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: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/veteran-reports-of-recruitment-tricks-and-trauma-m/nWxRF/
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: http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/veteran-describes-demons-he-brought-home/nWwg8/
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 Statesman.com. 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: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/04/01/1198568/-Open-Letter-to-Veteran-Zackary-Dryer
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.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq, Writing | 32 Comments
Tags: austin american statesman, veteran writers, Zackary dryer