I came home, but my war hasn’t

Former Army staff sergeant William Quinn certainly doesn’t miss the car bombs or mortar fire of Baghdad. But he wonders why Iraq seems like the last thing on the minds of his college classmates.

The only feeling I’ve ever had that was more surreal than arriving in a war zone was returning from one.

I came home on R&R in 2005 after eight months in Iraq. Heading for the baggage claim in Detroit, I watched travelers walking and talking on their cell phones, chatting with friends and acting just the way people had before I’d left for Baghdad. The war didn’t just seem to be taking place in another country; it seemed to be taking place in another universe. There I was, in desert camouflage, wondering how all the intensity, the violence, the tears, and the killing of Iraq could really be happening at the same time that all these people were hurrying to catch their flights to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or wherever.

Riding home that day with my parents, I felt nervous, too exposed in their Ford Taurus. There was no armor on the car, and it felt light. We stopped at every red light and stop sign, and I saw potential dangers everywhere, even though I-94 heading into the city was nothing like Baghdad’s Airport Road. There were no torched trucks or craters left by bomb blasts. I think it was the neatness of it all that made me uncomfortable. It seemed that staying alive shouldn’t be so easy.

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I’ve been out of Iraq for more than two years now. I have a different life, as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. But some of those feelings are still with me. After dedicating a year to a conflict of such enormous complexity, I find that college feels a bit mundane, and it’s inexplicable to me that people here seem to be entirely untouched by the war.

On Sept. 11, 2001, everyone said that the events of that day would change the lives of all Americans. I was a trainee in the interrogation course at the Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., at the time. At 18, I had dropped out of college and joined the Army earlier that year, because I felt that my life lacked discipline and direction. Six years later, 9/11 doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on most people’s lives. But it has had an enormous effect on mine.

I arrived in Iraq in March 2005. My unit hurried onto a Chinook helicopter at Baghdad International Airport in the middle of the night. I was weighted down with more than 100 pounds of gear, and I never managed to strap myself in. Helicopters are violent machines, and we shook as we lifted into the air. The rear door was open, a machine gunner suspended over the ramp, and the lights on the ground receded as we flew off, like the scenery behind a taxi in an old movie. Before long, we were over a field of tents, lit up under spotlights as bright as day. We had arrived at Abu Ghraib.

I spent the next month and a half at that prison complex outside Baghdad. By then, the interrogation rules had changed substantially after the stories of abuse there came out in mid-2004. We were permitted to sit across from a detainee and talk to him—everything else was banned.

This was a good rule. Torture is easy to justify. Interrogators assume that everyone they question is culpable; it’s part of the job. If a detainee can’t provide information because he has none, the temptation to slip into brutality is very present. Without rules in place, I might have been brutal, but I never so much as raised my voice to a detainee.

On April 2, 2005, Abu Ghraib was attacked by dozens of insurgents armed with vehicle-borne bombs, rockets, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and Kalashnikovs. It was a terrifying experience— but also an exhilarating one. I learned that I was capable of functioning through my fear, and that I could place my life, with absolute confidence, in the hands of my fellow soldiers and Marines.

I spent a few hours that night in an inner tower with Marines who responded to the rockets and small-arms fire with 50- caliber machine guns. I watched as a man in a tractor was killed by machine-gun fire and as a group of trucks was stopped by a barrage of bullets from the tower guards. Later that night, I interrogated some of the men who had been in those trucks. A few had been wounded; all were frightened. They were fish deliverymen, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The man in the tractor turned out to be a suicide bomber. It’s nearly impossible to tell the enemy from the innocent.

After my time at Abu Ghraib, I was transferred to Camp Cropper, which was then a small prison facility near Baghdad International Airport. Over the next year, I spoke with hundreds of detainees. I spent my days with members of al Qaida, Baathists, Sunni nationalist insurgents, and Shiite insurgents. I listened to their life stories, and I wrote hundreds of reports about their experiences. It consumed every moment of my day.

I wasn’t involved in the short interrogations where we try to learn where the next bomb is located or how many insurgents are in the next safe house. The interrogations I conducted lasted weeks and sometimes months. We were trying to understand the big picture: the support networks, the international connections, and the enemy’s motivations. The long-term nature of our conversations forced me to see the men I interrogated as human beings. Most were Iraqi. Many were extremely intelligent, and some had had a great deal of formal education.

Their levels of cooperation varied. Some were forthcoming with information; some were not. Some seemed to enjoy the solitude of prison; some were led to despair by it. They all remain in my thoughts, and I’m sometimes surprised by my feelings. Recently, I read in the International Herald Tribune that a man I’d interrogated had been executed in Baghdad. If anyone ever deserved execution, it was he. But I still felt a pang of regret. His life, for all its horrors, mattered to me.

I was accepted to Georgetown while still in Iraq. The Army discharged me in July 2006, and I began college that August.

What a difference.

People on campus don’t think about the war very much. It rarely comes up in conversation, either inside or outside the classroom. Some professors have encouraged me to share my experiences, and some students have expressed interest in my past. Last semester, one wrote an article about another Iraq veteran and me for the campus newspaper. And this semester I dedicated about 250 words of a 900-word paper to the problem of sectarian violence in Iraq for a class on international relations. But that was the first time in my three semesters here that I was asked to formally consider the war for a class.

Beyond that, my theology professor gave a lecture last year that challenged students to find God in Iraq. My philosophy professor used Baghdad to describe what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes may have meant when he said that life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But that’s about it. One student actually told me to stop thinking about Iraq. “You need to get rid of all that baggage and let yourself live,” she said. “We need to be shallow sometimes.”

I find it frustrating that Facebook is a bigger part of most students’ lives than the war. After my first semester, I decided to rejoin the Army by signing up with the ROTC. I felt a bit guilty for having done only one tour in Iraq while friends of mine have done two or three. And I didn’t want to forget the war. I may be prejudiced, but many of my college peers seem selfabsorbed. I didn’t want to end up like that.

You could rightly say a lot of negative things about soldiers. Many are crude. Some visit prostitutes; some commit adultery. I’ve known some who are bigots. It would be a lie to say that every soldier behaves honorably at all times. When I was stationed in South Korea from 2003 to 2005, I was often embarrassed by soldiers who were loud, obnoxious, and insulting to Koreans. Men in their early 20s act like men in their early 20s, whether they wear a uniform or not.

Nonetheless, the Army’s values are important to soldiers. They may not always live up to them, but they do when it matters most. Soldiers are selfless; they are courageous; they are loyal. The most interesting intellectual conversations I’ve had have been with others in the military. They discuss things not to impress you, but because they’re trying to figure them out. They’re faced with difficult situations, and they want to make sense of them. Though many privately question our government’s policies, they do their duty, which lies beyond the political debate.

This culture of duty is at odds with the culture of individualism and self-promotion that seems paramount here in college. And yet, the divide between my soldier friends and my fellow students isn’t the result of any fundamental differences between the people themselves. Many of my peers at school know much more about the world around them than my fellow soldiers do—international relations is a popular subject at Georgetown. My Army friends used to laugh when they saw me reading The Economist; my friends here think everyone should read it. Students talk about refugees from Iraq, North Korea, Burma, and Darfur with sincere compassion. One of my friends told me: “I want to dedicate my life to educating people about the sufferings of others.”

That’s a wonderful goal, but I often feel that the words ring hollow. Students’ true priorities are demonstrated by their daily activities: They have friends to meet, parties to attend, internships to work at, extracurricular activities to participate in, papers to write, and classes to attend. They’re under a lot of pressure to build a strong résumé for whatever company or graduate school they apply to after college. They’re under no pressure to be concerned about those who are less fortunate—or those who fight wars on their behalf.

I’m proud to be a student at Georgetown. Though I find some aspects of campus culture discouraging, I have a lot of respect for my professors and fellow students. But there are still days when I think about what it must be like back in Baghdad—and wonder whether that’s where I should be.

Originally published by The Washington Post. ©2007 by William Quinn.

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