My heart was racing and my hands were shaking, I remember. Beads of sweat had formed at my temples and my eye-protection glasses were so steamy that I had no choice but to remove them. That was against standard operating procedures, I knew, but I had to be able to see.
I pivoted my .50 caliber machine gun 180 degrees toward the muzzle flashes visible in the far distance. Although it was pitch black outside – about 3 a.m., Iraq time – there was no point in using my night-vision goggles. I could see the flashes just fine with my naked eye.
From below in the armored Humvee, my team leader shouted out, “You see ’em?”
“Yeah, I see them,” I called back. My voice sounded scratchy and weak.
I heard the sound of bullets hitting random trucks, bouncing harmlessly off the thick armored plates. It was all the proof we needed that our convoy was actually the intended target.Whoever was shooting had one chance in a million of killing any of us.
“Light ’em up!”
I held down the butterfly trigger and tried to keep the machine gun steady. I shot haphazardly and inaccurately, unable to control my nerves, and I wasn’t sure whether I was even hitting anything. I almost hoped I wasn’t.
The muzzle flashes suddenly stopped. The desert was calm and quiet once again, and our convoy, like a sleeping giant finally awakened, slowly stirred and moved on, leaving nothing but tracks behind.
I remember, once my adrenalin finally worn off, that I felt neither jubilant nor proud. In all likelihood, I had killed an Iraqi who had posed no real threat to my fellow soldiers or to the convoy I was supposed to protect.
I began to reason with myself. Perhaps I just felt bad because, as an American, love for the underdog was hardwired into my soul and the Iraqi was clearly, without a doubt, the underdog in that unequal contest. I tried to relieve my feelings of guilt. The shooter may have been an amateur but he was still evil. Worse, he was a terrorist.
Every good American knows that terrorism is the latest and most pressing threat to democracy and freedom. The United States, we are told, must wage a holy war against terrorism because the fate of the free world hangs in the balance.
The American soldier is well versed on his own role in this titanic struggle between good and evil and, consequently, he has been trained to think very highly of himself. Rather like the crusader of old, he leaves his home and travels thousands of miles to the Middle East in order to fight a people he does not know, to kill an enemy he does not understand, all the while confident that his efforts have a divine imprimatur. On his right shoulder, the American crusader bears the stars and stripes, which have replaced the cross as the new symbol of integrity and justice.
The war has changed and the lines have been redrawn. The American crusader does not fight against the “Mohammedan,” but rather the “terrorist.” The very term “terrorist” has an ominous ring to it, but its actual meaning is not really so frightening. Terrorism, after all, is just a tactic of war, and a fairly ineffective tactic at that. Terror is the tactic of the desperate man without the sophisticated accoutrements of war, the man who makes a roadside bomb out of a soda can and who, from a great distance, tries to shoot at armored military convoys with his AK-47. If terrorism is really a great threat to democracy, then democracy must be a singularly fragile thing.
Of course, terrorism is also the tactic of the man who hijacks a commercial plane and flies it into a New York City skyscraper. Although primarily a tactic of expedience, terrorism is not entirely ineffective.
The real problem with terrorism, however, at least from the viewpoint of the West, is that it is immoral and most formal definitions of terrorism try to communicate this fact. The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate…” The United Nations expanded on this definition and explained that terrorism is a tactic often used “against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury.” Putting these two definitions together, we learn that terrorism is unlawful primarily because of what it tries to do and because of whom it tries to do it to.
We are told that terrorism is evil, first, because it tries to inculcate fear. Yet almost every advanced nation has, at one point or another, engaged in fear tactics. The United States, for example, was entirely upfront about her strategy at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. military was going to “shock and awe“ the Iraqis into surrendering. The expectation was that the Iraqis would be so paralyzed with fear that they would simply give up without much of a fight. In this instance, the instruments of terror were precision bombs dropped from thousands of feet in the air, not crude roadside bombs, but the intended effect was the same.
Next, we are told that terrorists are evil because they kill innocent civilians. Then again, the recent military endeavors of the United States have resulted in their own share of civilian casualties. According to some estimates, including a recent study conducted by Brown University, the United States has killed at least 130,000 civilians in Iraq since 2003. That’s more than 43 times the number of civilians killed in New York City on 9/11.
Still, the United States, it is claimed, does not intentionally target civilians, whereas terrorists clearly do. Yet this assertion is doubly ironic coming from a nation with Hiroshima, and Nagasaki hanging over her head and whose tactics, even in the 21st century, have hardly been above reproach. More recently, the United States has been engaging so-called “terrorists“ from miles away via drone missiles.
Usually there is no proof that the people being targeted are actually combatants. So long as they fit a certain description – so long as they are of a certain age or gender – they are killed, instantly and horrifically, by the most advanced computerized weaponry the United States has at her disposal.
Although it is difficult to estimate exact casualty figures, U.S. officials have admitted that at least 4,000 people have been killed by drones in the last decade, and there is good reason to think many of these people were civilians. In May of 2013, an Air Force pilot who had operated U.S. drones came forward and admitted in an interview with NPR that he had killed many people who he suspected were actually non-combatants.
None of this is to say that the actions of the United States somehow excuse the similar actions of rogue individuals or organizations. It is to say, rather, that there is little difference between the tactics employed by the United States military and the tactics of the Muslim terrorist. The biggest difference between the two is their level of technological sophistication.
American military service members are told they are fighting against terrorism, against a tactic of war that differs only slightly from their own. They see through the façade, of course. They know the war isn’t just about tactics, but neither are they exactly sure what the war is about. They are not even sure whether their efforts are reputable or not, or whether future generations, a long time hence, will treat them with honor. This is the moral crisis of the American crusader.
There has been much bureaucratic handwringing of late over the high suicide rate among U.S. veterans, yet most of the proposed solutions entirely miss the point. Military service members do not need more briefings on suicide prevention or better access to mental health professionals. These solutions, like so much dallying around the edges, deal only with the symptoms of depression, but not with its root cause. They do not address why so many veterans feel enough anguish to take their own lives in the first place.
Certainly the moral ambiguity of the War on Terror does not help. It can offer no solace to the war-weary veteran who wants to know the reason for his efforts, and who seeks, with quiet desperation, a higher cause to anchor his soul and sanctify his actions.
The United States has dishonored her military service members by not defining or explaining, with any consistency, the nature of the so-called War on Terror. Is it a conflict between secularism and religion? Is it a war between Christianity and Islam? The American crusader deserves to know. If he cannot feel at ease about what he does, he at least deserves to know why he is doing it.
Brandon Zaffini is a senior from Columbus, Ohio majoring in Political Science.