Uncomfortable Questions

The biggest taboo in America, even among those who oppose the war, is criticizing the military. Point to Abu Ghraib or Haditha, and they cry “Exception to the rule!” And I’ll grant them that (though I’d dispute the degree of exceptionality). I’ll also grant that there are right ways and wrong ways to make such criticisms: when confronting people with arguments they’re conditioned to reject, it’s best not to be too shrill.


Joshua Key spent eight months as a U.S. soldier in Iraq. After reading this excerpt from his newly published book The Deserter’s Tale, I’m moved to ask an uncomfortable question. But first, a snippet (bolding is mine):

Busting into and ransacking homes remained one of my most common duties in Iraq. Before my time was up, I took part in about 200 raids. We never found weapons or indications of terrorism. I never found a thing that seemed to justify the terror we inflicted every time we blasted through the door of a civilian home, broke everything in sight, punched and zipcuffed the men, and sent them away. One raid was far worse.

It was a handsome two-storey house and quite isolated. As usual, I put the charge of C-4 explosives on the door and we blew it in. As we rushed into the house, women were staggering out of their rooms. Three teenage girls screamed when they saw us. Some of my squad mates grabbed them and held them at gunpoint, and the rest of us ran through the house. We found no men at all, just six more women in their 20s and 30s. The guys in my squad couldn’t find a thing, not even any guns — and it seemed that the more incapable they were of locating contraband, the more destructive they became. They smashed dressers, ripped mattresses, broke cabinets, and threw shelves to the floor.

Outside I found Pte. 1st Class Hayes with a woman under an empty carport. He pointed his M-16 at her head but she would not stop screaming.

“What are you doing this for?” she said.

Hayes told her to shut up.

“We have done nothing to you,” she went on.

Hayes was starting to lose it. I told her that we were there on orders and that we couldn’t speak to her, but on and on and on she bawled at Hayes and me.

“You Americans are disgusting! Who do you think you are, to do this to us?”

Hayes slammed her in the face with the stock of his M-16. She fell face down into the dirt, bleeding and silent. The woman lay still on the ground. I pushed Hayes away.

“What are you doing, man?” I said to him. “You have a wife and two kids! Don’t be hitting her like that.”

He looked at me with eyes full of hatred, as if he was ready to kill me for saying those words, but he did not touch the woman again. I found this incident with Hayes particularly disturbing because during other times I had seen him in action in Iraq, he had showed himself to be one of the most level-headed and calm soldiers in my company. I had the sense that if he could lose it and hit a woman the way he had, any of us could lose it too.

Then something happened that haunts my dreams to this day. All the women were led back inside the house and our entire platoon was ordered to stand guard outside it. Four U.S. military men entered the house with the women. They closed the doors. We couldn’t see anything through the windows. I don’t know who the military men were, or what unit they were from, but I can only conclude that they outranked us and were at least at the level of first lieutenant or above. That’s because our own second lieutenant Joyce was there, and his presence did not deter them.

Normally, when we conducted a raid, we were in and out in 30 minutes or less. You never wanted to stay in one place for too long for fear of exposing yourself to mortar attacks. But our platoon was made to stand guard outside that house for about an hour. The women started shouting and screaming. The men stayed in there with them, behind closed doors. It went on and on and on.

Finally, the men came out and told us to get the hell out of there.

Now let’s take the most grunt-sympathetic reading of this passage and allow for the following: People, especially young men, behave terribly under terrible stress. Soldiers don’t get to pick their assignments (not really true of those who volunteer in the middle of a war, but I’ll be generous). In fact, let’s go ahead and throw the alleged mass rape into the exception pile.


Though torture, rape, and murder are presumably not routine procedures for occupying forces in Iraq, these blind, tornadic raids on civilian homes are. Two hundred raids in eight months: you do the math. These are literally everyday, humdrum activities for the occupiers. What is the least that we should expect from a decent person who has seen what Joshua Key has seen? Don’t tell me about the consequences, professional, legal, social, or otherwise: it’s always easiest to simply persist in wrongdoing. Just tell me: what is the minimum moral obligation for a person in Key’s position? Is it not what he chose to do?