One of the most difficult tasks of the military is to convince soldiers that it is acceptable to kill people. The command “thou shall not murder” is almost universal in human society, taught to children just as soon as they can recognize right and wrong. And yet people are forced to take lives every single day, whether in the military, in police work, etc. To do so requires a change in one’s emotional orientation such that careful, discriminate killing is considered both acceptable and urgent. This is a difficult transition that includes mentally de-humanizing people on the other side of the conflict as the enemy, a member of a group that is out to hurt your people and threaten your homeland.
It is particularly troublesome for service men and women to maintain a balance between violence and compassion when the line between innocent civilian and enemy combatants becomes blurred. The effect on the professional soldier is that they never know who will hurt them, which creates incredible anxiety that sometimes leads to tragic consequences.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why an act of humanity in war is an exception. It requires a person to “re-humanize” their enemy and to view them as equal, deserving of respect. America’s decades of involvement in Iraq demonstrates both sides of the de-humanization and re-humanization story. Fortunately, when America moved from the role of liberator to the protector, the process of re-humanizing the American soldiers in the minds of frightened Iraqi civilians began. This shift is demonstrated in the experiences of one young United States Marine.
Shawn McKinnon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of twenty in 2003. His service began just a few months after passage by the United States Congress of the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq” that passed on October 16, 2002. There were many reasons offered for renewed action against the nation of Iraq, just ten years after the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The primary reason was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Iraq was sheltering members of al-Qaeda, the group that was responsible for the attacks on the WTC. This action led to the killing of Saddam Hussein and the downfall of his government.
When Shawn deployed to Iraq in 2004, American forces were required to maintain order as the U.S. prepared to transfer governing power to a new Iraqi-led government. At that time a poll showed that 92% of Iraqis viewed the American military as occupiers while just 3% saw them as peacekeepers and 2% as liberators. The word “occupier” was negative. Ordinary citizens felt frightened and angry by the political chaos that swept through their country after the fall of Hussein, and many blamed the Americans for causing it.
It was into this highly charged atmosphere that Shawn began his military service. Serving in the infantry meant that Shawn and his unit moved around the country in lightly armored Humvee motorized carriers that were highly susceptible to damage by IED’s (improvised explosive devices). It also meant that once at a location, they left even the light protection of the Humvee to meet the enemy directly in person to person combat.
Shawn describes Iraq as “very much a third world country.” In his words, “they didn’t have much of anything at all.” In the areas where he deployed, most of the families were subsistence farmers who grew their own food and animals to eat. Iraq is an arid, desert environment, where water is precious; “very hot, very dry, dusty, sandy, and relatively flat.” The water used for farming is drawn from the Euphrates River using homemade pump systems that use electricity to move water from the river to their farms. Shawn says the Iraqi people are very “crafty and clever” in their ability to eke out a living from such a difficult environment.
His initial deployment was combat oriented, mostly spent fighting with foreign nationals associated with al-Qaeda, who came into Iraq from the countries of Syria and Jordan. These foreign terrorists came specifically to fight and kill Americans, so the situation was always tense and dangerous for U.S. Marines – particularly since it was extremely difficult to identify a foreigner from the native Iraqi population. That meant that almost anyone could be out to hurt an American. Consequently, their troops kept apart from the locals as much possible.
Adding to the tension was the fact that these foreign combatants occasionally hired the locals to join in the fight by planting roadside bombs, firing machine guns, etc. The Iraqis had nothing, so a few extra dollars here or there to plant a roadside bomb at the side of the road gave them a low-risk way to earn some extra money for their families.
Even so, the locals were also afraid of the Americans, perceiving the Marines as the enemy. They tried to stay out of the way whenever a Marine convoy approached, hiding from the Americans. Their fears were, in fact, justified—not by the Marines, but because of reprisals by the insurgents. If any of the locals was found associating with Americans, they would be later attacked by the Iraqi and foreign insurgents.
Shawn summarized his first deployment this way. “The American presence was very disruptive – viewed as foreigners driving around their cities with machine guns. So the locals were not at all friendly to us, or inclined to support us.” It was a hostile and dangerous situation for a young man to be in with only his buddies as friends.
Second Deployment – 2006
Attitudes toward the American Marines changed in the two years from 2004 to 2006. “There was a lot more interaction with the locals,” he says, “particularly with the kids; they loved us!” In their new role as peacekeepers, rather than combatants, the Marines met frequently with local leaders. The Marines could now walk among the Iraqis and often passed out candy, clothes, and soccer balls to the children. “The kids knew that if they saw an American patrol, they were going to get a handout – kind of like candy being thrown to the crowds at a Fourth of July parade back in America.”
“We also saw more interaction with adult men. I was a member of my company commander’s security detachment, which meant I was often deployed to meet with leaders of the local tribes to discuss their needs. We talked about how to rebuild their infrastructure, including schools and police departments. Occasionally we ate a formal meal with them. They were very businesslike.” Shawn goes on to say that he and his fellow Marines were still hesitant when approaching a group of locals because the enemy didn’t wear uniforms. “They dressed like anybody else, so we always had to be suspicious; we didn’t know if the person we were to meet was going to show up with a suicide vest or drive their vehicle into our troops.” Despite this anxiety, they had to put themselves out in the community, exercising trust since that was the only way they could help rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in combat.
Third Deployment – 2009
“It was on this deployment that I noticed the biggest change in the interaction between Americans and Iraqis – and it was rewarding. In five years since I first got to Iraq, a lot had changed. In 2004, we were there for combat. In 2009, I was a member of a thirteen-man team working to train the Iraqi police. It was called a PIT team, “Police Transition Team,” with the thirteen of us interacting with Iraqi police officers every single day. We often went out with them on missions, as well as training them on how to use firearms, how to conduct police investigations, and control people in tense situations. What made it even more rewarding is that the United States included some actual U.S. police officers on the team to help with fingerprinting, investigative techniques, and so forth. We really came to enjoy our interactions with our Iraqi counterparts.
In fact, with earlier barriers down, Shawn found the Iraqis to be a very cordial and friendly people. “In the U.S. we shake hands, in Iraq you hug. While it took time and patience to build trust, eventually we became friends. The language was always a barrier, but so much of what we do doesn’t require language.” To create the biggest impact, Shawn’s unit worked particularly hard to gain the trust of tribal leaders.
“We knew we were on the right track when these leaders invited us into their homes to share meals not just with the men, but with the whole family. I have warm memories of sitting in their living rooms with their large family eating a feast of a dinner.” He goes on to say that the Americans knew that this was a sacrifice on the Iraqis part since they had little money, even the leaders. “To be in the same room sharing a meal with their wife, children, and in-laws was a huge sign of respect and friendship on their part.”
But it wasn’t easy for either side. Opponents of the new government wanted to disrupt the daily lives of the Iraqi people. They did so by destroying their schools, their police stations, and by hurting or killing those who cooperated. “Because the Iraqi police were working directly with us, they often became targets. In their attempt to provide security and stability for their neighborhoods, they put themselves directly in the line of fire. It was very hard on them emotionally since they could be targeted at any time, both on the job and later at home.” A disturbing incident occurred after Shawn’s group left one area. “A general with whom we had formed a trusted relationship, and who had invited us into his home, became a target. One day, a short time after we left, insurgents drove a suicide vehicle loaded with an IED (improvised explosive device) into the general’s house, blowing it up. Many members of his family were injured, and some killed.”
Nonetheless, strong bonds of brotherhood were developed with the local police, and the Marines found it very gratifying to share their knowledge and training with friends.
Operation Eagle Scout Project
Naturally, Shawn shared as much of this experience with his family as possible, in letters, satellite phone calls, and by email. When his younger brother, Cameron McKinnon, was sixteen years old he needed to come up with a service project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. “Cameron decided that he wanted to do something for the people in Iraq that I’d been telling him about.”
After his proposal was accepted, Cameron and his family, as well as other scouts in his troop, started to raise money to buy school supplies and clothing for children in Iraq. They did car cleaning at their local church. At a cost of $3.00 to vacuum and clean out their cars, lots of people showed up wanting to make a donation. With the proceeds of their work, the scouts purchased more than 300 pounds of goods to ship to Iraq in 12 large boxes.
“The war had gone on for so long,” says Shawn, “that most of the Iraqi children’s clothing was in tatters. They had to wear the same clothes every day, and their parents simply didn’t have the money to buy new clothes. That’s why Cameron’s project was so meaningful and helpful in our efforts to build trust in the local community.”
One of the first places Shawn and his team went to deliver clothing was to a woman’s shelter for families of those whose husbands were killed in combat. “The adults wouldn’t wear the clothing because it was not traditional. But it was okay for the kids to wear American-style clothes. The children didn’t have anything in the way of school supplies – the local government built very austere concrete buildings for schools, but there was no money for supplies. So, we had a great time handing out school supplies like pencils, paper, and crayons. The kids loved it.”
Shawn and his group used much of what was left to give to the children of the Iraqi police officers with whom they worked. “They knew about the project because we started bringing packages with us to work. Our interpreter was from Baghdad, and he explained to them why we were giving out these gifts – that it was a gift from my brother and his friends in America. That made a deep impression on the Iraqis and helped them understand that Marines have families back home. Knowing that we had that in common strengthened our bond.”
They were also able to use the supplies when local tribal chiefs came to meet with their U.S. liaison. Shawn’s team set up security and while on duty a few of the area children came up to them out of curiosity. “It was great that we could pass things out to them. I remember that just a few had the courage to come up initially, but when we started passing out school supplies and clothes the rest of the children just swarmed us, hoping to get something that was new and that could be uniquely theirs. Of course, this had an impact on the way the adult leaders thought about us.”
“All in all, we were able to give things to several hundred children. I was happy to do that for any child, but it had the most meaning giving to the police officers with whom we worked. We saw them every day, and they were so grateful for the items we gave to them and their families. It meant a lot to all of us.”
Shawn continues. “One of the Iraqis we had the greatest affection for was a fellow we nicknamed Roger. A lot of our supplies went to his family. Roger was a big, heavyset guy who was always happy. We had lunch with him regularly, sometimes with his family. They made a drink called Chi, which is a warm, sugary sweet drink that comes in a one-ounce glass.” When asked why this fellow was called Roger, Shawn laughed. “It’s because he heard us say the word ‘Roger’ to confirm an answer when talking with someone on our military radios. It was the only English word he knew how to say. Sometimes he’d walk up to our radios and randomly push a button and say, ‘Roger.’ It was his way of establishing contact. So, we gave him the honorary title of Roger.” Becoming serious, Shawn reports that Roger was later attacked and wounded by insurgents, likely because he was friendly to the Americans.
Human face – Human friends
Some may be tempted to say that three hundred pounds of clothing and school supplies aren’t all that much in a world of seven billion people (the equivalent of one thousand cities the size of New York). But of course, that misses the point. To an Iraqi child who has nothing, a new shirt or pair of pants, or a notebook and pencils, means everything. And to their parents, who struggle every day just to put food on the table amidst the violence of their society, it means the world. In this small way, Shawn and all the other Americans who treat the Iraqis with respect are ambassadors of goodwill. Combining that with an Eagle Scout project from a younger brother is a recipe for showing humanity in the aftermath of war.
Shawn McKinnon’s service in the Marine Corps came to an end, and he returned to the United States to marry and start his family. Today he is a police officer in Kaysville, Utah where he uses many of the techniques he shared with the police officers in Iraq. Recognizing the value of connecting with his community, he reaches out to city leaders, schools, and has built strong bonds of respect for the men and women he works with every day. In short, his experience in Iraq has a direct bearing on his lifetime profession. It’s hard to imagine anyone being better at police work than Shawn. He is at once both gentle and strong, representing what is best in the men and women who serve in uniform, whether in the military or local service.
- Original interviews with Shawn McKinnon. November 2015
- Iraq Timeline 2004. Entry for June 17, 2004. <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/iraqtimeline3.html> Extracted November 25, 2015
 Pub.L. 107-243 <http://legislink.org/us/pl-107-243> 116 Stat. 1498 <http://legislink.org/us/stat-116-1498> Extracted 11/25/2015.
 Iraq Timeline 2004. Entry for June 17, 2004. <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/iraqtimeline3.html> Extracted November 25, 2015