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Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating Realities of War
Posted on Jul 12, 2007
Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
Soldiers and marines who participated in neighborhood patrols said they often used the same tactics as convoys—speed, aggressive firing—to reduce the risk of being ambushed or falling victim to IEDs. Sgt. Patrick Campbell, 29, of Camarillo, California, who frequently took part in patrols, said his unit fired often and without much warning on Iraqi civilians in a desperate bid to ward off attacks.
“Every time we got on the highway,” he said, “we were firing warning shots, causing accidents all the time. Cars screeching to a stop, going into the other intersection…. The problem is, if you slow down at an intersection more than once, that’s where the next bomb is going to be because you know they watch. You know? And so if you slow down at the same choke point every time, guaranteed there’s going to be a bomb there next couple of days. So getting onto a freeway or highway is a choke point ‘cause you have to wait for traffic to stop. So you want to go as fast as you can, and that involves added risk to all the cars around you, all the civilian cars.
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This took place sometime in the spring of 2005 in Khadamiya, in the northwest corner of Baghdad, Sergeant Campbell said. His unit fired into the man’s car with a 240 Bravo, a heavy machine gun. “I heard three gunshots,” he said. “We get about halfway down the road and…the guy in the car got out and he’s covered in blood. And this is where…the impulse is just to keep going. There’s no way that this guy knows who we are. We’re just like every other patrol that goes up and down this road. I looked at my lieutenant and it wasn’t even a discussion. We turned around and we went back.
“So I’m treating the guy. He has three gunshot wounds to the chest. Blood everywhere. And he keeps going in and out of consciousness. And when he finally stops breathing, I have to give him CPR. I take my right hand, I lift up his chin and I take my left hand and grab the back of his head to position his head, and as I take my left hand, my hand actually goes into his cranium. So I’m actually holding this man’s brain in my hand. And what I realized was I had made a mistake. I had checked for exit wounds. But what I didn’t know was the Humvee behind me, after the car failed to stop after the first three rounds, had fired twenty, thirty rounds into the car. I never heard it.
“I heard three rounds, I saw three holes, no exit wounds,” he said. “I thought I knew what the situation was. So I didn’t even treat this guy’s injury to the head. Every medic I ever told is always like, Of course, I mean, the guy got shot in the head. There’s nothing you could have done. And I’m pretty sure—I mean, you can’t stop bleeding in the head like that. But this guy, I’m watching this guy, who I know we shot because he got too close. His car was clean. There was no—didn’t hear it, didn’t see us, whatever it was. Dies, you know, dying in my arms.”
While many veterans said the killing of civilians deeply disturbed them, they also said there was no other way to safely operate a patrol.
“You don’t want to shoot kids, I mean, no one does,” said Sergeant Campbell, as he began to describe an incident in the summer of 2005 recounted to him by several men in his unit. “But you have this: I remember my unit was coming along this elevated overpass. And this kid is in the trash pile below, pulls out an AK-47 and just decides he’s going to start shooting. And you gotta understand…when you have spent nine months in a war zone, where no one—every time you’ve been shot at, you’ve never seen the person shooting at you, and you could never shoot back. Here’s some guy, some 14-year-old kid with an AK-47, decides he’s going to start shooting at this convoy. It was the most obscene thing you’ve ever seen. Every person got out and opened fire on this kid. Using the biggest weapons we could find, we ripped him to shreds.” Sergeant Campbell was not present at the incident, which took place in Khadamiya, but he saw photographs and heard descriptions from several eyewitnesses in his unit.
“Everyone was so happy, like this release that they finally killed an insurgent,” he said. “Then when they got there, they realized it was just a little kid. And I know that really fucked up a lot of people in the head…. They’d show all the pictures and some people were really happy, like, Oh, look what we did. And other people were like, I don’t want to see that ever again.”
The killing of unarmed Iraqis was so common many of the troops said it became an accepted part of the daily landscape. “The ground forces were put in that position,” said First Lieut. Wade Zirkle of Shenandoah County, Virginia, who fought in Nasiriya and Falluja with the Second Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion from March to May 2003. “You got a guy trying to kill me but he’s firing from houses…with civilians around him, women and children. You know, what do you do? You don’t want to risk shooting at him and shooting children at the same time. But at the same time, you don’t want to die either.”
Sergeant Dougherty recounted an incident north of Nasiriya in December 2003, when her squad leader shot an Iraqi civilian in the back. The shooting was described to her by a woman in her unit who treated the injury. “It was just, like, the mentality of my squad leader was like, Oh, we have to kill them over here so I don’t have to kill them back in Colorado,” she said. “He just, like, seemed to view every Iraqi as like a potential terrorist.”
Several interviewees said that, on occasion, these killings were justified by framing innocents as terrorists, typically following incidents when American troops fired on crowds of unarmed Iraqis. The troops would detain those who survived, accusing them of being insurgents, and plant AK-47s next to the bodies of those they had killed to make it seem as if the civilian dead were combatants. “It would always be an AK because they have so many of these weapons lying around,” said Specialist Aoun. Cavalry scout Joe Hatcher, 26, of San Diego, said 9-millimeter handguns and even shovels—to make it look like the noncombatant was digging a hole to plant an IED—were used as well.
“Every good cop carries a throwaway,” said Hatcher, who served with the Fourth Cavalry Regiment, First Squadron, in Ad Dawar, halfway between Tikrit and Samarra, from February 2004 to March 2005. “If you kill someone and they’re unarmed, you just drop one on ‘em.” Those who survived such shootings then found themselves imprisoned as accused insurgents.
In the winter of 2004, Sergeant Campbell was driving near a particularly dangerous road in Abu Gharth, a town west of Baghdad, when he heard gunshots. Sergeant Campbell, who served as a medic in Abu Gharth with the 256th Infantry Brigade from November 2004 to October 2005, was told that Army snipers had fired fifty to sixty rounds at two insurgents who’d gotten out of their car to plant IEDs. One alleged insurgent was shot in the knees three or four times, treated and evacuated on a military helicopter, while the other man, who was treated for glass shards, was arrested and detained.
“I come to find out later that, while I was treating him, the snipers had planted—after they had searched and found nothing—they had planted bomb-making materials on the guy because they didn’t want to be investigated for the shoot,” Sergeant Campbell said. (He showed The Nation a photograph of one sniper with a radio in his pocket that he later planted as evidence.) “And to this day, I mean, I remember taking that guy to Abu Ghraib prison—the guy who didn’t get shot—and just saying ‘I’m sorry’ because there was not a damn thing I could do about it…. I mean, I guess I have a moral obligation to say something, but I would have been kicked out of the unit in a heartbeat. I would’ve been a traitor.”
The US military checkpoints dotted across Iraq, according to twenty-six soldiers and marines who were stationed at them or supplied them—in locales as diverse as Tikrit, Baghdad, Karbala, Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk—were often deadly for civilians. Unarmed Iraqis were mistaken for insurgents, and the rules of engagement were blurred. Troops, fearing suicide bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, often fired on civilian cars. Nine of those soldiers said they had seen civilians being shot at checkpoints. These incidents were so common that the military could not investigate each one, some veterans said.
“Most of the time, it’s a family,” said Sergeant Cannon, who served at half a dozen checkpoints in Tikrit. “Every now and then, there is a bomb, you know, that’s the scary part.”
There were some permanent checkpoints stationed across the country, but for unsuspecting civilians, “flash checkpoints” were far more dangerous, according to eight veterans who were involved in setting them up. These impromptu security perimeters, thrown up at a moment’s notice and quickly dismantled, were generally designed to catch insurgents in the act of trafficking weapons or explosives, people violating military-imposed curfews or suspects in bombings or drive-by shootings.
Iraqis had no way of knowing where these so-called “tactical control points” would crop up, interviewees said, so many would turn a corner at a high speed and became the unwitting targets of jumpy soldiers and marines.
“For me, it was really random,” said Lieutenant Van Engelen. “I just picked a spot on a map that I thought was a high-volume area that might catch some people. We just set something up for half an hour to an hour and then we’d move on.” There were no briefings before setting up checkpoints, he said.
Temporary checkpoints were safer for troops, according to the veterans, because they were less likely to serve as static targets for insurgents. “You do it real quick because you don’t always want to announce your presence,” said First Sgt. Perry Jefferies, 46, of Waco, Texas, who served with the Fourth Infantry Division from April to October 2003.
The temporary checkpoints themselves varied greatly. Lieutenant Van Engelen set up checkpoints using orange cones and fifty yards of concertina wire. He would assign a soldier to control the flow of traffic and direct drivers through the wire, while others searched vehicles, questioned drivers and asked for identification. He said signs in English and Arabic warned Iraqis to stop; at night, troops used lasers, glow sticks or tracer bullets to signal cars through. When those weren’t available, troops improvised by using flashlights sent them by family and friends back home.
“Baghdad is not well lit,” said Sergeant Flanders. “There’s not street lights everywhere. You can’t really tell what’s going on.”
Other troops, however, said they constructed tactical control points that were hardly visible to drivers. “We didn’t have cones, we didn’t have nothing,” recalled Sergeant Bocanegra, who said he served at more than ten checkpoints in Tikrit. “You literally put rocks on the side of the road and tell them to stop. And of course some cars are not going to see the rocks. I wouldn’t even see the rocks myself.”
According to Sergeant Flanders, the primary concern when assembling checkpoints was protecting the troops serving there. Humvees were positioned so that they could quickly drive away if necessary, and the heavy weapons mounted on them were placed “in the best possible position” to fire on vehicles that attempted to pass through the checkpoint without stopping. And the rules of engagement were often improvised, soldiers said.
“We were given a long list of that kind of stuff and, to be honest, a lot of the time we would look at it and throw it away,” said Staff Sgt. James Zuelow, 39, a National Guardsman from Juneau, Alaska, who served in Baghdad in the Third Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, for a year beginning in January 2005. “A lot of it was written at such a high level it didn’t apply.”
At checkpoints, troops had to make split-second decisions on when to use lethal force, and veterans said fear often clouded their judgment.
Sgt. Matt Mardan, 31, of Minneapolis, served as a Marine scout sniper outside Falluja in 2004 and 2005 with the Third Battalion, First Marines. “People think that’s dangerous, and it is,” he said. “But I would do that any day of the week rather than be a marine sitting on a fucking checkpoint looking at cars.”
No car that passes through a checkpoint is beyond suspicion, said Sergeant Dougherty. “You start looking at everyone as a criminal…. Is this the car that’s going to try to run into me? Is this the car that has explosives in it? Or is this just someone who’s confused?” The perpetual uncertainty, she said, is mentally exhausting and physically debilitating.
“In the moment, what’s passing through your head is, Is this person a threat? Do I shoot to stop or do I shoot to kill?” said Lieutenant Morgenstein, who served in Al Anbar.
Sergeant Mejía recounted an incident in Ramadi in July 2003 when an unarmed man drove with his young son too close to a checkpoint. The father was decapitated in front of the small, terrified boy by a member of Sergeant Mejía’s unit firing a heavy .50-caliber machine gun. By then, said Sergeant Mejía, who responded to the scene after the fact, “this sort of killing of civilians had long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment.” The next month, Sergeant Mejía returned stateside for a two-week rest and refused to go back, launching a public protest over the treatment of Iraqis. (He was charged with desertion, sentenced to one year in prison and given a bad-conduct discharge.)
During the summer of 2005, Sergeant Millard, who served as an assistant to a general in Tikrit, attended a briefing on a checkpoint shooting, at which his role was to flip PowerPoint slides.
“This unit sets up this traffic control point, and this 18-year-old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun,” he said. “This car speeds at him pretty quick and he makes a split-second decision that that’s a suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger and puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed the mother, a father and two kids. The boy was aged 4 and the daughter was aged 3. And they briefed this to the general. And they briefed it gruesome. I mean, they had pictures. They briefed it to him. And this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says, ‘If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.’”
Whether or not commanding officers shared this attitude, interviewees said, troops were rarely held accountable for shooting civilians at checkpoints. Eight veterans described the prevailing attitude among them as “Better to be tried by twelve men than carried by six.” Since the number of troops tried for killing civilians is so scant, interviewees said, they would risk court-martial over the possibility of injury or death.
Indeed, several troops said the rules of engagement were fluid and designed to insure their safety above all else. Some said they were simply told they were authorized to shoot if they felt threatened, and what constituted a risk to their safety was open to wide interpretation. “Basically it always came down to self-defense and better them than you,” said Sgt. Bobby Yen, 28, of Atherton, California, who covered a variety of Army activities in Baghdad and Mosul as part of the 222nd Broadcast Operations Detachment for one year beginning in November 2003.
“Cover your own butt was the first rule of engagement,” Lieutenant Van Engelen confirmed. “Someone could look at me the wrong way and I could claim my safety was in threat.”
Lack of a uniform policy from service to service, base to base and year to year forced troops to rely on their own judgment, Sergeant Jefferies explained. “We didn’t get straight-up rules,” he said. “You got things like, ‘Don’t be aggressive’ or ‘Try not to shoot if you don’t have to.’ Well, what does that mean?”
Prior to deployment, Sergeant Flanders said, troops were trained on the five S’s of escalation of force: Shout a warning, Shove (physically restrain), Show a weapon, Shoot non-lethal ammunition in a vehicle’s engine block or tires, and Shoot to kill. Some troops said they carried the rules in their pockets or helmets on a small laminated card. “The escalation-of-force methodology was meant to be a guide to determine course of actions you should attempt before you shoot,” he said. “ ‘Shove’ might be a step that gets skipped in a given situation. In vehicles, at night, how does ‘Shout’ work? Each soldier is not only drilled on the five S’s but their inherent right for self-defense.”
Some interviewees said their commanders discouraged this system of escalation. “There’s no such thing as warning shots,” Specialist Resta said he was told during his predeployment training at Fort Bragg. “I even specifically remember being told that it was better to kill them than to have somebody wounded and still alive.”
Lieutenant Morgenstein said that when he arrived in Iraq in August 2004, the rules of engagement barred the use of warning shots. “We were trained that if someone is not armed, and they are not a threat, you never fire a warning shot because there is no need to shoot at all,” he said. “You signal to them with some other means than bullets. If they are armed and they are a threat, you never fire a warning shot because…that just gives them a chance to kill you. I don’t recall at this point if this was an ROE [rule of engagement] explicitly or simply part of our consistent training.” But later on, he said, “we were told the ROE was changed” and that warning shots were now explicitly allowed in certain circumstances.
Sergeant Westphal said that by the time he arrived in Iraq earlier in 2004, the rules of engagement for checkpoints were more refined—at least where he served with the Army in Tikrit. “If they didn’t stop, you were to fire a warning shot,” said Sergeant Westphal. “If they still continued to come, you were instructed to escalate and point your weapon at their car. And if they still didn’t stop, then, if you felt you were in danger and they were about to run your checkpoint or blow you up, you could engage.”
In his initial training, Lieutenant Morgenstein said, marines were cautioned against the use of warning shots because “others around you could be hurt by the stray bullet,” and in fact such incidents were not unusual. One evening in Baghdad, Sergeant Zuelow recalled, a van roared up to a checkpoint where another platoon in his company was stationed and a soldier fired a warning shot that bounced off the ground and killed the van’s passenger. “That was a big wake-up call,” he said, “and after that we discouraged warning shots of any kind.”
Many checkpoint incidents went unreported, a number of veterans indicated, and the civilians killed were not included in the overall casualty count. Yet judging by the number of checkpoint shootings described to The Nation by veterans we interviewed, such shootings appear to be quite common.
Sergeant Flatt recounted one incident in Mosul in January 2005 when an elderly couple zipped past a checkpoint. “The car was approaching what was in my opinion a very poorly marked checkpoint, or not even a checkpoint at all, and probably didn’t even see the soldiers,” he said. “The guys got spooked and decided it was a possible threat, so they shot up the car. And they literally sat in the car for the next three days while we drove by them day after day.”
In another incident, a man was driving his wife and three children in a pickup truck on a major highway north of the Euphrates, near Ramadi, on a rainy day in February or March 2005. When the man failed to stop at a checkpoint, a marine in a light-armored vehicle fired on the car, killing the wife and critically wounding the son. According to Lieutenant Morgenstein, a civil affairs officer, a JAG official gave the family condolences and about $3,000 in compensation. “I mean, it’s a terrible thing because there’s no way to pay money to replace a family member,” said Lieutenant Morgenstein, who was sometimes charged with apologizing to families for accidental deaths and offering them such compensation, called “condolence payments” or “solatia.” “But it’s an attempt to compensate for some of the costs of the funeral and all the expenses. It’s an attempt to make a good-faith offering in a sign of regret and to say, you know, We didn’t want this to happen. This is by accident.” According to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department issued nearly $31 million in solatia and condolence payments between 2003 and 2006 to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who were “killed, injured or incur[red] property damage as a result of U.S. or coalition forces’ actions during combat.” The study characterizes the payments as “expressions of sympathy or remorse…but not an admission of legal liability or fault.” In Iraq, according to the report, civilians are paid up to $2,500 for death, as much as $1,500 for serious injuries and $200 or more for minor injuries.
On one occasion, in Ramadi in late 2004, a man happened to drive down a road with his family minutes after a suicide bomber had hit a barrier during a cordon-and-search operation, Lieutenant Morgenstein said. The car’s brakes failed and marines fired. The wife and her two children managed to escape from the car, but the man was fatally hit. The family was mistakenly told that he had survived, so Lieutenant Morgenstein had to set the record straight. “I’ve never done this before,” he said. “I had to go tell this woman that her husband was actually dead. We gave her money, we gave her, like, ten crates of water, we gave the kids, I remember, maybe it was soccer balls and toys. We just didn’t really know what else to do.”
One such incident, which took place in Falluja in March 2003 and was reported on at the time by the BBC, even involved a group of plainclothes Iraqi policemen. Sergeant Mejía was told about the event by several soldiers who witnessed it.
The police officers were riding in a white pickup truck, chasing a BMW that had raced through a checkpoint. “The guy that the cops were chasing got through and I guess the soldiers got scared or nervous, so when the pickup truck came they opened fire on it,” Sergeant Mejía said. “The Iraqi police tried to cease fire, but when the soldiers would not stop they defended themselves and there was a firefight between the soldiers and the cops. Not a single soldier was killed, but eight cops were.”
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