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Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating Realities of War
Posted on Jul 12, 2007
Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
American troops in Iraq lacked the training and support to communicate with or even understand Iraqi civilians, according to nineteen interviewees. Few spoke or read Arabic. They were offered little or no cultural or historical education about the country they controlled. Translators were either in short supply or unqualified. Any stereotypes about Islam and Arabs that soldiers and marines arrived with tended to solidify rapidly in the close confines of the military and the risky streets of Iraqi cities into a crude racism.
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In Iraq, Specialist Middleton said, “a lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if they don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they’re not as human as us, so we can do what we want.”
In the scramble to get ready for Iraq, troops rarely learned more than how to say a handful of words in Arabic, depending mostly on a single manual, A Country Handbook, a Field-Ready Reference Publication, published by the Defense Department in September 2002. The book, as described by eight soldiers who received it, has pictures of Iraqi military vehicles, diagrams of how the Iraqi army is structured, images of Iraqi traffic signals and signs, and about four pages of basic Arabic phrases such as Do you speak English? I am an American. I am lost.
Iraqi culture, identity and customs were, according to at least a dozen soldiers and marines interviewed by The Nation, openly ridiculed in racist terms, with troops deriding “haji food,” “haji music” and “haji homes.” In the Muslim world, the word “haji” denotes someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is now used by American troops in the same way “gook” was used in Vietnam or “raghead” in Afghanistan.
“You can honestly see how the Iraqis in general or even Arabs in general are being, you know, kind of like dehumanized,” said Specialist Englehart. “Like it was very common for United States soldiers to call them derogatory terms, like camel jockeys or Jihad Johnny or, you know, sand nigger.”
According to Sergeant Millard and several others interviewed, “It becomes this racialized hatred towards Iraqis.” And this racist language, as Specialist Harmon pointed out, likely played a role in the level of violence directed at Iraqi civilians. “By calling them names,” he said, “they’re not people anymore. They’re just objects.”
Several interviewees emphasized that the military did set up, for training purposes, mock Iraqi villages peopled with actors who played the parts of civilians and insurgents. But they said that the constant danger in Iraq, and the fear it engendered, swiftly overtook such training.
“They were the law,” Specialist Harmon said of the soldiers in his unit in Al-Rashidiya, near Baghdad, which participated in raids and convoys. “They were very mean, very mean-spirited to them. A lot of cursing at them. And I’m like, Dude, these people don’t understand what you’re saying…. They used to say a lot, ‘Oh, they’ll understand when the gun is in their face.’”
Those few veterans who said they did try to reach out to Iraqis encountered fierce hostility from those in their units.
“I had the night shift one night at the aid station,” said Specialist Resta, recounting one such incident. “We were told from the first second that we arrived there, and this was in writing on the wall in our aid station, that we were not to treat Iraqi civilians unless they were about to die…. So these guys in the guard tower radio in, and they say they’ve got an Iraqi out there that’s asking for a doctor.
“So it’s really late at night, and I walk out there to the gate and I don’t even see the guy at first, and they point out to him and he’s standing there. Well, I mean he’s sitting, leaned up against this concrete barrier—like the median of the highway—we had as you approached the gate. And he’s sitting there leaned up against it and, uh, he’s out there, if you want to go and check on him, he’s out there. So I’m sitting there waiting for an interpreter, and the interpreter comes and I just walk out there in the open. And this guy, he has the shit kicked out of him. He was missing two teeth. He has a huge laceration on his head, he looked like he had broken his eye orbit and had some kind of injury to his knee.”
The Iraqi, Specialist Resta said, pleaded with him in broken English for help. He told Specialist Resta that there were men near the base who were waiting to kill him.
“I open a bag and I’m trying to get bandages out and the guys in the guard tower are yelling at me, ‘Get that fucking haji out of here,’” Specialist Resta said. “And I just look back at them and ignored them, and then they were saying, you know, ‘He doesn’t look like he’s about to die to me,’ ‘Tell him to go cry back to the fuckin’ IP [Iraqi police],’ and, you know, a whole bunch of stuff like that. So, you know, I’m kind of ignoring them and trying to get the story from this guy, and our doctor rolls up in an ambulance and from thirty to forty meters away looks out and says, shakes his head and says, ‘You know, he looks fine, he’s gonna be all right,’ and walks back to the passenger side of the ambulance, you know, kind of like, Get your ass over here and drive me back up to the clinic. So I’m standing there, and the whole time both this doctor and the guards are yelling at me, you know, to get rid of this guy, and at one point they’re yelling at me, when I’m saying, ‘No, let’s at least keep this guy here overnight, until it’s light out,’ because they wanted me to send him back out into the city, where he told me that people were waiting for him to kill him.
“When I asked if he’d be allowed to stay there, at least until it was light out, the response was, ‘Are you hearing this shit? I think Doc is part fucking haji,’” Specialist Resta said.
Specialist Resta gave in to the pressure and denied the man aid. The interpreter, he recalled, was furious, telling him that he had effectively condemned the man to death.
“So I walk inside the gate and the interpreter helps him up and the guy turns around to walk away and the guys in the guard tower go, say, ‘Tell him that if he comes back tonight he’s going to get fucking shot,’” Specialist Resta said. “And the interpreter just stared at them and looked at me and then looked back at them, and they nod their head, like, Yeah, we mean it. So he yells it to the Iraqi and the guy just flinches and turns back over his shoulder, and the interpreter says it again and he starts walking away again, you know, crying like a little kid. And that was that.”
Two dozen soldiers interviewed said that this callousness toward Iraqi civilians was particularly evident in the operation of supply convoys—operations in which they participated. These convoys are the arteries that sustain the occupation, ferrying items such as water, mail, maintenance parts, sewage, food and fuel across Iraq. And these strings of tractor-trailers, operated by KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root) and other private contractors, required daily protection by the US military. Typically, according to these interviewees, supply convoys consisted of twenty to thirty trucks stretching half a mile down the road, with a Humvee military escort in front and back and at least one more in the center. Soldiers and marines also sometimes accompanied the drivers in the cabs of the tractor-trailers.
These convoys, ubiquitous in Iraq, were also, to many Iraqis, sources of wanton destruction.
According to descriptions culled from interviews with thirty-eight veterans who rode in convoys—guarding such runs as Kuwait to Nasiriya, Nasiriya to Baghdad and Balad to Kirkuk—when these columns of vehicles left their heavily fortified compounds they usually roared down the main supply routes, which often cut through densely populated areas, reaching speeds over sixty miles an hour. Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were frequently run over and killed. Veterans said they sometimes shot drivers of civilian cars that moved into convoy formations or attempted to pass convoys as a warning to other drivers to get out of the way.
“A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one,” said Sgt. Ben Flanders, 28, a National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, who served in Balad with the 172nd Mountain Infantry for eleven months beginning in March 2004. Flanders ran convoy routes out of Camp Anaconda, about thirty miles north of Baghdad. “So speed was your friend. And certainly in terms of IED detonation, absolutely, speed and spacing were the two things that could really determine whether or not you were going to get injured or killed or if they just completely missed, which happened.”
Following an explosion or ambush, soldiers in the heavily armed escort vehicles often fired indiscriminately in a furious effort to suppress further attacks, according to three veterans. The rapid bursts from belt-fed .50-caliber machine guns and SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons, which can fire as many as 1,000 rounds per minute) left many civilians wounded or dead.
“One example I can give you, you know, we’d be cruising down the road in a convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up,” said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of Grand Junction, Colorado. He served in Baquba with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, from February 2004 to February 2005. “And, you know, you’ve got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I’ve seen this, I mean, on numerous occasions where innocent people died because we’re cruising down and a bomb goes off.”
Several veterans said that IEDs, the preferred weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, were one of their greatest fears. Since the invasion in March 2003, IEDs have been responsible for killing more US troops—39.2 percent of the more than 3,500 killed—than any other method, according to the Brookings Institution, which monitors deaths in Iraq. This past May, IED attacks claimed ninety lives, the highest number of fatalities from roadside bombs since the beginning of the war.
“The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried,” said Sergeant Flatt. “You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see them. I mean, it’s just by pure luck who’s getting killed and who’s not. If you’ve been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you’re even more stressed and insecure to a point where you’re almost trigger-happy.”
Sergeant Flatt was among twenty-four veterans who said they had witnessed or heard stories from those in their unit of unarmed civilians being shot or run over by convoys. These incidents, they said, were so numerous that many were never reported.
Sergeant Flatt recalled an incident in January 2005 when a convoy drove past him on one of the main highways in Mosul. “A car following got too close to their convoy,” he said. “Basically, they took shots at the car. Warning shots, I don’t know. But they shot the car. Well, one of the bullets happened to just pierce the windshield and went straight into the face of this woman in the car. And she was—well, as far as I know—instantly killed. I didn’t pull her out of the car or anything. Her son was driving the car, and she had her—she had three little girls in the back seat. And they came up to us, because we were actually sitting in a defensive position right next to the hospital, the main hospital in Mosul, the civilian hospital. And they drove up and she was obviously dead. And the girls were crying.”
On July 30, 2004, Sergeant Flanders was riding in the tail vehicle of a convoy on a pitch-black night, traveling from Camp Anaconda south to Taji, just north of Baghdad, when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). He was about to get on the radio to warn the vehicle in front of him about the ambush when he saw his gunner unlock the turret and swivel it around in the direction of the shooting. He fired his MK-19, a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher capable of discharging up to 350 rounds per minute.
“He’s just holding the trigger down and it wound up jamming, so he didn’t get off as many shots maybe as he wanted,” Sergeant Flanders recalled. “But I said, ‘How many did you get off?’ ‘Cause I knew they would be asking that. He said, ‘Twenty-three.’ He launched twenty-three grenades….
“I remember looking out the window and I saw a little hut, a little Iraqi house with a light on…. We were going so fast and obviously your adrenaline’s—you’re like tunnel vision, so you can’t really see what’s going on, you know? And it’s dark out and all that stuff. I couldn’t really see where the grenades were exploding, but it had to be exploding around the house or maybe even hit the house. Who knows? Who knows? And we were the last vehicle. We can’t stop.”
Convoys did not slow down or attempt to brake when civilians inadvertently got in front of their vehicles, according to the veterans who described them. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty, 29, from Cañon City, Colorado, was based at the Talil Air Base in Nasiriya with the Colorado National Guard’s 220th Military Police Company for a year beginning in February 2003. She recounted one incident she investigated in January 2004 on a six-lane highway south of Nasiriya that resembled numerous incidents described by other veterans.
“It’s like very barren desert, so most of the people that live there, they’re nomadic or they live in just little villages and have, like, camels and goats and stuff,” she recalled. “There was then a little boy—I would say he was about 10 because we didn’t see the accident; we responded to it with the investigative team—a little Iraqi boy and he was crossing the highway with his, with three donkeys. A military convoy, transportation convoy driving north, hit him and the donkeys and killed all of them. When we got there, there were the dead donkeys and there was a little boy on the side of the road.
“We saw him there and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn’t even stop,” she said. “They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down. But, I mean, that’s basically—basically, your order is that you never stop.”
Among supply convoys, there were enormous disparities based on the nationality of the drivers, according to Sergeant Flanders, who estimated that he ran more than 100 convoys in Balad, Baghdad, Falluja and Baquba. When drivers were not American, the trucks were often old, slow and prone to breakdowns, he said. The convoys operated by Nepalese, Egyptian or Pakistani drivers did not receive the same level of security, although the danger was more severe because of the poor quality of their vehicles. American drivers were usually placed in convoys about half the length of those run by foreign nationals and were given superior vehicles, body armor and better security. Sergeant Flanders said troops disliked being assigned to convoys run by foreign nationals, especially since, when the aging vehicles broke down, they had to remain and protect them until they could be recovered.
“It just seemed insane to run civilians around the country,” he added. “I mean, Iraq is such a security concern and it’s so dangerous and yet we have KBR just riding around, unarmed…. Remember those terrible judgments that we made about what Iraq would look like postconflict? I think this is another incarnation of that misjudgment, which would be that, Oh, it’ll be fine. We’ll put a Humvee in front, we’ll put a Humvee in back, we’ll put a Humvee in the middle, and we’ll just run with it.
“It was just shocking to me…. I was Army trained and I had a good gunner and I had radios and I could call on the radios and I could get an airstrike if I wanted to. I could get a Medevac…. And here these guys are just tooling around. And these guys are, like, they’re promised the world. They’re promised $120,000, tax free, and what kind of people take those jobs? Down-on-their-luck-type people, you know? Grandmothers. There were grandmothers there. I escorted a grandmother there and she did great. We went through an ambush and one of her guys got shot, and she was cool, calm and collected. Wonderful, great, good for her. What the hell is she doing there?
“We’re using these vulnerable, vulnerable convoys, which probably piss off more Iraqis than it actually helps in our relationship with them,” Flanders said, “just so that we can have comfort and air-conditioning and sodas—great—and PlayStations and camping chairs and greeting cards and stupid T-shirts that say, Who’s Your Baghdaddy?”
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