WikiLeaks in Baghdad
In this setting, the "Collateral Murder" incident does not stand out as a drastic departure from the norm. That morning, Corcoles and McCord prepared for a "Ranger dominance" mission, "a clearing mission to basically go through every house, top to bottom, from one end of town to the next," says Corcoles. Stieber, who had been pulled off these missions because of his refusal to fire at crowds, was not with them this time. For the rest of the unit, what started as another day of house searches became a four-hour battle with militia members, say Corcoles and McCord. McCord was searching houses near Corcoles when he heard two Apache helicopters open fire nearby. He knew these helicopters were assigned to guard forces on the ground, so he knew something serious was occurring. "I heard over the net that we needed to move to that position," he recalls. He ran four or five blocks to the scene. "I was one of the first six dismounted soldiers to arrive there."
"It seemed unreal," says McCord, who describes running up and "seeing the carnage of what used to be human beings on the corner." A passenger van sat nearby, pocked with bullet holes and littered with bodies. Corcoles arrived on the scene shortly after McCord, who soon discovered two critically wounded children in the van and was able to pull them to safety. These moments would later be broadcast around the world in harrowing detail. McCord is seen in the video rushing wounded children away from the van. Photos that McCord took at the scene show mangled corpses lying in the road and one of the children, crouched in the front seat of the van next to a dead body.
Immediately following the incident, McCord was threatened and mocked by his commanding officer for pulling the children from the van. He says his platoon leader "yelled at me that I need to quit worrying about these 'motherfucking kids' and pull security." McCord later approached a staff sergeant and told him he needed mental healthcare after the incident. "He told me to stop being a pussy...to get the sand out of my vagina," he says. "I was told there would be repercussions." Fearing punishment, McCord did not ask again.
After conducting an internal investigation, the military cleared the unit of any wrongdoing. An "Investigation into Civilian Casualties Resulting from an Engagement on 12 July 2007 in the New Baghdad District of Baghdad, Iraq" found that "the proceedings comply with legal requirements" and "contain no material errors or violate any individual's substantial rights." The US Central Command refused several requests for an interview. And now Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking the video to WikiLeaks, is facing heavy charges punishable under the Espionage Act. The 22-year-old was transferred to Kuwait for a military trial that could lock him away in prison for decades.
In the months following the July 12 events, violence in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood subsided as the political winds shifted. After Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a cease-fire and the United States moved toward a strategy of alliance with the Sunni Awakening Councils and some Shiite militia members, the soldiers began working with the very people they had once been told to fight, Stieber explains. "Things were pretty calm for most of the rest of the time, until like the last couple weeks that we were there," he says. As the troops finished their tour, some factions broke with Sadr's cease-fire and resumed fighting, and Bravo Company 2-16's COP was burned to the ground. "All hell broke loose," says Stieber. "The quick surge in violence at the end of our tour, when peace treaties were broken...show[s] that any progress that was made was [made] through negotiation as opposed to brute force." He says he found it contradictory that soldiers would end up legitimizing the people they had once fought.
McCord would return home early, suffering long-term injury from IED attacks that left him with a shattered lower spine and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He says the military at first tried to deny him treatment but eventually agreed to grant him back surgery after civilian tests showed serious injury. Despite TBI and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), McCord says the military refused to grant him a medical discharge and instead discharged him with a pre-existing personality disorder, a distinction that precludes him from receiving disability benefits from the military [see Joshua Kors, "Disposable Soldiers," April 26].
The three soldiers returned to the United States disillusioned with the war they had once volunteered to fight. "From my experiences in Iraq, we shouldn't even be in these countries fighting wars. This is a war of aggression, of occupation. There is nothing justifiable to me about this war," says McCord. "And this isn't someone sitting back saying 'I think' or 'I believe.' This is from someone who was there."
Three years after their deployment to Iraq, these former soldiers were forced to confront that war when the WikiLeaks video was thrust into the limelight. They watched as the familiar scene became a media sensation, making international headlines and raising the ire and disgust of people around the world.
By this point, Stieber, now 22, had become an outspoken peace activist. When he heard about the video, he was in the midst of planning a speaking tour with a man from Iraq with the goal of "showing that we have more in common with the people we're told are our enemies than those telling us who our enemies are," he says. After WikiLeaks posted the video, Stieber e-mailed several people from his former unit explaining that he was going to speak out about the incident. McCord, now 34 and raising two children, and Corcoles, 35 and raising a child, have both decided to join Stieber's effort.
The three have decided to go public to let the world know the context behind the acts caught on film. "If people don't like that video, then the entire system needs to be re-examined, and I think it illustrates why we shouldn't put soldiers in that situation," insists Stieber. Corcoles, now suffering from severe PTSD, says he wants the public to understand that "war kills civilians first." He says, "I think Americans...need to take responsibility. If you pay taxes, you pay for that soldier's wage. You're just as guilty as the soldier pulling the trigger."
"What was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created," reads an open letter from McCord and Stieber to the Iraqis who were injured or lost loved ones in the July 2007 attack. "From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region."
Of course, these three are not the first soldiers to break the silence about the rules of engagement in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the March 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland, more than fifty veterans and active-duty service members publicly testified about the orders they were told to carry out in these countries, sharing stories of excessive violence, as well as of abusive and threatening treatment they endured from their superiors [see Laila Al-Arian, "Winter Soldiers Speak," April 7, 2008; and Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, "The Other War," July 30/August 6, 2007].
The three former soldiers say they support the decision to leak these videos to the public. "Avoiding talking about what's going on is going to make us continue making the same mistakes and not learning our lesson," insists Stieber. About the most recent WikiLeaks revelations, Stieber says, "People all over the world have been confronted once again with the realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," adding that the latest release "confirms what veterans like Ethan, Ray and I, and so many other veteran witnesses, have been talking about."
But the occupations drag on, with President Obama continuing a Bush-era plan that will leave 50,000 "noncombat" troops in Iraq until at least the end of 2011. And top military brass have suggested that the August 31 deadline for withdrawal of "combat" troops may be extended. Meanwhile, Obama is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total force there to more than 100,000, in what is now the longest war in US history. June was the deadliest month for NATO forces in Afghanistan, with 102 deaths, and as of press time July had become the second deadliest, with seventy-eight deaths.
All three soldiers say they hope Americans will learn the right lessons from the WikiLeaks video. "We acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your loved ones as we tell Americans what we were trained to do and what we carried out in the name of 'god and country,'" write McCord and Stieber in their open letter. "The soldier in the video said that your husband shouldn't have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. We did unto you what we would not want done to us."
"Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny."