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Jarheads, ragheads and deserters


Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

In 2004, some of us webheads were reading the June entries on a blog called 'My War: Fear and Loathing in Iraq', by Colby Buzzell, a machine-gunner in the war, told his story straight: dispatches from the frontline, as with this August 2004 post from Mosul in Iraq.
Out on the streets, Buzzell and his battalion found themselves under attack: "all of the sudden all hell came down all around on us, all these guys wearing all black (Black pants, and a black t-shirts tucked in), a couple dozen on each side of the street, on rooftops, alleys, edge of buildings, out of windows, everywhere just came out of f***ing nowhere and started firing RPG's and AK47's at us. I freaked the f*** out and ducked down in the hatch. I yelled "WE GOT F***IN HAJI'S ALL OVER THE F***IN PLACE!!! THERE ALL OVER GOD DAMNIT!!!"
This month, My War won the first Lulu Blooker award, for the best blog to have been published as a book. The subtitle has been sanitised: it now reads 'Killing Time in Iraq'. Buzzell was already a cult figure. Among the fans of his blog were a rap star and the late Kurt Vonnegut""Buzzell carried a copy of Slaughterhouse Five tucked into his back pocket all through the war, but the Blooker made him famous. His reportage has become iconic, and he is seen as the raw voice of the troops in a war where Iraqi kids were sometimes hired as minesweepers and where US soldiers would often carry a rifle in one hand while videotaping the action for posterity.
Shortly before Buzzell's book made headlines, another US soldier released his story. Like Buzzell, Joshua Key's voice comes through as intelligent, observant, but raw and unfiltered. Their books are very different from Anthony Swofford's polished 2003 bestseller, Jarhead. Swofford, like Buzzell, is a reader""he spent some of his Marine service in Iraq reading Homer's The Iliad and Albert Camus' The Stranger""and he is also a more polished writer. Swofford wrote with lyricism and an awareness of his audience: "Our rucks are heavy with equipment and ammunition but even heavier with the burdens of history, and each step we take, the burdens increase." Buzzell and write from the gut.
Buzzell's recent Blooker win and Swofford's success""Jarhead was a bestseller for months""might overshadow for the moment. It is, however, Key's book that is likely to have the most devastating impact. Swofford and Buzzell both had questions about the war in Iraq, but they did their time. took a long, hard, close-up look at the war in Iraq, too, and opted out, turning himself into a deserter from the US army, a fugitive from America.
grew up poor and patriotic in Oklahoma, learning to shoot, drink and handle a welder's torch. There were no books or newspapers in his home. He barely knew his father; one of his stepdads was a violent man who beat up Key's mother while the children watched. Key, like many of his counterparts in a country like India, saw the army as a way out. He knew nothing about the "enemy".
"Iraqis, I was taught to believe, were not civilians; they were not even people. We had our own terms for them. Our commanders called them ragheads, so we did the same. We called them habibs. We called them sand niggers. We called them hajjis; it wasn't until I was sent to war that a man in Iraq explained to me that hajji was a complimentary term for a Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. In training, all I knew was that a hajji was someone to be despised..."
went to Iraq prepared to follow orders. In A Deserter's Tale, he writes about life in the army with stoic humour. He found a niche for himself as the battalion's mechanical genius, and soldiered on, seeing some of the worst of the fighting in Fallujah. Key comes across as a quiet man of integrity and unshakeable honesty.
Over time, he began to ask questions about the raids on innocent Iraqi families, the casual, brutal violence the US army visited on ordinary civilians just because they could. He saw soldiers use the decapitated heads of dead Iraqis as footballs, he saw the army look the other way when women were threatened with rape. He began to question not just his immediate superiors, but the logic of the Iraq war. Back home on leave, he made the decision to desert. Key is now a fugitive whose application for refugee status in Canada has just been rejected; if he ever returns to the US, he will face a court martial, jail term and reprisals. But his story hits home in a way that other, more polished accounts do not.
"I am neither a coward nor a traitor," Key writes. "I owe one apology and one apology only, and that is to the people of Iraq." His story, blunt, unapologetic and defiant, may be the most unsettling indictment of the Iraq war to have emerged this far.

First Published: Tue, May 22 2007. 00:00 IST