If the title weren't already taken, this book should have been called "A Million Little Pieces" because our invasion of Iraq has shattered both Iraq and our soldiers who served there.
In this slim volume, Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian have written a devastating expose for all those who think there is or was anything honorable or benevolent about the Iraq War. We stumbled into a country we knew little about with soldiers, supplies and equipment ill prepared to cope with the reality they encountered. Thrown into this chaos, soldiers have had to improvise to survive. The resulting anger and sense of betrayal has led to frequent acts of hostility and atrocity as soldiers often lash out at the only people they can: Iraqi civilians.
Chris Hedges' introduction alone is worth the price of the book. He confronts the reality of war against the noble and heroic vision that Americans back home hold dear. He discusses the sense of betrayal soldiers experience when they realize the bill of goods they've been sold by their own country. He describes how the frustration of being put in impossible situation with little guidance or support from above leads to rage and hate that inevitably become directed against a dehumanized "other" - the Iraqi people, the very people that they are supposedly fighting to liberate.
The book itself is organized into four chapters that describe the types of situations in which soldiers, facing an impossible situation, may lash out at innocent civilians: guarding supply convoys as the maneuver along roads and highways trying to avoid IEDs and ambushes by insurgents; manning checkpoints, often hastily erected, and deciding whether or not each approaching person or vehicle presents a threat; conducting house-to-house raids looking for "insurgents", when the insurgents don't wear uniforms and blend into the civilian population; and rounding up and detaining prisoners, trying to decide which are actual fighters, which possess crucial intelligence, and which are merely hapless innocents caught up in the dragnet. In each of these situations, soldiers have already been primed through training and through experience to believe that their very lives are at stake. In each situation, they may have mere seconds to make a life or death situation. In no case have they been given thorough instruction and training for the reality they face, but they have seen that the military hierarchy tends to look the other way when "stuff happens". Given such reality, soldiers often make the logical conclusion that it's "better to be judged by twelve men than carried by six".
A final chapter explores the difficulty of winning "hearts and minds" in the climate created by the conditions of the Iraq War. There were few Arabic speaking translators available to the troops, who themselves were given only a few words and phrases in Arabic. The troops had little knowledge or training on Iraqi culture and customs, which has resulted in confusion and catastrophe as soldiers try to communicate in sign language. For instance, the gesture soldiers use to indicate "stop", Iraqis often take to mean "approach". What little cultural training there was was often dismissed and ridiculed by military officials and soldiers alike. There was little understanding of the tribal and ethnic divisions and bloody rivalries among Iraqi people which has had devastating consequences and the various rival groups have played the U.S. military against their rivals as the country hovers on the brink of civil war.
It can be argued that the book is somewhat dated. It was published in 2008 just after the "surge" which, supporters say, "worked" in that sectarian and anti-U.S. violence has decreased and most areas of the country have been "secured". Furthermore, President Obama has been drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and has declared the war over. However, no one can read this book (or any other account of the Iraq War by people who have been there) and think that the problems described have been somehow magically fixed. There is still little improvement in the infrastructure, including basics such as electricity, clean water and sanitation. There is hardly any functioning government - most "governmental" services, including policing, are provided by various tribal lords as the country has been carved (with U.S. help) into small fiefdoms. Centuries old ethnic tension and hatreds continue to boil under the surface. And, perhaps most tellingly, 60,000 U.S. troops remain to occupy Iraq, along with thousands (even tens of thousands) of private "contractors" who serve many of the same "security" functions as U.S. soldiers.
This book is absolutely not anti-soldier. Hedges and al-Arian allow the soldiers to speak for themselves of the difficulty and confusion they faced and the result is a very compassionate portrayal of young men and women caught in an impossible situation. The book isn't even anti-war. Sometimes war is an unfortunate necessity. But because of the inherent destruction and devastation of war, it is important to have a clear understanding of the purpose of the war, a clear plan for achieving such end, and a high level of knowledge of the country, its geography, people, culture, language, etc. before putting the lives of thousands of young men and women on the line. We had no such understanding before we recklessly invaded Iraq, and the Iraqi people and our soldiers have paid the price.