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Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating Realities of War

Posted on Jul 12, 2007
basra girl
AP Photo / Toni Nicoletti

An early photo from the Iraq war, taken in April 2003, shows a wounded girl at a hospital in Basra, in southern Iraq.

Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian

(Page 5)


A few veterans said checkpoint shootings resulted from basic miscommunication, incorrectly interpreted signals or cultural ignorance.



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“As an American, you just put your hand up with your palm towards somebody and your fingers pointing to the sky,” said Sergeant Jefferies, who was responsible for supplying fixed checkpoints in Diyala twice a day. “That means stop to most Americans, and that’s a military hand signal that soldiers are taught that means stop. Closed fist, please freeze, but an open hand means stop. That’s a sign you make at a checkpoint. To an Iraqi person, that means, Hello, come here. So you can see the problem that develops real quick. So you get on a checkpoint, and the soldiers think they’re saying stop, stop, and the Iraqis think they’re saying come here, come here. And the soldiers start hollering, so they try to come there faster. So soldiers holler more, and pretty soon you’re shooting pregnant women.”

“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-[6] 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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By cann4ing, July 14, 2007 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

Non Credo, during the Nuremberg tribunals, the judiciary led by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson had a very different name for what you describe as a “preemptive, optional war.”  They called it a “war of aggression,” which is considered the ultimate war crime since all other war crimes are the product of an unprovoked war of aggression.  A Nazi foreign minister was hanged for his role in initiating a “war of aggression” against Norway.

When one considers that “every” pretext offered to justify the invasion of Iraq was based upon a fraudulent effort to fix the facts and the intelligence around the policy, there can be no question that the invasion of Iraq qualifies as a war of aggression.

If we are still a nation of laws (and the jury is still out on that), the President and Vice President would be immediately impeached, the provisions of the Military Commissions Act which provide an immunity for all crimes committed in service of the so-called “war on terror” (retroactive to 9/11/01) would be repealed, and those responsible would be brought before the same bar of justice as the Nazis at Nuremberg.  “If” we are still a nation where “law” is supreme.

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By CitizenDefender, July 14, 2007 at 8:10 am Link to this comment

The Money Masters: “Creating money out of nothing at the expense of the American people.”

I dreamed of going into the Navy in the late 60’s. This may sound funny, but I did not even think about killing anyone. I just wanted to see what was going on in other parts of the world. The regalia used by the armed forces to “dress up” the soldiers and make them stand out enticed many an ignorant person to enlist.

Now for hundreds of years governments of most countries whether Kings or elected knew this glorification of stature is alluring, very alluring.

However, the armed forces have one purpose and one alone and that is to wage war. That means killing people. It also means running the risk of being killed or injured.

Who REALLY starts wars and keeps them going? It is the few wealthy families of the world that own and control the World Banking System. Of course it also requires followers to make it work.

Morgan, Rockefeller, Rothschild, Aldrich and others met on Jekyll Island, to lobby for a Central Bank in America.

If you really want to know who runs our government and manipulates chaos around the world. I have included the links to a story of power in America.

The Jekyll Island Club Hotel was one meeting place where a banking system would be worked out and then be controlled by the elite few. The Central Bank was created out of great secrecy. Included is a link to that story.

Investigate, evaluate and then we all can work together to change the Banking system that thrives from the suffering of others. The bank is now called the Federal Reserve.

The Bank of England and the International Bankers are also a part of this.

Also see, Federal Reserve Act of 1913; Great Crash of 1929; Black Thursday.

The Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression.

War is not a required reality to the human experience.

The Money Masters

Skull & Bones - Those Who Dismantled Our Constitution

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By eeg, July 13, 2007 at 3:23 pm Link to this comment

“A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;   
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife  
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;   
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,   
And dreadful objects so familiar,   
That mothers shall but smile when they behold  
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;   
All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds”

From Shakespeare’s’ Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1.

Any rational person knew at the outset what this unconsionable invasion would mean to the Iraqi population—and to the invaders as well.  The ‘dogs of war’ once unleashed would yield untold immense suffering—suffering that the so-called Fourth Estate has been unjustifiably slow to unveil.

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By Where are the Iraqi voices?, July 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“And—I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but—and I had tears then, too—and I’m looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out and I gave them twenty bucks, because that’s what I had.”

“Veteran as Victim”, tortured by memories of all the awful horrors he inflicted (because he had to, of course- despite volunteering for duty).  Better the Nation’s time, money and effort had been spent on a study and conversation with these Vets’ Iraqi victims. From IRAQIS’ experience.  Defenseless Iraqis are the victims here- not heavily armed former troops.  Sorry to be so unPC.  But can you imagine a similar ‘confession memoir’ by Nazi concentration camp guards- and having to feel sympathy for them because they suffered guilt for having tortured the Jews? 
Something real wrong w/ part of the premise of the piece. The Victim Vet theme is a constantly exploited genre in MSM.  And perfectly consistent with ‘liberal lite’ propaganda rag The Nation.

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By moni, July 13, 2007 at 10:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yesterday the article was entitled “the Horrors of War”  Today the horrors of war are referred to as the “devastating realities of war”.  It’s all about semantics.  There were other comments which I read yesterday but don’t see today.  My own comment was never recorded. I guess ‘someone’ does not want to INCITE the American people despite the fact that this GROTESQUE War is as barbaric as they come.

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By Mudwollow, July 13, 2007 at 9:59 am Link to this comment

The American media has done an exemplary job of protecting us from disconcerting images of war mangled children’s bodies. Fortunately our government and our journalists understand the difference between human beings who should be slaughtered and human beings who should not be slaughtered. What most people fail to realize is that the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children that were killed in Vietnam and are now being killed in Iraq are not the same as we American men, women and children. It’s easy to look at a two-year-old Iraqi kid and see the similarities to your own two-year-old, but don’t be fooled. We see an Iraqi mother weeping over her child’s mutilated body and mistakenly think that her tears are the same as the tears of an American mother crying over her child’s body. But we need to remember that sacrifices must be made in order to secure the oil we need and deserve. If a few hundred thousand Iraqi children have their limbs ripped off and their bodies riddled with shrapnel, isn’t that a worthwhile cost to pay for the oil we need to drive our children to their soccer games.

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By cann4ing, July 13, 2007 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

ctbrandon, I am not sure where you get your stats from, but the latest Lancet study places the number of Iraqi civilian casualties close to 700,000, not 70,000 as your post suggests.

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By ctbrandon, July 13, 2007 at 7:46 am Link to this comment

War is never good, it is always evil. It is the byproduct of hatred, anger, greed, and lust. I am amazed when I hear my conservative friends stating, amazingly with a straight face, that the media only exposes the worst parts of the war in Iraq. That they dont focus on the positive. Friends, there are thousands of troops dead, and over 70,000 Iraqi civiliians have died in this war, many of them women and children. What could possibly be positive about that?


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By Hammo, July 13, 2007 at 7:15 am Link to this comment

This report in The Nation is going to be helpful in waking up many people about some aspects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Reporting like this will help move things forward to resolve the Iraq situation and help wake up the American people about a lot of things.

It seems that a turning point has been reached in public opinion and the views of many experts about the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and about the Bush-Cheney administration and their associates). 

This is deja vu of the time frame around 1970 when there was a shift in feelings and perception about the Vietnam War.

More on this in the article “Americans felt turning points on Vietnam, Iraq wars in ‘70, ‘07” at:

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By Fools on the Hill, July 12, 2007 at 10:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Bush is a lunatic and war criminal.

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By cann4ing, July 12, 2007 at 10:27 pm Link to this comment

Many of these vets appeared on Democracy Now! on July 12, 2007.  Here are the three links.  I would encourage all to listen to the voices of our vets.

As a vet who served in Vietnam, I know that no one can tell it better than those who have been there.  What we need at this point is for Congress to conduct hearings, over CSPAN, similar to the ones that led to John Kerry’s testimony back in the 70s.

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By 911truthdotorg, July 12, 2007 at 9:00 pm Link to this comment

bush is a mass murderer.

For 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Saddam could only dream of the death and destruction that this monster has unleashed on this country, Iraq and the world.

Rotting in hell is WAY too good for him.

Google videos: 9/11 Press for Truth, Loose Change 2nd Edition, America: Freedom to Fascism

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By vet240, July 12, 2007 at 6:07 pm Link to this comment

I get sick hearing the Republicans on the Congressional floor Praising the Gallant and heroic efforts of our Hero’s fighting for the American way.

None of these idiots have ever been on the ground in a shooting war.

None of these idiots have had the crap literally scared out of them as they thought they were about to die.

The Republicans and the Democrats who put our finest in this god awful mess should be ostracized out of their prospective communities.

There is absolutely nothing about war that is heroic.

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By Don Stivers, July 12, 2007 at 4:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When a ship sinks because a seaman leaves a valve open by mistake, it is the commander of that ship that is punished.  This “war” which the United States started by the command of our president has been on going for over 4 years.  Our commander in chief is responsible for leading our men into battle.  Like the naval commander that is punished, should not our commander in chief, the decider, be punished for such a lousy job if not for a criminal job?

D. Stivers

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By jsep, July 12, 2007 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

President Bush has spent $300 billion on the war in Iraq while thousands of people around the world go to bed hungry each night. The Borgen Project states that according to the Millennium Development Goals there are elements in place to combat world hunger. The deficit in the funding is over $19 billion. Perhaps if some of the funds from the war on terror were used to fight global poverty lives could be save instead of American lives lost.

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By the 1Sgt, July 12, 2007 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment

A well written, very informative and detailed article on what many people suspect is going on there with this war without end for reasons that do not make any sense. This is the second article by Chris Hedges and I must say his reporting will make a difference on the American people if they get exposed to it.

I was deployed overseas several times in various places and I can say there are more often than we like to admit plenty of “ugly Americans”. I personally have seen the behavior described towards Arabs, especially the racial epithets and devaluing of them as a people. I think many times this behavior is not one of spite but of ignorance. You hate or kill what you don’t understand. We Americans are deployed all over the world, in many countries, and most of them on a permanent basis. We really have a large footprint and when we misbehave, it is noticed.

My legal training and experience as a 1Sgt makes me cringe at the level of misconduct reported in this article. Honestly, what we are looking at are 5 years worth of court martials, basically 24-7. Then you wonder who is responsible? The 18 year old soldier shooting indiscriminately or the man who sent him there?

More and more, I’m convinced we need to impeach this president and his vice president. Basically start all over. I communicated this to my representatives in congress. Of course, the republican ones ignore me and the democrat responds that if we did this it would be a waste of time since the senate would never convict and much of the nations important business would not get done from now to Nov 08.

Is there anything more important?

Weather, your comment on Joe Lieberman is right on target. Many Americans do not realize he is a dual national with primary allegiance to Israel. Cheated the system when the Democrats in Conn showed him the door and ran as an independent to “win anyway”.

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By Michael Boldin, July 12, 2007 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment

This is the sad reality of war - it’s the nature of the beast.  When we send our people off to kill or be killed, it brings about the worst in human nature.

It’s rare that the politicians talk about all the carnage - they just like to point out the things that they’re rebuilding (after destroying them in the first place).

They don’t talk about refugees and innocents killed, unless “the bad guys” do it.  And, when they’re forced to talk about civilian deaths as a result of our aggression, they reduce those poor people to a statistic.

I can think of little that is more repugnant to me than referring to people as something as less than human - collateral damage.

All the killing in this aggressive war holds serious moral and legal implications for all those involved.

That’s my rant.  If you’d like to read more:

“Collateral Damage is Murder”

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By weather, July 12, 2007 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

Improve America:
Drop ship Joe Lieberman in the sands of Iraq w/his Israeli passport and the bag of cash he got from his buddy Hank Greenburg from AIG, along w/his stock options from UTX.

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