Iraq: What They Died For

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

By Peter Van Buren.  Introduction by b. traven.

Peter Van Buren is a former State Department Officer who has an impish sense of humor.  He used that to devastating effect in his book, We Meant Well, on our misbegotten venture in Iraq. For telling the unvarnished truth about his service in Iraq, Van Buren was persecuted, then forced into retirement, by the State Department after more than two decades of service.

If you haven't read it, read it.  Now.

If you haven’t read it, read it. Now.

Peter’s inside experience in government and his service alongside U.S. troops in Iraq give him unique knowledge of how things really work rather than how we are told they work. The article below is a poignant excerpt from his book that highlights the futility of our military ventures by focusing on individual tragedy. Suicide in the U.S. military is beginning to get more public attention and the astounding figure that Peter comes up with is that of the approximately 4500 service deaths in Iraq, close to 20% were non-combat suicides.

There is a connection between the hopelessness of suicide and the meaningfulness of the life one is living. In three years of service in World War II, I never heard of a suicide even among those who returned after horrendous combat experiences. There was what was called “battle fatigue,”now called PTSD, but little suicide because as much as we all wanted “out” we know we were “in” for a very good reason. That reason is lacking today as we see Iraq fall apart and Afghanistan continue to be Afghanistan with or without the American military’s presence.

Just plain humanity begs us to tell our politicians “no more!”.  b. traven

Iraq: What They Died For 

Peter Van Buren

Over this July 4th weekend, and as I see the images of Iraq’s unfolding civil war, sometimes I think I even recognize a place I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America’s Occupation there, 2009-2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded with an Army brigade of some 3000 men and women far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had. I grow weary now of hearing people talk about America’s sacrifices, our investment, the need for more troops or air strikes, our blood and treasure spent to free Iraq, or whatever it was we were supposed to have gone there to do.

So many people say those things. But before another one says another thing, I wish they could have seen what I saw in Iraq. This.


Private First Class (PFC) Brian Edward Hutson (name changed), in Iraq, put the barrel of his M-4 semiautomatic assault rifle into his mouth, with the weapon set for a three-round burst, and blew out the back of his skull. He was college- aged but had not gone and would never go to college. Notice appeared in the newspapers a week after his death, listed as “non-combat related.” Of the 4,486 American military deaths in Iraq, 911 were considered “non-combat related,” that is, non-accidents, suicides. In 2010, as in 2009, the years I was in Iraq with PFC Hutson, more soldiers died by their own hand than in combat. Mental disorders in those years outpaced injuries as a cause for hospitalization. The Army reported a record number of suicides in a single month for June 2010. Thirty- two soldiers in all, more than one a day for the whole month, around the time PFC Hutson took his life.

The M-4 rifle PFC Hutson used to kill himself, successor to the M-16 of Vietnam fame, allows the shooter, with the flip of a switch, to choose to fire one bullet per trigger pull or three. Nobody knows whether PFC Hutson spent a long time or no time with the rifle barrel in his mouth, but he must have really wanted to be dead, because he chose three shots. The bullets exploded through his brain in sequence. He left his toilet kit in the shower trailer. He still had Clearasil in the bag. Rumor was he’d had trouble sleeping. I didn’t know him.

I heard about his death at breakfast and walked over to his sleeping trailer along with some others. I took a quick look inside and saw the fan spray of blood and brain on the wall, already being washed off by the Bangladeshi contractor cleaning crew KBR had brought to Iraq for the war. The bleach solution they used was smearing more than cleaning, and the Bangladeshis had little stomach to wring out the mop heads all that often. Blood like this smells coppery. Even if you’d never smelled pooled blood before, you didn’t have to learn what it was, you already knew something was wrong in this place, this trailer, this Iraq.

Death does not redeem or disgrace. It is just a mess and no one who deals with it thinks otherwise. Don’t ask poets or pastors, because they do not know that pieces of people still look a lot like people and that extreme violence leaves bodies looking nothing like the bodies you see in open caskets or on TV. In Iraq I saw a girl crushed when a wall collapsed, her face looking like a Halloween pumpkin a few days too late. There was a drowned man in an irrigation ditch, gray and bloated, no eyes. Fish had nibbled them. You saw that stuff in Iraq. It was how war works.

A week before Hutson’s suicide, another soldier lost his life. This soldier, a turret gunner, was killed when his vehicle unsuccessfully tried to pass at thirty-five miles per hour under a too-low bridge. The Army counted deaths by accident as “combat deaths,” while suicides were not. Under a policy followed by George W. Bush and in part by Barack Obama, the families of suicides did not receive a condolence letter from the President. Suicides do not pertain to freedom. They died of the war, but not in the war.


But if distinctions between causes of death were made at the Pentagon, that was not the case on the ground in Iraq. The death of any soldier reverberated through the base This was, after all, a small town, and nobody was left untouched. The comfort of ritual stood in for public expressions of actual feelings, which were kept private and close. And the ritual prescribed by regulation was the same, whether the death was by suicide or in combat. The chapel had rows of chairs set up, much as it would in Hamilton, Ohio, or Marietta, Georgia for a wedding, only at the front of the room was a wooden box, made and brought to Iraq for this purpose, with holes for the US and the unit flag and a slot to stand the deceased’s rifle.

The remains of the deceased were likely already on their way home and not with us. This was not for PFC Hutson anyway, it was for us. The box holding the flags was made of plywood, stained and varnished like paneling, and reminded everyone of a B+ high school wood shop project. The dead man’s boots stood on either side of the rifle, with his helmet on top. It was fitting no one had cleaned the boots, because the presence of the dust and dirt wiped away a lot of the standardization of the ritual. Before the event started, the hum in the room was about future meetings, upcoming operations, food in the chow hall, the workaday talk of soldiers.

There was a program, done up on a word processor, with the official Army photo of the deceased, wearing a clean uniform, posed in front of an American flag— young, so young, you could see a few red pockmarks on the side of his face, a chicken pox scar on his forehead. All these photos showed a vacant stare, same as every high school graduation photo. The printed program was standard fare— some speeches, the chaplain leading the 23rd Psalm, and a final good-bye.

The speeches were strained because the senior officers who feel it important to speak at these events rarely knew, or could know among the many troops under them, the deceased. As with every other briefing they gave, the officers read words someone else wrote for them to give the impression of authority and familiarity. The dead man’s job had something minor to do with radios and most present couldn’t say much beyond that. The eulogy thus rang a bit hollow, but you reminded yourself that the words were not necessarily intended for you alone and that the Colonel may not have been the best man for the job. He was a responsible man, trying hard to do something impossible, and he probably felt bad for his lack of conviction. He did understand more of why we were all here, in Iraq, and that a task had to be done, and that he need not be Pericles or Lincoln to do a decent job of it.

The last speaker was by tradition someone acquainted personally with the deceased, a friend if one could be found, a junior leader or coworker if not. In today’s ceremony, things were especially awkward. The dead man had taken his life and had done so after only a few months in the Army and even less time at this forward operating base in Iraq. Nobody really had befriended him, and this being the third suicide on the base made the whole thing especially grim. The ceremony felt rushed, like an over-rehearsed school play where the best performance had taken place the night before. Not a surprise really; many of the soldiers present were not long from their high schools.

The Army is a simple organization, a vast group of disparate people who come together for their own reasons, live in austere conditions, and exist to commit violence under bewildering circumstances. These ceremonies were how the Army healed itself, left alone in the desert with only a vague idea why any of us were there in a war that had already been going on for seven years. Some of the soldiers in the chapel were eleven years old when the Iraq war started, nine years old when 9/11 happened. This is how wars work.

But sometimes things surprised you, maybe because of low expectations, maybe because every once in a while somebody stood up and said just what needed to be said. A young Captain rose without notes. “I was his team leader but I never really knew him. Brian was new here. He didn’t have no nickname and he didn’t spend much time with us. He played Xbox a lot. We don’t know why he committed suicide. We miss him anyway because he was one of us. That’s all I have to say.”

The word that raised the sentence beyond simple declaration was “anyway.” It was important to believe we all meant something to one another because we were part of this. When it rained, we all got wet. We could hate the war, hate the president, hate the Iraqis, and we did, but we could not hate one another.


A longer occupation, more troops, air strikes or anything else won’t bring PFC Hutson back. He– we– will never know what he died for, but we can say with certainty what he did not die for. He did not die for freedom, he did not die for WMDs, he did not die for a politician’s re-election. Like the 4500 Americans and uncounted Iraqis who died, and continue to die, he died for a mistake. Wars work like that, cost like that.

The ceremony for PFC Hutson that day ended with the senior enlisted person calling the roll for the dead man’s unit. Each member answered, “Here, Sergeant Major” after his name was called. That was until the name called was the dead man’s. “Brian Hutson?” Silence. “Brian E. Hutson?” Silence. “Private First Class Brian Edward Hutson?” Silence. Brian was not there and almost none of us had known him but yes, today, at this place, we all missed him anyway.

The above is based in part on an excerpt from Peter Van Buren’s book about his year of the Iraq War,We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project). The story is true, thought the name of the deceased has been changed.

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9 thoughts on “Iraq: What They Died For

  1. I am aware of Mr. Van Buren’s book but have not read it. I appreciate the sentiments expressed here, but am forced to make following comments: 1.) “This is how war works.” Sure, but the whole issue of US foreign policy in the 21st Century is that these are wars of choice, not necessity. Thus, no American should be under arms in Iraq or Afghanistan, for the missions are utterly illegitimate and unjustified. I believe this is the thrust of “We Meant Well,” but doesn’t come through clearly enough here; 2.) “…he died for a mistake.” Again, every military will make blunders, but these invasions and attempted occupations were on the drawing board even BEFORE the events of 9/11, which as we all know were claimed to justify the military actions; 3.) other than lowering of standards in order to meet military recruitment quotas, there may be another explanation for some of these suicides. Perhaps some soldiers are realizing how terribly, terribly morally wrong are the decisions by “their” government that put them in their predicament. But in an atmosphere where the public is conditioned to applaud every military action unthinkingly and declare a “hero” everyone who participates (and Obama has sure as hell done nothing to disavow this phenomenon that marked his predecessor’s regime), who has the guts to stand up and dissent from within the ranks? Very occasionally we learn of someone publicly gone AWOL and denouncing the wars, but the pressure to “get with the program” is crushing. Chelsea Manning dissented spectacularly and now sits in her cell at Ft. Leavenworth. Had Julian Assange and Edward Snowden been in the military they would have met a similar fate (if they weren’t made to suffer some convenient “accidental death”). This sad situation of US personnel–blowing their own brains out, or coming home maimed physically and/or mentally only to be neglected by the VA–will, unfortunately, continue as long as your fellow citizens insist on waving the flag and chanting “USA! USA!” when new wars are launched instead of engaging in the obviously painful exercise of THINKING.

    US Army 1967-71
    Twice imprisoned for refusing to go to Vietnam

  2. Greg.. One should always read the book before commenting on an authors style. Peter has a very arch , ironic style that focus on the absurd, and his “impish” sarcasm lies at the basis of his use of the word, “mistake”. You must read the book to realize that Peter is well aware of the monstrosity of what he was a part of and this kind of understatement is one of the best ways of highlighting that, often much better than a direct attack.

    • I follow Peter Van Buren’s writing on his blog and in other published venues. I appreciate his written style, personal example as a State Department whistle-blower and general political point of view. Having said that, I think that the above excerpted comments of his provide a more than sufficient basis for comment and criticism. For example, I take exception to the following statement by Mr. Van Buren:

      “Don’t ask poets or pastors, because they do not know that pieces of people still look a lot like people and that extreme violence leaves bodies looking nothing like the bodies you see in open caskets or on TV.”

      I can’t speak for pastors, but poets like Wilfred Owen, to name just one, had no trouble accurately communicating what they felt upon seeing a fellow soldier choke to death on poison gas in World War I. While not a poet in his class by any means, I have written thousands of lines of verse over many years, motivated by memories of seeing a Vietnamese sailor with his foot blown off screaming silently at me as I looked at his shattered shin-bone and could only think at the time of how absurdly bluish in color it looked. I’ve seen even worse things in war, and I suppose a pastor or two may have, as well; so I didn’t quite understand what Mr. Van Buren meant by this over-broad, stereotyping of poets and pastors. Certainly the Reverend Martin Luther King — a pastor of international repute — spoke more effectively against needless, senseless war than just about anyone I can think of. So, again, one can appreciate many of Mr. Van Buren’s views and comments while legitimately taking issue with some things that he says in this article which do not advance his argument very much, if at all.

      For another example, Mr Van Buren states:

      “we will never know what he died for, but we can say with certainty what he did not die for. He did not die for freedom, he did not die for WMDs, he did not die for a politician’s re-election.”

      Here in the body of his text, Mr. Van Buren repudiates the title that he chose for his own article: namely, by saying what someone does not die for while asserting that “we can never know” what he did die for. Thus, he should have entitled his article: “What he didn’t die for.” But of course we can certainly know what someone died for. As Daniel Ellsberg said many years ago: “The United States invaded Iraq for three reasons: Oil, Israel, and Domestic Political Advantage.” Or, as former Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings put it: “The United States invaded Iraq to secure the state of Israel and everybody knows it.” So, right there one can state clearly that those American servicemen who died in Iraq or as a result of serving in Iraq died for (1) the acquisitive interests of a foreign country and Apartheid Zionism, (2) the profits of multinational American and British oil companies, and (3) the political and military careers of certain American “leaders” — past, present, and future. Quite to the contrary of what Mr Van Buren says, almost every national politician who has any hope of winning election to the presidency has supported, supports now, or will support sending American military personnel to fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just look at the thoroughly bipartisan support in Congress for President Obama’s mission-lurching back into Iraq once more despite the overwhelming public desire to have not one more thing to do with the awful mess. So, again, as much as I admire and respect Mr. Van Burn, I disagree completely with his thesis that we cannot know why American servicemen died in Iraq. Just because he cannot bring himself to say what they died for, doesn’t mean that others of us cannot.

      Finally, I agree with Greg that the primary indictment missing from Mr Van Buren’s article involves the euphemism “mistake” as a semantic cover for the naked truth of America’s invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq: namely, that it constitutes a historic crime. This distinction goes beyond questions of literary style, because the United States as a signatory to the United Nations Charter violated not just international law but the American Constitution which all treaties become a part of once ratified by the Senate. The planned, orchestrated, deliberate war of aggression against Iraq — without United Nations authorization — constitutes a crime, not a “mistake.” The concept of crime rules everything here. And crime requires legal remedy: i.e., justice. Not one of the of the millions of people who have had — and will have had — their lives either ended or ruined by the United States — because of its wanton Military Idolatry — will ever receive justice until we Americans hold our own leaders to account for their crimes against us all. “Style” or “rhetoric” can make for an interesting or colorful presentation, but justice requires indictment, trial, conviction, and punishment of the criminals, whether political, military, or corporate.

      I think that Mr. Van Buren would understand these criticisms and would probably agree with them. Perhaps in future writings he will not tiptoe around the awful truth but will proclaim it in even more clear and forceful language.

  3. Hey. You guys are “purists” . Sometimes the most effective way to treat the monstrosity and absurdity of war is through satire. Maybe it’s my age and the fact that I lived closer to the “war to end all wars” and saw what it did to my father but the two novels that in my opinion reflected reality were the devastatingly serious German novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” which contained the satirical interludes of the high school teacher lecturing his young students on the “honor” and “beauty of war” and when he was in it crumbling. And the Czeck novel , The Good Soldier Shveik ( ) which was pure satire. Some things in life are so absurd and gruesome that satire is the best way to understand how ridiculous these man made events are.
    And Mike. I often can’t help chuckling out loud when you use satire in your poetry to attack a particularly absurd political situation.

    • b. traven–I imagine Mike posted his comments before seeing your initial “defense” of Mr. Van Buren in your reply to me. But really, now you have forced me to be more critical of your guest author…or perhaps you, as author of the Introduction to the piece, are the actual guilty party! You did not warn us to read Van Buren’s words to mean their very opposites, e.g. “They died for a mistake” really means “They DIDN’T die for a mistake, but a deliberately ginned-up, unjustified, cynical foreign policy ploy.” Because, as Mike has emphasized in the past, words DO have meaning. But if one is to play this “white means black, up means down” game, then any actual criticism of US policies implied in such an article is really PRAISE for it, don’t you see? There is self-contradiction and inconsistency at work here. Satire is an age-old means of criticism but when one discusses soldiers blowing their own heads off, is this satire? Mike and I took this post to be serious journalism. With all due respect to Mr. Van Buren and b. traven, I’m afraid the mission, as it was edited and appeared here, was a failure.

  4. Interesting comments. Bush and Company had many goals when they launched this war. Oil, Israel, posturing as tough after 9/11: all of these were factors. But so too was the idea that Iraq was a stepping stone to a U.S.-dominated Middle East. Baghdad first, then on to Tehran was the cry. Bush, Cheney, and their fellow neo-cons saw themselves as history’s only actors. Backed by military might, they truly believed, I think, that they could reshape the region to their liking. And I think that was the “mistake” to which Peter Van Buren refers: the idea that a foreign occupying force could impose its will on a region that has been profoundly complicated and divided since Biblical times.

    The suicide of the soldier in question is a microcosm of the profound flaws of U.S. policy with Iraq. Death in combat is supposed to have some meaning precisely because it’s sacrificial, i.e. one dies doing one’s duty, often in defense of your “brothers” in arms. The band of brothers idea has always motivated troops more than abstract ideas like freedom or patriotism. But suicide is an act of despair, by an individual, that serves no one. Indeed, you burden your “brothers” with the job of cleanup, etc.

    Thus this soldier’s act of despair suggests a larger conclusion, as b. traven indicated: meaningless death is more or less tied to, and driven by, a largely meaningless war whose conditions generated despair among many U.S. troops. A confused, shifting, often unjust, war will produce the kind of despair exhibited by so many young American troops when their dreams of glory (or even their ideals of trying to help) are dashed by the bitter realities of an occupation that made no sense to them at all.

    Meaninglessness drives despair, and despair can lead to suicide. Thus this soldier’s act suggests that something is rotten in the state of America.

    One death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. By focusing on this one soldier, Van Buren teaches us a powerful lesson that resonates with Americans more than statistics about two million Iraqi refugees, etc. It’s sad but true. Americans care about Americans. Our troops are supposed to be “heroes.” So why are our “heroes” committing suicide? Any American paying attention should be thinking hard about the implications of Van Buren’s story and b. traven’s introduction.

  5. Pingback: USA: Bush calls up dead and wounded soldiers to go to Iraq | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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