The hard working people at CNN just ran a story about a young man blogging from Homs. As I’ve said before, I trust CNN because working in intelligence we always referred to CNN for breaking news. There are a lot of blogs out there and a lot of hoaxes, but CNN has the resources for extensive fact-checking.
The blogger “Big Al” (as he is called to protect his identity from Assad’s security forces) chronicles everyday life in one of the most war-torn Syrian towns. Al describes the most repetitive and monotonous soul-grinding deprivation, being stuck in the house without electricity. He tells of the danger of wandering out for food, with bombs dropping and bullets flying, and bravely perseveres in letting the world know details of a war receiving little official media coverage.
An astonishing moment in the story struck me the most. During the escalation of the government siege on the town, Al wanders out of his house and hears a voice nearby:
“I walked towards the voice and found a member of the security forces, he was wearing his uniform and holding his rifle and standing behind a wall. He asked me what I wanted and why I was there, and then he told me not to walk in that area at night and to be careful. He was nice to me and he even offered me some water if I didn’t have any at home. I asked him what he thinks will happen next, he hesitated to answer, but it was obvious what he was trying to say.
“He mumbled something about Libya and Egypt, and that was enough. He’s a good guy, but he was too scared to leave his barrier and join the free army. I asked him if he needed a place to stay in and I was hinting that I can help him leave Assad forces, but he didn’t answer. I walked away from him without saying another word. I wish I could protect him, but I can’t even protect myself.”
What an amazing moment. A simple exchange between a soldier and a citizen. A simple moment that poignantly encapsulates the pain of civil war. Soldiers are also human beings. Human beings bound by an organization where they must follow orders or be put to death. I’m sure that soldier wanted to run away from the army in that situation but simply could not take that course of action.
I’ve been in situations like that. Exhausted, granted a moment of respite in the middle of a battle, and yet forced to remain vigilant and awake. You want to just get away! Cry! You grip your rifle. You grit your teeth.
“How did I get here?” you ask yourself. “How could I be so stupid to get myself in this situation? Why do I have to wear a uniform and carry a rifle and continue to march on when I don’t believe in what we are doing any more?”
There were times I was a gung-ho U.S. Marine in Iraq: dedicated to the Mission.
But, I remember at some point in 2004. I was stationed at an airbase. I came into work one morning at the detention facility. My duties required processing detainees and translating for interrogations. For some reason I got my ass chewed by some sergeant. I went back to the barracks and I cried my eyes out. I gritted my teeth.
At times they would abuse detainees. Nothing severe or grotesque like Abu Ghraib. But the interrogator would sometimes slap them around. I knew it was wrong. I did not hit the Iraqis, but I would translate. I told the Marine interrogators I did not want to translate for such interrogations. (These weren’t CIA, they were Marine counterintelligence.)
They ignored my complaints. I really wanted to run away the day that sergeant chewed me out. I seriously thought of stealing a humvee and fleeing to Syria, selling it, throwing away my uniform. But I would become a fugitive. Desertion during a time of war is a serious offense. Because I’m an Arab, it’s likely the Marine Corps would suspect I joined the insurgency. I knew things. Worked in counterintelligence. Had access to classified information. In the end it would have been a stupid decision and I surely would have ended up kidnapped and killed by Al-Qaida.
In fact, one of the Marines I studied the Iraqi dialect with before deploying in 2004, a Lebanese-American by the name of Wassef Hassoun, did exactly that. Because of our Arabic skills, Hassoun was attached to Marine counterintelligence/interrogation teams like myself. He deserted the Marine Corps while we were in Iraq and fled to Lebanon in 2004.
However, after he disappeared a video appeared online and it looked like he had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists. Nobody really knows what happened. There were even rumors he joined the insurgents and fought against the U.S. during the Battle of Fallujah, that they found his uniform and military ID in an insurgent stronghold in Fallujah. But I don’t believe that. I think he just wanted to get away from the war and he did not believe in what we were doing any more. Eventually, he reported to the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and went back to the States, where the Marine Corps charged him with desertion. They then let him go on leave. Of course, he fled and last I heard he lives in a heavily Shi’a Muslim area of Lebanon. The FBI is after him, but I’m sure he will never return to the U.S.
My point is that being a soldier is hard, and when you are put in a situation like a civil war, or an invasion or occupation, you are faced with tough decisions. Perhaps I should have run away from the Marines the moment I saw an Iraqi get slapped in the face.
Perhaps I’m just a coward. During the Battle of Fallujah, I slapped an enemy prisoner of war and was sent back to the base where I got a slap on the wrist by the colonel and got sent home. I was so tired and miserable. After an eleven month tour in Iraq, I was at wits end. I was just as afraid as that Syrian soldier at the barrier talking to Big Al.
In that moment, that Syrian soldier wanted to help his fellow Syrian, though as part of Assad’s security forces that soldier was an instrument of the destruction and murder. He might even have wanted to join the rebel army. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. We will never know.
In the end, moral courage is hard to define. The courage to stick with your mission, with the uniform you have donned, or to abandon it when you become part of something immoral. When the pain and misery of a war blurs the lines of right and wrong, of good and evil, of sacrifice and murder, the very idea of personal liberty and integrity becomes hard to understand.Tweet