Iraq, Star Trek, America, and Me: One Veteran’s Strange Experience of War

I remember watching news coverage of the first tanks crossing the border in 2003. Tomahawks impacting along the Tigris. The statue of Saddam coming down. And I remember thinking that was something was wrong, off, about what I was seeing.

It wasn’t that the United States had just launched an unprovoked war against the best advice of the most qualified people it had to offer it, nor that recent history in places such as Lebanon (not to mention the more distant example of Vietnam) bore out the fact that our invasion would be met with a long and committed insurgency. It wasn’t that I didn’t think any Weapons of Mass Destruction would be found – because at the time, I did. These weren’t the things that bothered me the most at the time.

No, what bothered me was that everywhere I went I saw cable news footage of firefights and Abrams tanks running over looting Iraqis cars.

And people around me cheering them on as if they were watching Monday Night Football. People with no more direct stake in those images than with the Super Bowl. This was before I was serving in the active duty military. This was happening in cafeterias, in hospital waiting rooms. This was the tenor of the times: Dick Cheney drinking human blood from a goblet while his minions discussed the merits of living outside the reality-based community. The American people were watching the first fully televised war to be fought with a professional warrior caste.

Then I realized what was off. It was quite simple, really: I was living in a dystopian science fiction novel. Maybe it was Running Man? “You’re never been safer, America! Keep buying things, get some duct tape for home defense, and maybe flip a house or two! All you have to do is watch live video from Iraq to know that we are running roughshod over those who attacked us on 9/11. We’ll even pay for this war by cutting your taxes!” I listened to the shifting rationales for the invasion offered by the Bush Administration over the coming months. After WMDs failed to materialize (I know people who as late as 2009 still believed they would turn up in Syria any day) and building a new South Korea in the heart of the Arab World lost its legs with the outbreak of the Sunni insurgency and the ensuing civil war, one argument finally seemed to gain traction with Americans:

“We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.”

I remember watching President Bush offer this argument at a press conference (I may be paraphrasing a bit), and responding:

Me: “The Iraq War has become an episode of Star Trek. The American people are unable to understand that this conflict is actually taking place somewhere, and being fought by real people. And that there will be real and terrible consequences for it.”

Four years later, I found myself in movie theater south of Kuwait City.

Myself and the 170 other Soldiers in my Company had spent 15 months running convoys from Kuwait’s container ports to Forward Operating Bases all across Iraq, travelling on many of the same roads I had seen in those first hours of news footage in 2003. Mostly the missions were monotonous, and all were conducted at night so as to minimize the impact of our operations upon Iraqi civilians. Routine maintenance issues, trouble with the commo equipment. Occasional labor disputes amongst our contracted Indian, Pakistani, and Filipino truck drivers. These long periods of general boredom were punctuated every so often by the flash of light-BOOM-smoke and debris sequence of an IED exploding or an anti-tank grenade being thrown over a concrete T-wall. The flaming wreckage of destroyed fuel tankers as signal pyres marking passage from the open desert into greater Baghdad. I remember driving past a small number of firefights near the routes we travelled on, tracer rounds careening in darkness thick with the odor and smoke of burning garbage. I remember being struck by how similar these scenarios were to the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride I had enjoyed so much at Disneyland, the long dark tunnel punctuated by scenes of Spanish rum ports being looted and burned by pirates.

And now, all of us having survived the deployment, were in a movie theater in Kuwait having our end-of-tour awards pinned on our chests by our Battalion Commander and staring up at pictures of Chris Pine as Kirk, and the guy from Shawn of the Dead as Scotty. Et cetera. You see, the cast of the new Star Trek movie had just done an AAFES/USO sponsored tour to visit The Troops in Iraq.

What was it with Star Trek? Unable to shake the memory of my realization so many years ago, I found myself thinking aloud again.

“I hope that I was Kirk.”

Even after experiencing the Iraq War for 15 months, the whole thing still didn’t seem real to me. That I had spent just short of half my time there in Kuwait, at a lavish base home to an outdoor swimming pool and visits by people like the cast of the new Star Trek movie had much to do with this.

I didn’t really start to become real for me until a few months after we returned. Depression and night terrors in some, wrecking motorcycles and wrapping cars around trees drunk for others. Dudes getting violent when they come to grips with the fact that their marriage was destroyed by that long, strange, Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

And watching friends of mine, people with much bloodier deployments than my own, experience what I refer to as “war withdrawal.” I have been graciously precluded from knowing its symptoms because my experience is characterized by an outdoor pool with trips to Iraq to buy pirated DVDs, while their’s saw them living in the same tiny compound for 15 months on the receiving end of 107mm rockets (sometimes strapped with acetylene tanks to create a lovely incendiary effect) launched from the same streets they patrol daily while dodging industrial-grade explosives planted by Iranian-trained militias. Guys who have gone on raids where they have been shot at, and have shot people, in the face and chest. I thankfully never experienced these things. But lots of people who did, start to miss them. And the dark secret of these wars is that in more extreme cases of war withdrawal, some of the same people you see being thanked for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan have been made into true, bonafide sociopaths by those same conflicts. And a few years from now, they will not have any release valve to look forward to when the deployments dry up. Weird, right?

Then I think about the generation of Iraqis born after the year 1995. A generation which will have known only sectarian violence and war against a foreign occupier. What concerns me most is two things: sectarian violence and refugee camps. While estimates vary, most agree that several million Iraqi refugees have been created as a byproduct of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with most fleeing sectarian violence. While most have settled elsewhere in Iraq, huge refugee populations live in both Syria and Jordan.

It’s a common myth that Reagan created the Taliban. This is false. The Taliban rose out the chaos and violence that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and came to be known as the Afghan Civil War. The refugee camps surrounding Peshawar in northeastern Pakistan, created by Afghans fleeing the Soviets in the 1980s, was among their chief recruiting centers in 1990s, as it was to Al Qaida. Think of it as a factory which produces illiterate, uneducated teenage boys who have nothing to lose. Then, twenty years after the United States fought Them over there, did They start fighting Us over here. Peshawar remains a nexus for both Al-Qaida and the Taliban today, more than thirty years after the start of the war which lead to its rise. Ten years of intensive U.S. involvement in the region has done nothing to address the root cause of terrorism there: abject poverty.

I thought of these alarming trends as I watched footage of the last convoy passing through the exact border crossing I know so well. The one that you can almost see the burned-out Iraqi tanks which have littered the southern Iraqi desert since 1991. When will the talking heads, when their thoughtful evening cable news programs, begin connecting these trends as they begin to converge on the far side a few years or decades from now. Maybe in places like Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or in Iran. Almost definitely in places like Fayetteville, North Carolina and Oceanside, California. Maybe even in Times Square.

Maybe by then Justin Bieber will be an Enterprise Captain.