The Day I Stopped Believing in American Democracy – Ayesha Ghulati
Sep 12 · 14 min read
Photo: sid whiting/Getty Images
Staff Sergeant Stehval* had an alleged 56 kills.
His room was no more than 75 square feet, complete with white concrete walls, peeling and faded from the Iraqi sun. Black tally marks scribbled above his cot indicated the weaponry he used for each shot. A .50 caliber sniper rifle, M24, or a modified M16 with an adjustable gas block each carried the death warrant of an Iraqi man, woman, or sometimes a child carrying an IED.
Back home, Stehval was an accomplished golfer who had earned his way into a celebrity golf tournament after crushing the competition at a local country club. When I heard that, I remember laughing and shaking my head in disbelief until other members of his squad spoke in his defense.
“Golf or killing people. He’s the real deal,” they told me. I later found out he played next to Charles Barkley or some other legend (I don’t follow basketball so I forgot the name of the celebrity).
Prior to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, grunts would read about famous snipers like Carlos Hathcock — a Marine sniper with 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam. So, when Stahvel’s troops swore by his 56 kills, that alone sounded impressive. That is, until they told me about “some SEAL asshole named ‘the Devil’” racking up kills in southern Ramadi. He turned out to be none other than the legendary American Sniper, Chris Kyle. In fairness, Ramadi was a turkey shoot with fast and loose rules of engagement, so while it may seem heresy to say, there have been better snipers in military history. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Stahvel could have taken Kyle’s place as the “legend,” but the Stahvel I knew was far more even-keeled than the Chris Kyle I’d read about. In fact, it was Stahvel the Sniper who planted the seeds of democratic doubt in my mind during my time in Iraq.
Once, I asked about his golf handicap and average, still uncertain if his troops were pulling my leg. When he responded with impressive numbers and knowledge, I knew he was telling the truth. Embarrassed, I stared out the side of the Humvee as the sporadic beeps of our radio punctuated the silence. Once we dismounted, we took positions around a fueling station, pulling security while another group interrogated the tenants.
As our boredom grew, I asked the question every soldier asks during a war: “What’re you going to do when you get home?”
Stahvel’s chuckle and head shake showed I already knew the answer. “Play more golf,” he stated. I waited, expecting more. When he turned back to scan the area, I asked again.
“You’re serious about that? You actually want to be a professional golfer?”
The hot Iraqi wind howled between the walls of the fueling station while we continued to peer around corners. Once the wind settled, Stahvel spoke. “These rich senators on the golf course send me to war, and I pull the trigger for them.” His brute honesty wasn’t what I’d expected, so I turned my full attention toward him, ignoring my responsibilities. He continued to scan, peering through his scope, then said over his shoulder, “I’m just doing this until I become good enough to beat all their dumbasses. And earn more money than we make in this shithole.”
Stahvel’s words rattled me, though I’m certain he meant some of them in jest. When we returned to Camp Ramadi, our vehicle passed by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) facilities. KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton and ran government contracts throughout the Iraq War. During my tour, senators and high-end officials toured the KBR facilities, and then used the opportunity as a photo op to shake hands with troops. As we rolled past the facilities, I considered how so few politicians’ sons or daughters were fighting in the wars. In fact, most everyone I knew in the military — even college-educated grunts like myself — wasn’t rich or connected, but blue-collar, poor, and middle-class at best. If someone was wealthy or special — like Pat Tillman — you knew about it.
With the light fading, I returned to the ramshackle plywood building I called home. I slept on a cot covered in mosquito netting to keep out sand fleas. Underneath the cot, mousetraps littered the floor to keep the rat bastards from stealing my beef jerky. I plopped down in a nearby chair and opened my olive green journal. I flipped a few pages to pull notes for a report, then paused. Slowly, almost methodically, I turned the book over to the back. Then, almost without thinking, I scribbled, “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor and young who die.”
I’m uncertain why I wrote the sentence at the time, but the journal accompanied me on every mission for the rest of my tour. Every mission, that sentence pressed against my leg in the pocket where I carried it. Some men carry bibles. I carried my journal. Then I tucked it away in a box when I returned home, and it sat gathering dust for 12 years.