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"I saw Top Gun when I was in eighth grade," says Marine Sgt. Rob Sarra, "and I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to be. And then I saw a Marine when I was in high school. And I was like, that’s it! They’re mean, they’re tough, they got cool uniforms and chicks dig ’em." Sarra then recalls his interview with a recruiting officer. "‘Here’s the big book of all the opportunities you have in the Marine Corps. What do you want to do?’ Pushes it across the desk at me. I looked him in the eye and I pushed it back across the desk, y’ know, and I said, ‘No. I want to be a grunt. I want to blow sh-- up. That’s what I want to do.’" He snaps out of his reverie. "That’s what I got to do. I got to blow sh-- up."
Not every G.I. was as gung-ho as Sarra. In a no-draft America, young people joined the service to get into college, or out of the ghetto, and recruitment painted a grand canvas of career opportunities. Killing, getting killed this was not part of the pitch. Basic training drilled the killing game into young brains. Teach them to treat the enemy as you would a sniper in Grand Theft Auto. Instill the reflex to fire at a moving target. Foster team spirit with marching songs. Instead of the golden oldie "I don’t know but I been told...," have them sing along with:
Bomb the village, kill the people,
Throw some napalm in the square,
Do it on a Sunday morning,
Kill them on their way to prayer.
Ring the bell inside the school house,
Watch those kiddies gather round,
Lock and load with your two-forty,
Mow them little motherf---ers down.
Charles Anderson, Petty Officer, U.S. Navy intones this doggerel grievously, as if admitting to a war crime. But he acknowledges its efficacy. "If you get a whole group of people singin’ this thing," he says, "it gets kinda catchy."
Iraq is called a war, but for the U.S. it’s really a police action (our official word for the Vietnam involvement). The idea is for the troops to patrol the streets and keep people alive the civilian population, if possible, but first and foremost themselves. Since there’s no draft, and thus no readily renewable supply of manpower, the goal is to keep U.S. combat deaths down while scoring the maximum number of enemy kills. "It’s peer pressure," says Marine Sean Huze, "group killing." In basic training, the Infantrymen were taught to take this war personally. "You're not just killing another soldier... you're killing a family," says Herold Noel, of the U.S. Army.
From Vietnam we learned the basic rules of the guerrilla game: that the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform, that it might be a woman or child, that the battle line is anywhere essentially, that there are no rules which the various insurgencies have updated by killing many more of its countrymen than they have our soldiers. But you never know who’s going to detonate himself or herself in your vicinity, so it’s simple prudence to shoot first and check for I.D. later.
Prudent but, as The Ground Truth shows, imprecise. You are told about a woman who put a hand inside her cloak to pull something out and, with a split second to decide whether she’s friend or foe, gun her down noticing too late that what she reached for was a red flag. Or you see a car approach. Chad Reiber, an Army ranger, says: "I engaged a vehicle with a 50-caliber machine gun and blew it up. It was a pretty big explosion. I learned they had gasoline and a checkpoint book. I remember laughing after I blew it up and then driving by and seeing burned flesh dropping off, on fire. None of us even talked about it. After it happened it was done, it was gone."