Andrew Hufferd was a friend of mine I’ve known since our high school days, so sitting down with the returning GI for an interview was difficult. I’d always called him ‘AJ.‘ While I drafted interview questions, I found myself stricken with what I reflect on now as one of the greatest quandaries of modern warfare. What do you ask a soldier anymore?
Iraq is a new breed of war. Conflict today is communicated to the home front with an unprecedented level of personal intimacy. I had seen the videos – night vision nightmares of gunships reducing human figures to thermal splotches, IEDs rupturing roadsides in spherical blasts of asphalt, and worst of all, the matter-of-fact images of the casualties and their families on both sides. In World War II, soldier’s girlfriends received skulls of slain Japanese from their boys in the Pacific. In Vietnam, stories of ear necklaces trickled back to the States. Today, you can watch soldiers riddling civilians with depleted uranium shells on YouTube. The charnel house drama of the front has evolved.
The public has a much clearer idea of what to expect from war, and this clarity of vision can attract some borderline personalities. AJ had a history of headstrong aggression that often crossed the line – the army certainly would scout for him. It’s evident that the brutality of war didn’t change him as much as reveal what drove him to violence.
In my parent’s back yard in Mountain View, AJ was at ease and extremely talkative. His fiancée Allyson Carlson sat quietly beside us. I asked what questions I had and set my laptop up to record our conversation. Before I share the results, I’ll give you some background so you can know AJ like I know AJ.
Back at Mountain View High, AJ confounded school administrators by getting a strong GPA while picking fights every couple of weeks. These fights would lead to his expulsion in senior year.
“What did you do, AJ?” I asked him during his last day on campus.
“He was hitting on my woman. Warrior’s code,” he said.
AJ’s private set of morals he compared to bushido, ninjitsu, Norse legend or whatever martial code fascinated him most that month.
“You should have seen the finishing move,” he added with cold enthusiasm. “I planted my foot right in the center of his face.” He demonstrated the door-knocker kick in slow motion.
He returned to his home country last fall after serving with the 759th battalion of the 3rd infantry in the Southeast outskirts of Baghdad. Hufferd got to Iraq in an unorthodox way. A heart condition kept him from enlisting in anything but the National Guard, but his exemplary service there allowed him to ship out.
His determination to serve in the armed forces was rooted in his past. AJ came from a military family and lost his serviceman father to suicide at the age of 12. If you could navigate his occasional outbursts, he is a decent and friendly human being.
The area he was in was far from calm, Hufferd said, and went on to say that he and his brothers in arms made a visible change in the safety of the region. In addition to standard patrols, AJ helped train an Iraqi SWAT team that won accolades for their discipline and teamwork.
“I think I definitely had more impact there than anywhere else in Iraq,” he said. The camaraderie he built with them was unforgettable. This was the definitive counterpoint to his violent tendencies.
His nine-month tour in Iraq was a growing experience, he said, but it was a harsh way to learn.
“It has definitely instilled a work ethic. Now I’m a little disappointed with the way civilians work.” Military service in Iraq is a tense environment that straddles the extremes in daily life.
“Ninety percent of the time, you’re bored out of your mind,” Hufferd said. “Ten percent of the time, you’re scared shitless.”
Ideologically, it seems AJ returned from Iraq with only more confidence in his moral convictions, but some cracks in the warrior’s façade began to show.
“The place is a trash dump, and I don’t think it was us that did that. I never did agree with the reason we went in.”
He alternately glorified and criticized the U.S. armed forces.
“I feel like war is always gonna be there. We’ll always need a military. Which is good for me, because or else I’d be out of a job.”
He said it made him sick that support for soldiers had dwindled in his eyes, but he also considered himself conservative when it comes to enlisting. In service, he met volunteer soldiers that were duped into enlisting for college money and was sufficiently outraged at the idea.
“They whined that they were supposed to be ‘undeployable‘ for two years because they did it for college. Oh, they promised me this, they promised me that. Yeah, well, recruiters lie. If you’re not out there to serve your country, you shouldn’t be there.” This line of thinking smacked of his trademark harshness and his reverence for a man in physical conflict.
Overall, AJ still appealed to the Spartan ideal of honorable war.
“I am trained to do a job, and I’m going to do it.“
The ugliness of that job was a reality to him, but he defended his work to the end.
Wartime experience is a mixed bag that’s difficult to dissemble. Even a born killer can have a tough time reflecting. “It’s different. I don’t want to speak for everyone else. I only know what I did.“
His conditioning was extreme, he said, but not malicious. Interestingly, he said that boot camp routine “is like brushing your teeth. There can be a good kind of conditioning, and it’s not all that side of conspiracy theory stuff that everybody talks about.” Likening the potentially fatal discharging of firearms to dental hygiene epitomizes a modern soldier’s conflict.
The fact that conspiracy theories have entered mainstream dialog is another clue that war has changed. Soldiers today spend a lot of time considering ideas that were once on the fringe – war as a construct for population control, secret societies conspiring to profiteer on carnage and most of all speculation on whose hands were dirtied on Sept. 11. AJ seemed to wave it all off now that he was back home.
Ending a life is transformative. “Nothing will ever prepare you for that,” AJ reflected. Services are present to help bind mental scarring, but there is no cure. “They had combat stress programs and a chaplain, but no matter how much they can do, you’re still stuck there.“
Chillingly, he later stated he had no illusions. “I joined to kill.“
Switching from days of physical training and recreation to combat was unpredictable, he said, “You’re always alert. They’re not kidding around. It could happen any time.” The real ‘fronts‘ in Iraq are ill-defined due to the sporadic distribution of violence. “You have no open engagements while you’re over there. It’s kind of a mental thing.”
This atmosphere of total uncertainty in the presence of murder and death deconstructs notions of a ‘good war.‘
In an earlier conversation, he and I concurred that the idea of a monolithic, organized and meticulous al-Qaida force was a complete myth. Soldiers instead fight isolated militia groups consisting of desperate Iraqis that have lost all hope for a better future. He remained as committed as ever, though, in ending the lives of America’s enemies – however localized and banal they may be.
The feelings a soldier has toward the civilians of the nation he occupies are layered. “We primarily got respect, but there are always those people that teach their children to throw rocks at us,” AJ said. He became wary, he said, “I found myself ending up suspicious of people. Anybody who was looking a little suspicious or a little shady … ” he drifted off. He said Iraqis were good people but that they lacked ambition. Their less than total welcoming of U.S. aid said to him “they don’t want to evolve.“
This paranoia he acquired overseas I saw unfortunately extending to American citizens. “The nationalism is gone,” he said, and repeatedly said that not supporting troops. Even more critically, he said that parenting has gone astray and lamented what he saw as a pre-teen generation of insulated brats. A military lifestyle leaves its marks.
When asked if he’d make the same decision knowing this would be the outcome, he replied, “Oh hell yeah. I’d only have done it faster.“
War, it seems, only changed AJ in age and karma. His preconceptions of the nobility and glory of killing have shifted little since the days of watching bad kung-fu films.
Our talk turned to the more domestic. He mentioned that he supported Rudy Guiliani through the primaries and I had to bite my tongue nearly off. AJ’s very skeptical about Obama mostly due to the president’s pro-withdrawal position, but mentioned that he wasn’t qualified to comment on General Petraeus‘ choices or the effectiveness of the surge. “It’s all monotone out there,” he said. “We didn’t feel the changes of policy decisions.” AJ plans to return to service, as he was singled out to become a Ranger for further reconnaissance work.
He’s currently living with Allyson in Colorado and thoroughly enjoying his stay stateside.