Before Marines deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they first went through a base in California called 29 Palms, where Iraqi refugees would roleplay as townsfolk in order to prepare the soldiers for what they would face abroad.
“The folks who were hired to play that, they all had terrible stories about [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein, about family members being killed or going missing,” remembered Capt. Tommy Furlong. “It pumped you up. It made you believe just that much more in the fight that you were going towards.”
That feeling of joy and confidence quickly unraveled when Furlong reached Afghanistan. “When you deploy, people aren’t happy to see you,” he said. “What you’re trained to and what you’re told is not what you’re seeing on the ground.”
Thus begins “What I Want You To Know,” a new documentary from director Catie Foertsch that gives an unflinching look at a pair of wars that many Americans might want to forget. The film focuses on the experiences of 13 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, most of whom joined the military in order to fight back after the September 11, 2001, attacks and help build democracy in the war-torn countries.
Foertsch explained in a Tuesday panel that she views the film as a “testimony project” — a deep dive into the views of the majority of veterans who believe neither war was worth fighting in the first place.
The Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, sponsored the discussion. Other panelists included Sgt. Travis Weiner and Furlong, both of whom are executive producers on the film, as well as Col. Gregory Daddis, a professor at San Diego State University and a Quincy Institute board member.
Furlong told listeners that he felt no previous documentary about the wars had truly captured the “raw, on-the-ground perception” of the conflicts through the eyes of the soldiers that fought them. He praised interviewees for their candor. “The part that isn’t talked about a lot is that war is very private,” Furlong said. “It’s difficult to talk about your experiences.”
While the stories are diverse, a few themes stand out. One is a shared feeling of betrayal — a sense that their political and military leaders had misled them with false promises of a noble war.
“Anyone who joins the Marine Corps or the military is demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice their life for their country,” said Capt. Sarah Feinberg. “I think our politicians and our military leaders have a responsibility to at a minimum tell the truth on what we're doing.”
For Feinberg, this divide between hope and reality made it impossible for her to return to combat. “If I can't explain to someone why they're putting their life on the line, then I can't lead that mission,” she said.
Some put it in starker terms. “I was betrayed by my government, and I was lied to,” said Spc. Garett Reppenhagen. “Here I am with blood on my hands, for what?”
Another theme is dehumanization, both of the soldiers and the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. The veterans remember the difficulties of simply staying alive in a war zone and the incentive to view all locals as a threat. “There was very little respect for the Iraqi people throughout the units in the military that I served with,” said Feinberg, who deployed to Iraq in 2009.
A few of the veterans interviewed admit that they participated in the accidental killing of civilians, and many recount haunting images of dead children and friends. “It’s not the firefights that really haunt me. It’s what I’ve seen humans be able to do to other humans,” said Sgt. Alan Pitts. “Those are the things that probably bothered me the most to this day — to see what humans are capable of and how horrible they can be when they’re told that this other person is less than them.”
While the documentary never uses the word PTSD, a deep sense of trauma lurks behind every shot. Veterans relate the mental struggles of joining up to fight for a supposedly venerable cause that had little to do with their actual mission. Some found that this cognitive dissonance, combined with the hellish fighting that they participated in, was too much to bear. “Most of the suicides, at least of the combat veterans, are so intimately and inextricably linked to their experience in war that I use the term ‘killed by combat,’” Maj. Danny Sjursen said.
It’s a harsh reminder of an often ignored fact about the War on Terror: While roughly 7,000 American soldiers died at war, an additional 30,000 took their own lives after returning home, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University.
Despite all the pain caused by these wars, the film shows that many veterans still care deeply about the military and its mission of defending America. They simply hope that policymakers will think more deeply about the suffering that results from our country’s wars of choice. “We have to talk about the consequences or it will happen again,” Foertsch said.
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