It is an axiom of American political life that the actions of the US military are beyond criticism. Democrats and Republicans praise the men and women in uniform at every turn. Apart from the odd bad apple at Abu Ghraib, the US military in Iraq is deemed to be doing a heroic job under trying circumstances.
That perception will take a severe knock today with the publication in The Nation magazine of a series of in-depth interviews with 50 combat veterans of the Iraq war from across the US. In the interviews, veterans have described acts of violence in which US forces have abused or killed Iraqi men, women and children with impunity.
The report steers clear of widely reported atrocities, such as the massacre in Haditha in 2005, but instead unearths a pattern of human rights abuses. “It’s not individual atrocity,” Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, a sniper from the 263rd Armour Battalion, said. “It’s the fact that the entire war is an atrocity.”
A number of the troops have returned home bearing mental and physical scars from fighting a war in an environment in which the insurgents are supported by the population. Many of those interviewed have come to oppose the US military presence in Iraq, joining the groundswell of public opinion across the US that views the war as futile.
This view is echoed in Washington, where increasing numbers of Democrats and Republicans are openly calling for an early withdrawal from Iraq. And the Iraq quagmire has pushed President George Bush’s poll ratings to an all-time low.
Journalists and human rights groups have published numerous reports drawing attention to the killing of Iraqi civilians by US forces. The Nation’s investigation presents for the first time named military witnesses who back those assertions. Some participated themselves.
Through a combination of gung-ho recklessness and criminal behaviour born of panic, a narrative emerges of an army that frequently commits acts of cold-blooded violence. A number of interviewees revealed that the military will attempt to frame innocent bystanders as insurgents, often after panicked American troops have fired into groups of unarmed Iraqis. The veterans said the troops involved would round up any survivors and accuse them of being in the resistance while planting Kalashnikov AK47 rifles beside corpses to make it appear that they had died in combat.
“It would always be an AK because they have so many of these lying around,” said Joe Hatcher, 26, a scout with the 4th Calvary Regiment. He revealed the army also planted 9mm handguns and shovels to make it look like the civilians were shot while digging a hole for a roadside bomb.
“Every good cop carries a throwaway,” Hatcher said of weapons planted on innocent victims in incidents that occurred while he was stationed between Tikrit and Samarra, from February 2004 to March 2005. Any survivors were sent to jail for interrogation.
There were also deaths caused by the reckless behaviour of military convoys. Sgt Kelly Dougherty of the Colorado National Guard described a hit-and-run in which a military convoy ran over a 10-year-old boy and his three donkeys, killing them all. “Judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down. But, I mean… your order is that you never stop.”
The worst abuses seem to have been during raids on private homes when soldiers were hunting insurgents. Thousands of such raids have taken place, usually at dead of night. The veterans point out that most are futile and serve only to terrify the civilians, while generating sympathy for the resistance.
Sgt John Bruhns, 29, of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, described a typical raid. “You want to catch them off guard,” he explained. “You want to catch them in their sleep … 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… Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds. You’ll ask ‘Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda?’
“Normally they’ll say no, because that’s normally the truth,” Sgt Bruhns said. “So you’ll take his sofa cushions and 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 at the end, if the soldiers don’t find anything, they depart with a “Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice evening”.
Sgt Dougherty described her squad leader shooting an Iraqi civilian in the back in 2003. “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 seemed to view every Iraqi as a potential terrorist.”
‘It would always happen. We always got the wrong house…’
“People would make jokes about it, even before we’d go into a raid, like, ‘Oh fuck, we’re gonna get the wrong house’. Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house.”
Sergeant Jesus Bocanegra, 25, of Weslaco, Texas 4th Infantry Division. In Tikrit on year-long tour that began in March 2003
“I had to go tell this woman that her husband was actually dead. We gave her money, we gave her, like, 10 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.”
Lieutenant Jonathan Morgenstein, 35, of Arlington, Virginia, Marine Corps civil affairs unit. In Ramadi from August 2004 to March 2005
“We were approaching this one house… 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… So I see this dog – I’m a huge animal lover… 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.”
Specialist Philip Chrystal, 23, of Reno, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade. In Kirkuk and Hawija on 11-month tour beginning November 2004
“I’ll tell you the point where I really turned… [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little two-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs 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… 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’.”
Specialist Michael Harmon, 24, of Brooklyn, 167th Armour Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. In Al-Rashidiya on 13-month tour beginning in April 2003
“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 fuck haji out of here,’… our doctor rolls up in an ambulance and from 30 to 40 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… 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.”
Specialist Patrick Resta, 29, from Philadelphia, 252nd Armour, 1st Infantry Division. In Jalula for nine months beginning March 2004
‘Every person opened fire on this kid, using the biggest weapons we could find…’
“Here’s some guy, some 14-year-old kid with an AK47, 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 Patrick Campbell, 29, of Camarillo, California, 256th Infantry Brigade. In Abu Gharth for 11 months beginning November 2004
“Cover your own butt was the first rule of engagement. Someone could look at me the wrong way and I could claim my safety was in threat.”
Lieutenant Brady Van Engelen, 26, of Washington DC, 1st Armoured Division. Eight-month tour of Baghdad beginning Sept 2003
“I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, ‘A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi… You know, so what?’… [Only when we got home] in… meeting other veterans, it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, then.”
Specialist Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry. In Baquba for a year beginning February 2004
“[The photo] was very graphic… They open the body bags of these prisoners that were shot in the head and [one soldier has] got a spoon. He’s reaching in to scoop out some of his brain, looking at the camera and smiling.”
Specialist Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, Florida, 320th Military Police Company. Deployed to Talil air base for one year beginning April 2003
“The car was approaching what was in my opinion a very poorly marked checkpoint… and probably didn’t even see the soldiers… The guys got spooked and decided it was a possible threat, so they shot up the car. And they [the bodies] literally sat in the car for the next three days while we drove by them.
Sergeant Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, 18th Infantry Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. One-year from February 2004
“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…”
Sergeant Camilo Mejía, 31, from Miami, National Guardsman, 1-124 Infantry Battalion, 53rd Infantry Brigade. Six-month tour beginning April 2003
“I just remember thinking, ‘I just brought terror to someone under the American flag’.”
Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, 31, of Denver, 18th Infantry Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. In Tikrit on year-long tour beginning February 2004
“A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that 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.”
Specialist Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division. Four-month tour in Baghdad and Mosul beginning December 2004
“I felt like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people. The only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys that I was with, and everybody else be damned.”
Sergeant Ben Flanders, 28, National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, 172nd Mountain Infantry. In Balad for 11 months beginning March 2004
The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness, by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, appears in the 30 July issue of The Nation
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