by Chris Hedges
Jessica Goodell came to understand that torment only too well, as she relates in her 2011 memoir Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq. Goodell wasn’t poor. She grew up in a middle-class home near Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother worked at home. But her “universe fractured” when she was sixteen and her parents divorced. She could barely continue “the motions of everyday existence.” She was accepted at Ithaca College her senior year, but just before graduation a uniformed Marine came to her high school. He told her he had come to find “tough men.”
“What about tough women?” she asked.
By that afternoon she was in the Marine recruiting office. She told the recruiter she wanted to be part of a tank crew but was informed that women were prohibited from operating tanks. She saw a picture of a Marine standing next to a vehicle with a huge hydraulic arm and two smaller forklift arms. She signed up to be a heavy equipment mechanic, although she knew nothing about it.
Three years later, while stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in the desert town of Twentynine Palms, California, she volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps’ first official Mortuary Affairs unit, at Al Taqaddum Airbase in Iraq. Her job, for eight months, was to “process” dead Marines—collect and catalog their bodies and personal effects. She put the remains in body bags and placed the bags in metal boxes. Before being shipped to Dover Air Force Base, the boxes were stored, often for days, in a refrigerated unit known as a “reefer.”
Her unit processed six suicides. The suicide notes, she told me in an interview, almost always cited hazing. Marines who were overweight or unable to do the physical training were subjected to withering verbal and physical abuse. They were called “fat nasties” and “shit bags.” They were assigned to other Marines as slaves. Many were forced to run until they vomited or to bear-crawl—walk on all fours—the length of a football field and back. This would be followed by sets of monkey fuckers—bending down, grabbing the ankles, crouching like a baseball catcher, and then standing up again—and other exercises that went on until the Marines collapsed.
Goodell’s unit was sent to collect the bodies of the Marines who killed themselves. They usually blew their faces off with assault rifles in port-a-johns or in the corners of abandoned bunkers or buildings. She and the other members of the Mortuary Affairs unit would have to scrape the flesh and brain tissue from the walls.
Goodell fell into depression when she returned home. She abused drugs and alcohol. And she watched the slow descent of her comrades as they too tried to blunt the pain with narcotics and self-destructive behavior. She details many of her experiences in Shade It Black, a term that refers to the missing body parts of dead Marines, which she colored black on diagrams of the corpses.
In a poignant passage, she talks about what it was like for her and a fellow Marine named Miguel to come home and see all those yellow ribbons:
We’d frequently pass vehicles displaying the yellow ribbon ‘support-our-troops decal,’ but we never once mentioned it. We probably passed a hundred or more decals—two hundred if you count the multiple decals decorating the cars of the more patriotic motorists—and yet neither of us even once said, ‘Look, more support from the citizenry. Let’s give the ‘thumbs up’ as we pass.’ . . . I knew that these people on their way to work or home or dinner had no idea what it was they were supporting. They did not have a clue as to what war was like, what it made people see, and what it made them do to each other. I felt as though I didn’t deserve their support, or anyone’s, for what I had done. . . . No one should ever support the people who do such things.
Stateside “support” not only reflects the myths of war, but it also forces Goodell and her comrades to suppress their own experiences:
Here we were, leaving the ribbons behind us as we sped up on our way to Hell, probably, where we would pay for the sins these magnetic decals endorsed. There was an irony of sorts shaping the dynamic between our ribbon decal supporters and us. They were uninformed but good people, the kind whose respect we would welcome—if it were based upon something true. It was when we were around them that we had to hide the actual truth most consciously.
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Those who return to speak this truth, like Goodell or Millard, are our contemporary prophets. They struggle, in a culture awash in lies, to tell what few have the fortitude to digest. The words these prophets speak are painful.
As a nation we prefer to listen to those who speak from the patriotic script. We prefer to hear ourselves exalted. If veterans speak of terrible wounds visible and invisible, of lies told to make them kill, of evil committed in our name, we fill our ears with wax. Not our boys and girls, we say, not them, bred in our homes, endowed with goodness and decency. For if it is easy for them to murder, what about us? It is simpler and more comfortable not to hear, to wish only that they would calm down, be reasonable, get some help, and go away. We brand our prophets as madmen. We cast them into the desert. This is why so many veterans are estranged and enraged. This is why so many succumb to suicide or addictions. Not long ago Goodell received a text message from a Marine she had worked with in Mortuary Affairs after he tried to commit suicide. “I’ve got $2,000 in the bank,” the message read. “Let’s meet in NYC and go out with a bang.”
War comes wrapped in patriotic slogans; calls for sacrifice, honor, and heroism; and promises of glory. It comes wrapped in the claims of divine providence. It is what a grateful nation asks of its children. It is what is right and just. It is waged to make the nation and the world a better place, to cleanse evil. War is touted as the ultimate test of manhood, where the young can find out what they are made of. From a distance it seems noble. It gives us comrades and power and a chance to play a bit part in the great drama of history. It promises to give us identities as warriors, patriots, as long as we go along with the myth, the one the war-makers need to wage wars and the defense contractors need to increase their profits.
But up close war is a soulless void. War is about barbarity, perversion, and pain. Human decency and tenderness are crushed, and people become objects to use or kill. The noise, the stench, the fear, the scenes of eviscerated bodies and bloated corpses, the cries of the wounded all combine to spin those in combat into another universe. In this moral void, naïvely blessed by secular and religious institutions at home, the hypocrisy of our social conventions, our strict adherence to moral precepts, becomes stark. War, for all its horror, has the power to strip away the trivial and the banal, the empty chatter and foolish obsessions that fill our days. It might let us see, although the cost is tremendous.
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