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Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating Realities of War
Posted on Jul 12, 2007
Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
A few veterans said checkpoint shootings resulted from basic miscommunication, incorrectly interpreted signals or cultural ignorance.
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“You can’t tell the difference between these people at all,” said Sergeant Mardan. “They all look Arab. They all have beards, facial hair. Honestly, it’ll be like walking into China and trying to tell who’s in the Communist Party and who’s not. It’s impossible.”
But other veterans said that the frequent checkpoint shootings resulted from a lack of accountability. Critical decisions, they said, were often left to the individual soldier’s or marine’s discretion, and the military regularly endorsed these decisions without inquiry.
“Some units were so tight on their command and control that every time they fired one bullet, they had to write an investigative report,” said Sergeant Campbell. But “we fired thousands of rounds without ever filing reports,” he said. “And so it has to do with how much interaction and, you know, the relationship of the commanders to their units.”
Cpt. Megan O’Connor said that in her unit every shooting incident was reported. O’Connor, 30, of Venice, California, served in Tikrit with the Fiftieth Main Support Battalion in the National Guard for a year beginning in December 2004, after which she joined the 2-28 Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi. But Captain O’Connor said that after viewing the reports and consulting with JAG officers, the colonel in her command would usually absolve the soldiers. “The bottom line is he always said, you know, We weren’t there,” she said. “We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, but make sure that they know that this is not OK and we’re watching them.”
Probes into roadblock killings were mere formalities, a few veterans said. “Even after a thorough investigation, there’s not much that could be done,” said Specialist Reppenhagen. “It’s just the nature of the situation you’re in. That’s what’s wrong. It’s not individual atrocity. It’s the fact that the entire war is an atrocity.”
The March 2005 shooting death of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari at a checkpoint in Baghdad, however, caused the military to finally crack down on such accidents, said Sergeant Campbell, who served there. Yet this did not necessarily lead to greater accountability. “Needless to say, our unit was under a lot of scrutiny not to shoot any more people than we already had to because we were kind of a run-and-gun place,” said Sergeant Campbell. “One of the things they did was they started saying, Every time you shoot someone or shoot a car, you have to fill out a 15- or whatever the investigation is. Well, that investigation is really onerous for the soldiers. It’s like a ‘You’re guilty’ investigation almost—it feels as though. So commanders just stopped reporting shootings. There was no incentive for them to say, Yeah, we shot so-and-so’s car.”
(Sergeant Campbell said he believes the number of checkpoint shootings did decrease after the high-profile incident, but that was mostly because soldiers were now required to use pinpoint lasers at night. “I think they reduced, from when we started to when we left, the number of Iraqi civilians dying at checkpoints from one a day to one a week,” he said. “Inherent in that number, like all statistics, is those are reported shootings.”)
Fearing a backlash against these shootings of civilians, Lieutenant Morgenstein gave a class in late 2004 at his battalion headquarters in Ramadi to all the battalion’s officers and most of its senior noncommissioned officers during which he asked them to put themselves in the Iraqis’ place.
“I told them the obvious, which is, everyone we wound or kill that isn’t an insurgent, hurts us,” he said. “Because I guarantee you, down the road, that means a wounded or killed marine or soldier…. One, it’s the right thing to do to not wound or shoot someone who isn’t an insurgent. But two, out of self-preservation and self-interest, we don’t want that to happen because they’re going to come back with a vengeance.”
The Nation contacted the Pentagon with a detailed list of questions and a request for comment on descriptions of specific patterns of abuse. These questions included requests to explain the rules of engagement, the operation of convoys, patrols and checkpoints, the investigation of civilian shootings, the detention of innocent Iraqis based on false intelligence and the alleged practice of “throwaway guns.” The Pentagon referred us to the Multi-National Force Iraq Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, where a spokesperson sent us a response by e-mail.
“As a matter of operational security, we don’t discuss specific tactics, techniques, or procedures (TTPs) used to identify and engage hostile forces,” the spokesperson wrote, in part. “Our service members are trained to protect themselves at all times. We are facing a thinking enemy who learns and adjusts to our operations. Consequently, we adapt our TTPs to ensure maximum combat effectiveness and safety of our troops. Hostile forces hide among the civilian populace and attack civilians and coalition forces. Coalition forces take great care to protect and minimize risks to civilians in this complex combat environment, and we investigate cases where our actions may have resulted in the injury of innocents…. We hold our Soldiers and Marines to a high standard and we investigate reported improper use of force in Iraq.”
This response is consistent with the military’s refusal to comment on rules of engagement, arguing that revealing these rules threatens operations and puts troops at risk. But on February 9, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, then coalition spokesman, writing on the coalition force website, insisted that the rules of engagement for troops in Iraq were clear. “The law of armed conflict requires that, to use force, ‘combatants’ must distinguish individuals presenting a threat from innocent civilians,” he wrote. “This basic principle is accepted by all disciplined militaries. In the counterinsurgency we are now fighting, disciplined application of force is even more critical because our enemies camouflage themselves in the civilian population. Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity, even as we remain ready to immediately defend ourselves or Iraqi civilians when a threat is detected.”
When asked about veterans’ testimony that civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces often went unreported and typically went unpunished, the Press Information Center spokesperson replied only, “Any allegations of misconduct are treated seriously…. Soldiers have an obligation to immediately report any misconduct to their chain of command immediately.”
Last September, Senator Patrick Leahy, then ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, called a Pentagon report on its procedures for recording civilian casualties in Iraq “an embarrassment.” “It totals just two pages,” Leahy said, “and it makes clear that the Pentagon does very little to determine the cause of civilian casualties or to keep a record of civilian victims.”
In the four long years of the war, the mounting civilian casualties have already taken a heavy toll—both on the Iraqi people and on the US servicemembers who have witnessed, or caused, their suffering. Iraqi physicians, overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, published a study late last year in the British medical journal The Lancet that estimated that 601,000 civilians have died since the March 2003 invasion as the result of violence. The researchers found that coalition forces were responsible for 31 percent of these violent deaths, an estimate they said could be “conservative,” since “deaths were not classified as being due to coalition forces if households had any uncertainty about the responsible party.”
“Just the carnage, all the blown-up civilians, blown-up bodies that I saw,” Specialist Englehart said. “I just—I started thinking, like, Why? What was this for?”
“It just gets frustrating,” Specialist Reppenhagen said. “Instead of blaming your own command for putting you there in that situation, you start blaming the Iraqi people…. So it’s a constant psychological battle to try to, you know, keep—to stay humane.”
“I felt like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people,” said Sergeant Flanders. “The only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys that I was with. And everybody else be damned.”
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