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The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness
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.
As Spc. Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, who served in Baghdad and Mosul with the Second Battalion, Eighty-Second Airborne Division, from December 2004 to March 2005, pointed out, 20-year-old soldiers went from the humiliation of training–“getting yelled at every day if you have a dirty weapon”–to the streets of Iraq, where “it’s like life and death. And 40-year-old Iraqi men look at us with fear and we can–do you know what I mean?–we have this power that you can’t have. That’s really liberating. Life is just knocked down to this primal level.”
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?”
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.
“The first Iraqi I saw killed was an Iraqi who got too close to our patrol,” he said. “We were coming up an on-ramp. And he was coming down the highway. And they fired warning shots and he just didn’t stop. He just merged right into the convoy and they opened up on him.”
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.
Rules of Engagement
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.”
A few veterans said checkpoint shootings resulted from basic miscommunication, incorrectly interpreted signals or cultural ignorance.
“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- 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.”