...To Tell the Truth About War: The Story of Iraq War Veteran Michael Prysner
Sep 15, 2017 | By: Jennae Geren
I Had a Dream
To Tell The Truth About War
The Story of Iraq War Veteran Michael Prysner
By Jennae Geren
The Whole World is Watching
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
– Charles Bukowski
On the breezy late-summer day of September 15, 2007, word had circulated that something big was about to happen in Washington D.C.
Black helicopters hovered above the White House as a surge of police cars and motorcycles screeched to a halt outside its spiked iron gates. Doors slammed, sirens wailed, and a hive of police scattered to claim a plot of land along Pennsylvania Avenue’s prestigious political buildings.
They crouched in the shadows, their heads darting behind statutes, light posts, and rooftops, like skittish deer waiting for a storm to roll in. They spilled onto Capital steps, stone-faced and heavily staggered, their hands resting on their hips.
A policeman paced in front of the barricaded Capital wall, aligned shoulder-to-shoulder with storm troopers who gripped shields and batons, decked in full leather buckled boots, and bullet-proof vests.
“Copy. At the scene,” he murmured into his handheld radio. The radio beeped and he added, “We’re ready for them.”
Just 10 blocks away in front of the White House, a crowd was forming. In the lead stood 24-year-old Michael Prysner, banded with a color guard of seven other young U.S. soldiers clad in full army uniforms, carrying American and black defense contractor flags. A sergeant stood to the left of the color guard.
“Present arms!” he commanded.
The color guard hoisted their flags.
Prysner’s stared straight ahead as his black CACI International defense contractor flag flapped in the breeze, a dramatically bemusing scene to any loitering onlooker.
He lifted his combat boots in unison with the color guard. The march had begun.
Behind Prysner, 300 veterans crammed the eight-lane wide Pennsylvania Avenue holding a large white sign that read “Iraq Veterans Against the War.” They pumped their fists in unison as they marched and chanted, “Troops out! Now! Troops out! Now!”
Gold Star families whose loved ones were killed in the Iraq war trailed behind the veterans. One man carried a poster board sign with a picture of a boy in uniform back dropped by the American flag with the words, “Bush lied, my little brother died.”
The crowd thickened, and an excited youthful buzz of energy and possibility filled the streets by college kids wearing anti-war slogan bandannas, Vietnam vets with medal-grazed military jackets, middle-aged men in suits, children waving peace-symbol American flags, and Muslim women draped in colorful hijabs who marched past giant banners draped across buildings that read “Impeach Bush for War Crimes!”
Nearly a thousand counter-protesters scrambled to the sidelines near the Washington Monument, their faces red with tension.
“U-S-A! U-S-A!” some sideliners yelled, as they pointed fingers at the slow-moving stream of nearly 100,000 people, tinted with thousands of ANSWER Coalition’s yellow bobbing “End the War Now” signs.
Near the White House, a hush fell over the crowd, and the people parted for a mother and father wheeling an American-flag draped coffin. Clipped to the coffin’s side was a photo of a smiling young soldier, his combat boots resting on top of the casket in a bitter farewell. But it was the poster board picture the mother carried showing the dead boy in an open casket that caused the crowd to cast furtive glances. The mother bowed her head, and her net hat and sunglasses did little to hide her pouring grief.
Down the street, the marching crowd amplified a higher-pitched chorus:
“What do we want? Troops out! When do we want it? Now!”
The chopping sounds of the helicopters overhead, the screaming on the sidelines, the chanting of the 100,000 marching protesters behind Prysner - all of this congestion faded into a distant muddled melody as he squinted in the distance at the crowning of the Capital’s glistening ivory dome.
The drum beat of his heart pulsated steadily to the words drumming through his mind: “Go over the wall, go over the wall.”
His thoughts turned to ANSWER Coalition’s pre-march meeting, where he and a militant group of anti-war veterans touched up on last-minute plans. The march had been calculated by anti-war groups such as ANSWER Coalition, Veterans for Peace and Veterans Against the War to deliver a message to Congress to demand an end to the Iraq war and to stage a “die-in” where thousands of protesters would lie limply on the Capital lawn and bear signs on their bodies to symbolize the American soldiers killed in Iraq. But years of peaceful militant antiwar marches had been transiently covered, if at all by U.S. media outlets who seemed to pat the resisters on the back in a sort of detached, but slightly entertained gesture before moving on to a more sensational story.
This time, they would deliver a message that people would remember.
“When we get to Congress and we hit that police line and fence guarding the Congress building, we don’t want to stop. Let’s push through it and let’s go into Congress,” Prysner had said to a small circle of veterans.
The Capital now loomed as a mighty tangible form just yards away from Prysner as he and the leading soldiers ascended its steps.
The chanting swelled with enthusiasm.
“Troops home! Now! Troops home! Now!”
“Halt!” shouted the sergeant beside Prysner.
Prysner’s screeches to a stop, but his heart beat sped up. A low, tornado-sounding siren filled the city, its wail rising to signal a state of emergency as the crowd closed in, wrapping itself around the Capital’s wall.
Several feet behind Prysner a man with a paper crown dangling from his head leaped onto a post with a megaphone in one hand, and a “Support the Troops – End the War Now” sign fluttering in his other hand.
“This is a message to Congress! We want the troops out right now!” the man shouted through his megaphone at the lifeless Congress Building.
He spun to the crowd behind him and yelled, “What do we want?”
The Capital wall was blanketed in chanting bodies. “Troops out!”
“When do we want it?” the man yelled, as he pumped his sign in the air.
“Now!” screamed the crowd.
Within seconds, the protester was yanked from his perch by a swarm of policemen and shoved stomach-first onto the cement as the police pounced on top of him to tighten plastic handcuffs around his wrists.
The protester lifted his neck and crumpled sign and, choking for air, continued chanting.
“What do we want?”
“Peace!” The crowd shouted.
“When do we want it?” he gasped, and his chanting voice faded in the distance as police dragged away his limp body. His paper crown rolled down the hot pavement.
“Now!” The crowd whistled and cheered in honor of their departed flock member.
Prysner and the sergeant exchanged glances. The sergeant nodded, and the color guard continued ascending the Capital steps. The crowd parted for the soldiers, who whistled and cheered when the soldiers reached the wall.
“Get back!” swat team members on the other side of the wall screeched shrilly as they shoved their shields and batons at the chanting crowd.
Prysner swung on top of the wall.
He stared at the great Capital above him, a steadfast, permanent symbol of an empire cloaked in a story of righteousness that he dreamed of defending since he was a young boy, and he couldn’t stop the stream of memories:
…That crisp, fall New England Day as the sunrays poked through the patches of dangling vibrant red leaves in eight-year-old Prysner’s backyard:
“Gotcha!” the young boy had shrieked in laughter at his neighborhood friend, spitting blanks from his toy gun. He had erupted from a pile of crunchy leaves, dressed in an army jacket and helmet costume that hung loosely from his small frame…
… 12-year-old Prysner, huddling in a corner with four other small children at the playground sketching a chalk diagram on how they would jump that fat bully kid...
…Prysner at 14, in the back of class, his head leaning against one arm daydreamingly, as he scribbled crosshairs in his notebook on the heads of cut-out photos of Sudan Hussein and Fidel Castro…
…Prysner at 17, as he squeaked open the doors of the local recruiting station just to catch brief glimpses of his war heroes…
…Prysner, fresh-out-of-high school, enlisting at the recruiting station:
“Can I sign up for 20 years?” he had asked.
The recruiter only shook his head with a look that said, “That’s cute.”
“Just join for four years,” the recruiter said chuckling and pointed to the signature line.
M-i-c-h-a-e-l P-r-y-s-n-e-r, he signed. Prysner, Private Mike Prysner, he thought, his face brightening with excitement.
And thus began Prysner’s righteous war hero story. But after just two weeks in Iraq, cracks in the story had started to form.
Prysner averted his eyes from the Capital, and drew a deep breath, then in one swift, revival launch, he dove over the Capital wall.
The crowd erupted in passionate cheers.
He landed tangled in a scrambling police pile, caught off-guard at the wiry young soldier who quickly sprung to his toes, slipping through the police’s grasp, forcing them to zigzag behind him as he scuttled furiously for the Capital.
Within seconds, a group of policemen smacked Prysner to the ground.
“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” the amplified voices behind him shouted.
Prysner cranked his neck behind him at the wall where he jumped and gasped when a fellow color guard soldier perched on the Capital wall, his arms spread skywards like wings. The soldier abruptly harpooned his body gracefully over the wall and the crowd roared with applause.
Within seconds, another young soldier leaped onto the wall. He faced the crowd, pulsing his arms in the air as the protesters’ chants heightened.
“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
The soldier whirled around, raised his chin, and opened his palms in enlightened surrender before performing a backward trust-fall into a pod of swat team members who had no choice but to carry the crowd surfing soldier overhead, their arms swaying in the air side-to-side like front-row fans at a teen girl concert.
There was no stopping the fire now. The veterans trickle over like rising flames, dozens at a time, and the crowd ignited.
“The vets who fought and died for this war are here to deliver a letter to Congress! That’s all they want to do!” screamed a woman who fought her way to the front of the wall.
The Congress wall had exploded like a broken faucet, streaming with uniformed soldiers into the sweaty arms of a vastly outnumbered police force whose aggressive facade was slipping by the minute.
Some protesters calmly sprung off the Capital wall and complacently pattered to the back of the arrest line where they were hammered to the ground and cuffed. Other resisters like Prysner dove over kicking and squirming. Minutes later the squirrely ones were dragged limply up the Capital steps and roughly handed off from one police officer with sore calves to another.
“Shame on you! Shame on you!” The crowd chanted at the police whose growing frustration with the piling crowd was turning into panicked violence.
More police swarmed in on motorcycles to assist the grimacing shoulder-to-shoulder wall of riot cops at the front of the wall, who were compressed at a 90-degree angle from the influx of protesters. They waved their sticks and sprayed tear gas in desperation at the multiplying resisters.
The Capital steps thickened with a dense blanket of camouflage until nearly 100 veterans were tunneled out into police vans.
As dusk hovered over the city, the street lights on Pennsylvania Avenue flickered on above foot-stomped posters and American flags that fluttered along the Capitol steps - a symbolic reminder of the nearly 200 protesters arrested in one of the nation’s largest marches since the Vietnam War.
Somewhere across the city in a giant holding cell with nearly 100 other veterans in full uniform, a cuffed Prysner curled against a stone wall, glancing down in admiration at his uniform. It just occurs to him that after four years in the military and a 12-month tour in Iraq, this is the only time he had ever felt pride wearing it.
He leaned his head against the cold wall and released a long, justified sigh. Strangely, he had no racing thoughts, no worries about his future or the impending charges. Instead, he felt a satisfied stillness as he glanced around the room at his fellow veterans, some sleeping, and some talking and laughing easily among each other. Prysner was no longer alone.
For years, all he had thought about was the war - the bullying, the careless murders, the lies, and the media downplaying the truth. And that constant repressed pulse deep in his stomach that teetered somewhere between fear and grieving disgust that felt like shame. That shame and injustice that for years he kept inside had now snowballed into rage. To see that 100 other veterans were ready to go to jail on a whim stemming from this shared feeling was all the support he needed.
The scene of the slow trickle over the Congress wall played on repeat in his mind all night.
“I felt like the only reason that we didn’t actually literally take over the Congress building that day is because not enough people jumped over at the same time,” Prysner reflected later.
But brushing the perimeters of such a powerful political victory broke a threshold of possibility for Prysner.
“Alright, getting arrested is not that bad,” he thought. “And I’m ready to do it again.”
David and Goliath
"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Nearly 10 years later, I meet up with Michael Prysner in Los Angeles. He appears with his leashed calm and quiet corgi mix Mulder, who pants patiently near his master’s side in the California summer heat.
It took some persistence, but here he is, understandably and elusively skeptical to meet up with a stranger from Colorado ready to record his anti-government statements. The 34-year-old political activist is tall, about 40 pounds thinner than the photos from his military days, and has a gentle demeanor about him.
Within minutes, he lets his guard down and I can see why he’s the writer and producer of the famous independent political documentary series The Empire Files, featuring his co-producer and the U.S.’s most influential independent journalist, Abby Martin. He speaks 2-3 times faster than the average person and talks the way a writer does, his anecdotes spotted with deadpan irony that seamlessly merge into a deeper theme on the plaguing immorality of imperialism.
He is energetic, passionate, and bright, and it doesn’t surprise me when he tells me he skirted through school doing little schoolwork. By the time he was out of the military and enrolled in a small Florida college, he was so focused on organizing anti-war events that he felt he only graduated because of anti-war teachers who rallied behind his obsession. I can see right away that Prysner is someone who cannot be institutionalized. Somewhere inside of him, that tiny kid who was bullied in elementary school is still strategizing his next retaliation, only this time, he marches to the playground with thousands behind him to fight the most arrogant bully of them all: the U.S.A.
But even though the Iraq war is war is over, for the most part, I still get the tugging sensation that it’s still an open book for Prysner, lying somewhere unknown, untouched.
Nowadays you’ll find him in places like on front lines of the violent battle in Venezuela, camera in hand, choking up teargas with his co-teleSUR English journalist partner, Abby Martin, as the only media brave enough to wade through the violent mob of right-wing U.S.-backed opposition protestors setting fire to people, shooting reporters, and throwing around explosives and Molotov cocktails like a casual game of catch.
If you scroll through the Empire Files’ documentary videos, a common theme emerges.
"All of these stories are related to U.S. militarism and domination of the world. The Empire’s military has covered the entire globe and everywhere that it hasn’t covered it has its daggers pointed at it to destroy it,” says Prysner. Today there are at least 800 bases in over 100 countries – U.S. troops in nearly every country on earth.
Venezuela just happens to be a recent target. In a state that contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves, a violent mostly middle-class and affluent U.S.-backed opposition is brewing. The goal is to use fear and violence to paint a picture of a failed state, and with the help of selective U.S. media coverage and U.S. “humanitarian” intervention, the corporate owners who lead the opposition movement will get the return of the domination of capitalism and monopolies and re-privatization of the oil, while the US is most focused on Venezeula’s vast oil reserves and a subservient trade partner.
“The big lie is that the military is interested in helping people around the world and that the countries that we’re calling enemies are because of human rights issues,” says Prysner.
“We’re always told who our enemies are and who our friends are. We’re told that Cuba is our enemy, Venezuela is our enemy, Iraq is our enemy, Iran is our enemy, Syria is our enemy, Libya is our enemy, but Saudi Arabia is our friend, Columbia is our friend, Israel is our friend - and they say it’s about democracy and human rights. But all the people the U.S. is saying are our friends do not have democracy, have some of the worst human rights violations on the planet, and these people you’re saying are our enemies, they do have democracies and they don’t really have these crazy human rights violations. When you look at the common thread, it’s: are they opened up to the will of U.S. business interests and U.S. military interests?”
It’s clear to me that for the past decade, Prysner has been doing some digging – obsessive digging. While other people his age were getting Masters degrees, back-packing through Europe, getting married, starting families, or settling into a corporate job, Prysner spent all of his waking hours devoted to stopping imperialism.
What began as lead-organizing at national progressive anti-war groups such as ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), PSL (Party for Socialism and Liberation) and Veterans for Peace, spun into his own anti-war group, March Forward!, that comprised of a band of militant anti-war veterans who saved other veterans from war deployment.
“I betrayed my morals and who I was as a person. And I just couldn’t stop thinking of all of the people who would remember me as a terrible person in Iraq, who still do if they haven’t been killed yet,” says Prysner.
He pauses in a moment of self-reflection then continues.
“I felt shame for what I had done personally but also anger at Bush and the government. I thought of all the people who were still dying, of all of the veterans who are just mangled and maimed and who will never have normal lives again, whether it’s psychological wounds or they’re physical wounds, and all the people who are still killing themselves today.”
The years of anti-war organizing were the only way for Prysner to pick up the moral remnants of his war days and reconstruct the pieces into a comprehensible truth.
But the journalist producer and self-proclaimed socialist is carrying a heavy burden for speaking his truth. While reporting for The Empire Files in Venezuela, a lynch mob and death threats were incited against Martin and Prysner. A delightful farewell of “We’re going to crush your face…beat you to death…cut your throat…kill you – you’re not leaving this country alive,” ensued but Prysner continued with work as usual, even when pro-U.S. regime protestors gathered outside one of his events with picket signs featuring Prysner and Martin, falsely labeling them government spies.
Still, Prysner feels he has no choice. His strong sense of compassion for people who are hurting never left him. Even at a young age, the disturbing images of shivering homeless people at the corners in his town haunted him. “Why in such a rich country did this exist?” he wondered.
Today he asks the same questions.
“There’s so many characteristics in today’s society that could be in a dystopian future sci-fi movie. But because it’s happening now, it’s hard to realize how crazy it is” says Prysner.
I ask him if he thinks of his radical political activism as his mission, but for Prysner there was no personal calling, no biblical light rays of inspiration that hit him one day – he views compassion as a simple a matter of being human.
“Obviously you have to be a part of ending it because it’s so unjust. I remember growing up people would talk about slavery in America and say, ‘Yeah, it was really bad, but people didn’t know. And it was like a different time, people were indoctrinated with this thing.’ I said, ‘People knew!’ I guarantee there were tons of white people who were thinking, ‘This is crazy – we’re doing what? We’re enslaving you? This is nuts!’ People were militant-anti-slavery because they realized the era they were in in a historical mirror. 100 years from now people are going to look at this and think, ‘This is insane and so cruel.’ There’s such a variety of terrible issues that are so obscene and mind-boggling that they are allowed to happen and so if I live in that era, so I might as well feel good about what I did living in that era.”
Nearly every waking hour of his life now is devoted to illuminating the destructiveness of the capitalist U.S. Empire, and to inform people there’s a more benevolent and balanced way to live on the planet. Prysner refers to it as socialism.
“Capitalism, is a criminal system – it’s inhumane,” spoke Prysner passionately from a platform at a PSL event years ago:
“…There are 40 million people in the United States who are out of work. Are there 40 million people out of work because there’s 40 million lazy people who don’t want to work? No. There are 40 million unemployed people because the jobs do not exist. A capitalist society will lay them off to protect their profits. They can create jobs (in fact, they were given $11 trillion in our tax money against our will to create jobs and they still laid off tens of thousands of workers and gave themselves multi-million dollar bonus checks) that’s a crime. If the jobs don’t exist and you can’t find a job, this system will take everything away from you and throw you out onto the street.
It’s a system that sucks the life out of you. Some people work 80 hours a week just to put food on the table - people who aren’t even allowed to enjoy life, parents who never get to see their children. All because they have no choice but to do that - or to starve. Literally, so some fat cat can sail the world on his yacht. That’s a criminal system.
It’s criminal because it’s a system of massive waste. For the first time in human history, there is no longer the problem of scarcity which plagued every previous society in history. In this era of technology, there is overabundance. As a class, we can grow enough food right now than we do to feed every single person. We build enough homes to house every person. We invent and produce enough medicine to treat every sick person and much, much more. That’s an amazing human achievement. That’s never happened before.
But what is done with that abundance under capitalism? Instead of feeding the millions of people in the U.S. alone who are malnourished, the capitalists will burn tons of food to the ground to keep the price of food high. Instead of housing people, the richest banks kicked families out of their homes the second the economy tanks. Right now as we speak, there are homes – brand new homes – livable homes that are being bulldozed to the ground. Not because there’s no one that wants to live them, but because the bank cannot sell them. And it’s more profitable to reduce it to rubble than to let someone live there. And there’s a million homeless school children every single year in the United States while the capitalists kick families onto the street and bulldozed homes – that’s a crime. I’m’ sure everyone knows someone who has needlessly suffered and died in a hospital because they could not afford the treatment - and all the while there was medicine that could have treated them that the capitalists let expire in warehouses because they could not sell it. The great vast productive wealth of society is thrown away in a cut-throat gambling match between capitalist kingpins causing nothing but misery for the same exact people who produce those things in the first place.
It’s a crime because it robs the great intellectual and technological capacity of human society. How difficult is it for people under capitalism to get a quality education? How hard is it to study, to learn, to become the master of a field of science, to invent? You have to go into debt to even want to do any of those things if you can even put yourself through school without having to work so many hours. How hard is it for an average worker to be able to study a culture, an art, a literature and be able to have time to create it? How many brilliant chemists can only find work with pharmaceutical giants making medicine for profits instead of trying to cure diseases? If you’re a physicist or an engineer, where are the jobs? They’re in the defense industry – not making things that benefit society, but reaching the furthest lengths of the most technologically advanced way of destroying a human body, or destroying a city, or destroying a home.
One of the most criminal aspects of capitalism is the mass death and destruction that it causes. Who thinks it’s just a coincidence that all of the wars we are told we have to fight, all of our so called “enemies” in the world just happen to be in the most resource rich countries on the planet that don’t allow Wall street to just come in and run the show? The compulsion under this system to reach super profits chases the capitalists to every corner of the globe and they will do whatever it takes to get it. In Iraq, you watched over a million innocent human beings slaughtered. You watched over 6,000 U.S. soldiers march to their deaths – all so Exon Mobile and Shell could finally suck the oil out of that country. That is a great crime against humanity...
The audience of mostly working-class families and students stood in applause at Prysner’s passionate message, and he warmly returned their smiles, but he never really feels a rectifiable wholeness like he did before, no matter how many speeches he gives or marches he leads. There will always be this aching mistrusted memory that he has never been able to dislodge. A dull, shadowy feeling that aches inside him even now over a decade later, like simmering coals that no matter how hard one jabs, never seem to burn out.
“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass
At 4 a.m. on Prysner’s 18th birthday, the doorbell rang. Outside stood a military uniformed recruiter silhouetted against the darkened sky. Prysner’s mother’s opened the door, her eyes bloodshot with tears that no longer tried to hide.
“Michael Prysner?” the recruiter asked gleefully, his eyes settling on the young man.
Prysner embraces his family one by one: his 7-year-old sister, his 15-year-old brother, and his tear-stained parents.
But as soon as his house faded from view, a guilty rush of adventure crept over him as he drove off into the blackness of the unknown towards the MEPS Tampa station.
Yeah there were some strange tests the military did, and Prysner found himself running around naked in circles with a bunch of other confused young enlisters, but that part was soon over and he eagerly awaited the grit of basic training.
That first day was when the Lieutenant Colonel approached him.
He strode purposefully towards to Prysner, who was chatting excitedly with a group of other soon-to-be infantry men.
“I need to meet with you,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, pointing at Prysner.
Prysner follows the Lieutenant Colonel down a corridor to his office.
“What is this about?” he asked, eyeballing the Lieutenant Colonel.
The Lieutenant Colonel squeaked into his rolling chair and leaned in towards Prysner.
“You scored really high on your test. And…”
The Lieutenant Colonel’s eyes turn to slits and he lowered his voice.
“We have this new intelligence job that is super awesome and after viewing your file, I can see you’re the perfect person for it.”
Prysner heart skipped a beat. Intelligence job? Suddenly, all of those long-imagined visions of him doing the hardest ground pounding stuff as an action hero infantry man faded from view and within an instant were replaced with visions of Prysner followed by cameras as he crept through the rubble of a secret enemy underground base.
“You know that movie Enemy of State?” the Lieutenant Colonel asked, reclining in his chair, loosely holding Prysner’s file. “It’s just like that – a CIA crazy spy satellite intelligence kind of job. It’s just that….”
Prysner leaned in closer in suspense. “What is it?”
The Lieutenant Colonel drum rolled his finger on the desk.
“You’ll be working with the world’s most elite intelligence infiltrators, so we gotta make we got top-notch people with the brains to do it - people we can trust.”
Prysner couldn’t believe it. He felt like the smartest, most important person in the world being asked to join a ring of elite CIA intelligence members. He couldn’t say no!
“You can trust me,” Prysner said.
“Great!” the Lieutenant Colonel said.
He jumped to his feet and slapped down a paper in front of Prysner.
“Just sign here. Your elite training begins as soon as you complete your nine-week basic infantryman course!”
Click clack, click clack, clack…clack.
Prysner glanced up from his computer. A dull, confined feeling swept over him, and his classmates mirrored his captivity, their heads popping up one by one to survey the stuffy, florescent-lit room, then falling back down slowly at their fated keyboards.
“I was told I was being recruited to some high-ranked CIA shit,” a young man crammed next to Prysner whispered.
"Looks like they just bought a billion dollars of equipment and they needed to fill some slots.”
Prysner sighed wearily in comprehension of the real story none of them saw coming: pressured generals pacing behind closed doors at recruiting stations wondering:
“Who can we get to switch to this really bad job?”
But the scheme had worked – on him and about 60 other idiots in the room who got tricked into the same stupid computer job that was definitely not a spy satellite.
Click clack, went Prysner’s keyboard. Clack, clack, clack.
Eve of Destruction
“The closer I get, the more I see how far I am.” - Rumi
A year had passed since Prysner completed his seven-month training on his cool-guy spy job computer equipment. But when it came time to use it, the army didn’t feel like buying it.
“They were like, “Oh your job is this, that’s really cool, we didn’t buy the equipment yet,” Prysner recalls on his first day of work.
One year later, in the dead of Northern Iraq’s winter posted in the back of a Humvee, Prysner hunched over his equipment for the first time since his training, grimacing at a glaring screen of yellow dots.
A giant 747 plane with a radar disc attached to it flew overhead, sweeping the ground to target any movements that manifested on Prysner’s equipment’s screen as micro yellow dots so he could call airstrikes on tank formations or soldier movements.
A car drove by – yellow dot, a tree blew in the wind – yellow dot. Prysner’s eyelids grew heavy as the dots popped up then disappeared, only to reemerge then vanish again.
The Iraqi army was nowhere to be seen, but a growing unease had settled over the troops, as daily scutt launches by the Iraqi army reminded them of their presence that grew closer each day.
Prysner was shaken to attention when his battalion member banged on the side of his Humvee.
“They’re coming! The Iraqi army is almost here! Look on your screen!”
Prysner jerked his head straight and winced at his screen.
“Do you see it on your screen too?” the young man panted breathlessly, his voice full of panic.
Sure enough, a rising cluster of tank battalions were forming on his screen.
Prysner snatched his radio, and shouted commands as he plucks furiously at his keyboard, zooming in on his computer’s multiplying yellow dots.
“****!” his fellow battalion member hollered and whirled around in a beeline for their base to warn all of the other men.
The battalion scrambled in circles. They couldn’t have been left more vulnerable. Because of protests in Turkey, they were forced to detour and land their plane in the north end of Iraq. They had no food, no warm clothes, no jackets – no equipment. The heaviest piece of equipment was a couple 50 caliber machine guns which will do a lot against people, but not against the tanks that merged closer and closer.
“Tanks are coming!” screeched one man, as he heaved an artillery shell into the artillery launcher.
The sweaty men snatched their helmets and dove into nearby holes where they huddled together, shivering, their hands and faces skinned with dirt and snow.
“We’re ******* dead!” another soldier yelled as he snatched a machine gun, and squinted through its target, panning the blank snow-covered landscape.
“There's no way we're going to be able to fight this off,” thought Prysner. But his training and instincts kicked in as he quickly calculated the coordinates of the tanks.
He plucked at his keyboard and snatched his radio.
“Do you copy?” he asked. The radio beeped.
“Moving Northwest at 25 km/hour.”
“Got it,” a shaky voice said on the other line replied, and Prysner felt the echoed rumble of a blast.
“Moving North now – 30 km/hour,” he said into his radio.
“Copy,” the voice responded immediately and Prysner felt another blast.
Static filtered the other side of the radio and as Prysner did the math the soldier on the radio receiver pleaded in prayer, his words trembling just above a whisper.
“The Lord is my Shepard…I shall not want…he maketh me lie down in green pastures…”
The sound of machine guns rattled outside of Prysner’s car.
“Are you there?” Prysner asked, interrupting his fellow soldier’s prayer.
“Moving North – 40 km/hour. Do you copy?”
“Yes, yes!” the shaken soldier on the other side of the radio cried.
Prysner peered out his window to see a dust storm of army men clambering around the artillery machine, yanking its string into an explosion, and then rushing to reloading it.
A loud boom erupted causing the Humvee to rattle, as drops of mud and snow shook from its tires.
“What the **** is this equipment for?” the commander screamed at Prysner’s computer. Its screen was now fully covered with yellow dots.
He yanked the computer out of Prysner’s Humvee and raised it over his head. Then in one forceful strike, it crashed to the ground, its chords sizzling with electricity.
“Never use that again.”
“What?” said Prysner, staring at the remnants of his splintered computer, now scattered at his feet. The last spark of broken wires fizzed in resignation and the commander swished his hands together in accomplishment before sauntering back to the base.
Later that evening, as a chilly breeze swept through the start-dusted Iraqi sky, the battalion of soldiers sat around their post, clinking through cans of food and laughing with ease now that the threat of death that no longer loomed upon them.
It had turned out, no tanks were coming at all, that it was just a false report, and that everything that Prysner had been calling air strikes on were clouds that looked like tank formations. Prysner didn’t know what was under the clouds that he called air strikes on, but all of the intelligence he gave to launch the weapons was for nothing.
“So after my first week in Iraq, I called in a bunch of stuff on some clouds that maybe landed on people or villages or whatever and then the commander was like, 'This is really stupid.' So my entire career in that job was like seven months in school then using it for a week and then it being a total ****-up so I never touched it again,” Prysner recounts.
The rest of Prysner’s 12-months in Iraq, he had no job. But unlike a lot of people on his team who would just sit on the base and pull guard duty once a day, Prysner was proactive. He was like a restless wild animal that couldn’t be leashed. After all, he thought, he had joined the army to fight for his country and that’s what he was going to do. From then on, Prysner assimilated with every type of job, and the men respected him. There was a gung-ho eagerness and ingenuity to Prysner that they admired.
Monster Inside Me
“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
- Adolf Hitler
One of Prysner’s many jobs was as an interrogator to Iraqi civilians since so many people were being arrested.
“I thought it was badass CIA stuff – I’m going to be interrogating people that are killing us and trying to kill my friends.” Prysner says of the moment he and two of his friends were selected to do it.
The training was simple.
“All we want you to do is just like wear all of your ******* gear and be really scary,” an officer told Prysner and his friends. “Bust in that room, scare the shit out of people and throw them around for a while.”
The officer walked off. Training over.
“No problem,” said the buff Prysner, who exchanged amusing looks with his friends.
What Prynser didn’t know then was that he and his friends would be interrogating all of the “low-level people.” The senior interrogators were too busy with the glorified task of interrogating people who got caught after an attack and couldn’t bother interrogating the thousands of other people who got arrested because most people arrested didn’t do anything.
For two months, 19-year-old Prysner and his friend watched as men dropped to their knees, shivering, crying, peeing themselves, begging for the torture to stop – not Abu Ghraib torture, but legal torture, torture like “stress positions,” or making people be in an uncomfortable position for a long time, sleep deprivation, by violently waking people up throughout the entire night, not letting them sleep more than 20 minutes at a time, blindfolding them and smashing a metal chair next to their head, graphic threats against them and their family members and constantly moving them around roughly. It broke down even the most steadfast Iraqi.
After interrogating hundreds of people, Prysner’s war interrogation hero-who-captured-the-bad-guy story was gone and instead replaced with the real story: The people were in a neighborhood where some guy said that there was a terrorist in that neighborhood and then the infantry arrested and interrogated every guy in the entire neighborhood to see if they knew anything about the insurgency.
“None of these people have done anything,” thought Prysner, one morning, peering through the window interrogation room’s window at another sobbing Iraqi man who begged to go home.
The Iraqi man bowed his tear-stained face and closed his eyes, as he recited what appeared to be a prayer.
“Aaoozobillahe minushaitanir rajeem,” the man moaned, wiping a red, swollen eye, and in that moment, the sobbing man’s image blurred from view and Prysner caught a glimpse of his reflection in the window.
A 19-year-old stone-faced reflection stared back at him, who clung to a loaded machine gun that carried no repercussions if fired.
Prysner scowled at this reflection, and the face scowled back. He studied the contours of this image, recognizing nothing.
The energetic, compassionate child he was known for back home was gone. He had abandoned that Michael Prysner somewhere in the desert of Iraq, but he couldn’t remember how long ago – every month felt like a year here.
He closed his eyes and refocused his image on the crying man. Perhaps it was the heat or the heaviness of his gear, but suddenly the tortured man no longer appeared to Prysner as a 35-year-old man, but a young boy, crying out to God for protection.
The man turned his gaze toward the window where Prysner had privately been watching. Prysner shifted uncomfortably. Then the man’s face twisted into a state of sheer terror, and he trembled in agony.
That dreaded feeling was surfacing in Prysner again – a feeling that he had long tried to ignore and suddenly, sputtered out a cringing truth that caused him to avert his eyes from the man.
He had seen it clearly in the man’s eyes: he was not liberating and protecting the Iraqi people – the Iraqi people needed liberated and protected from him. He was the monster.
The High-Value Target
“Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero.”
- African Proverb
And then late one night, just past the darkest hour, Prysner and his co-interrogators were shaken awake by an officer.
“Be down at the interrogation room station in 20 minutes!” the officer whispered loudly, then scampered off into the night.
Prysner and his friend clumsily threw on their uniforms and rushed to their station.
“Who was this high-valued target with pertinent time-sensitive information?” thought Prysner curiously, as he breathlessly opened the doors to the interrogation room.
The time-sensitive information lay just feet in front of him: a dying Iraqi man stripped down to his underwear clamped to a cool metal table, shivering furiously. A gurgling waterfall of thick blood seeped around his body. The blood poured from a gaping hole in his neck, covered loosely by some haphazardass field dressing that flapped lightly every time he cried.
Prysner inched his way towards the dying man and suddenly realized that he had been holding his breath.
To this day, the man’s dark eyes haunt Prysner. They trekked past his uniform, deep into the recesses of his soul, silently begging.
Prysner and his speechless friends exchanged perplexed glances, and then glanced down at the trembling man.
“What did you do?” asked Prysner, quickly, remembering why he was there.
“I didn’t do anything,” the man sputtered repeatedly as more gushes of blood poured from the gaping hole in his neck. He shook uncontrollably, and then let out a long, grieving wail that Prysner suspected did not come from the pain in his neck but rather from the shock of his deflating mortality.
“I just wanted to see my family, I just wanted to see my family!” the man repeatedly cried, his blood doused with escalating tears.
Prysner raced over to the man’s wound and applied pressure to the carelessly wrapped bandage as one of his friends scurried off to find a medical kit.
The door flung open again, and a booming voice with a hint of a southern accent filled the room.
“Yeahw! I got him! That one’s mine!”
Prysner turned around to see a stout officer strutting slowly into the room, his knees buckled out with a slight bounce and his shoulders puffed up pompously towards his ears.
Prysner learned the Iraqi man was in line at a traffic checkpoint while on his way to an errand, and after realizing the line seemed endless, he pulled out of line to go home.
This was nothing new. The U.S. military’s traffic checkpoints all over the country forced the civilians to wait in line for a good three hours while soldiers rummaged through their cars, and you could expect one out of every 10 cars got shot up by some 19-year-old from California with a machine gun for things like not breaking fast enough.
(10 years later, Prysner found himself as the guy on the other side of the gun. He was producing an episode of the Empire Files with Abby Martin in Palestine when they pulled up to a traffic checkpoint. Sure enough, there was some 19-year-old kid from California with a machine gun pointed in his face. Prysner froze. He knew how often these teenagers from the U.S. shot people, and within seconds he was hunched under the steering wheel, arms overhead as bullets smeared their car. It turned out a drunk, old man who laid face first in a pile of dust had meandered just ahead of Prysner and Martin’s car and the soldiers had shot at his feet. But within moments, life carried on, and, after a swift grunt of approval, the officers waved Prysner and Martin’s car through.)
“I thought he was gonna do a terrorist attack!” the officer hollered as if Prysner’s wasn’t directly in front of him.
He strutted over to the wounded Iraqi man, hovering just inches away, examining him up and down like a fisherman eyeballing his first catch of the day. Prysner suddenly realized that whether the officer threw this man back out into the sea of Iraqi civilians or decided to let him die right here on this cold table made no difference to him – he had caught him. But instead of rushing him to a hospital, he had reeled him into the cold torture room so he could be interrogated. And he would receive an automatic award like military officers do when they shoot someone.
Prysner glared at the officer, who had taken a step back from his predatory hover, then squinted in disapproving ferocity at the sobbing Iraqi man who flinched in fear. The officer cursed at his prey one last time and spun around to leave the room with a stifling chuckle and shake of his head.
Something about all of this felt rotten.
The Iraqi man turned his head towards Prysner and for 10 solid seconds, their eyes locked in a steady gaze. For a moment, Prysner saw private images that he didn’t trust were his own, images of a family with young children growing up without their father.
A gnawing, weighted emptiness filled his stomach that quickly boiled into rage.
In that second, he hoped that this if this man lived, he would buy a rocket launcher and shoot it at them. It was at least a surface-scratching justification.
Only later when he was in bed that night, entangled in the blackness of sleepless contemplation that he quietly mourned the chastened interrogation scene and the dying man with those steady, pleading eyes that gazed sorrowfully into Prysner.
If he had been an Iraqi? You bet he’d be killing every soldier he spotted!
He thought back on all of the useless interrogations, torture and congratulated death tallies.
“These people are not religious fundamental morons who wanted to bring Sudan Hussein back (and even if they were, they wouldn't be any less legitimate to want this torturous occupation out),” Prysner thought. Any resurgence thought Prysner was completely 100 percent because the American troops rolled in and ruined their neighborhoods -- making their daily lives completely miserable, being complete assholes to everyone.
Prysner recalled images of U.S. soldiers cranking their cars’ wheels, as they drove up to a group of civilians along the road to splash rainwater and sewage all over them, and then blazed off in laughter, leaving the Iraqis still shielding their heads, dripping in mud.
He recalled hearing from many U.S. soldiers who shot “360-degrees of fire” in a village full of children and women in the streets – an instruction from their commanders to blaze their surroundings in a circle of bullets whenever they felt slightly threatened. This sent a message to the civilians not to mess with the U.S. military, as if the most extreme force of brutality on human beings will “whip them into shape.”
And he recalled images of Iraqi families appearing at military bases sobbing; holding their legless and armless children who were struck by the U.S. military’s artillery shells, begging for help.
Of course these people are going to hate us, Prysner thought.
When he learned he was coming to Iraq, he had much different images in his mind: images of his battalion being greeted as liberators in the streets of Iraq for bringing them American democracy. He imagined civilian children running up to them and hugging them, and for the people to smile at them in the streets. But the truth was much harsher. Instead, Iraqi gazes upon him were fearful and avoidant and they would often disappear into their homes, only to reemerge as soon as he was safely across the horizon.
Why did they have to immediately secure all the oil fields when they rolled into the north of Iraq? questioned Prysner, of the U.S. heavily-guarded plots of resource-rich land.
And why was there always this private laugh between high-ranking generals and officers when someone mentioned a captive Iraqi knew where the WMDs were?
“Ok, maybe Bush did lie about the reason for this war,” Prysner later wrote in a letter to an old high school friend.
“Maybe it is about oil and maybe they did lie about this WMDs thing. But regardless, Sudan’s a bad guy and we’re going to be bringing American life to Iraq. And people are going to have democracy and they’re going have whatever they want like what we have in America. We’re going to do a good thing,” he wrote.
Prysner glanced down at his uniform, and a memory of him on stage fluttered through his mind.
“And here, from the 173rd battalion, ladies and gentlemen, welcome Mike Prysner!” a general announced under a glaring warm spotlight, extending his palm in gesture towards Prysner.
200 men in the audience from his battalion rose to their feet.
Another vision emerged of him on a different stage, many months later, when an officer pinned a medal to his jacket, as thousands of military members clapped in unison, applauding his bravery.
And he heard his mother’s sunny voice through the phone, “Mike, I’m so proud of you.”
Prysner marched towards the interrogation room’s door and swung it open furiously. The door rattled loudly behind him.