June 29, 2007
THE PROBLEM OF PERCEPTION
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 6/29/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com
The problem of perception colors how people view this war. This war, whatever one's personal feelings, is a complex thing. Its history, people, and factions are as diverse as they are dangerous. There are no easy answers or clear-cut truths in this war, and yet people like to behave -- especially on both ends of the media -- as though there are. I find this disconcerting.
Every day I read the blogs and see the same set of opposing arguments: either people assume that this place is a cakewalk or that it's a hellhole. No shades of gray; no middle ground. Everyone does it. Nobody outside of this war seems to have an accurate picture of what goes on here, and even then, it's so easy to let one's politics cloud one's observations.
I can't begin to describe the difficulty I have in capturing this place fairly. My own mother, bless her, sent me a care package a while back, as she is known to do. It contained the usual items -- snacks, magazines, personal hygiene items -- but what made it remarkable was the presence of a shopping bag filled with cans of Silly String. For those playing the home game, Silly String has been used in the past as a tool for detecting tripwires during house-to-house raids. When my mother mentioned this I had to graciously explain to her, "You know, Mom, raiding houses isn't really part of my job."
And I suppose that's really where the problem lies, isn't it? This war is unique in that more than ever we are able to receive real-time coverage on its progress, not merely from embedded journalists, but also from those of us wearing the uniform. It's an interesting dynamic, and one in whose shaping I'm grateful to have a hand. But it's important to remember, also, that all conflict is inherently political, nowhere more obviously than here. Not only does the politics of a writer affect how said writer shapes the narrative, but indeed the experience that gives rise to the narrative can have a hand in shaping the writer's politics.
It seems to me that people back home -- the pundits, the media, the activists, the wives and parents and children -- get their information from what they see of us. Accordingly, what they see of us is divided into two extremes. People only see either the Grunts or the Pogues. The Grunts are the Infantrymen, raiding homes, staring at death daily, and going months at a time without so much as a phone call or a letter from home. The Pogues are the rest; the support or otherwise noncombat soldiers who may or may not even go outside the wire.
Everyone's experience of deployment is a little different, so it's unfair to cast all experiences in the same mold. People see stories of Infantry guys watching their squadmates die and murdering Iraqi civilians, and assume that I personally have seen levels of Hell of which I have had no taste. Conversely, people read the blogs of career soldiers and Pogues, and perhaps get an image of this place that is a little sunnier than expected. People want to lump our stories into the either/or. All or none. And that's not really fair.
Like it or not, I am a Pogue. I still go outside the wire, yes, and I have indeed been mortared, rocketed and shot at. I have personally felt the hot whine of passing bullets singe my eardrums. But it's important to remember that I belong to a specialized field, and thus, until my squadmates and I are actually needed, we spend most of our days battling boredom on the FOB. This may be difficult to understand for some people. I have never fired my weapon at another human being. I have never watched a friend die. I have not lived through the detonation of an IED. I have never seen many of the things which will scar many of my counterparts for life. But that does not mean that those things aren't really happening.
My words can only account for part of the picture, and simply ignoring narratives that don't jibe with our expectations is not the way to gain an accurate picture of this war. I'll always believe that this war has been morally wrong; has been a mistake. But I can also acknowledge that good things have happened here; small moments of outreach and compassion have made small differences. I'm not here to tell you what to think of this war. People try to take our experiences of this war and use those experiences to judge the rightness or wrongness of it. That's not the way to make an accurate judgement.
Soldiers are always going to die in combat; always going to see horrific things that damage their psyches. Every death or injury sustained in battle is going to be one too many. But instead of judging the rightness or wrongness or wars by body counts, why not judge the war by its impact on national moral standing? Incidentally, does anyone remember John McCain's relatively recent jaunt through that Baghdad market? The following day, 21 civilians from the same market were kidnapped, taken outside of the city, and murdered -- shot execution-style. The problem of perception is a motherfucker.