By now we have learned the Iraqi Special Operation Forces (ISOF)-led operation to take Ramadi back from Islamic State (IS) has been mostly successful, retaking the government center and leaving only the eastern part of the city in IS control. In print, these words are sterile, devoid of context or richer meaning. A city “falling” reminds us of a domino toppling—a swift, deft, inevitable culmination of a small amount of external energy and a large amount of natural law.
Yet for the soldiers on the ground taking a city is an arduous crawl perfused by hidden dangers. When I was in Iraq, I never had to do the type of brutal house to house clearing that ISOF is doing now so it is difficult for me to conceptualize. But even during training, stacking outside of a door at a shoot house always brought an adrenaline-laden feeling of excitement of anticipation and nervousness of uncertainty. Luckily, VICE News has been producing some of the best mini-documentaries on the wars in Iraq and Syria to date.
In their latest video, Retaking Ramadi From the Islamic State: The Battle for Iraq (Dispatch 11), a journalist embedded with the Iraqi Golden Division (ISOF) describes the then-ongoing conflict for the city center. With bodies littering the streets, sniper teams take shots from rooftops and troops discover IS tunnels and caches.
What is most striking about this video to me is the role of the United States in this battle. In an interview, an Iraqi soldier describes the coalition airstrikes they relied on:
We should thank the Russians, because they encouraged America to increase their bombing. They helped our forces. Any place they find a threat to us, they [the US-led coalition] hit. We’ve started to give them coordinates—whatever coordinates we give them to hit, they blow up. It’s not like before [emphasis added.]
For me, thinking about this quote starts a long chain of causal relationships. Without the United States, the Iraqi government would likely not have retaken Ramadi. So are the US’s renewed efforts in Iraq good, just, necessary? In this instance, limited to this battle, it seems obvious. But during an interview with a masked ISOF member about sectarianism, this clarity on the US’s role becomes more ambiguous.
Warning: the following section contains graphic description of torture:
Do you want me to tell you how the militants kidnapped me? They took me to a house, they hung me upside down and lashed me. Then they took me down and put two nails and held me to the wall, another here [points to wrist] to hold my other arm. They got pliers and pulled out my nails. I fainted every time they pulled a nail, but they made sure I was awake before pulling the next one. He also cut my forehead, making a long cut across my forehead. He wanted to cut off my face. Unbelievable. What’s wrong with them? I kept saying I don’t work for the Americans.
In this instance it is his involvement with America that makes him the target for abduction and torture. And worse, the Shi’a militia that captured him is part of the side that we are backing against the Sunni IS. Much of the sectarian strife in Iraq was caused by the 2003 invasion. So much for moral clarity.