WikiLeaks in Baghdad
One by one, soldiers just arriving in Baghdad were taken into a room and questioned by their commanding officers. "All questions led up to the big question," explains former Army Spc. Josh Stieber. "If someone were to pull out a weapon in a marketplace full of unarmed civilians, would you open fire on that person, even if you knew you would hurt a lot of innocent people in the process?"
It was a trick question. "Not only did you have to say yes, but you had to say yes without hesitating," explains Stieber. "In refusing to go along with the crowd, it was not irregular for somebody to get beat up," he adds. "They'll take you in a room, close the door and knock you around if they didn't like your answer," says former Army Spc. Ray Corcoles, who deployed with Stieber.
According to these former soldiers, this was a typical moment of training for Bravo Company 2-16 (2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment), the ground unit involved in the infamous "Collateral Murder" video, which captured global headlines when it was released in April by WikiLeaks, the online clearinghouse for anonymous leaks. (In late July WikiLeaks dropped another bombshell with its release of more than 90,000 secret US military documents from the war in Afghanistan, including detailed reports on Pakistani collusion with the insurgents—who have successfully used heat-seeking missiles against allied forces—US assassination teams, widespread civilian casualties from US attacks and staggering Afghan government incompetence and corruption.)
The graphic video from Baghdad shows a July 2007 attack in which US forces, firing from helicopter gunships, wounded two children and killed more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters employees and the father of those children. The video quickly became an international symbol of the brutality and callousness of the US military in Iraq. What the world did not see is the months of training that led up to the incident, in which soldiers were taught to respond to threats with a barrage of fire—a "wall of steel," in Army parlance—even if it put civilians at risk.
Now three former soldiers from this unit have come forward to make the case that the incident is not a matter of a few bad-apple soldiers but rather just one example of US military protocol in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, where excessive acts of violence often stem from the chain of command. This comes at a time when the top brass in Afghanistan are speaking openly of relaxing the rules of engagement. After Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recent ouster for publicly criticizing the Obama administration, his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, has asserted that military protocol in Afghanistan should be adjusted because of "concerns" about "the application of our rules of engagement," a move that critics fear will cause civilian deaths to skyrocket.
The story that Stieber, Corcoles and former Army Spc. Ethan McCord tell provides crucial background for the incident that WikiLeaks made famous. Bravo Company 2-16 deployed to Iraq in February 2007 during the "surge" ordered by George W. Bush. Their spring arrival in New Baghdad, a dangerous neighborhood in eastern Baghdad bordering Sadr City, coincided with the start of the deadliest three-month period for US forces during the Iraq War.
"I had the idea that I was going over there to help the Iraqi people—you know, freedom and democracy," says McCord, an expectation that Stieber and Corcoles say they shared. They learned quickly that the reality was very different. All three of these former soldiers describe a general policy of, in McCord's words, trying to "out-terrorize the terrorists" in order to establish power in a neighborhood that clearly did not want US troops there. The next months would be spent raiding houses, responding to sniper fire and IEDs, and, as Corcoles says, "driving around just waiting to get shot at." All of them would witness the abuse, displacement and killing of Iraqi civilians.
When Bravo Company 2-16 arrived in New Baghdad to establish its Combat Outpost (COP) in an old factory, hundreds of angry residents gathered in protest. In grainy video footage brought back by McCord, residents can be seen converging around the soldiers and chanting, and McCord is seen standing in front of the crowd with his weapon drawn. Corcoles, behind the camera, was guarding the gate of the new post. "The first sergeant told me to shoot anyone who tried to rush the soldiers outside the gate," he says. Some Iraqis were then dragged inside, beaten and questioned. When the crowds dispersed, construction crews came in to begin building a wall around the new post. To clear the area, the military forced people to leave. "We were kicking people out of their homes," says McCord. "People who didn't want to move, we would basically force them to move...pretty much making them leave at gunpoint."
From then on the violence escalated. Corcoles describes the first IED death his unit suffered. "We did a mission that night till like midnight, and we were actually just sitting down.... I hadn't even got three or four drags off my cigarette and an IED went off.... We watched the Humvee burn, but we didn't realize [someone] was still in it."
The IED attacks left the soldiers angry and scared. McCord recalls one mission to impose curfews. Earlier that day, a popular soldier had died in an IED attack, and the troops took it out on the Iraqis. "There were a lot of people who got beat up that night," he says bluntly. This anger was turned into policy by the chain of command. "We had just lost three guys to an IED when the battalion commander came out to the COP," says McCord. He went on to explain that the commander gave orders to shoot indiscriminately after IED attacks. "He said, 'Fuck it, this is what I want...anytime someone in your line gets hit by an IED...you kill every motherfucker in the street,'" McCord testifies.
"When one [IED] went off, you were supposed to open fire on anybody," says Stieber. "At first I would just fire into a field. Then I wouldn't fire at all." He describes an IED that went off near a crowd of teenagers. "I said I wouldn't fire," even though "other people were firing," he recalls. Like Stieber, Corcoles describes incidents in which he purposely aimed his gun away from people. "You don't even know if somebody's shooting at you," he says. "It's just insanity to just start shooting people." Stieber pointed out that in incidents like these, it was very rare for US military vehicles to stop to help the wounded or assess how many people had been injured or killed.
Stieber was intimidated and reprimanded by his command for refusing orders to shoot. "One time when I didn't fire, people in my truck were yelling at me for the rest of the mission. When we got back, one or two leaders got up in my face and kept yelling at me and stuff," he says. The command eventually stopped sending him on missions as a gunner, and Stieber says he "faced a lot of criticism for it." Corcoles saw this too. "One night our truck got hit by an IED and Josh didn't fire, and another soldier didn't fire," he says. "And they were getting yelled at: 'Why aren't you firing?' And they said, 'There's nobody to fire at.'"
Corcoles recalls another "wall of steel" incident: "Our first sergeant was with us, and after we got hit by an IED, people started shooting everywhere, and they were also actually shooting at him." He explains that his sergeant happened to be within range of indiscriminate fire coming from US soldiers. After almost getting shot by the soldiers, "our first sergeant told us not to do this anymore," says Corcoles.
Excessive acts of violence were woven into daily missions, house searches and prisoner detention, says McCord. "This one time, in the summer of 2007, we were in a barbershop and my platoon leader was asking the barbershop owner about the local militia," he says. "The interpreter kept saying the owner didn't know anything. The platoon leader said, 'He is fucking lying,'" says McCord, explaining that it was always assumed that Iraqis who said they didn't know anything were lying. "I remember my platoon leader punching him in the face. When [the barbershop owner] went to ground, he was kicked by others in the platoon. Many other Iraqis were in there to get their hair cut. They were up against the wall watching him get kicked."
McCord says that when others in his unit saw this kind of behavior condoned by the leadership, they followed suit. He describes multiple instances in which soldiers abused detainees or beat people up in their houses. In one case, he says, someone was taken from his house, beaten up and then left on the side of the road, bloodied and still handcuffed.