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The Iraq War and Moral Injury

For the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Patricia Hynes’ serires features voices of veterans with a moral tenor.

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team engage anti-Iraqi forces in Buhriz, Iraq, March 14, 2007. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall / US Army)

On this tenth anniversary of the War in Iraq, Hynes’ Listening to Soldiers and Vets series takes on the pernicious and enduring legacies of the war: erosion of civil liberties and media independence, bloated debt and PTSD in the US; civilian casualties and irredeemable cultural and infrastructural damage in Iraq.

This series features the voices of soldiers and veterans from armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, voices whose clarity and moral fiber were forged in the crucible of war.

“The cycle of violence that began with the US invasion now permeates every aspect of society. The daily reality of living in US-occupied Iraq is so grim it’s beyond the comprehension of most Americans.” – Salam Talib, journalist and computer programmer. 2008. (1)

On March 20, 2003, the United States launched a mammoth aerial bombardment of missiles and bombs on Baghdad in what then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gleefully described as a “shock and awe” onslaught the world had never seen. The war was expected to be brief, surgically smart and victorious. It was none of these.

To read more in the Listening to Soldiers and Vets Series, click here.

By 2008, more than a million Iraqis had died from war-induced violence; most were civilians. At least one sixth of the Iraqi people became war refugees, fleeing to other parts of the country and to nearby countries.

More than 4,000 American soldiers were killed and 32,000 wounded – many with serious brain and spinal injuries. Up to 30 percent of Iraq War veterans treated by the Veterans’ Administration have PTSD, with higher rates among those veterans deployed multiple times. Full US costs of the debt-financed war, including long-term care and disability for veterans, extortionist private military contractors, increased oil prices and impacts on the US economy, are estimated to be $3 trillion. Between 2002 and 2009, the cost of war was one of the two biggest factors in the ballooning federal deficit.

In August 2010, the United States marked the formal end of combat operations in Iraq with vastly divergent assessments of the nearly nine-year war. At the closing military ceremony in Iraq, General Ray Odierno drew forth America’s narcissistic self-image as the force of global liberation: “[The war] was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty and justice.” Former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz (2001-2005), an architect of the Iraq War, penned an upbeat, self-vindicating take for The New York Times on the state in which we left Iraq – a cleansed country with the potential to become another South Korea as the engine of political and economic progress in the Middle East. And, he adds, at a bargain of collateral damage compared to the Korean War. He showed his hand in suggesting that we need to maintain a long-term military presence there because “fully abandoning Iraq would damage the interests of the United States in the region and beyond.” In fact, neoconservative strategists had identified Iraq as the key to control of the Middle East and its resources in the early 1990s, for the grand post-Cold War scheme of American world dominance. (2)

For Iraqis, the war left their country in ruins and a humanitarian disaster. Baghdad ranked last in a May 2010 international study of most livable cities because of the destruction of power and sewage-treatment plants, factories, schools, hospitals and museums. Iraq ranked last among 144 countries on the 2009 Global Peace Index and 7th worst of 177 countries on the 2010 Failed State Index. The country’s natural resources are “mortgaged for the next 50 years to the international oil contractors.”

Roots of War

Why the war against Iraq, when we were already at war in Afghanistan pursuing the purported mastermind of September 11? The reasons changed like a chameleon does ">The Bush-Cheney cabal called it a pre-emptive war against a grave threat, and the mainstream US press dutifully published from the administration’s playbook, whipping up American patriotism and war fever. In the momentum to war, respected US diplomats, among them Colonel Ann Wright, resigned over the illegality of the war, and US and British whistleblowers leaked evidence of cherry-picked facts and misinformation retrofitted to predetermined war policy – all to no avail in Washington and London.(3)

When the Bush administration failed to win UN Security Council approval for war against Iraq, it cobbled together a coalition of the willing “to give a multilateral gloss to a thoroughly US-driven war.”(4) Except for Britain, which colluded in the war, the coalition of the coerced, as Phyllis Bennis incisively called it, consisted of countries dependent on American arms, arms training, aid, trade and security.

Based on shreddable lies as the case for war in Iraq was, much of the world knew it to be a war of aggression – the supreme international crime. In the buildup to the war, the global chorus opposing it reached a crescendo on February 15, when more than 12 million people in 600 cities on five continents marched and demonstrated in solidarity. The size, the scale and the timing – before war began – of this “No to War” protest was unprecedented in human history.

International security analyst Michael Klare has collated five supporting facts to foreground the oil motive behind the Iraq War.(5) Iraq has the second largest supply of oil in the world – 10 percent of global supply and large untapped reservoirs. In late 2001, the State Department convened the Working Group on Oil and Energy, consisting of expatriate Iraqi oil managers to plan the privatization of Iraqi oil after regime change in Baghdad. US oil companies also met with ex-pat Iraqi oil managers to discuss their role in privatizing Iraqi oil. In the war planning, a special military task force was created to protect oil fields once the invasion commenced, the first ground action being Navy Seals seizing Iraq’s offshore oil facilities. Onshore, as missiles and bombs demolished Baghdad’s infrastructure and the city’s museums and treasures were being plundered on a scale that scholars of antiquity deemed an irredeemable loss of human culture, US military solely safeguarded the Oil Ministry building.

Military Dissidents, Critics, Activists and Voices: a Moral Tenor

Iraq war soldiers fought in a war with an embedded patriotic US media writing on behalf of a post-Vietnam country determined to treat soldiers as patriotic warriors and heroes, no matter the war’s baseless claims and venal motives. Even so, thousands of these soldiers turned against the war and declared themselves COs, went AWOL, refused to deploy, risked prison, published on blogs, spoke out and returned their war on terrorism medals in a public act of conscience. Some spoke of seeing their children’s faces in the faces of terrified Iraqi children and others, of being changed by witnessing the crushing grief of Iraqis losing loved ones to American bullets. Their voices have a uniquely moral tenor.

Moral Injury

As a Marine, Ross Caputi dropped bombs in the second siege of Falluja, an overkill assault that left thousands of civilians dead, caused hundreds of thousands of war refugees, reduced the city to rubble, and poisoned its environment with depleted uranium and heavy metals from weapons and ammunition. Today, Falluja has an epidemic of children born with horrific birth defects and child leukemia, both war-linked health tragedies that the US military denies and the US media will not touch. Caputi has written publicly of his sorrow and regret for his role in Falluja. The veterans “who fought there,” he contends, “still do not understand who they fought against, or what they were fighting for.” They were concurrently “the iron fist of American empire,” and “an expendable loss in the eyes of their leaders.” A country that launches a war of aggression and calls its soldiers “heroes” for killing innocent people turned by war propaganda into enemies “has reversed the roles of aggressor and defender, moralized the immoral, and shaped our society’s present understanding of war.”

Samantha Schutz deployed to Iraq as an Army journalist. Quickly, she felt like “a propagandist”: She was ordered to “put a positive spin” on her war reports and to avoid negative incidents and stories. In feeding news to embedded Western journalists, she discloses that “we censored what they were allowed to see, experience, write about or film.” When she could no longer in conscience deceive the American public about the war in her war reports, she went AWOL while on leave and then turned herself in to the military, willing to face the consequences. “I can honestly say that I would rather have spent the three years I have left on my contract in a cell than serving the military organization.” She was discharged from the Army and denied veterans’ benefits.

As a member of Bravo Company 2-16, Ethan McCord rescued two injured children from a van in Baghdad, riddled with bullets by American helicopter gunners. The children’s father, having stopped to help a group of Iraqi men and international reporters gunned down in the airstrike, was killed. The video of this massacre, Collateral Damage, was leaked to Wikileaks by Private Bradley Manning. Later, McCord and fellow soldier Josh Stieber published “An Open Letter of Reconciliation and Responsibility to the Iraqi People” in which they acknowledged that as soldiers they contributed to Iraqis’ pain, their community’s pain, and to the death and injury of their loved ones by occupying their country. Their letter concluded:

With such pain, friendship might be too much to ask. Please accept our apology, our sorrow, our care, and our dedication to change from the inside out. We are doing what we can to speak out against the wars and military policies responsible for what happened to you and your loved ones. Our hearts are open to hearing how we can take steps to support you through the pain that we have caused.(6)

Both McCord and Stieber have since worked in reparation and reconciliation efforts with Iraqi Health Now, which provides direct medical and health aid to people in Iraq.

Returning Medals

In May 2012, 41 years after Vietnam Veterans hurled medals, ribbons and discharge papers at the Capitol in Washington, DC, nearly 50 uniformed members of Iraq Veterans Against the War did the same in Chicago. They led tens of thousands of protesters from across the country, joined by a group of Afghan women, in a march, chanting “No NATO, no war; We don’t kill for you no more.” At the police barricades that separated them from NATO generals and politicians summiting about the future of Afghanistan, each veteran spoke about why they were returning their global war on terror medals and war ribbons. And each veteran then turned and hurled those medals and ribbons toward the NATO summit.

US Army Sergeant Allejandro Villtoro opened the speakout:

Some of us killed innocents. Some of us helped in continuing these wars from home. Some of us watched our friends die. Some of us are not here, because we took our own lives. We did not get the care promised to us by our government. All of us watched failed policies turn into bloodshed. Listen to us, hear us, and think: was any of this worth it?”

My name is Jason Hurd. I spent 10 years in the United States Army as a combat medic. I deployed to Baghdad in 2004. I’m here to return my Global War on Terrorism Service Medal in solidarity with the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan. I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe. I am proud to stand on this stage with my fellow veterans and my Afghan sisters. These were lies. I’m giving them back.

My name is Shawna, and I was a nuclear biological chemical specialist for a war that didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. So I deserted. I’m one of 40,000 people that left the United States Armed Forces because this is a lie!

My name is Zach LaPorte, and I’m an Iraq war veteran from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I’m giving back my medals today because I feel like I was duped into an illegal war that was sold to me on the guise that I was going to be liberating the Iraqi people, when instead of liberating the people, I was liberating their oil fields.

My name’s Nate. I served in the US Navy from ’99 to 2003 and participated in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was wrong to sign myself up for that. I apologize to the Iraqi and Afghani people for destroying your countries.

My name is Aaron Hughes. I served in the Illinois Army National Guard from 2000 and 2006. This medal right here is for Anthony Wagner. He died last year. This medal right here is for the one-third of the women in the military that are sexually assaulted by their peers. We talk about standing up for our sisters – we talk about standing up for our sisters in Afghanistan, and we can’t even take care of our sisters here. And this medal right here is because I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all of you. I’m sorry.

Having no medals, Mary Kirkland carried the military photograph of her son, Army infantryman Derek Kirkland, to leave with the discarded medals. He had been haunted by killing other human beings in Iraq; and, in despair, he committed suicide. (A fellow soldier acknowledged that after previous suicide attempts, Derek’s commanders bullied him, calling him “sissy” and “pussy.”) “‘My son was the victim of a needless war,'” she said, “and we are still doing that to the Afghan people and doing it to our troops … It is the innocent dying.”

The Price of War

In the third week of December 2011, the remaining occupying US troops in Iraq were withdrawn unceremoniously in a fortified concrete courtyard, with only a small band playing as the US flag was furled. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta avowed that the price was high, but the US invasion and occupation “gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.” Iraq President Maliki did not attend.

In contrast to the discreet exit, President Obama welcomed returning US troops at Fort Bragg with big braggadocios and tired conceits of American military altruism. The war was “one of the most extraordinary chapters in American military history.” Having sacrificed so much for “people they never met,” the returning soldiers are part of what makes “us special as Americans.” Unlike other empires, which wage war for resources and territory, “We do it because it’s right.”

The same week, Yanar Mohammed, founding director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), was interviewed on the state of Iraq as the American occupation ends. She described Iraqi cities full of destroyed buildings and broken streets, with intermittent electricity and unsafe drinking water. Iraq, she said, is now a country of 99 percent poor and 1 percent rich living in the Green Zone, burdened with the most corrupt government in the world that is giving control of the Iraqi people’s oil resources to multinational oil companies.

Iraqi women “are the biggest losers” in this war, Mohammed asserted, ending up with extreme lack of freedom, lack of social security, lack of opportunity, and increased sexual terror. This generation of girls will grow up less literate than their mothers – reversing the tide of human development. Her organization has conducted extensive high-risk investigations into the prevalence and plight of Iraqi widows, women and girls kidnapped and killed, and women trafficked into prostitution. By 2006, OWFI had observed an “epidemic rise” in the number of women prostituted in brothels, workplaces and hideouts in Baghdad. Through covert investigation, they learned of the trafficking of women within Iraq for Iraqi men and for US military, as well as to nearby countries. Democracy in Iraq has been crushed for women.

American women soldiers in Iraq were big losers, also. Nearly 200,000 served there, in as dangerous situations as men. Though barred from combat, they patrolled streets with machine guns, served as gunners on vehicles, dismantled explosives, drove trucks down bomb-ridden streets and rescued the dead and injured in battle zones. These same women found themselves concurrently caught in a second, more damaging war – a private one in the barracks. As one female soldier put it, “They basically assume that because you are a girl in the Army, you’re obligated to have sex with them.” An estimated one in three active-duty woman is sexually assaulted; nearly all report constant sexual harassment.

In another key event of the week, the State Department released the National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security, championed by then secretary of state Hilary Clinton. The NAP brings the United States into compliance with the UN resolutions that call for integrating women as full partners in conflict resolution and peace building. Its purpose is to assure that US diplomatic, defense and development policies are gauged in part by their impact on women in countries where we engage diplomatically, militarily and economically. One example of implementing the National Action Plan would be to “strengthen protection for women and girls in conflict situations, with greater focus on greater legal accountability for rape and sexual violence.”

Tragically, our diplomatic and defense policies in Iraq created the opposite: conditions in which up to two million widows are penniless; legions of women were killed by fundamentalists squads in Basra; thousands have ended up in prostitution; and Shari’a domestic law in which “women are worth half of men legally, and one-quarter of men socially,” is embedded within the new constitution – a setback of more than 50 years. The same war has left tens of thousands of American women soldiers broken physically, mentally, and spiritually from military sexual trauma instigated by fellow soldiers. Having the fortitude to acknowledge publicly that women are “the biggest losers” in our vainglorious militarist policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere would give substance and integrity to the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.


1. Salam Talib. “Introduction,” in Eds. Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz (2008) Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. Chicago: Haymarket Books. p.103.

2. Robert Jay Lifton (2003) Superpower Syndrome: America’s Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World. New York: Thunder Mouth Press/Nation Books.

3. Ann Wright and Susan Dixon (2008) Dissent: Voices of Conscience. Kihei, Hawai’i: Koa Books.

4. Phyllis Bennis (2008) “Coalitions of the coerced,” in Eds., Miriam Pemberton and William Hartung, Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. pp.94-99.

5. Michael Klare (2008) “A motive hiding in plain sight: war for oil,” in Eds., Miriam Pemberton and William Hartung, Lessons from Iraq: Avoiding the Next War. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers. pp.32-39.

6. Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord (2011) in Eds, Buff Whitman-Bradley, Sarah Lazare and Cynthia Whitman-Bradley, About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Oakland, CA: PM Press. pp.213-215.

Organizations and Resources:

Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq

Iraqi Health Now

Iraq Veterans Against the War

Service Women’s Action Network

Veterans for Peace

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