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They remain haunted by what they’ve seen and done.

In the Sadr City City Hall, that November morning, the atmosphere was tense. Some days before, the American soldiers guarding the City Hall had shot down the Iraqi mayor they had just chosen... because he refused a body search at the entrance of the City Hall, demanding that he be shown the respect due his office. Captain Roger Elliott, who was in charge of getting the new municipal council off the ground, had not been there when the Mayor, Mohanned, died. He thinks that he could have prevented the drama. At the time, he didn't evade any of our questions. This officer, Mayor of Hudson Oaks, Texas in civilian life, had even stated that he appreciated his Sadr alter ego: "Mohanned stood up to us; that was a good thing, a little like the French when they said no in the Security Council. We didn't free the Iraqis so they could become our servants."

More than skeptical about the conduct of the war and the reasons given by the Bush administration to justify starting it, Captain Elliott thought that by his personal conduct, he could all the same make a difference in Iraq. We saw him spend a whole day trying to convince an Iraqi businessman to reduce the price of domestic propane to a reasonable level. After the security problem in the cities, the price of propane was the next most urgent problem in Baghdad. The price went from 300 dinars before the war to 6000 afterwards. Under the amused eye of a beautiful American soldier of Palestinian origin who thought he was making a big effort for nothing, the soldier tried to reach an agreement with the sheik, who didn't want to reduce his margin...

All his men described the captain as a hero. One of them told us about an episode from an attack they underwent when the captain jumped on top of an Iraqi prisoner to protect him from the bullets. "I can tell you that that wouldn't have been my first reaction," acknowledged Sergeant Billy Moore, who was present at the time. Tormented, assailed with questions, Elliott thought that a man of honor had to try to redeem an army's aberrations by his personal conduct.

In Houston, where we rediscovered him, the captain, who had undergone several attacks during which he had been lightly wounded, is still haunted by the same questions. Because of his insomnia, his waking in the night drenched in sweat, the army doctors think he's suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome caused by the attacks. Elliott, however, believes that his stress actually derives from the contradictions he had to manage while doing his "duty" in Iraq.

And then, he has memories that assault him. The image of this man who dragged the dead body of his child day after day around a stadium broke his heart. The unknown faces of Iraqis he had to fight and whose fate he tries to imagine. Because he thought he could be useful, Captain Elliott didn't refuse to serve in Iraq, but he asserts that that would not have prevented him from refusing to obey certain orders. He still doesn't understand some of his superiors' decisions; however, if he's sent back to Iraq, Captain Elliott will accept his mission. In spite of his malaise. In spite of the questions that haunt him. In spite of his wife Diane and two children he's already left for a year.

Captain Allen Vaught, 32 years old, 490th Battalion, Baghdad and Fallujah

"We showed our worst face."

We had met him one November evening inside Camp Marlboro, one of the American bases in Sadr City, Baghdad's Shi'ite neighborhood. Warm and open, the reservist, a Dallas lawyer in civilian life, was delighted to finish his mission in Sadr City after the tensions of Fallujah. He didn't want to die in a war that left him perplexed. During a dinner in a camp cafeteria plunged in darkness, we ate a piece of dried up meat and a disgusting purée by the light of a pocket flashlight. Abu Brahim, the Iraqi chauffeur who had just broken the Ramadan fast was speechless before the soldiers' destitution, unable to swallow the revolting food.

Allen told us how surprised he was not to have been welcomed as a liberator, by the tenacious hostility of Fallujah residents: " They were 250,000 people who all hate us. Three days didn't go by without an attack." However, even if this Democrat didn't believe the reasons invoked for an attack, he tried to do his best, to help individuals. He laughed as he remembered the day when his squadron, at residents' request, had organized a new soccer field with goals and nets on some Fallujah commons. "The next day, everything had been looted. They even stole the mud from the ground! How can you help people who have been reduced to stealing mud?"

And then things got worse in Sadr City and Allen was wounded when a bomb hit his Humvee while he was driving two Iraqis suffering from Hepatitis C to a military dispensary. At the time, the army doctors didn't immediately recognize the gravity of the captain's condition. When he was returned to his unit, he was transported by bus from Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, to Texas. "A little as though you did Paris-Moscow by car..."

We rediscovered him in New York, where he was on a business trip, and then in his native Texas. Feverish, bitter, haunted by nightmares, he looked lost in the New York hotel bar. His spinal column, broken in four places, hurt. "He takes everything on, but he has trouble even carrying his briefcase," confided one of his colleagues, "and he can't get demobilized. Obviously, they need soldiers. We have to send over troops so they can send home coffins..."

Allen does not want to return to Iraq. "Since the war, it's become a terrorist factory, a new Pakistan. And then we showed our worst face there." The lawyer was deeply distressed by the Abu Ghraib tortures. He would never have tolerated the slightest uncalled-for move with regard to a prisoner. When the Captain realized that his translator Zia was in league with the guerilla, he was unhappy: "I had showed him the photos of my family, of my ranch. I thought he was my friend, but he wanted to kill me. And yet, until he went to Abu Ghraib, I shared my food and my water with him. At that time, supplies weren't coming in and we only had a few mouthfuls a day..." The lawyer had begun to take steps to bring one of his unit's translators to Dallas: " Two of our other translators have just been assassinated, so I'm going to do my duty by this man, because the situation is not going to get any better."

In his house in Texas, Allen has a photo of his uncle and the war trophies of this US Air Force officer of German origin who fought during the Second World War and was taken prisoner by the Nazis: "That's it; that's my idea of the American army." Allen drives a big 4x4. Sundays, he goes hunting with his friends on his parents' ranch, target shooting or killing water moccasins. He's kept his M-16 from Iraq, which he's transformed into a semi-automatic.

He's stuck a "Vote Kerry" sticker on his windshield. "I'm going to keep on fighting for my ideas. I'm going to run for the Senate, even if it's a lost cause in Texas." When he came back from Iraq, his mother hoped that he would have become very religious. "I believe in God. But here, if you're a Democrat, people think you hate Jesus-Christ. In some churches, those who are pro-choice aren't allowed to take communion..."

What was the biggest mistake the Americans made in Iraq, according to him? "To impose Jeffersonian democracy from one day to the next right after a dictatorship! What a joke! I was only a little cog in the machine and I knew that wouldn't work. But our biggest mistake was not confiscating weapons. We left them so they could defend themselves and they defended themselves against us."

Captain Ed Palacios, 41 years old, 490th Battalion, Ramadi and the Syrian border

"If I had only known how to save little Tiba..."

He has presence, the bearing of a court martial officer. From father to son, the Palacios are soldiers. Ed's biggest disappointment was when he failed the test to become a marine because of a wound on his foot. A Republican, the only thing that could keep him from voting for Bush in the elections is if they find the administration lied "deliberately" about the weapons of mass destruction. A soldier down to the tips of his fingernails, the Texan computer scientist expresses himself calmly until we ask what his best memory of the war in Iraq is. Then he bursts into tears. Here is his memory. A recitation cut by tears.

"Her name was Tiba Ayad. I was at the Heat City Hall, on the Syrian border, and all the Iraqis regarded me with suspicion, but one man dared come up to me. When I asked him what I could do for him, he asked me to help him take care of his sick child. I was touched that he was so concerned about his daughter's health that he was willing to face the contempt and hostility of the others. Tiba was 4 years old. I loved her immediately. She was suffering from a form of cancer and the chemotherapy they were giving her in Iraq didn't work. I organized things so she could go to Jordan where the queen takes care of sick children. The helicopter was ready. The family was delighted. But at the very last minute we learned that the Queen of Jordan wasn't taking in any more children. So I contacted Doctors of the World and they told me to bring her to Baghdad. I took her in a taxi to the capital. The doctor accepted her and a plane was to fly her to Greece two days later. I thought we had succeeded, but two weeks later, Tiba and her father returned to Heat. The coalition had not let them leave. The Greeks didn't have the necessary papers. In the end, I was able to organize a landing of a Greek military plane in Kuwait. She only had to be taken there. An American military plane was supposed to take her from Baghdad to Kuwait, but Tiba's condition had deteriorated to the point that they refused to take her. The military doctors were able to stabilize her and she was finally able to leave.

When I learned she had arrived in Greece, that was the best day of my service over there. However, she died a few days later. We had waited too long. That is my most painful memory, because, you know, I had the feeling that if I could save her, only her, then I would not have come to Iraq for nothing."

Soldier Ivan Medina, 22 years old, 3rd Infantry Division, from Kuwait to Baghdad, then Fallujah

"They sent us there to settle a family quarrel."

A WestPoint officer and a military chaplain in dress uniform: Ivan had just completed eleven months of service in Iraq when they were seen in the doorway of his little house in Middletown: the duo that haunts the nightmares of all families of American soldiers. They stood there under the American flag come to bring some more bad news. His twin brother, Irving, had just been killed by a grenade fired on his convoy in Baghdad. A shard had opened his skull. Ten hours later, he was dead. His father's tears, his mother's cries in Spanish as she tried to get rid of the deathly messengers. "We've received some money from the army: twelve thousand dollars. That's the price for the life of a United States' army soldier," Ivan observes bitterly. The walls of his room are covered with photos of the twins at all the different stages of their lives. Inseparable. But even though he had just lost his double, his friend, every window of the house was still decorated with an American flag. It is love for the country that welcomed him that decides him to break the omerta that forbids soldiers from saying what they think of the war. And then, because he was the only boy in his family still living, Ivan was able to leave the army. So in spite of his shyness and this hair on his tongue that bothers him, he launches himself "in the name of all the soldiers who are looking for a way to get out of Iraq."

All the Medina children, originally from Mexico City, enrolled in the army "to do something for this country. And especially to pay for college." In Middletown, a little township three hours away from New York, now gangrenous from unemployment and Latino gangs, army recruiters tap directly into schools, promising a golden future to new recruits. "In my class, 25% of the students enlisted." It was Jenny Medina, now 26 years old, who opened the way for her brothers. For her, things have turned out well; she hasn't -yet- been sent to Iraq. Thanks to her legal competence she was able to make a round of the whole United States with the army. Ivan et Irving would have preferred to stay in Afghanistan. They never believed in the Iraq war. "For me, it was clear right from the start that it was an unjust war that had only two motives: oil and the Bush father and son vendetta against Saddam. My brother and I felt like we were being sent over there to Iraq to settle a family quarrel." Chaplain's assistant, charged with the spiritual guidance of four companies inside the third infantry division of 125 men each, Ivan heard hundreds of terrified young people's confessions, traumatized from having killed people: "Eighteen year old kids who picked up human remains, who saw their pals come back in bags." During the war, from Kuwait to Baghdad, even Ivan, assistant chaplain though he was, had to kill men. "I don't complain about the feddayin, it was either them or us. But many didn't want to fight. And then, of course, I think about it again and again, about the families that are waiting for the men whom we killed, these men who are never coming back. Like Irving. " His worst memory goes back to the day Baghdad was taken. "We were happy; we had made good progress. And then there was this missile attack. It was like in a movie; it went really fast and very slow at the same time. The cries. The faces. The flying body parts..." And then in Fallujah, where Ivan served three months. Fallujah and its "collateral damage": "Smart bombs don't exist. We killed so many innocent people." But what shocked the young man the most was the attitude of some officers who, when they made a mistake covered up for each other and made simple soldiers pay for their mistakes. According to him, bad treatment of prisoners started well before Abu Ghraib prison. "When we took Baghdad, some officers started to revenge themselves on simple looters. They were bloody, their bodies covered with bruises. I told the chaplain about it, but at a certain level, the affair was covered up." Today, Ivan has decided to campaign against George Bush. "This man must be driven out. Contacts renewed with the international community. For any good to come out of this war, we should never have gone and waged it."

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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