Henry Rollins: War Stories


Henry Rollins used to get in the van to bring you Black Flag songs from My War and Damaged. Now, he gets on planes to survey real wars and the damage done. Since 2003, Rollins has done seven tours of duty, performing for U.S. troops overseas.

They called me years ago and asked if I’d be interested in doing USO. I said to them, “Do you really know who you’re dealing with?” Because a lot of times, there’s a disconnect between what people want and what they eventually get when it comes to me. I told them to do a little research and see if they really wanted someone like me out there amongst a lot of people who voted for George W. Bush, and [Tracy Thede, USO tour manager] said, “Well, OK!” She said she didn’t really know much about me, except that I was a hit with the soldiers.

The reason I said yes was because I had no real beef with the troops. My problem is with the policy, and it’s the Bush administration that I want to have a word with—with Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. People like that are who I want to hear the truth from. The soldiers just get deployed. They don’t really dictate policy until they’re on the ground.

I don’t say anything political while onstage or engaging with the troops because—and this may sound like a cop-out, but I’m sticking to it—I really don’t think that politics is to be discussed out there. Anything that would be distracting or in any way deleterious to morale is out. The war that they are fighting, the reality that they are dealing with and the reality that we see on the news and that we read about in (Thomas E. Ricks’) Fiasco or (Michael R. Gordon’s) Cobra II or (Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s) Hubris is very different. Soldiers don’t get up every day and go, “Ah, manipulation of pre-war intelligence.” They go out and hope that that bag of garbage on the side of the road doesn’t blow up and kill them and their buddies.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone like me to go in there and say, “You know, that war in Iraq is bogus, man.” Even though I might think that, I don’t think they need to hear it or want to hear it. I think they know all that stuff. They watch the news, they know about opinions in America. So I try to keep it light. There are lots of things to talk about aside from Iraq and the government. I’ll do 20 or 30 minutes and tell them travel stories or whatever, but I think that what they’re after is something else, just relief or a break from what they’re getting every day. So humor seems to be a good thing over there.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard “thanks for supporting us” or some kind of sentence with the word “support” in it, that would be a lot. That’s what I hear: “Thanks for supporting us.” “Thanks for coming all the way out here on Christmas.” Stuff like that. I was out in Djibouti, Africa, with these soldiers, and apparently, that’s a big deal to be there on Christmas.

The United States is in Iraq indefinitely. The war is going according to plan. We’re building a huge embassy there, apparently, and I think this war on terror, as they say, is an investment. Having a permanent base there, you have a good base to push into Iran and into Turkmenistan, and this is the Machiavellian/Cheneyian blueprint. I think they’re doing what they want: all this chaos, the quagmire. I think it’s all according to plan.

Non-reliance on Saudi power, on petroleum, screws up a thing that’s more than a hundred years in the making. You’re screwing up everything from the Cold War to the present, business-wise. All the relationships we have with these countries, oil allows us to say things like “Islamo fascist” and put the black hat on the Muslim world and the white hat on the Western world. Without oil, we don’t need to be in a lot of these countries.

I think that once you take that fear away and the good-guy/bad-guy thing, the Pentagon has got nothing to do. There’d be that awful vacuum that they suffered when the Berlin Wall came down. You know, warriors without a war. The Cold War was great for all those guys, all those hawks. I think Machiavelli says that if you’re not after some king’s gold, then that king is going to come after yours. The only way to enforce your borders is to go after someone else’s. Without the bogeyman—oil lets us be America in a lot of these other countries—your Dick Cheneys of the world don’t know where to go to work in the morning.

I could be completely wrong, just talking out of my ass. Maybe I’m just full of it. I’m not trying to impress you, but I sure do sit on a whole lot of airplanes and ponder this stuff. And I sure do half-read a lot of books and try and get this information to somehow upload into the chunk of obsidian that is my mind. I think it’s boiled down to: You want to find the truth quickly, just go with the money. Follow the money, then everything just clears right up for you.

In 2004, we were in a daily mortar attack at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. It’s like flies over there, these mortar attacks. And they said, “Sir, if you’re gonna be here for the next few hours or so, chances are you will be in a mortar attack.” Then 20 minutes later, two mortars hit somewhere near our building. What was intense about it was the concussion of it. It felt like a fist in the chest. Just the “boom” part of it, you know? Two hit in rapid succession, and I was signing an autograph on some guy’s photo of my face and was like, “Oh, that’s the mortar,” and just kept on signing. The soldiers were either impressed or just kind of tripped out that I wasn’t like, “Ahhh!” They were quick to assure me that I was in a fortified building. I went, “OK, yeah, yeah, I believe you.” And they went, “You’re pretty fucking brave, sir!” And I went, “No, I’m not.”

The worst thing I saw in Iraq were the Humvees at the motor pool, which were going to the garage to get fixed. There were all these bullet clusters where the driver’s face was. Hopefully, the bulletproof glass kept the driver alive, but someone emptied a clip into it. Someone tried to kill the driver, which is pretty intense when you look at these vehicles with big holes from shrapnel inside them. As an outsider civilian pussy, you look at it and go, “This shit’s really real!” It was more vivid to me than the mortar attack because you realize the lethal potential of all of this when you see a Humvee that looks like Godzilla chewed on it.

But the hardest things I see are in America, when I visit the soldiers at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I see the guys with their faces partially gone, meet the guys with part of their brain removed, testicles gone, internal organs gone, every kind of configuration of amputee: one leg, one arm; two legs—one above the knee, one below the knee; one eyeball gone. These are guys who are 22 years old. That’s the hardest. I’m 46—my youth is behind me—and remember being very able-bodied when I was 22. My legs had not been blown off my body above the knee at age 22. So for this guy, his twenties and the rest of his life are going to be very different than before he was in the armed forces. Some of these guys are married, and you meet the wives: young wives of young men. They’re gonna be living attached to bags for the rest of their lives. Some of these people have kids. Dad or mom will have to explain that the family is going to have to be very strong and supportive. How does that wife feel now that she’s married to a guy with no legs? Well, she probably loves him madly, but their lives will be different now.

I see the catastrophic results of what real combat does, and I’m seeing it in an antiseptic, clean and quiet environment. But it’s pretty hard to take: meeting these people and hearing, “Yeah, I saw my arm fly up in the air, and I went over and picked it up and brought it to a medic and passed out and woke up here in Maryland.” Hearing stuff like that never gets easy, but the fact that I can make these guys smile is the only credible thing I can do with relative celebrity or recognizability. They put your name on a clipboard and go from room to room: “Hi, we’re the USO. We have this person who’s available for a visit if you want. Check the box and sign your name.” They know that between a certain time, I’m going to come in there at some point.

To put it succinctly, you know why I do this? This is how I protest the war. This is me being Hank the custodian. In my opinion, what I’m doing is custodial. I’m cleaning up after the Bush administration—after this child of privilege’s mess—as best I can.

—interview by Kevin Lo