Tell me a bit about your background.
I grew up in suburban D.C. in a pretty religious family and went to an evangelical Christian school. My family was very much involved in the church, and my father's pretty political; when I was in high school I worked with him on the Bush campaign.
What was your experience like after you enlisted?
Pretty quickly after I got in, I started to see inconsistencies between how the military was talked about in such glorified ways [when I was] growing up, and then how it was acted out in training. Training was very desensitizing. We screamed slogans like, "Kill them all, let God sort them out." We watched videos with bombs being dropped on Middle Eastern villages with rock and roll music in the background. People really started to celebrate death and destruction, and that definitely didn't match up to what I'd expected. I'd told myself that I was willing to kill if necessary, but that wasn't the same as celebrating it.
When did your willingness to go along start to shift toward a sense that you couldn't remain in the military?
That didn't take place until I actually deployed and was confronted with making crucial decisions. One of the values I'd been taught and that you hear all the time in the rhetoric of political and military leaders was that democracy is a good thing and it thrives on the will of the people.
That came into question a couple of months after we got to Baghdad. We were moving off the main base and going to live in an old factory in the poor industrial part of town. As we were moving in, the local population came out and held a large peaceful protest and told us very straightforwardly that they didn't want us in their part of town. We ignored that and pushed them out of our way and established ourselves in the factory. Within a couple of days, we had built a large barrier around the full city block that we were living in and continued to displace people who lived and worked there. So this idea that we were there to liberate the common people and help their will flourish—the way we handled that situation seemed to be the complete opposite of it.
What kind of reaction to that did you see on the ground? If you perceived the discrepancy between American rhetoric and American actions, I assume many Iraqis did, too.
Yes, absolutely. They had tried telling us nonviolently that they didn't want us in their neighborhood, and when that didn't work, they tried telling us violently, by using snipers and roadside bombs and that kind of thing. And once they started to get violent, we started to get violent, too. It went back and forth and each attack seemed to be more severe than the last one. Eventually the escalation led to a kind of desperation on the part of a lot of soldiers. There's really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around.
The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists. That was really troubling for me; I found it wrong both morally and strategically. If that happened to me, that wouldn't make me more likely to help out whatever army was doing that; it would make me more likely to oppose them. I was in a couple of situations where I was ordered to do that and I refused that order. So that was when I was really forced to make a decision about what I stood for.
Read the whole thing
I keep hoping that situations like these are the exception and not the rule. That hope dies a little with each new report.