Russell Snyder's new book is called "Hearts and Mines: With the Marines in Al-Anbar: A Story of Psychological Warfare in Iraq." It's a beautiful book and one that may move you to outraged action, but not in the way you might expect.
I got the book from its author at a Veterans For Peace convention. I assumed it was an anti-war book. I was startled first by the literary skill of the author, who paints a powerful picture of his time in Iraq. I was startled second, slowly, gradually, as I waited for the author to turn against the war. I've read many other accounts by soldiers who came to regret their actions. They suffer from the actions they have taken. They deeply regret having killed innocent people. They find it almost too much to bear. They lay down their guns. They resist. They go AWOL. They file for conscientious objector status. Or they receive their discharge and then denounce the institution of war, committing never to be a part of it again.
That never quite happens with Snyder.
Here's an intelligent, sensitive young man capable of describing a wide array of conflicting emotions that soldiers experience in wartime. He enjoys the camaraderie of the military. He respects the professionalism. He honors the self-sacrifice. And he resents the stupidity, fears for his life, and questions the wisdom of the entire enterprise. Just questions. He doesn't reject. This is not a book aimed at moving you to demand an end to military spending. This is a book aimed -- intentionally or not -- at moving you to seek out and struggle against the cultural habits that allow people to accept war so completely that they can recognize it as an unnecessary piece of barbarism and nonetheless take part in it with pride.
"It's a worrisome flaw humanity has yet to overcome that in our modern age we still accept the butchery of our human brothers and sisters as a means of settling our politicians' and religious leaders' disagreements," writes Snyder in the introduction. He writes that his viewpoint evolved there. But the narrative of the book doesn't display evolution so much as complexity and contradiction.
Snyder's job was to blast loud messages in Arabic at Iraqi villages, in order to win their hearts and minds. He notes that in shooting practice "two in the heart, one in the mind" meant two bullets to the chest and one to the head -- mocking the futility of "psy-ops." When, in Chapter 2, Snyder puts bullets into live humans, he describes the success of the conditioning that allowed him to do so without thought. That thoughtlessness largely remains, at least on the surface, for the rest of the book.
Snyder describes the difficulties of "winning" an occupation of a country, the inability to trust anyone, the cycles of revenge, the brutality, the lack of understanding, the torture, the sadism, and the tricking of Iraqi children into cursing their country in English or drinking urine. Snyder describes a remarkable number of incidents in which he could easily have died, as well as learning that someone was offering $5,000 to whoever destroyed his loudspeaker truck or killed his Iraqi translator. This is a book with more "action" in it than most such accounts I've read -- even as it still manages to convey the deadly boredom these incidents interspersed, and the adrenaline high that drove soldiers and Marines to seek out more activity, even at the risk of death. Snyder describes the fear of death, the resort to religion, and ultimately his attempt to believe that God saved him (while, of course, not saving thousands of others).
Snyder disapproves of the worst attitudes and actions he recounts. "It felt hypocritical," he writes, "that we should attempt to convince [Iraqis] security was improving and they shouldn't be worried while we Americans swaddled ourselves head to toe in armor and protective gear. Our hosts must have sometimes regarded our argument as condescending. Since we didn't allow them to have armor or weapons, it seemed to imply their lives were not deserving of the same level of protection as our own." At various other times, Snyder writes that his actions had the merit of possibly saving Marines' lives. Not lives, Marines' lives.
Snyder describes himself as torn. "My soul ached, torn between feeling a sense of contractual obligation, a desire to fulfill my duties as a soldier and to commiserate with my brothers in uniform while mourning the seemingly pointless extinction of so much innocent life. Not only the little girls whose stiffening corpses were now rotting like refuse in the backyard, or the baby chicks that had survived two tank rounds only to succumb to the sadistic whims of bored Marines, but the countless thousands of other human lives destroyed by war and remembered only as collateral damage. . . . Prolonging the war seemed akin to setting fire to a neighbor's house and then attempting to extinguish the flames with more fire. I felt at once very weary, exhausted by the heavy knowledge of so much violence and needless death. But I remained quiet as I crawled into the turret, resigned to accept my own sinful role." In fact, the possibility of acting otherwise is never mentioned in the book -- except for others. Snyder writes that he "lamented the state of what I imagined to be my countrymen's lack of awareness that permitted their collective conscience to embrace a war . . . ." In reality, there is no collective in such matters. We each have to act alone. We each bear a different share of guilt. But most of us at least were not taking part in what we were lamenting. Snyder ends the book feeling more guilt over his decision not to reenlist than anything else.
It's possible that some of what Snyder has experienced and taken part in lies buried within him, threatening to erupt years or decades from now. "I might never live," he writes, "long enough to atone for everything that troubled me, but maybe I didn't have to if I made a sincere effort to live a life that benefitted others." In my view, what's needed is not further suffering by Russell Snyder. More suffering benefits no one. If he is able to move on to a productive nonviolent life, I only hope that it includes more writing. What's needed, I think, is for the rest of us to appreciate how a book like this one already benefits others.
Start with Snyder's condemnation of the effort underway during his time in Iraq to recruit Iraqis to take over the killing of Iraqis. A similar effort is failing miserably in Afghanistan right now, without any alternative entering the minds of our public policy decision makers.
Look at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's bewilderment at the Libyans' lack of appreciation for all that our bombs have done to their country. Here's a book that could ease our national case of bewilderment as to why the recipients of our "aid" tend to show so little gratitude.
The importance of this book is that it takes someone who largely believes (or used to believe) in U.S. propaganda and puts him into face-to-face exchanges with its victims. These exchanges are riveting:
After Snyder's team blasts an area with an instruction to leave, they find an old man in a house with two young boys. The old man asks where in the world he was supposed to go, the desert?
"A tear formed in a wrinkled corner of the man's eye and sparkled down his cheek.
"'I have my son's family here too. You shot him driving his tractor home. He was a good man, an innocent man.'
"He pointed up the street to the burnt-out remnant of a vehicle. The Marines had destroyed several vehicles with tank rounds during the push into the city, which they identified as potential suicide car bombs. It was pointless to wonder whose version of events was true. The son was dead, or at the very least his father was a good actor.
"'I'm sorry to hear of your loss, but sometimes there are accidents in war. You fought against Iran, did you not? You know things like this happen. There are bad people here, people who want to kill us. We have to protect ourselves. It is our job to make Iraq safer, and sometimes that means making hard decisions. Maybe sometimes the wrong people do get caught in the middle. We try to be careful, believe me. The terrorists will stop at nothing, even killing children, but we Americans do our best to avoid unnecessary violence. We follow the Geneva Conventions. We want to help you. That doesn't bring your son back, I know, but we are only trying to do our job.'
"The man rebutted my statement, morosely shaking his head in disbelief that I could be so wrong.
"'Iraq was safe before you came. My town was quiet before you bombed it. Now I cannot even go outside. We don't have water.' He sighed. 'If you can just let me go to the water valve down the street, I can maybe turn the water back on.'
"'I can't make that decision. Our commander wants everyone to stay home. It's better if you stay inside, safer. We can bring you water later.'
"I turned to Sonny. 'Ask him if he has ever seen strangers here.'
"I looked back in the old man's eyes. 'Has he seen foreign fighters here.'
"Sonny paused. 'He says, "Just you."'
"I squeezed my eyes shut at the old man's audacity and pinched the bridge of my nose. It was a true statement, from his perspective, that I was a foreign fighter, but not the answer I looked for.
"'There are dead Africans in the street up there. He never saw anyone like that?'
"The man shook his head.
"'He didn't know there was a torture dungeon just down the road, where they kept captured border guards? He never heard a scream? They didn't think it was safe here.'
"I carefully watched the man's reaction to the news there had been such crimes committed so close to his home. He showed no surprise.
"'If you say so,' the old man replied. 'I don't know anything.'"