January 6, 2017

The Burn Pits

The Burn Pits

By Joseph Hickman
Hot Books

There is reason to hope. Two years ago, I invited a former guard from Guantanamo Bay, Joseph Hickman, to speak to a class I was helping to teach at Duke University. Hickman had just blown the whistle on three suspicious deaths that had taken place at Gitmo and the students in Duke TIP (Talent Identification Program) had just participated in a CSI simulation, using primary documents from the night of the event to put themselves into the shoes of government investigators. Like the courageous former US Marine and Army sergeant they interviewed, they concluded that the three alleged detainee suicides were not, in fact, suicides, but more likely murders at the hands of the American government.

Skype Interview at Duke with Joseph Hickman/Photo by M.C. Armstrong

What gave me hope that day is something I’m seeing in increasing numbers across our country. Our young people are waking up to the reality that something is rotten in Denmark. Joe Hickman is now back with a new book, The Burn Pits. There are a million reasons for Americans to read this devastating account of how we’re neglecting our veterans. The Burn Pits is extremely well-written, tightly structured, and Hickman’s compassion for his fellow soldiers is heartbreaking. But what few reviewers seem to be emphasizing is that Hickman is not just concerned about our veterans who are dying from the toxic plumes of the American burn pits. It’s not just Americans whose bodies are destroying themselves in a collective vertigo of white spots, leukemia, apnea, bronchitis, cold sweats, migraines, memory loss, nausea, and brain cancer. It’s not just Beau Biden.

The Burn Pits

One question my students kept asking me that summer they got to interview Joe Hickman was, “What’s the story with ISIS?” At the time, I didn’t want to go out on the ledge. What I told those students was, largely, what I’d gathered from American legacy media outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times. But what those mainstream publications fail to emphasize is the incredibly uncomfortable reality that Hickman describes with such vivid detail in The Burn Pits. In short, “Iraq is poisoned,” and America has been providing the toxins for years. In some war torn cities, like Fallujah, “the rate of local birth defects was a shocking thirty-three times higher than Europe.” Why are we seeing such apocalyptic suicidal insanity in Iraq and Syria? Well, you can believe it’s all about ideology if you want. But try, for just a moment, as Hickman has done, to put yourself in the shoes of the people we invaded. “The birth defect rates in Fallujah have risen so sharply, according to an Al Jazeera report, that many city residents have decided not to have children for fear of the shocking number of miscarriages, infant deaths and deformed or otherwise sick newborns.” How would you behave if death was living in you?

Haditha Dam burn pit/Photo by M.C. Armstrong

What is the hidden source of this sickness that compels our veterans and the people of Iraq toward madness and suicide? Through careful, painstaking research, Hickman makes his case. Before this book, like most Americans, Hickman had never taken the time to consider “how much trash is created by war,” or what we do with that waste, those bombs and bodies, those batteries and plastics, the rubber and Styrofoam, the depleted uranium, the wires and oil. But over the course of more than two years, Hickman “collected the names and service details from over a thousand armed forces members and contractors who were stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, were exposed to the burn pits, and were experiencing health problems they associated with their exposure.” What he discovered should more than just alarm the reader. The Burn Pits is a call to action.

If you are a citizen concerned with what both Sanders and Trump referred to as “the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history,” then you should read this book. The Burn Pits is a map for activism. If you are interested in solving one of the great health care problems of our time, read this book. If you are interested in helping American service members solve the political problem of bureaucratic resistance in the VA that dates back to the days of Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome, read this book. But let’s not also forget that Hickman is describing a planetary problem that needs to be solved, an environmental crisis that defies national boundaries in the same way that multinational corporations and terrorist organizations defy those boundaries. The sickness is not just American. This is a downstream thing, a collaborative disease, a shared problem that requires a cooperative solution.


There’s a story I’ve never told about the time I spent in Iraq. In March of 2008, near the end of my embed with Joint Special Operations Forces, I met D’han Hussein D’meithan, a sheikh from Haditha who had cancer and whose family had been bankrupted in trying to pay for chemo treatments for a young son who also had cancer. Earlier in the day of the interview, my translator had taken me to see a burn pit just a stone’s throw from the Euphrates River. He didn’t make the connection for me, and, I regret to say, I didn’t make the connection for myself. But the research has now been done by Joe Hickman and the connection is now clear. At the end of the interview in which we discussed his son’s thirty-nine chemo treatments and bone marrow transplants, I asked the sheikh if he had a message for the American people.

Photo by M.C. Armstrong

“Greetings,” he said. “I just want peace. Safety. My family is broken.”

Photo by M.C. Armstrong

Like most of the Iraqis and Americans I met in Iraq, the sheikh’s desires were simple. He wanted a safe and peaceful place to live with his family. When I say there is reason to hope, I really mean that there are millions of reasons to hope, millions of good people like the sheikh and Joe Hickman and those students at Duke. But the big reason is this: we, as Americans, have finally grown up over the past sixteen years. Although there are certainly some among us who believe that all Muslims and Arabs are nothing more than “the children of Satan,” most people now understand that 9/11 took place in the context of a brutal but shared history. Most young people are now waking up to the reality that one cannot really avoid in the Internet age: we’re all connected. The trouble with you is the trouble with me. What happens in Iraq doesn’t stay in Iraq. “It”—the plume, the airborne toxic event, the sickness, the disease, the fire, the history—it spreads to Syria, Libya, Kenya, Turkey, Russia and then returns to our shores in cammo with a cough and a hunger for help. Thank you, Joe Hickman, for continuing to help, in spite of your cough.

Copyright 2017
M.C. Armstrong

M. C. Armstrong
M. C. Armstrong
M. C. Armstrong recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, The Mantle, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Mayday, Monkey Bicycle, Epiphany, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte.

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