Interrupted patriotism

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

“Don’t call our brave young men war criminals.”

Well, there’s the gauntlet, arriving as e-mail, not a glove at my feet, yet bristling with the same affronted honor and moral outrage over something I’d written that, a few generations back, might have been followed by a challenge to a duel. Red vs. blue at 50 paces!

This is personal — this war, these casualties. Any criticism of it seems to dishonor the troops and sully something sacred, as though the heart of the national divide is whether God still blesses America. Absorbing the emotional charge of some of my correspondents is unnerving; they put me on the side that says “He” doesn’t. That would make me, at best, unpatriotic, and at worst a traitor.

OK, I accept the challenge. It is precisely here, in the midst of these white-with-rage emotions, that those of us who oppose the war and the direction George Bush is driving the country must stand our ground. The future of patriotism itself is at stake.

I insist on interrupting the patriotism that consists more of pride than skepticism, that requires an enemy, that tolerates torture more than criticism, that quotes the Founding Fathers to justify the occupation of Iraq, and that sees America as an unbroken string of glorious military stands, from Bunker Hill to Iwo Jima . . . to Fallujah.


“We killed the man. We fired at a cyclic rate of 500 bullets per vehicle. The company gunnery sergeant came running over and began yelling, ‘You just shot a guy with his hands up.’”

The speaker is Jimmy Massey, a former Marine staff sergeant quoted recently in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Honorably discharged last year and now struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he testified recently before Canada’s immigration board on behalf of U.S. Army deserter Jeremy Hinzman, who is seeking asylum in Canada.

In the United States, Hinzman’s options are military prison or redeployment to Iraq, where he would be forced to commit the sort of war crimes Massey described. “He and his fellow Marines shot and killed more than 30 unarmed men, women and children,” according to the Globe and Mail. Earlier, Hinzman, a paratrooper, had testified, “We were told to consider all Arabs as potential terrorists . . . to foster an attitude of hatred that gets your blood boiling.”

This is a war too many patriots have avoided looking at closely and have defended primarily with heartfelt platitudes. Yet surely the Fourth of July tradition they invoke has nothing to do with storming hospitals and mosques, handcuffing patients, putting journalists in cages or deliberately bombing health clinics to rubble.

And surely no defense of this cynical and desperate war takes into account the Kafkaesque ordeal of Sgt. Frank “Greg” Ford, a counterintelligence agent with 30 years of military service who, in June 2003, while stationed in Samarra, witnessed five incidents of torture and abuse of detainees at his base.

According to a recent account by David DeBatto at, when Ford reported what he saw to his commanding officer, he was ordered to retract the allegations. He refused to do so and, within 36 hours, Debatto said, Ford was strapped to a gurney and medevac’d out of Iraq, first to Landstuhl, Germany, then to the States, where he underwent eight months of psychological testing at U.S. bases. Nothing was found to be “wrong with his head” and he was eventually given an honorable discharge.

A year after Ford stumbled on that dirty secret, of course, the whole world learned the truth about the U.S. torture gulag.

This is an unnecessary, falsely promoted, shockingly cruel war; its lasting legacy will not be the spread of democracy but the justification of torture. I wish long life and a speedy journey home to every GI, but the only troops I can fully support are those who refuse to obey orders. There are more and more of them, and they are America’s heroes.

The court of world opinion has declared this an illegal war, making every Iraqi death we cause a war crime — and that total, according to the prestigious British medical journal Lancet, could be as high as 100,000. The one war criminal I’d like to see brought to justice for this is the one we recently handed another four years in office.