Iraq Vets Break Silence on Devastating
Realities of War
by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges teamed
up with Laila Al-Arian for The Nation's shocking report "The
Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness," in which American vets
describe, in graphic detail that will challenge even the least
fainthearted readers, "the disparity between the reality
of the war and how it is portrayed by the US government and American
media." This article is from the July 30 issue of The Nation
and can be viewed on The Nation website.
Over the past several months The Nation
has interviewed fifty combat veterans of the Iraq War from around
the United States in an effort to investigate the effects of the
four-year-old occupation on average Iraqi civilians. These combat
veterans, some of whom bear deep emotional and physical scars,
and many of whom have come to oppose the occupation, gave vivid,
on-the-record accounts. They described a brutal side of the war
rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts.
Their stories, recorded and typed into
thousands of pages of transcripts, reveal disturbing patterns
of behavior by American troops in Iraq. Dozens of those interviewed
witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American
firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated
or investigated civilian casualties after the fact. Many also
heard such stories, in detail, from members of their unit. The
soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that not all troops took
part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts were
perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such
acts as common and said they often go unreported--and almost always
Court cases, such as the ones surrounding
the massacre in Haditha and the rape and murder of a 14-year-old
in Mah_mudiya, and news stories in the Washington Post, Time,
the London Independent and elsewhere based on Iraqi accounts have
begun to hint at the wide extent of the attacks on civilians.
Human rights groups have issued reports, such as Human Rights
Watch's Hearts and Minds: Post-war Civilian Deaths in Baghdad
Caused by U.S. Forces, packed with detailed incidents that suggest
that the killing of Iraqi civilians by occupation forces is more
common than has been acknowledged by military authorities.
This Nation investigation marks the first
time so many on-the-record, named eyewitnesses from within the
US military have been assembled in one place to openly corroborate
While some veterans said civilian shootings
were routinely investigated by the military, many more said such
inquiries were rare. "I mean, you physically could not do
an investigation every time a civilian was wounded or killed because
it just happens a lot and you'd spend all your time doing that,"
said Marine Reserve Lieut. Jonathan Morgenstein, 35, of Arlington,
Virginia. He served from August 2004 to March 2005 in Ramadi with
a Marine Corps civil affairs unit supporting a combat team with
the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade. (All interviewees are
identified by the rank they held during the period of service
they recount here; some have since been promoted or demoted.)
Veterans said the culture of this counterinsurgency
war, in which most Iraqi civilians were assumed to be hostile,
made it difficult for soldiers to sympathize with their victims--at
least until they returned home and had a chance to reflect.
"I guess while I was there, the general
attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi," said
Spc. Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado. Specialist
Englehart served with the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division,
in Baquba, about thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, for a
year beginning in February 2004. "You know, so what? The
soldiers honestly thought we were trying to help the people and
they were mad because it was almost like a betrayal. Like here
we are trying to help you, here I am, you know, thousands of miles
away from home and my family, and I have to be here for a year
and work every day on these missions. Well, we're trying to help
you and you just turn around and try to kill us."
He said it was only "when they get
home, in dealing with veteran issues and meeting other veterans,
it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, then."
The Iraq War is a vast and complicated
enterprise. In this investigation of alleged military misconduct,
The Nation focused on a few key elements of the occupation, asking
veterans to explain in detail their experiences operating patrols
and supply convoys, setting up checkpoints, conducting raids and
arresting suspects. From these collected snapshots a common theme
emerged. Fighting in densely populated urban areas has led to
the indiscriminate use of force and the deaths at the hands of
occupation troops of thousands of innocents.
Many of these veterans returned home deeply
disturbed by the disparity between the reality of the war and
the way it is portrayed by the US government and American media.
The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise,
one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal
colonial wars and occupations, from the French occupation of Algeria
to the American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian
"I'll tell you the point where I
really turned," said Spc. Michael Harmon, 24, a medic from
Brooklyn. He served a thirteen-month tour beginning in April 2003
with the 167th Armor Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, in Al-Rashidiya,
a small town near Baghdad. "I go out to the scene and [there
was] this little, you know, pudgy little 2-year-old child with
the cute little pudgy legs, and I look and she has a bullet through
her leg.... An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the
gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby
got hit. And this baby looked at me, wasn't crying, wasn't anything,
it just looked at me like--I know she couldn't speak. It might
sound crazy, but she was like asking me why. You know, Why do
I have a bullet in my leg? I was just like, This is--this is it.
This is ridiculous."
Much of the resentment toward Iraqis described
to The Nation by veterans was confirmed in a report released May
4 by the Pentagon. According to the survey, conducted by the Office
of the Surgeon General of the US Army Medical Command, just 47
percent of soldiers and 38 percent of marines agreed that civilians
should be treated with dignity and respect. Only 55 percent of
soldiers and 40 percent of marines said they would report a unit
member who had killed or injured "an innocent noncombatant."
These attitudes reflect the limited contact
occupation troops said they had with Iraqis. They rarely saw their
enemy. They lived bottled up in heavily fortified compounds that
often came under mortar attack. They only ventured outside their
compounds ready for combat. The mounting frustration of fighting
an elusive enemy and the devastating effect of roadside bombs,
with their steady toll of American dead and wounded, led many
troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis.
Veterans described reckless firing once
they left their compounds. Some shot holes into cans of gasoline
being sold along the roadside and then tossed grenades into the
pools of gas to set them ablaze. Others opened fire on children.
These shootings often enraged Iraqi witnesses.
In June 2003 Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejía's
unit was pressed by a furious crowd in Ramadi. Sergeant Mejía,
31, a National Guardsman from Miami, served for six months beginning
in April 2003 with the 1-124 Infantry Battalion, Fifty-Third Infantry
Brigade. His squad opened fire on an Iraqi youth holding a grenade,
riddling his body with bullets. Sergeant Mejía checked
his clip afterward and calculated that he had personally fired
eleven rounds into the young man.
"The frustration that resulted from
our inability to get back at those who were attacking us led to
tactics that seemed designed simply to punish the local population
that was supporting them," Sergeant Mejía said.
We heard a few reports, in one case corroborated
by photo_graphs, that some soldiers had so lost their moral compass
that they'd mocked or desecrated Iraqi corpses. One photo, among
dozens turned over to The Nation during the investigation, shows
an American soldier acting as if he is about to eat the spilled
brains of a dead Iraqi man with his brown plastic Army-issue spoon.
"Take a picture of me and this motherfucker,"
a soldier who had been in Sergeant Mejía's squad said as
he put his arm around the corpse. Sergeant Mejía recalls
that the shroud covering the body fell away, revealing that the
young man was wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole
in his chest.
"Damn, they really fucked you up,
didn't they?" the soldier laughed.
The scene, Sergeant Mejía said,
was witnessed by the dead man's brothers and cousins.
In the sections that follow, snipers,
medics, military police, artillerymen, officers and others recount
their experiences serving in places as diverse as Mosul in the
north, Samarra in the Sunni Triangle, Nasiriya in the south and
Baghdad in the center, during 2003, 2004 and 2005. Their stories
capture the impact of their units on Iraqi civilians.
_A Note on Methodology
The Nation interviewed fifty combat veterans,
including forty soldiers, eight marines and two sailors, over
a period of seven months beginning in July 2006. To find veterans
willing to speak on the record about their experiences in Iraq,
we sent queries to organizations dedicated to US troops and their
families, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America,
the antiwar groups Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace
and Iraq Veterans Against the War and the prowar group Vets for
Freedom. The leaders of IVAW and Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of
IAVA, were especially helpful in putting us in touch with Iraq
War veterans. Finally, we found veterans through word of mouth,
as many of those we interviewed referred us to their military
To verify their military service, when
possible we obtained a copy of each interviewee's DD Form 214,
or the Certificate of Release or Discharge From Active Duty, and
in all cases confirmed their service with the branch of the military
in which they were enlisted. Nineteen interviews were conducted
in person, while the rest were done over the phone; all were tape-recorded
and transcribed; all but five interviewees (most of those currently
on active duty) were independently contacted by fact checkers
to confirm basic facts about their service in Iraq. Of those interviewed,
fourteen served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, twenty from 2004 to
2005 and two from 2005 to 2006. Of the eleven veterans whose tours
lasted less than one year, nine served in 2003, while the others
served in 2004 and 2005.
The ranks of the veterans we interviewed
ranged from private to captain, though only a handful were officers.
The veterans served throughout Iraq, but mostly in the country's
most volatile areas, such as Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, Falluja and
During the course of the interview process,
five veterans turned over photographs from Iraq, some of them
graphic, to corroborate their claims.
"So we get started on this day, this
one in particular," recalled Spc. Philip Chrystal, 23, of
Reno, who said he raided between twenty and thirty Iraqi homes
during an eleven-month tour in Kirkuk and Hawija that ended in
October 2005, serving with the Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry
Brigade. "It starts with the psy-ops vehicles out there,
you know, with the big speakers playing a message in Arabic or
Farsi or Kurdish or whatever they happen to be, saying, basically,
saying, Put your weapons, if you have them, next to the front
door in your house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah. And we had Apaches flying over for security, if they're
needed, and it's also a good show of force. And we're running
around, and they-we'd done a few houses by this point, and I was
with my platoon leader, my squad leader and maybe a couple other
"And we were approaching this one
house," he said. "In this farming area, they're, like,
built up into little courtyards. So they have, like, the main
house, common area. They have, like, a kitchen and then they have
a storage shed-type deal. And we're approaching, and they had
a family dog. And it was barking ferociously, 'cause it's doing
its job. And my squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots
it. And he didn't--mother_fucker--he shot it and it went in the
jaw and exited out. So I see this dog--I'm a huge animal lover;
I love animals--and this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he's
running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you
know, What the hell is going on? The family is sitting right there,
with three little children and a mom and a dad, horrified. And
I'm at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I'm, like, What
the fuck are you doing? And so the dog's yelping. It's crying
out without a jaw. And I'm looking at the family, and they're
just, you know, dead scared. And so I told them, I was like, Fucking
shoot it, you know? At least kill it, because that can't be fixed....
"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. And, you know, I had
him give it to them and told them that I'm so sorry that asshole
"Was a report ever filed about it?"
he asked. "Was anything ever done? Any punishment ever dished
out? No, absolutely not."
Specialist Chrystal said such incidents
were "very common."
According to interviews with twenty-four
veterans who participated in such raids, they are a relentless
reality for Iraqis under occupation. The American forces, stymied
by poor intelligence, invade neighborhoods where insurgents operate,
bursting into homes in the hope of surprising fighters or finding
weapons. But such catches, they said, are rare. Far more common
were stories in which soldiers assaulted a home, destroyed property
in their futile search and left terrorized civilians struggling
to repair the damage and begin the long torment of trying to find
family members who were hauled away as suspects.
Raids normally took place between midnight
and 5 am, according to Sgt. John Bruhns, 29, of Philadelphia,
who estimates that he took part in raids of nearly 1,000 Iraqi
homes. He served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, a city infamous for
its prison, located twenty miles west of the capital, with the
Third Brigade, First Armor Division, First Battalion, for one
year beginning in April 2003. His descriptions of raid procedures
closely echoed those of eight other veterans who served in locations
as diverse as Kirkuk, Samarra, Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit.
"You want to catch them off guard,"
Sergeant Bruhns _ex_plained. "You want to catch them in their
sleep." About ten troops were involved in each raid, he said,
with five stationed outside and the rest searching the home.
Once they were in front of the home, troops,
some wearing Kevlar helmets and flak vests with grenade launchers
mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, according to Sergeant
Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:
"You run in. And if there's lights,
you turn them on--if the lights are working. If not, you've got
flashlights.... You leave one rifle team outside while one rifle
team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with
an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the
other rifle team leader that's outside.
"You go up the stairs. You grab the
man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife.
You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level troops,
PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other
rooms and grab the family, and you'll group them all together.
Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you
make sure there's no weapons or anything that they can use to
"You get the interpreter and you
get the man of the home, and you have him at gunpoint, and you'll
ask the interpreter to ask him: 'Do you have any weapons? Do you
have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all--anything--anything
in here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved
in insurgent activity or anti-coalition forces activity?'
"Normally they'll say no, because
that's normally the truth," Sergeant Bruhns said. "So
what you'll do is you'll take his sofa cushions and you'll dump
them. If he has a couch, you'll turn the couch upside down. You'll
go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you'll throw everything
on the floor, and you'll take his drawers and you'll dump them....
You'll open up his closet and you'll throw all the clothes on
the floor and basically leave his house looking like a hurricane
just hit it.
"And if you find something, then
you'll detain him. If not, you'll say, 'Sorry to disturb you.
Have a nice evening.' So you've just humiliated this man in front
of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've
destroyed his home. And then you go right next door and you do
the same thing in a hundred homes."
Each raid, or "cordon and search"
operation, as they are sometimes called, involved five to twenty
homes, he said. Following a spate of attacks on soldiers in a
particular area, commanders would normally order infantrymen on
raids to look for weapons caches, ammunition or materials for
making IEDs. Each Iraqi family was allowed to keep one AK-47 at
home, but according to Bruhns, those found with extra weapons
were arrested and detained and the operation classified a "success,"
even if it was clear that no one in the home was an insurgent.
Before a raid, according to descriptions
by several veterans, soldiers typically "quarantined"
the area by barring anyone from coming in or leaving. In pre-raid
briefings, Sergeant Bruhns said, military commanders often told
their troops the neighborhood they were ordered to raid was "a
hostile area with a high level of insurgency" and that it
had been taken over by former Baathists or Al Qaeda terrorists.
"So you have all these troops, and
they're all wound up," said Sergeant Bruhns. "And a
lot of these troops think once they kick down the door there's
going to be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons
to start shooting at them."
Sgt. Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, estimates
he raided "thousands" of homes in Tikrit, Samarra and
Mosul. He served with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry
Division, for one year beginning in February 2004. "We scared
the living Jesus out of them every time we went through every
house," he said.
Spc. Ali Aoun, 23, a National Guardsman
from New York City, said he conducted perimeter security in nearly
100 raids while serving in Sadr City with the Eighty-Ninth Military
Police Brigade for eleven months starting in April 2004. When
soldiers raided a home, he said, they first cordoned it off with
Humvees. Soldiers guarded the entrance to make sure no one escaped.
If an entire town was being raided, in large-scale operations,
it too was cordoned off, said Spc. Garett Reppenhagen, 32, of
Manitou Springs, Colorado, a cavalry scout and sniper with the
263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, who was deployed
to Baquba for a year in February 2004.
Staff Sgt. Timothy John Westphal, 31,
of Denver, recalled one summer night in 2004, the temperature
an oppressive 110 degrees, when he and forty-four other US soldiers
raided a sprawling farm on the outskirts of Tikrit. Sergeant Westphal,
who served there for a yearlong tour with the Eighteenth Infantry
Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February 2004,
said he was told some men on the farm were insurgents. As a mechanized
infantry squad leader, Sergeant Westphal led the mission to secure
the main house, while fifteen men swept the property. Sergeant
Westphal and his men hopped the wall surrounding the house, fully
expecting to come face to face with armed insurgents.
"We had our flashlights and...I told
my guys, 'On the count of three, just hit them with your lights
and let's see what we've got here. Wake 'em up!' "
Sergeant Westphal's flashlight was mounted
on his M-4 carbine rifle, a smaller version of the M-16, so in
pointing his light at the clump of sleepers on the floor he was
also pointing his weapon at them. Sergeant Westphal first turned
his light on a man who appeared to be in his mid-60s.
"The man screamed this gut-wrenching,
blood-curdling, just horrified scream," Sergeant Westphal
recalled. "I've never heard anything like that. I mean, the
guy was absolutely terrified. I can imagine what he was thinking,
having lived under Saddam."
The farm's inhabitants were not insurgents
but a family sleeping outside for relief from the stifling heat,
and the man Sergeant Westphal had frightened awake was the patriarch.
"Sure enough, as we started to peel
back the layers of all these people sleeping, I mean, it was him,
maybe two guys...either his sons or nephews or whatever, and the
rest were all women and children," Sergeant Westphal said.
"We didn't find anything.
"I can tell you hundreds of stories
about things like that and they would all pretty much be like
the one I just told you. Just a different family, a different
time, a different circumstance."
For Sergeant Westphal, that night was
a turning point. "I just remember thinking to myself, I just
brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and that's
just not what I joined the Army to do," he said.
Fifteen soldiers we spoke with told us
the information that spurred these raids was typically gathered
through human intelligence--and that it was usually incorrect.
Eight said it was common for Iraqis to use American troops to
settle family disputes, tribal rivalries or personal vendettas.
Sgt. Jesus Bocanegra, 25, of Weslaco, Texas, was a scout in Tikrit
with the Fourth Infantry Division during a yearlong tour that
ended in March 2004. In late 2003, Sergeant Bocanegra raided a
middle-aged man's home in Tikrit because his son had told the
Army his father was an insurgent. After thoroughly searching the
man's house, soldiers found nothing and later discovered that
the son simply wanted money his father had buried at the farm.
After persistently acting on such false
leads, Sergeant Bocanegra, who raided Iraqi homes in more than
fifty operations, said soldiers began to anticipate the innocence
of those they raided. "People would make jokes about it,
even before we'd go into a raid, like, Oh fucking we're gonna
get the wrong house," he said. " 'Cause it would always
happen. We always got the wrong house." Specialist Chrystal
said that he and his platoon leader shared a joke of their own:
Every time he raided a house, he would radio in and say, "This
is, you know, Thirty-One Lima. Yeah, I found the weapons of mass
destruction in here."
Sergeant Bruhns said he questioned the
authenticity of the intelligence he received because Iraqi informants
were paid by the US military for tips. On one occasion, an Iraqi
tipped off Sergeant Bruhns's unit that a small Syrian resistance
organization, responsible for killing a number of US troops, was
holed up in a house. "They're waiting for us to show up and
there will be a lot of shooting," Sergeant Bruhns recalled
As the Alpha Company team leader, Sergeant
Bruhns was supposed to be the first person in the door. Skeptical,
he refused. "So I said, 'If you're so confident that there
are a bunch of Syrian terrorists, insurgents...in there, why in
the world are you going to send me and three guys in the front
door, because chances are I'm not going to be able to squeeze
the trigger before I get shot.' " Sergeant Bruhns facetiously
suggested they pull an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle up to the
house and shoot a missile through the front window to exterminate
the enemy fighters his commanders claimed were inside. They instead
diminished the aggressiveness of the raid. As Sergeant Bruhns
ran security out front, his fellow soldiers smashed the windows
and kicked down the doors to find "a few little kids, a woman
and an old man."
In late summer 2005, in a village on the
outskirts of Kirkuk, Specialist Chrystal searched a compound with
two Iraqi police officers. A friendly man in his mid-30s escorted
Specialist Chrystal and others in his unit around the property,
where the man lived with his parents, wife and children, making
jokes to lighten the mood. As they finished searching--they found
nothing--a lieutenant from his company approached Specialist Chrystal:
"What the hell were you doing?" he asked. "Well,
we just searched the house and it's clear," Specialist Chrystal
said. The lieutenant told Specialist Chrystal that his friendly
guide was "one of the targets" of the raid. "Apparently
he'd been dimed out by somebody as being an insurgent," Specialist
Chrystal said. "For that mission, they'd only handed out
the target sheets to officers, and officers aren't there with
the rest of the troops." Specialist Chrystal said he felt
"humiliated" because his assessment that the man posed
no threat was deemed irrelevant and the man was arrested. Shortly
afterward, he posted himself in a fighting vehicle for the rest
of the mission.
Sgt. Larry Cannon, 27, of Salt Lake City,
a Bradley gunner with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First Infantry
Division, served a yearlong tour in several cities in Iraq, including
Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul, beginning in February 2004. He estimates
that he searched more than a hundred homes in Tikrit and found
the raids fruitless and maddening. "We would go on one raid
of a house and that guy would say, 'No, it's not me, but I know
where that guy is.' And...he'd take us to the next house where
this target was supposedly at, and then that guy's like, 'No,
it's not me. I know where he is, though.' And we'd drive around
all night and go from raid to raid to raid."
"I can't really fault military intelligence,"
said Specialist Reppenhagen, who said he raided thirty homes in
and around Baquba. "It was always a guessing game. We're
in a country where we don't speak the language. We're light on
interpreters. It's just impossible to really get anything. All
you're going off is a pattern of what's happened before and hoping
that the pattern doesn't change."
Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo,
New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear Operations Center, Forty-Second
Infantry Division, for one year beginning in October 2004. He
said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources
to investigate tips before acting on them. "We're not police,"
he said. "We don't go around like detectives and ask questions.
We kick down doors, we go in, we grab people."
First Lieut. Brady Van Engelen, 26, of
Washington, DC, said the Army depended on less than reliable sources
because options were limited. He served as a survey platoon leader
with the First Armored Division in Baghdad's volatile Adhamiya
district for eight months beginning in September 2003. "That's
really about the only thing we had," he said. "A lot
of it was just going off a whim, a hope that it worked out,"
he said. "Maybe one in ten worked out."
Sergeant Bruhns said he uncovered illegal
material about 10 percent of the time, an estimate echoed by other
veterans. "We did find small materials for IEDs, like maybe
a small piece of the wire, the detonating cord," said Sergeant
Cannon. "We never found real bombs in the houses." In
the thousand or so raids he conducted during his time in Iraq,
Sergeant Westphal said, he came into contact with only four "hard-core
Even with such slim pretexts for arrest,
some soldiers said, any Iraqis arrested during a raid were treated
with extreme suspicion. Several reported seeing military-age men
detained without evidence or abused during questioning. Eight
veterans said the men would typically be bound with plastic handcuffs,
their heads covered with sandbags. While the Army officially banned
the practice of hooding prisoners after the Abu Ghraib scandal
broke, five soldiers indicated that it continued.
"You weren't allowed to, but it was
still done," said Sergeant Cannon. "I remember in Mosul
[in January 2005], we had guys in a raid and they threw them in
the back of a Bradley," shackled and hooded. "These
guys were really throwing up," he continued. "They were
so sick and nervous. And sometimes, they were peeing on themselves.
Can you imagine if people could just come into your house and
take you in front of your family screaming? And if you actually
were innocent but had no way to prove that? It would be a scary,
scary thing." Specialist Reppenhagen said he had only a vague
idea about what constituted contraband during a raid. "Sometimes
we didn't even have a translator, so we find some poster with
Muqtada al-Sadr, Sistani or something, we don't know what it says
on it. We just apprehend them, document that thing as evidence
and send it on down the road and let other people deal with it."
Sergeant Bruhns, Sergeant Bocanegra and
others said physical abuse of Iraqis during raids was common.
"It was just soldiers being soldiers," Sergeant Bocanegra
said. "You give them a lot of, too much, power that they
never had before, and before you know it they're the ones kicking
these guys while they're handcuffed. And then by you not catching
[insurgents], when you do have someone say, 'Oh, this is a guy
planting a roadside bomb'--and you don't even know if it's him
or not--you just go in there and kick the shit out of him and
take him in the back of a five-ton--take him to jail."
Tens of thousands of Iraqis--military
officials estimate more than 60,000--have been arrested and detained
since the beginning of the occupation, leaving their families
to navigate a complex, chaotic prison system in order to find
them. Veterans we interviewed said the majority of detainees they
encountered were either innocent or guilty of only minor infractions.
Sergeant Bocanegra said during the first
two months of the war he was instructed to detain Iraqis based
on their attire alone. "They were wearing Arab clothing and
military-style boots, they were considered enemy combatants and
you would cuff 'em and take 'em in," he said. "When
you put something like that so broad, you're bound to have, out
of a hundred, you're going to have ten at least that were, you
know what I mean, innocent."
Sometime during the summer of 2003, Bocanegra
said, the rules of engagement narrowed--somewhat. "I remember
on some raids, anybody of military age would be taken," he
said. "Say, for example, we went to some house looking for
a 25-year-old male. We would look at an age group. Anybody from
15 to 30 might be a suspect." (Since returning from Iraq,
Bocanegra has sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder
and said his "mission" is to encourage others to do
Spc. Richard Murphy, 28, an Army Reservist
from Pocono, Pennsylvania, who served part of his fifteen-month
tour with the 800th Military Police Brigade in Abu Ghraib prison,
said he was often struck by the lack of due process afforded the
prisoners he guarded.
Specialist Murphy initially went to Iraq
in May 2003 to train Iraqi police in the southern city of Al Hillah
but was transferred to Abu Ghraib in October 2003 when his unit
replaced one that was rotating home. (He spoke with The Nation
in October 2006, while not on active duty.) Shortly after his
arrival there, he realized that the number of prisoners was growing
"exponentially" while the amount of personnel remained
stagnant. By the end of his six-month stint, Specialist Murphy
was in charge of 320 prisoners, the majority of whom he was convinced
were unjustly detained.
"I knew that a large percentage of
these prisoners were innocent," he said. "Just living
with these people for months you get to see their character....
In just listening to the prisoners' stories, I mean, I get the
sense that a lot of them were just getting rounded up in big groups."
Specialist Murphy said one prisoner, a
mentally impaired, blind albino who could "maybe see a few
feet in front of his face" clearly did not belong in Abu
Ghraib. "I thought to myself, What could he have possibly
Specialist Murphy counted the prisoners
twice a day, and the inmates would often ask him when they would
be released or implore him to advocate on their behalf, which
he would try to do through the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps
office. The JAG officer Specialist Murphy dealt with would respond
that it was out of his hands. "He would make his recommendations
and he'd have to send it up to the next higher command,"
Specialist Murphy said. "It was just a snail's crawling process....
The system wasn't working."
Prisoners at the notorious facility rioted
on November 24, 2003, to protest their living conditions, and
Army Reserve Spc. Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, Florida, was
there. He had deployed with the 320th Military Police Company
to Talil Air Base, to serve in Nasiriya and Abu Ghraib for one
year beginning in April 2003. Unlike the other troops in his unit,
he did not respond to the riot. Four months earlier he had decided
to stop carrying a loaded weapon.
Nine prisoners were killed and three wounded
after soldiers opened fire during the riot, and Specialist Delgado's
fellow soldiers returned with photographs of the events. The images,
disturbingly similar to the incident described by Sergeant Mejía,
shocked him. "It was very graphic," he said. "A
head split open. One of them was of two soldiers in the back of
the truck. They open the body bags of these prisoners that were
shot in the head and [one soldier has] got an MRE spoon. He's
reaching in to scoop out some of his brain, looking at the camera
and he's smiling. And I said, 'These are some of our soldiers
desecrating somebody's body. Something is seriously amiss.' I
became convinced that this was excessive force, and this was brutality."
Spc. Patrick Resta, 29, a National Guardsman
from Philadelphia, served in Jalula, where there was a small prison
camp at his base. He was with the 252nd Armor, First Infantry
Division, for nine months beginning in March 2004. He recalled
his supervisor telling his platoon point-blank, "The Geneva
Conventions don't exist at all in Iraq, and that's in writing
if you want to see it."
The pivotal experience for Specialist
Delgado came when, in the winter of 2003, he was assigned to battalion
headquarters inside Abu Ghraib prison, where he worked with Maj.
David DiNenna and Lieut. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, both implicated
in the Taguba Report, the official Army investigation into the
prison scandal. There, Delgado read reports on prisoners and updated
a dry erase board with information on where in the large prison
compound detainees were moved and held.
"That was when I totally walked away
from the Army," Specialist Delgado said. "I read these
rap sheets on all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and what they were
there for. I expected them to be terrorists, murderers, insurgents.
I look down this roster and see petty theft, public drunkenness,
forged coalition documents. These people are here for petty civilian
"These aren't terrorists," he
recalled thinking. "These aren't our enemies. They're just
ordinary people, and we're treating them this harshly." Specialist
Delgado ultimately applied for conscientious objector status,
which the Army approved in April 2004.
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
"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 oc_cupation, 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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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 pre__deployment 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
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
"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
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
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
"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 stand_ard and we investigate reported improper use of force
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
"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
"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."