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Arabs in the US Army
 

Picture of Arab-American soldier Muhammed Khaled in uniform making the victory sign

Crossing enemy lines

 

Arab-Americans serving in the US-armed forces in Iraq are in a unique position, with some left deeply troubled by their experiences of the occupation, writes Dima Hamdan

Muhammed Khaled knows very well what it's like to live under occupation. Yet when he joined the US marines in 2000, he didn't realise that one day he'd be standing on the other side of the fence. Muhammed was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother and spent part of his childhood in the West Bank town of Halhoul during the first Intifada.

"I was one of the kids that threw rocks at the Israeli soldiers," he recalls. "And I was so good that I became famous for it. The only thing that got me out of trouble was my American passport."

But in the summer of 2004, Muhammed was in a marine convoy entering the Iraqi town of Haditha when, suddenly, a group of children showered them with rocks. "That was the one time that I felt so tiny, and so fogged up with emotion, because I used to be that kid," he said. "I had tears in my eyes later on that night."

Crisis of Conscience

 
His story might be unique, but Muhammed's experience symbolises the crisis of conscience facing 3,500 Arab Americans currently serving in the US Armed Forces (not counting Arab green-card holders also serving in the military). Perhaps it's no surprise that the US military is eager to recruit people from an Arab background because their linguistic and cultural knowledge is badly needed in hotspots like Iraq.

The question is why do these solidiers choose to do it? And how do they reconcile their dual identities when standing on the battleground as Arabs in American uniform?

Like many Americans looking for better opportunities in life, Muhammed joined the marines to pay for his education. His colleague, Rajai Hakki, on the other hand, was driven by patriotism and a need to prove to his peers that "not all Arabs are terrorists or bearded Ayatollahs".

 
"For me it was black and white, we were going into Iraq to get rid of a dictator." Rajai Hakkid, former US marine
 
Born in the US to a Syrian family, Rajai always felt he was both Arab and American. Yet when 9/11 happened he almost felt responsible because he was an Arab. "There was such an emotional rush that I attribute to 9/11," his mother, Heba, said. "Both Rajai and his sister blamed themselves."

Rajai says he also has a "deep-rooted hatred for Arab dictators" because of his family's experience. His father has been black-listed in Syria because of his political views, and his grand-uncle was assassinated in France, presumably by members of the Ba'ath regime, because he spoke out against the Syrian regime. "For me it was black and white," he said. "We were going into Iraq to get rid of a dictator."

Both Muhammed and Rajai worked as translators for the interrogation teams in the Anbar province, or the so-called Sunni Triangle that witnessed some of the fiercest fighting between US forces and insurgents. The two men went through the same traumatic experiences as their peers, especially as they saw civilians getting killed by both sides. But for them there was also the added burden of knowing that this was being done to fellow Arabs, people who were their own as much as their fellow marines were.

One day Rajai's team went into a house and was greeted by an old man and his two sons. "The man was so nice. He served us tea and no topic was off limits. We discussed politics and shared family pictures," Rajai recalls. As they left the house, a commander came and ordered them to go back and arrest the two sons because this was a "target house". Rajai had no option but to obey orders. He returned and placed bags over the sons' heads and led them away, as their father looked on in silence.

Muhammed witnessed the horrific events of the military operation in Falluja in 2004, where many of the casualties were civilian. For him, watching children die was the most difficult thing. "But later on it got so normal, it became like a movie, you just fast forward," he says.

Breaking Point

 
But one day, it became clear that Muhammed had reached a breaking point. Walking in the town of Rutba, he heard the hiss of an incoming rocket propelled grenade (RPG), so he leaned over some kids to protect them. The RPG hit the ground close to him, bounced back up and blew up at a distance.
He was unharmed, but instead of taking cover, Muhammed stood still in the middle of the street, laughing. He was expecting another RPG to hit. "I thought maybe it's time to go, I'm done with this."

Both marines are now back in the US. On the surface, they seem to be leading normal lives, but the memories from Iraq still haunt them. At first, Rajai started drinking and quit college, but a friend persuaded him to seek help and he's now working through his problems with a therapist.
Muhammed, on the other hand, never managed to resume his education, which was the reason he joined the marines in the first place. He works as a car salesman, and has changed his address four times since returning because he's worried he might be recalled again.

So far, neither one of them has gone back to Syria or Palestine to visit their relatives. Muhammed's uncle called him a "collaborator", and although it was said as a joke, he believes no such thing is said without a reason. Rajai's family is worried that he might be interrogated by the Syrian Intelligence, and his friends also implied that he was a traitor. He was deeply hurt by that.
As we finished our interview, he asked me if I thought he was a traitor.

Their experiences in Iraq have left them disillusioned and conflicted. They both say they wish they never had gone to Iraq. Yet in the same breath say they have no regrets.

Dima Hamdan
Dima Hamdan is a producer with the BBC Arabic service. Her documentary on Arabs in the US Army will be broadcast in May

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