Saving veterans’ ‘nuanced stories’ of Iraq and Afghanistan
A young Marine lies on his belly, sobbing after he and his comrades shot up an Iraqi family whose white Chevy Citation sped into the middle of a firefight. Another Marine, bone-weary on a march into Baghdad, falls asleep while replacing his sock.
A third is whisked away from war with a torn-up face and survivor’s guilt because his buddy, a husband and father of two, died in the same foxhole.
These are some of the poignant stories told by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to historians at the University of Utah’s American West Center.
Matthew Basso, director, said the center decided four years ago to interview veterans of the latest wars while their experiences are raw, in contrast to the belated nationwide effort to gather oral histories of World War II vets.
“I thought, after 40 years are we going to find ourselves in the very situation where we’re worried about losing the stories that we thought were so important to our civic heritage?” Basso said.
So far, 33 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been interviewed for the Afghanistan and Iraq pieces of the Saving the Legacy project. And the center “has a whole slew lined up to interview,” Basso said.
Eventually, he hopes, hundreds more veterans from Utah and the Intermountain West — or those who served on military bases in the region — will volunteer their oral history.
“They give us the voice of ordinary folks,” Basso said. “They remind us that there are real stakes to getting into the military.”
Basso particularly hopes to collect the stories of women, whose role in war has changed dramatically.
The center is streaming audio of the interviews and posting the transcripts online. Veterans can chose anonymity or even to keep their stories closed until after their deaths.
‘What it meant.’ The center, with offices at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, is one of the few oral history projects in the country collecting stories from this century’s wars. The military itself is interviewing vets, but those historians are often more interested in strategy and tactics, command and control, Basso said.
“We ask about society and culture, about what it meant to be a soldier in America during these years, about soldiers’ interactions with the people they served with,” said Basso, an Army vet who uses the term “soldier” as shorthand for all service men and women.
“Many of these interviewees have deep affection for their time in the military,” he said. “But at the same time, they tell nuanced stories. There is remarkable honesty and truth and complexity in these pictures.”
Among the themes that recur are the transformative power of serving in the military; the often small-mindedness, ineptitude and laziness of upper-level military officers; and the need for greater cultural awareness before troops are sent onto foreign soil.
Most of the interviews were conducted by Iraq veteran John Worsencroft, while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at the U. He now is working on a doctorate at the Philadephia-based Temple University.
Worsencroft started with those he knew best, fellow Marines in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, which is based at Fort Douglas, the historic Army post surrounded by the University of Utah. Worsencroft, who left the Marines in 2006, told his own story to Basso.
The reserve company, split between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, is known as the Saints and Sinners. It was in on the historic invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The interviews give a blow-by-blow account of the march to Baghdad: the hunger the reservists endured as food supplies dwindled, the weeks without showers, the tragic loss of platoon sergeant James Cawley when a Humvee driver who forgot his night-vision goggles rolled over Cawley’s foxhole.
‘How they view the war.’ The stories also give concrete detail to an experience many early invaders found: the welcome by Iraqi citizens who suffered under Saddam Hussein.
More than one Marine remembers being approached by Iraqis saying “Bush good! Bush good!”
Marine Ammon Grant recalls that the morning after a firefight in Baghdad, he was approached by an Iraqi man with a young boy. “It was broken, but he spoke good English … He said, ‘I want my son to touch the men who freed us.”
Other interviews, however, trace the disillusionment of Iraqis as their nation fell into civil war, and soldiers’ misgivings about whether reconstruction would ever work.
Worsencroft said it’s important to resist the temptation to draw a single narrative from veterans’ experiences.
“When they served and under what conditions really colors how they view the war,” Worsencroft said.
The war in Iraq lasted nearly nine years before the last troops pulled out at the end of last year. The war in Afghanistan is still raging after more than a decade, and coalition forces are not due to all pull out until the end of 2014.
The situation in those countries — indeed, in the United States — changed much during those years.
Even technology altered the experience of war for service men and women. Early on, they depended on snail mail and went weeks without communication from home. By the middle of the wars, fighters had daily access to email, video chats and social networks.
‘Complex and diverse.’ At the height of the bloodshed in Iraq, military recruiters could not meet their quotas. It took an economic crisis at home to provide a ready supply of volunteers willing to risk their lives in the Middle East.
Just as experiences differ, so do assessments of the wars’ rationale and execution.
“One of the most important lessons I learned is just how complex and diverse and differing peoples’ opinions are, and how contradictory within the same person or within the same unit,” Worsencroft said.
The stories of those who served on the ground — not just from a general’s or policy-makers’ perch — will help scholars and citizens better understand these wars and perhaps reconsider whether an all-volunteer military is the best approach, Worsencroft and Basso said.
“A lot of these veterans really question whether America knows enough about the military … whether it’s easier to start a war if you’re not going to fight in a war,” Basso said. “What does it mean for such a small percentage of our citizens to be the ones fighting these wars when, broadly, the nation hasn’t had to sacrifice?”
Read their stories
Nick Lopez: “History’s important; I think everybody’s part of it, however little it may be.” Lopez, who now works for the Salt Lake City Fire Department, enlisted in the Marines in 1984 and retired as a sergeant major in 2010.
Michael Schoenfeld: “When you go to war, you expect to fight soldiers, but you don’t expect them to use women and children as shields.” The Marine major was a company captain at the time of the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
John Reed: Serving in Baghdad “was one of the most important experiences in my life, perhaps the second most important after having a child.” Reed, a retired lieutenant colonel, served 25 years in the Army Reserve.