The Hurt Locker in my head: my dreams of the Iraq War, and what they taught me.

Operation Iraqi Freedom

Today, August 14, I have completed teaching my first solo college class, the history of the Iraq War. I didn’t originate this class, but took it over from a member of the faculty who created it back in 2006, when the war was still going on. Teaching this class has been a difficult but enlightening experience. I really do love teaching history, and despite the tremendous amount of work involved in preparing and teaching a university course on such a complex subject, it’s really been rewarding.

The process of doing it, though, has necessitated that I be really immersed in the subject. Since early June nearly the entirety of every weekday I’ve had my head in Iraq, dealing with all the war’s controversial subjects and its immense, labyrinthian complexity–the decision to go, the planning (or lack thereof), the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a, military strategy, the experience of ordinary people, and the impact it’s had on the world. With so much of my waking time devoted to this subject it’s not surprising that, for several nights especially in the last two weeks, I’ve dreamed about the war. This is very unusual for me; throughout my life it’s been very rare for me to dream about violence of any kind.

I’m not a military veteran. I wasn’t there. But the landscape of war in my head, coming from the pictures of words painted by those who were there, is extremely vivid. On the past several nights I’ve seen cluttered streets strewn with trash, ragged children, mangy dogs, the remains of burned-out cars, and stressed people hurrying to and fro hoping to go about their business without incident. I see soldiers sometimes, young men whose beauty and humanity is buried under tan-colored Kevlar, alien-looking sunglasses, helmets, gloves, and body armor, looking almost robotic–an appearance that tended to frighten and repel Iraqis. In a particularly nasty dream I saw Baghdad as it might have looked at the height of the horrific sectarian killing, a harsh dawn coming up, the sky ruddy and filled with smoke, bodies lying in the streets, and the distant sound of gunfire. If Hell exists, I think it probably looks like Baghdad in 2006.


Baghdad, during the war. Considerably less horrific than I imagine it looking.

This is the danger of history, of letting it into your head. It starts growing there. I’m at a double disadvantage because I conceptualize history very visually. I want to know what the past looked like, smelled like, felt like. (I’m a novelist, so I’ve purposely developed this skill). History is often frightening, horrifying, scary, disturbing. For me, reading it in history is even more vivid than seeing it in a movie. It really happened. Real people went through it. Many did not make it out alive.

But I feel guilty for these thoughts, for waking up and thinking, “Damn, I’m glad I wasn’t there.” Veterans of the war–and I don’t just mean the U.S. or Iraqi soldiers and police who served in that conflict, but the civilians, the people who had to live through it–do not have the luxury of “waking up” from it as I do. I spent the Iraq War in a law office, and later, a university library. The bodies I see on the streets in my dreams aren’t real. Eventually I’ll stop dreaming of it. If I had been there–if those people were real, if these experiences had happened to me–I would probably never stop dreaming about them. I wouldn’t have a choice.

PTSD and lingering psychological effects of the Iraq War affect more veterans of this conflict (and of Afghanistan too) than do physical injuries. For every young man or woman you see out there with a titanium leg or facial burns–and there are many–there are several more whose wounds don’t show on the outside. As a nation and a society, I believe we have not done nearly enough to help these people find the resources they need to deal with the trauma that, for them, will probably never end.

War is a deeply scarring, deeply emotional, deeply visceral experience, perhaps the most traumatic experience a human being can go through. Historians like me sometimes run the risk of reducing wars to neat little arrows on maps or bullet points on a Power Point slide. God help us if the conflict we have just been through ever becomes that to us.

I can’t say that I like my dreams of war. But I can say I’m glad to have had them. They help me understand, just a little, the staggering, almost incomprehensible magnitude of this event, and how it affected the people who lived through it.

First photo in this article: public domain, US Department of Defense. Second photo by Dave Malkoff, used under Creative Commons license and relicensed under same.
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