Three years ago I predicted, based on my experience with Viet Nam vets, that the day was going to come when we read of atrocities committed by our troops in Iraq.
I thought it would come as My Lai came or the depredations of Tiger Force–in gonzo attacks on Iraqis in the field. I expected Fallujah might very likely be that moment. Marines storming into a beleagured city where you can’t tell the enemy from the friendlies and mowing down everything in sight without fear or favor. It’s still possible, don’t kid yourself. The troops are exhausted, angry, betrayed by their own commanders (anybody remember “fragging”?) and by the President who lied to get them there and then put them in the position of jail-keepers, only the jail they have to watch over is an entire country. It is hard enough to control an army when it believes in its mission; it is almost impossible when it doesn’t.
I’m not making excuses for those involved, only trying to put what’s happened into the context of the reality they are now facing, a reality most of us–lucky us!–will never have to face. If you ask young men and women to die for you in the name of some great humanitarian cause and it turns out to be a crock, it turns out that you’ve asked them to die for some cock-eyed dream of empire or the piling up of your personal wealth or the fortunes of yourself and your family–and in this case, your contributors–you have turned those young men and women into mercenaries, Hessians. You have made them not a force of liberation but a force of occupation, not liberators but oppressors, and don’t think they don’t know it. Their rage, depression, and growing sense that everything they’ve just done was pointless, worthless, a sham, has to go somewhere.
Unfortunately, though we haven’t yet seen fragging*, we’ve seen massacres of civilians in Haditha and elsewhere, and a slaughter of probable innocents in Baghdad. I warned in a different post (that I can’t find at the moment) that the effect of a dirty war on the men and women who had to fight it wasn’t going to be pretty, especially when they came home and had to somehow learn to live with what they’d done.
Over the past several months The Nation has interviewed fifty combat veterans of the Iraq War from around the United States in an effort to investigate the effects of the four-year-old occupation on average Iraqi civilians. These combat veterans, some of whom bear deep emotional and physical scars, and many of whom have come to oppose the occupation, gave vivid, on-the-record accounts. They described a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts.
Their stories, recorded and typed into thousands of pages of transcripts, reveal disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq. Dozens of those interviewed witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as common and said they often go unreported–and almost always go unpunished.
The effect on the troops who do such things or see them done is devastating.
“I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi,” said Spc. Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado. Specialist Englehart served with the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division, in Baquba, about thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, for a year beginning in February 2004. “You know, so what?… The soldiers honestly thought we were trying to help the people and they were mad because it was almost like a betrayal. Like here we are trying to help you, here I am, you know, thousands of miles away from home and my family, and I have to be here for a year and work every day on these missions. Well, we’re trying to help you and you just turn around and try to kill us.”
He said it was only “when they get home, in dealing with veteran issues and meeting other veterans, it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, then.”
The picture of day-to-day operations in Iraq that emerges from these veteran’s stories of their experiences is a viciously ugly one reminiscent of brutal occupations from the Nazis in Europe to the French in Algeria. Remember reading about the overwhelming fear of the people in Nazi-occupied countries of the Gestapo breaking down doors in the middle of the night? Is this better? Or worse?
“You want to catch them off guard,” Sergeant Bruhns explained. “You want to catch them in their sleep.” About ten troops were involved in each raid, he said, with five stationed outside and the rest searching the home.
Once they were in front of the home, troops, some wearing Kevlar helmets and flak vests with grenade launchers mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, according to Sergeant Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:
“You run in. And if there’s lights, you turn them on–if the lights are working. If not, you’ve got flashlights…. You leave one rifle team outside while one rifle team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the other rifle team leader that’s outside.
“You go up the stairs. You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms and grab the family, and you’ll group them all together. Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there’s no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us.
“You get the interpreter and you get the man of the home, and you have him at gunpoint, and you’ll ask the interpreter to ask him: ‘Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all–anything–anything in here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved in insurgent activity or anti-coalition forces activity?’
“Normally they’ll say no, because that’s normally the truth,” Sergeant Bruhns said. “So what you’ll do is you’ll take his sofa cushions and you’ll dump them. If he has a couch, you’ll turn the couch upside down. You’ll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you’ll throw everything on the floor, and you’ll take his drawers and you’ll dump them…. You’ll open up his closet and you’ll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane just hit it.
“And if you find something, then you’ll detain him. If not, you’ll say, ‘Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening.’ So you’ve just humiliated this man in front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you’ve destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred homes.”
The problem, as I said in that post I can’t find, is that our commanders in Iraq have refused from the very beginning to discipline troops for fear of “lowering their morale” and the result is an army that feels justified in seeking revenge and that acknowledges no limits on its behavior. The enemy has been demonized and deserves whatever you dish out.
War is a callous business. Without strict discipline it quickly devolves into little more than organized looting and casual slaughter. There was a famous picture from the Viet Nam war in which a soldier shows off his collection of ears he has sliced from the heads of the men, women, and children he’s killed, all of them supposedly VC. From Iraq, we have this very similar word picture:
We heard a few reports, in one case corroborated by photographs, that some soldiers had so lost their moral compass that they’d mocked or desecrated Iraqi corpses. One photo, among dozens turned over to The Nation during the investigation, shows an American soldier acting as if he is about to eat the spilled brains of a dead Iraqi man with his brown plastic Army-issue spoon.
“Take a picture of me and this motherfucker,” a soldier who had been in Sergeant Mejía’s squad said as he put his arm around the corpse. Sergeant Mejía recalls that the shroud covering the body fell away, revealing that the young man was wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole in his chest.
“Damn, they really fucked you up, didn’t they?” the soldier laughed.
The scene, Sergeant Mejía said, was witnessed by the dead man’s brothers and cousins.
Our young men and women are no more monsters than anybody else’s young men and women. We are turning them into monsters with an unjustified war on a battlefield we can’t find, fought without rules or limits against an enemy we can’t see, and all for the sake of Halliburton’s profits, Chevron’s price-gouging, and the fantasies of Dick Perle, Milton Friedman, and Laurie Mylroie.
The fault – and the shame – is ours, not theirs.
Update: *I was wrong about that. We have seen fragging.
Martinez is charged with two counts of premeditated murder in the June 8, 2005, deaths of Capt. Phillip Esposito, 30, of Suffern, N.Y., and 1st Lt. Louis Allen, 34, of Milford, Pa. He was accused of detonating grenades and a mine in their room at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces near Tikrit, Iraq, the day before.
Esposito and Allen were the sergeant’s superiors in the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York National Guard. Martinez is the only soldier known to be charged with killing a superior — known as “fragging” — during the Iraq war.
Martinez could receive the death penalty if convicted. His trial had been scheduled for August, but pre-trial proceedings have now been scheduled into October, The Fayetteville Observer reported.