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Archive for March 3rd, 2006

Ugly Americans

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a book in the local library that was written by a young veteran of the War in Iraq. I was pleased to find it. I have read widely for the last few years on the situation in the Middle East, on Islam,on  the history of jihadism, and so on. Having read books by pundits, journalists, former intelligence officers, and historians, I thought it would be enlightening to read an account by someone who had actually served on the front lines.  And while I have opposed the war since before its inception, I fully expected to be completely sympathetic to this young soldier and his
comrades.

How wrong I was.

The book, The Last True Story I Will Ever Tell, is  by one John Crawford, a young man who joined the Florida National Guard to pay for his college tuition and ended up in an extended tour of war-torn Iraq. The book is a heartbreaker, but not in the way that I had expected.

Mr. Crawford and most of his compatriots in fact sound like a bunch of louts: vulgar, contemptuous of the Iraqi people and their culture, an obscene caricature of the worst aspects of America in its decline.

Think of the worst sort of college fraternity turned loose in a third world country and you get the idea.

Crawford, as a writer, is decidedly foulmouthed, not only when quoting dialogue, but in his narrative, which is riddled with gratuitous profanity of the worst sort.

They are a blasphemous, pornographic lot, Mr Crawford and his friends, whether in their cohoice of radio handles- "Porn Star, this is God. Come in, Porn Star"- or in their treatment of the locals.

In one anecdote a young Iraqi woman shyly approaches Crawford and tells him she is a Christian. He asks her if she drinks beer. She tells him no. He then asks her- using an Arabic slang word- if she fornicates. When she protests that this is immoral, he tells her that God likes whores and to f*** off.

I suppose some would commend him for the naked honesty he exhibits in telling his sordid tales, but I see no virtue in this: nowhere does Mr Crawford show any sign of awareness that anyone might find his self-portrait repulsive. He seems to think that his combination of bravado and boorishness is somehow
cool.

The only soldier who seems remotely virtuous is an Evangelical, mentioned briefly and mockingly.

The rest spend their days bullying the "hajjis"- a term roughly equivalent to "gook" that American soldiers use for Iraqis- or zoned out on drink or drugs.

Mr. Crawford was married while in Iraq, but while alternately pining and jealously obsessing about his wife, he shows an eagerness to engage in infidelity within the narrow confines of his situation.

I hope John Crawford- like certain other modern memoirists- is embellishing his story. And I hope he and his soldier buddies are an aberration. But given the crudeness of American culture- especially American youth culture- this is probably a naive hope.

If even a sizeable minority of our troops are behaving in the manner that Mr Crawford describes it is evident to me that Al Queda need not recruit in Iraq: the Americans are doing a fine job on their own.

In an afterward, John Crawford indicates that his marriage failed after he came home. In a self-pitying passage, he describes drifting around, drunken, wondering why he was alone, never rising to any level of reflection, never surmising that he possibly was alone because he had behaved like a jerk.

I am not beyond having compassion for the guy: if anything the book eloquently if unintentionally makes the case that war dehumanizes everyone, especially those who weren’t particularily virtuous to begin with.

In the last chapters, Crawford reveals that he was raised a Catholic and was an altar boy, which should give us all pause.

While we should all pray for our brother John Crawford, we should also hope that his raw testimony might serve as a powerful antidote to the romanticized Official Version of the benevolent American mission in Iraq.

I have never been sure whether the neocons believe their own rhetoric about the nobility of our cause or whether this is a cynical attempt to manipulate the public.

Either way, John Crawford’s account is sobering.

Daniel Nichols

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