only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the other guys I was with. And everybody else be damned."

We were astounded by the honesty and depth with which these troops approached their testimony. With no one around to hear their stories, it was as if they used the interviews as therapy sessions. Many of the veterans are young college students. They feel alienated from their peers, who they say only care about pop culture and their immediate surroundings. The war, it seems to them, affects few Americans outside of the military community.

"A lot of guys supported that whole concept that, you know, if they don't speak English and they have darker skin, they're not as human as us, so we can do what we want," Specialist Josh Middleton said. At home, young soldiers are yelled at and ordered around, but in Iraq, he said, "forty-year old Iraqi men look at us with fear and... we have this power that you can't have. That's really liberating."

America's occupation of Iraq has destroyed not only the people suffering under it, but the troops who were asked to carry it out. A generation of Americans will suffer long-term psychological damage. The veterans will be haunted by this war, possibly for the rest of their lives. Deciding to share their dark memories with us was an act of tremendous moral courage, one that deserves respect and acknowledgment.

While many veterans felt they had no purpose serving in an unnecessary war, they say now that they're back they've found one: showing their fellow Americans a side of war and occupation that is too often hidden from view. If only John McCain would listen to them.