Two essays, two reactions, two very different Americas


On March 24th I made a major leap forward; an essay I wrote was published in the Austin American Statesman. The essay was my assertion that veterans aren’t victims; we chose military service as free men and women, and don’t need anyone’s pity. It was fairly well received. A handful of readers have commented on the newspaper’s web site, some in agreement and some in disagreement. You can read my essay here:

Unbeknownst to me, on that same day another Iraq veteran published an essay in the Statesman. His essay is about the horrible mental trauma and guilt he suffers as a result of his abusive, criminal actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He uses the word “monster” to describe himself. He admits to bullying children, damaging property, assaulting adults, and in his comments even alludes to seeing “rampant murders” of civilians: “Was there also rampant abuse, murder, and mistreatment of the locals, you better believe it.” He also mentions “mysterious pregnancies among the youthful female civilians”. His essay is here:

I know the veteran who wrote that essay. His name is Zackary Dryer. We were in a veteran writers’ group together, and I’ve been featured with him in KUT and KOOP interviews. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He served his country and earned the right to speak about war. I think he’s exaggerating about the abuses he saw (how the hell would he know if a young woman’s pregnancy was “mysterious”?), but I don’t think he’s lying about his own actions. He abused civilians. He either participated in or witnessed other, more serious crimes that he’s only alluded to. He behaved dishonorably and feels justifiably guilty about it.

But Dryer didn’t stop at a public confession about his own actions. At the end of his essay, he said something that is at best a weak diffusion of personal responsibility, at worst a deliberate attempt to smear every last war veteran:

“Anyone that tells you that a word of it isn’t true is lying, but not to you, to themselves. They aren´t ready to admit it’s true or they weren’t there. Every single soldier that has ever truly been at war has heard, seen, condoned, facilitated, ignored, or participated in the heinous acts I have confessed to you here, or worse.”

No kidding. So we’re all war criminals. As I’ve said before, I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I did NOT, EVER, see a civilian beaten or abused in Iraq. In Afghanistan I saw it once; on a night patrol with the Afghan Army, Afghan troops stopped a man walking through a village and found a rifle under his clothes. One of the AFGHAN soldiers kicked the man. The Afghan company commander handled that incident, and I don’t know what he did about it. And no question, abuses and crimes have been committed by American troops. Dryer is right when he says crimes happen in every war. But acknowledging that ugly reality doesn’t mean we’re all monstrous criminals.

Dryer’s story doesn’t just ignore experiences like mine, which were nothing like his; it also completely dismisses the lengths we went to in order to avoid civilian casualties. In Afghanistan I held my fire in several firefights because civilians might have been in the area. In some engagements we couldn’t use artillery, mortars or air strikes on civilian compounds the Taliban were shooting from, because civilians might have been inside. At night, the French wouldn’t even fire parachute flares over villages, because the canister that falls after the flare burns out could have hit and injured a civilian. I once called on Afghan soldiers to stop one of their men from firing RPG rounds into a compound, because we had seen civilians outside the compound earlier.

In other words, we actually did try to protect civilians, and we sometimes put ourselves in more danger to do so. Dryer doesn’t mention that in his essay. In his account he, his unit and every American soldier who deployed is guilty of atrocities.

So, why should I care? Dryer can write what he wants. He can make baseless accusations. He can claim anything, and unless he backs it up it means nothing. His essay shouldn’t bother me.

But it does, and here’s why: as I mentioned earlier, my essay, about being proud and happy to have served, received a modest welcome. Dryer’s essay has been embraced. It’s been loved. It’s practically being stalked by thousands of lovesick fans.

As of this writing, my essay has been shared 1239 times on Dryer’s essay has been shared almost 5000 times. It’s been reposted on other sites and blogs. It’s received 36 comments, many more than mine (and one of my few commenters mocked my belief in military service by saying “we didn’t hire you for your brains”). The vast majority of the comments to Dryer’s essay have been in fawning praise of his “strength” and “honesty”. His essay has even spawned a supportive, open letter to Dryer on the Daily Kos web site:

Before anyone says it: no, I’m not jealous of his success. My own success is more than enough. What’s making me so angry is that much of our public desperately wants to believe the worst about us. They want to believe we’re all murderers, child abusers, rapists, and gleeful bullies. They want to believe that, like Dryer, we’re all so tortured by guilt that we can’t sleep at night. They want us to be the evil monsters they’ve always claimed we are. Dryer willingly fed that belief.

And here’s the totally stupid part of this whole thing. Far from being shunned for his admissions, Dryer is being raised aloft on virtual shoulders and celebrated for committing crimes the rest of us didn’t. He’s being made a hero. And people like me, who can honestly say we didn’t commit crimes overseas, are being attacked.

Here’s a sampling of comments from Dryer’s essay on the Statesman:

“As a result of your well-written article, I now know more about the true nature of war and the people who fight them. . . Please forgive yourself and thank you for telling the truth.”

“Thank you for the devastatingly honest account of your experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This article should go viral. . . Thank you again Mr. Dryer, you are truly a brave man for writing this!”

“You and your comrades are bearing the unavoidable moral wounds of an unnecessary war. . . I commend for your courage and hope you can ignore negative comments.”

“In over 30 years of reading the Statesman, your story is easily the most astounding piece of journalism I have ever read. The cat is now out of the bag. The laughable narrative that Uncle Sam overcame the forces of evil and liberated a grateful nation is now seen for what it really is: obscene propaganda put forth by the perpetrators of this completely unnecessary fiasco.”

The open letter to Dryer on the Daily Kos contains more praise for Dryer’s “courage”, with no condemnation for the atrocities he wrote of. This last paragraph is directed toward me and other veterans who disagreed with Dryer’s assertion that we’re all guilty of crimes:

“Ignore your detractors; they are merciless, broken people. . . People who inflate their egos by not sympathizing with others, offering their own ignorant advice to cover up for their inability to feel for others, are weak. Forgive them. They drink in the dark, beat their wives, force themselves on younger female officers, and live a life of silent depravity. They are deeply tortured people. Many of them can hardly string a logical sentence together and get caught up in radicalism that feeds their needs for unquestioning authority. Some of course don’t fit this profile, but if someone is quick to tell you they have no sympathy for you, tell them you are in no need of that.”

In the days since our two essays were published, I’ve pondered and questioned and tried to form a coherent response to Dryer’s essay, and to the twisted, loving praise it’s received. I commented on his essay, but kept it respectful; I don’t wish ill on Dryer and don’t want to discourage his writing. But when I saw that letter on the Daily Kos, I almost blew up.

Someone please explain this to me: how the hell do people who despise soldiers for being brutal, murderous bullies, embrace a guy who admits he was a brutal, murderous bully? How do people who claim to cherish humanity attack soldiers who share the same respect for humanity? Why is Dryer being praised as a hero, while people like me are being called rapists, wife-beaters, illiterates and alcoholics?

I’m not a college graduate and have no expertise in psychoanalysis. But it seems to me that much of America, especially the better-educated part of America, possesses a deep-seated self-loathing for all things American. They seize on anything that “proves” we’re racists, murderers, imperialists, polluters, destroyers of all things good and pure. They truly want to believe the absolute worst about our soldiers, some of whom are from their own towns, schools and neighborhoods. They revel in the opportunity to insult those who show pride in their service, but rush to lionize and defend those who admit they were shameful criminals. They embrace what they despise, and despise those who treasure what they claim to treasure. They’d rather pat an admitted criminal on the back than acknowledge the honest service of a proud veteran. The other, quieter part of America doesn’t think we soldiers are all monsters. But that part doesn’t get all the face time in the media.

I try to be calm in my writing. I don’t have much use for rants. And I always try to be fair. But for too long, I’ve been more than fair on this topic. I’ve been calm, I haven’t ranted or flung insults. But I’m about to. If you’re easily offended, step away from your computer.

The people I just talked about are flaming idiots. They’re not the lofty, ultra-intelligent, highly principled saints they picture themselves to be. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that making false heroes out of admitted criminals actually encourages people to be criminals.

These morons have taught me a valuable lesson: If I go back to war I can bust as many heads and bully all the little kids I want, maybe even commit murder, then tell the world I’m sorry over the internet. And those fools will actually praise me for my bravery. What a racket.

And come to think of it, I don’t even have to give a real “confession”. I can speak in generalities, not give times, dates or locations, refuse to name names, couch all my statements in protective, vague terms, and specifically NOT ADMIT TO ANYTHING. I can unburden my soul without providing any information that would actually get me in trouble. A confession isn’t worth much if I don’t actually suffer for making it, is it?

No matter, they’ll still pee their pants in glee at my confirmation of their most cherished beliefs. They’ll sleep well at night, secure in the knowledge that I’m just as horribly disgusting as they dreamed. They’ll probably even spoon me to sleep, whisper thanks for being courageous enough to admit I’m a war criminal.Then they’ll drift off to pleasant visions about the true evil of honest soldiers who didn’t hurt anyone but the enemy.

What a load of utter nonsense. What a crock. What a pathetic illustration of the ridiculous, breathtakingly stupid thinking that so many of our countrymen indulge in.

But who cares. They can indulge in their petty, illogical, masturbational, “I’m so much better than those losers” fantasy. They can keep praising criminals while insulting the innocent.

I’ll keep following my principles. If I go back to war I’ll keep doing what’s right. I’ll be content in the knowledge that my honest and faithful service makes them my bitter enemy. I’ll laugh off the knowledge that I could murder an Afghan child and have deluded fools welcome me as a hero for it, as long as I write a vague sob story about it later.

And Zack, don’t take this as an attack on your writing. It isn’t. And it’s not an assault on your character either. You assaulted your own character in your essay, I don’t have reason to do it here. But you called me, and every man I served with, a criminal. You tore down generations of brave men in my family who fought at places like Bataan, Normandy, the Chosin Reservoir, and Vietnam. You insulted men who died bravely, “with their faces toward the enemy”. You insulted your own comrades, men who almost certainly risked their lives for YOU.

And you hit me on a far more personal level. You kicked the cane from the hand of one of my best friends, who was crippled for life by a bomb blast. You stomped on the memories of the two men who died beside him. You took the memory of a heroic young Marine who died trying to save others in Afghanistan, a man whose blood stained my boots and gloves, whose face I’ll never forget, and tossed it to a ravenous mass of people who want him to be a cowardly criminal. You told all those people that he was the vicious, evil murderer they think we all are. You robbed him of honor he truly earned. You tore down all of us who saw what he died for that day.

You screwed us, Zack. That can’t be forgiven.

32 Responses to “Two essays, two reactions, two very different Americas”

  1. The answer I think is easy – people want to think well of themselves.

    When an honorable man goes to war, conducts himself honorably, and returns to a normal – or exceptional – life at home, it shows just how good a man can be. And by extension – how far they themselves fall short.

    The “monstrous evil soldier” archetype is a way for console themselves that a serviceman has not, in fact, chosen a lifepath more selfless and noble than their own.

    Just like the monstrous evil businessman, the monstrous evil priest, the catty horrible model – take your pick.

    Some people just can’t handle that better people than themselves walk the earth.

    • Jennifer,

      I don’t claim to be better than the people praising Zack, but I don’t see how so many of them can actually want us to be criminals. It just doesn’t make sense. Maybe it’s the lack of logic that bothers me the most.

      • Those on the left tend to love themselves a poster boy who re-enforces their world view. The highest virtue some people recognize is agreeing with them…and if you’re in the process of agreeing with their world view and giving teeth to their preconceived ideas then it really doesn’t matter what petty atrocities you admit to. Look at how that jackwagon Dorner was lauded by certain circles as if he was some sort of hero exposing the “corruption” of the LAPD. The guy was murdering innocent people and threatening to murder a bunch more, and the Daily Kos set thought he was swell.

        To that type it’s all black and white. If you agree with them, you’re good. If not, you’re bad. It’s a system that’s as simple as they are.

  2. Chris, I’m right there with you and have observed this same phenomenon, much to my utter disgust. The people that this culture of “tolerance, diversity and pseudo-intellectualism” is producing are devoid of the capacity to understand the responsibility of choices affecting outcomes.
    I wrote an article for Law Enforcement Today on the folk hero status Chris Dorner was receiving that discusses this very thing.

    I find that people like those who adore the intellectual dishonesty of Zack and Dorner pitiful in that they will always be blindly flailing against the world and missing out on the principles that bring honor and truly help to improve their lot in life. They will remain in that adolescent mindset, a failure to launch and never develop the potential they could have.
    I am personally overjoyed to see another person that consciously chooses the road less travelled with courage, integrity and a willingness to really look at life as it is. Some days it may seem lonely, but I have to say, that is far preferable to the fate people like this will end up with.
    I’d rather soar with a few eagles than run off the cliff with a crowd of lemmings.

    • Juli,

      It does seem to be a bad case of groupthink. I don’t blame anyone for opposing the wars, or even being anti-military. I just don’t see how people can make such wishful, blanket statements about all of us (speaking specifically about the Daily Kos guy here).

      Thanks for commenting, and I’d also rather run with people who stand as individuals as well.

  3. 6 Roy in Nipomo

    Maybe Zach was burnishing his resume for Secretary of State. Some of us remember similar statements from 40 years ago.

  4. The Vietnam baby-murderer meme is back. No doubt about it.

    It’s almost as if we either have to praise the soldiers regardless of circumstances or dam them completely.

    In an insurgency type war it should be fairly obvious that soldiers are going to be put in a lot of lose-lose situations. To some degree, that is exactly what the insurgents intend.

    Your associate’s story reminds me of John Kerry’s actions with regards to his Vietnam service. I don’t recall him saying that he personally did anything, but otherwise the actions seem similar.

    • Russell,

      I said in a KUT interview about my wartime service, “You’re constantly put in situations where you have to make a decision, and any decision you make will be wrong on some level.” Many of us made mistakes, and some soldiers committed outright crimes that they deserve to be punished for. I hate the “all troops are heroes” nonsense too; we shouldn’t pretend all our soldiers are perfect boy scouts who would never hurt a fly. But Zack’s essay didn’t just acknowledge reality, it went so far overboard in the other direction it lost touch with reality. We as a society should acknowledge and address the reality, not fantasies that make us all angels or demons.

      You’re the second person today to compare Zack’s essay to Kerry after Vietnam. That’s an appropriate comparison.

      Thanks for your comments, Russell, I appreciate them.

      • The Archdruid (an interesting character) in his essay on Wednesday noted that many civil “relegions” (non-theistic beliefs that have religious qualities to them) that most relegions have an anti-religions. Anti-religions go to extremes to take the polar opposite view of their counterparty. So if their is a civil religion of “Amercian Exceptionalism” that was once common. Then there will be an anti-religion that has absolutely everything that America does being wrong and evil.

        I quote: “The civil religion of Americanism, for example, has as its antireligion the devout and richly detailed claim, common among American radicals of all stripes, that the United States is uniquely evil among the world’s nations. This creed, or anticreed, simply inverts the standard notions of American exceptionalism without changing them in any other way”.

        Although I often disagree with him, he is one of the few people who is thoughtful enough that I can show my very evangelical mother one of his pieces and she will be in complete agreement with his viewpoint – if not his Druidism. I think he made a very good point here.

        • That is a really interesting perspective. Who was it that said that?

          Edited to add: I see now that the Archdruid said that, but is that a character or a real person? Don’t have time to Google it right now.

      • russel1200’s remark made me curious, too. Searching for “Archdruid” and “Relegion” turned up this:

  5. 13 spemack

    What a coward. I suppose I could write about the nights I spent getting wasted in the corner of a dingy college bar, throwing back cheap bourbon because it made me feel better, blame it on Afghanistan, and be a “hero”, too.

    This just hurts on a viseral level. I always thought/was taught that the in the modern U.S. military, we reported anything and everything that was wrong, and tried to do it before CNN made it part of the 24 hour news cycle.

    It boggles me how it has become the “cool” thing to denounce one’s service to the media. As if it makes somebody some sort of bizarro world super soldier.

    That’s a slap in the face to every kid who went to war wearing a Captain America t-shirt under his ACU and every man that came back who wears his mini-medals on his suit coat lapel with pride.

    • Mack,

      If you did blame all your troubles on your service, you would be immediately and lovingly embraced as a victim by people who want us all to be victims. I think several soldiers have done exactly that.

  6. 15 Nick42

    I think this stems from a fundamental difference in worldview. Some of us look at people as individuals first and foremost, and others see people as members of a group first. This may be one of the last real differences between conservatives and liberals in the America political spectrum.

    Those who look at you as just a faceless soldier, blame you for all misdeeds committed by any solider. This is, of course, on top of all the collective guilt you are morally obligated to claim as a white male American.

    The only penance you can perform is to confess your guilt and pledge yourself wholly to their ideology. Do any thing else, and you’ve added lying and heresy to your sins.

    • “The only penance you can perform is to confess your guilt and pledge yourself wholly to their ideology. Do any thing else, and you’ve added lying and heresy to your sins.”

      That’s beautiful. I think I’ll have to steal that, because it’s so true. Thanks for writing that.

  7. 17 sally1137

    Reblogged this on Tin Foil Hat Book Club and commented:
    People see what they want to see.

  8. 18 M. A. Baxley, Jr.

    I must say one thing…. We don’t call it “Austin-on-the-Volga”, for nothing! It is a city steeped in elitism, meaning to enlighten the great unwashed in the rest of the state! You served, and honorably, sir, NOBODY can take that away from you!

    • Baxley,

      My experiences in Austin have been pretty good. I’ve spent a lot of time out in town in my military uniform, and never had so much as a dirty look. I like to think it’s a very small minority of Austinites who feel the way those commenters do. Thanks for your comments, I appreciate that.

  9. 20 NavyRob

    Chris, as a fellow vet, your personal experience during your service period is more in tune with the vast majority of us who have served during wartime. We were not ravenous killers hell bent for blood at every opportunity. Zach’s account makes it sound as if the “crazies are running the asylum” throughout the entire US Army and any person who has ever served in any of the US Military Branches knows for a fact that this is not the case.

    I can say that the account that Zach portrays is one that feeds a particular political agenda very well. It’s a crying shame however that those who pander to his “story” want to punish “those who were responsible” inferring the former President and his staff. And yet Zach states time and again that he and his fellow unit members committed the acts to entertain themselves and at the own sick discretion. I believe that means they are the ones responsible and thus should be properly punished. But those who are praising Zach do so solely by their own desperate desire for his account to be true. It matters not what the facts are or who really is to be held accountable.

    Zach will find out in the end that he is the disgraced soldier, twice. First by his actions in Afghanistan and again by this trumped up story that he wishes for so many to believe is true about all soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. About how we all are running rampant across the defeated lands spreading violence and tyranny all under the premise of democracy.

    It’s not true. You know that, the community of those who serve and have served know that and most Americans understand that his account is not true. Do not let the small majority of Political idealists and supposed sympathizers make you believe any different.

    Thank you for your service and most importantly, THANK YOU for your courage, dignity and respect.

    • Rob,

      On an objective level I know the majority of Americans think we’re all vicious criminals, but the fact that so many do, and do it so vocally, just got under my skin. I am extremely proud of my service and didn’t do anything to civilians I need to feel guilty for. As I wrote in my essay, my wartime experiences enriched my life. I’d guess that most veterans feel the same way.

      You’re right that Zack didn’t blame anything on orders from higher; he spoke only about individual actions. But that won’t matter. That evil bastard GWB and his neocon cronies are still to blame. I noticed that Zack even mentioned 1.5 million alleged casualties, and laid blame for those on us as well. We know that the vast majority of civilian casualties in Iraq were killed by other Iraqis, but we’re still held responsible. I think that’s nonsense. If a guy has been held prisoner illegally for 20 years, I free him and he goes home and kills his wife, I’m not at fault for his wife’s death.

      I hope the veteran community speaks out about this, and sets some of it straight. Thanks for your comments, and for your service as well.

  10. 22 Skip

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but Zack is a dick.

  11. Stockholm Syndrome strikes again?
    Either that, or somebody’s hoping to be the next Winter Soldier rockstar, and a future senatorial candidate from Texas.”Halp Us John Kerry!”

    The correct psychological term for imagining everyone else is as jacked up as you are is “projection”. It’s a form of psychosis, not a form of catharsis.

    But the blisteringly accurate and correct military term for Dryer’s behavior is “buddyf***er”.

  12. Chris, I am a vet with no combat experience. Even though I was in the U. S. Army form 1970 to 72, I spent most of my time in Italy. I didn’t finish Zack’s essay because it is obvious he is a weak individual. He is a follower and its easy to learn that from the first few paragraphs of his article. I can’t comment on combat situations from experience, but after reading your book I would consider you a leader and an example to others. You made decisions, he made decisions. You can stand proud with the decisions you made, he can not. He made the wrong decisions. He did say he doesn’t blame his leaders but then turns right around and blames them, he is weak. I am sure you can sleep much better than he can. I have already written more than I have ever written on a blog site. Since I haven’t had the opportunity to take writing classes I’m sure this is a ramble and rant. What I would like to say is the respondents to his article are most likely of the bleeding heart variety of Austin not to be taken seriously.
    i will say I didn’t agree with the way we decided to domesticate Iraq and Afganistan. We should only fight a war to win and get out.
    Finally I would like to thank you for your service and keep up the writing. I will not, however, keep writing!

  13. 25 ansel

    Shucking his responsibilities as a member of the US armed forces and as a man. What a load of crap from a whiner and a “victim”.

    I’ve forwarded this to a media person I know, hope it does some good.

    Semper fi.

  14. 26 Bob

    It sounds like the author is trying to rationalize HIS actions by saying ” Ah well everyone else was doing it!”

    I don’t know how true this is, but I once heard someone say (journalist) “They pay $500 for pictures of dead children and $100 for pictures of happy ones”. People want to feel sad and want to help (donate $5 to stop these atrocities!) I don’t care to make this political, but I would wager many of his “applause” is from one side try to push personal agendas and happily say war is bad.

  15. 27 Web

    This post is one of the most powerful things I have read in a while. I thank you for your honorary service, and offer condolences for what you have lost in rendering it. Because of men and women like you, weak individuals are able to have whatever opinion they want. He is an example of the worst in our armed forces, and indeed civilized culture. I would defend his right to say what he has to say to the greatest extent I can, but that being said, he is pathetic. If people who are equally pathetic want to turn him into a hero, so be it, because what hes has done cheapens the status, and actually discredits him further. America is great because it offers opportunity to all. Some take that opportunity and do great things, some take full advantage of the opportunity to fail. I know that hero status is not something you desire, but you do have my respect, and thanks.

  16. Projection, the common-to-us-all defense mechanism, lets us project onto other people the attributes about ourselves that we both 1)dislike and 2)can’t admit to ourselves or others. Whether it’s what a person has done and must now see all others as having done or the fear of what he or she might do in a given situation, it’s still projection. It protects us from the pain of something we just can’t face at the time. For most people, most of the time, it’s not a problem. Even though we may never realize we used projection to protect ourselves we do come to the realization of how we felt about ourselves or what we did. We deal with it and move on. But for some, including the referenced author, there is no moving on. Instead, we cling not only to our projection but to the bad feelings about ourselves that prompted it.

    While I am most emphatically NOT accusing Dryer of anything, it’s worth noting there are two groups who yell “what I did was bad, but everybody else there did the same thing”…criminals and adolescents.

  17. 29 M4BALOT

    People are attracted to his essay because of his outrageous claims. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, that is what people respond to. Even you want to get sucked into it. I don’t believe a word of what he wrote, I refuse to even read it. Thanks for your.service.

  18. 30 Rex

    Thank you for protecting me, thank you for learning right from wrong,and thank you for passing it on to the rest of us.

  19. 31 JimP

    “Every single soldier that has ever truly been at war has heard, seen, condoned, facilitated, ignored, or participated in the heinous acts I have confessed to you here, or worse.””

    …… So ……. um …… er ……. because I have a penis, I’m a rapist?

    Mr. Dryer is projecting, justifying his poor conduct by saying “everybody does it”, and defending that statement by accusing those who won’t admit to behaving as badly of lieing ……

    He’s trapped in his own personal hell. He is lonely there, and wants us to join him.

    You made your bed, Dryer. Lie in it.

    • I thought that was a fantastic attempt at spreading personal guilt. I don’t wish anything bad on the guy, but he doesn’t have any right to blame me for his crappy actions.

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