Der Spiegel Photos: A Soldier’s Perspective
–by Kristen Tsetsi
You would think the recent controversy surrounding the release of photographs of Spc. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes posing with a dead civilian Afghan man—his head held up for the camera as if he were a hunting kill—would be something a soldier would avoid discussing.
Publicly, at least.
But C.J. Grisham, one of four contributors to A Soldier’s Perspective (ASP), doesn’t seem interested in avoiding controversy.
In December 2009, the Army Times publication “Off Duty” featured Grisham as their cover story after he was pressured to shut down his blog, which he’d used to protest a switch to uniforms at his children’s school (and as a place to air what the Army Times article calls an “unflattering video of school officials at a PTA meeting”).
The blog did shut down, but only for a month. Grisham, a 37-year-old father of three and a soldier for 16 years, has since been writing for ASP for just over a year, his recent posts questioning President Obama’s attack on Libya, blasting Paul Rieckhoff’s attack on the VA, and digging into the contradictory statements of Rolling Stones writer Michael Hastings, who claims American soldiers used “information operations against American senators.”
He’ll soon be writing about Morlock and Holmes.
“I’m going to try and get into the heads of the idiots that did that and explain to readers how it happens,” Grisham says.
LIFT: What will you say in your blog to the people who will use the Morlock and Holmes story, and those gruesome pictures, as a basis for questioning and criticizing the military as a whole?
GRISHAM: It will center on the belief that we don’t look at the Taliban as human in any way. They are sick, vile, evil, and despicable people and because of that, some soldiers may not look at these actions as somehow wrong.
It would be akin to showing off a trophy hog kill after it just killed your dog and ate your chickens or something (I live on a farm). But, that does NOT make it right, and these soldiers were in the wrong, regardless of who the dead Afghans were.
LIFT: Some people who have latched onto the story online have suggested soldiers are just mindless drones programmed to kill. Unfortunately, that’s not a perception unique to the fringe internet community—I’ve heard real-live people express similar sentiments. Obviously, your political point of view or whether you agree with the administration isn’t relevant when you’re sent on a mission – you’re told to do it, and unless it’s illegal, you do it. So, how do you reconcile those two ideas in the minds of the people who DO think you’re “group thinkers”?
GRISHAM: It’s no different than any other job. If it’s not illegal, immoral, or unjust, employees are supposed to do what they’re told to do. We are just more trained and our jobs require more risk than others do.
We are trained to trust those who tell us what to do, but I can guarantee that a leader who can’t be trusted won’t have the luxury of troops doing whatever he/she says.
There really isn’t a “do what you’re told without questions” mentality, anymore. For the most part, troops do what they’re told, but there are opportunities to ask questions in training. That way, when we get to combat, we know WHY we’re doing things a certain way.
LIFT: Based on what you see or read in the media, what do you think is the general perception of soldiers?
GRISHAM: I honestly believe that the general population loves our troops. I’ve only encountered isolated individuals who are totally disdainful of troops, and that usually happens at rallies and protests.
Of course, 100% of the people from Westboro Baptist Church hate our troops, but I think all they do is hate, so I don’t feel special there, either! I have experienced nothing but total and encompassing love from nearly everyone with whom I’ve come into contact as a soldier.
LIFT: What do you wish more people understood about soldiers and/or the military?
GRISHAM: That we are all individuals. Today’s military is the most educated military this country has ever had. We are relying on young troops’ input into missions more than ever.
I don’t think it’s possible to tell, but I wish more people understood the feeling of nationalism and patriotism that soldiers have going into combat. There is a sense of pride soldiers possess that just mystifies and awes me. I wish it were possible to help people understand that.
LIFT: What do the media usually get right, and what do they get wrong?
GRISHAM: I believe there are two categories of media: national and local. The national media is the one most troops dislike. They are the ones who seem to focus on stories that make us look bad or don’t provide complete context.
They like to take credit for breaking stories like Abu Ghraib when the reality is that it was a concerned soldier who turned in those sorry excuses for troops. Most people don’t know that, because the national media takes credit for “breaking” the story.
They focus on the deaths of our troops instead of the lives of our troops. They focus on the failed missions or the ones that didn’t go as planned instead of the successful ones.
On the contrary, the local media seems to have a greater proclivity for telling positive stories about our troops, while not ignoring the negative ones. They seem more balanced because the troops come from their hometowns. They are the sons and daughters of these hometowns while the national media is largely detached.
LIFT: What do you think of the media coverage of what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan?
GRISHAM: What news of Iraq and Afghanistan? Honestly, that is my response. Our troops are fighting and dying every day, but who is reporting it? Where are the soldiers’ stories?
LIFT: Do you think it’s important that the soldiers’ stories be told?
GRISHAM: I absolutely do. It’s too easy for society to condemn the military as an entity, but if they understand who we are individually when we do good things, it will go a long to bridging the gap between the military and non-veterans.
By understanding that we are human and make mistakes, they won’t jump to absurd conclusions so quickly.
I also think that the nation is under this false assumption that the Commander in Chief and/or the Generals are responsible for what a soldier does on the battlefield (those photos as an example).
That is NOT what we are trained to do, and because the military is full of a hugely diverse group of people with varying personalities, beliefs, and values, these things will happen. People will learn the names of these soldiers just like they learned the names of the Abu Ghraib Soldiers.
LIFT: …But not the names of the soldiers who have done positive things overseas. Lucky for us, you write from A Soldier’s Perspective. What’s the function/purpose of the blog, and who should read it?
GRISHAM: The purpose is to give “A Soldier’s Perspective” on military life and topics affecting the military. I try to stay out of politics that don’t deal with those topics.
Additionally, it will serve as a sort of journal when I deploy to Afghanistan later this year. I will write about life in a combat zone, including where we live, what we eat, what a typical day looks like, the challenges and successes of our missions, etc.
Anyone interested in getting an honest view of a soldier’s life should read it. I don’t mince words and I tell it like it is.
Grisham was injured on March 23, 2003 (“My Alive Day,” he says) during an artillery strike outside of As Samawah, about 175 miles southeast of Baghdad.
LIFT: How has your relationship with your wife and children been affected by deployments, and even your injury, if at all?
GRISHAM: A deployment will either tear apart or strengthen a marriage and parental relationships. In my case, the deployment brought us closer together in many aspects.
Unfortunately, the bump in the road has been coping with the PTS [post-traumatic stress] aspect of my deployment. It’s been hard on my wife and kids, but I’ve dedicated myself to getting better and not just settling with “this is the way I am, accept it.”
I recognize that I’m part of the problem and need to work at our relationship as much as she needs to be more patient as I fight my inner demons.
LIFT: Was there a discussion between you and your family about whether you would stay in the military after you were injured?
GRISHAM: We are always talking about it, mainly because I’m a senior NCO and can’t do the things my troops can do. It’s a depressing thing for me to come to work and not be able to set the standard for them.
I’ve often questioned what I’m still doing in here. My wife is good at talking me out of my low points and encouraging me to keep on. But, we’ve both had enough and neither of us wants to do more than 20 years.
LIFT: What is the significance of the role of military families during wartime?
GRISHAM: Incalculable! If I may use a biblical analogy, I would liken it to Matthew 7:24-27. A strong family is like a rock for a soldier. When the rains of trial, adversity, and loneliness come, a strong family will help that soldier stand firm and complete the mission. A weak family is akin to a sandy foundation and could quite literally mean life or death for a soldier in combat.
As it relates to our culture, the military family provides much needed context to a culture that doesn’t relate to adversity. It’s funny to a military spouse to hear a civilian with no military experience complain that a spouse is gone for a couple of days or even a week. A military family member can assure that person that they will be okay and it’s not the end of the world. That family member can assist with ways to cope with that “extended” separation.
Likewise, when people complain about mundane things like someone forgetting to remove the onions on their whopper, a military spouse can put that into the context that at least they didn’t almost die in an IED explosion in the last 24 hours.
I think military families toughen up a society weak from having everything handed to them their entire lives.