In July of 2006, my unit created an outpost in the middle of southeastern Ramadi, Iraq. In an early morning raid, we cleared a city block of its residents and moved our unit into their former neighborhood. We built machine gun nests on top of their houses. We surrounded the neighborhood with booby traps and razor wire.
And, we burned their stuff.
This was all necessary for what we were doing: creating a stable base from which to launch attacks against insurgent and Al-Qaeda Iraq forces in the city. We were losing the battle for the city at the time, and this particular strategy helped us secure victory against those forces and create a peace in the city that lasted for several years.
But, we burned their stuff.
This bothered me less at the time than it has in the years afterwards. Iraqi sanitation infrastructure broke down after the invasion, and the air constantly smelled of rotten garbage and shit. In an environment like that, you convince yourself that the people whose possessions you are piling up and pouring gasoline onto are all unwashed, possibly diseased barbarians and that you are putting yourself in danger just by touching their bed sheets.
We spent most of a day clearing those houses of a lifetime’s worth of earthly possessions. We laughed, we joked, we smoked cigarettes. To us, this was all in a day’s work, just another day in The Shit.
A few days later, we had a “community outreach” event. I was one of the soldiers that was assigned to “provide security” for the event. We brought out Public Affairs officers with envelopes of money and boxes of toys, all in an effort to compensate the citizens whose lives we had casually upended in our bid for strategic superiority.
None of the citizens were particularly thrilled about the arrangement, but they grudgingly accepted the compensation and the kids swarmed the boxes of toys.
One mother, though, wasn’t fucking having it.
She pulled her children away from the toys and screamed at us. All the screaming was in Arabic, so I couldn’t understand a word, but she waved her hands and screamed at the top of her lungs while keeping her children away. It put all of us “security” men on edge, even though this was an unarmed woman that I could have physically subdued with firing a shot.
She probably never looked at me directly, but she might as well have been pointing her finger at me specifically.
“You did this, you took my home, you burned my possessions, and now you want to bribe my kids? You’re to blame for this. You’re to blame.”
That’s not necessarily what she said – again, whatever she said was in Arabic – but that’s what I hear when I think of her. I can remember her face when I close my eyes, like she’s standing right in front of me. Over the months and years following, she became the face of what we did and were doing in Iraq.
She is exactly the kind of person that I imagine standing at the southern US border right now. I imagine kind-faced CBP agents handing her children toys while she wails at the injustice of having no home to return to and no home awaiting her. I imagine some young CBP agent, probably no older than I was in 2006, standing stoically while this woman screams at him in a language that he might or might not understand.
This would be an injustice in and of itself, this destruction of someone’s hopes after the destruction of their lives and possessions in their country of origin. But, our country – with the voice of our President – has decided that this woman also needs to be robbed of her children, too, while she is prosecuted for the crime of daring to demand a better life than the one she was born into.
We have room enough for her and her family here. We have money enough – though it is mostly in the pockets of a few who will never be able to spend all of it. We have enough work. We have enough of everything that she and her family needs to survive and thrive in this country.
Except compassion. We are sorely lacking in that.
We have created a culture that sees her and her family as part of an unwashed, diseased horde of barbarians, and we won’t touch her or anything that belongs to her as a result. Through decades of interference in her country of origin – and the region surrounding it – we have created a climate of fear and violence where she comes from. And, through decades of indifference and inaction, we have now created a climate of fear and revulsion in the place to which she flees.
That young CBP agent might care about her and her crying child, as he stands with his gun and his restraints between them and their only hope of a better life. I cared about that woman and her kids as I stood with my rifle between her and the home that she had spent years building and caring for.
The fact that we care does absolutely fuck-all for her and her family. The fact that we care does absolutely nothing to mitigate our guilt in being part of the forces that will throw her possessions on a pile and burn them.
Or, take her children from her and throw them into a very comfortable cage.
I clench my fists when I read about this, but I also turn my eye inward. Because, as much as I want to wash my hands and call myself blameless, I know that I have been a part of this from the very beginning. I have been part of a culture that doesn’t give a shit about this woman and her family – or the thousands of families like her – until the shame becomes so great that we can’t breathe from it.
It took a picture of a crying child to move most of America to action, but this child is not the first and this child won’t be the last to be terrorized by our indifference to their plight. Until we cease to see them as an “issue” or just as “immigrants” or “refugees” or “illegals”, we will continue to terrorize them. Until we begin to see this woman and her family – or man and his family, or man or woman alone, or unaccompanied child – until we being to see them all as human beings in need of our compassion and our help, we will continue to terrorize them.
We have to care before we see it. We have to care for every second of every day that it’s happening. We have to care no matter who sits in the seats of government – whether they are hateful and spiteful and inhumane, or they maintain compassionate rhetoric. We have to move beyond our empathy into a practical compassion that works for their betterment, no matter what photos come across our news feed.
And, we have to make sure that we don’t place all of our blame on that young CBP agent – or that young soldier – who stand and listen to the cries of the woman and her children. Yes, these people are both to blame for their choice to be a part of the mechanism that oppresses and terrorizes, but they are not the only ones to blame. They don’t exist in a cultural vacuum. They are a result of the choices that our society has made, and that society is as much to blame as they are.
We are all to blame, and we are all responsible for the solution.