Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shooter, 'seeing the elephant'

We all remember the speech made by Lt. Colonel Tim Collins on the eve of the invasion of Iraq:

"We go to liberate, not to conquer.We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.

"There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

"Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there."

Somewhere nearby in Kuwait, Colonel Brian P. McCoy, Darkside Six, of the 3rd Batallion, 4th Marine Division was addressing his own troops, 'the Bull', thus:

"My idea of a fair fight is clubbing baby seals."

There in a nutshell, you might think, is the difference between the modern militaries of our two nations. Yet one of McCoy's subordinates was one Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin, and in this account of his experiences in the days that followed we witness a fascinating tension between a milico mentality glutted on "violent supremacy" and one that occasionally threatens to examine warrior existentialism a bit more critically.

So, at one stage we listen as Coughlin humanises an enemy that he has recently put a couple of bullets into, the only man to survive a shot from his rifle it seems, yet one he would not hesitate to shoot again "if ever we faced each other again on the battlefield."

"War sucks," Coughlin tells us whenever he witnesses its lack of proper discrimination and sense of universal justice. And yet his mood immediately after 9-11 is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the opportunity to ply his deadly trade in earnest. "During Operation Iraqi Freedom alone he recorded at least thirty-six kills, thirteen of them in a single twenty-four hour period," the blurb on the back cover enthuses.

"In the warrior's world, we called dramatic change 'seeing the elephant.' Once you saw it you never forgot it," Coughlin reveals, and there's no question that his memoir has some elephantine insights into the code of the modern western warrior.

Before the invasion Coughlin has spent months trying to persuade his superiors of the merits of a more mobile deployment of snipers. Circumstances on the ground in Iraq see his dreams realised, as he is able to waste countless armed Iraqi fools from the top of a fast-moving Humvee.

There's a certain voyeuristic pleasure in 'glassing' the world of the professional murderer through Coughlin's scope and this is no doubt what put this book on the New York Times bestsellers list. And so the book is full of his arresting descriptions of his one-to-one duels with men that never saw him coming: "I smoke-checked him, bam, and he was dead, his body twitching for a few more moments while his internal systems shut down," whilst another of his rounds "created a hole that is called the 'permanent cavity,' and then the bullet exploded, sending small, jagged fragments spinning off in erratic paths that shattered his organs."

And yet the key moment, one that had certain voices in the media calling for Colonel McCoy to be had up for war crimes, is one where the gunnery sergeant suffers a sudden attack of amnesia. Having secured the strategically vital Diyala bridge "gravity and the physics of momentum" conspire to lead carload after carload of desperate Iraqi citizens towards the itchy trigger fingers of the Bull's grunts, amongst whom Coughlin sits. "It did not come to a stop, because it could not, until our defensive perimeter was set. There was no way to separate the sheep from the wolves," he explains, before adding that he has "no recollection" of many of the bloody moments that ensued.

"Fortunately, no one fired a shot at us, for had they done so, we would have returned a thousand," he had noted earlier in the war as his unit passed through a small town on the highway to Baghdad. Here is a soldier that is all too conscious of his position as valuable asset, one worth defending with indiscriminate gunfire directed against even marginally suspect civilians.

Given Collins's remarks about flags above, it was fortunate that Coughlin was in the square beside Saddam's statue when one of his Marine Corps colleagues tried to wrap the stars and stripes around it's bronze head. His own immediate superior, one Lieutenant Casey had with him a pre-1990 version of the Iraqi flag, which was immediately donated to the angry crowd.

The only way I have ever found to justify the invasion of Iraq to myself is as a continuation of the intent to smother the original aggression unleashed by Saddam in 1990. Not only do none of the other justifications make any real sense, they violate the principle I internalised when I abandoned the pacifism of my childhood: that force should only be deployed as a response to force.

Coughlin's wife stopped writing to him as war broke out and divorced him the moment he returned to California.

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