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The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness | The Nation

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The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness

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This article will form the basis of Collateral Damage, forthcoming from Nation Books. Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Research assistance was provided by Nicholas Jahr.

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About the Author

Laila Al-Arian
Laila Al-Arian is a writer and producer for Al Jazeera English. She helped produce the network’s Palestine Papers...
Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges, former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. He is...

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The Nation contacted the Pentagon with a detailed list of questions and a request for comment on descriptions of specific patterns of abuse. These questions included requests to explain the rules of engagement, the operation of convoys, patrols and checkpoints, the investigation of civilian shootings, the detention of innocent Iraqis based on false intelligence and the alleged practice of "throwaway guns." The Pentagon referred us to the Multi-National Force Iraq Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, where a spokesperson sent us a response by e-mail.

"As a matter of operational security, we don't discuss specific tactics, techniques, or procedures (TTPs) used to identify and engage hostile forces," the spokesperson wrote, in part. "Our service members are trained to protect themselves at all times. We are facing a thinking enemy who learns and adjusts to our operations. Consequently, we adapt our TTPs to ensure maximum combat effectiveness and safety of our troops. Hostile forces hide among the civilian populace and attack civilians and coalition forces. Coalition forces take great care to protect and minimize risks to civilians in this complex combat environment, and we investigate cases where our actions may have resulted in the injury of innocents.... We hold our Soldiers and Marines to a high standard and we investigate reported improper use of force in Iraq."

This response is consistent with the military's refusal to comment on rules of engagement, arguing that revealing these rules threatens operations and puts troops at risk. But on February 9, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, then coalition spokesman, writing on the coalition force website, insisted that the rules of engagement for troops in Iraq were clear. "The law of armed conflict requires that, to use force, 'combatants' must distinguish individuals presenting a threat from innocent civilians," he wrote. "This basic principle is accepted by all disciplined militaries. In the counterinsurgency we are now fighting, disciplined application of force is even more critical because our enemies camouflage themselves in the civilian population. Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity, even as we remain ready to immediately defend ourselves or Iraqi civilians when a threat is detected."

When asked about veterans' testimony that civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces often went unreported and typically went unpunished, the Press Information Center spokesperson replied only, "Any allegations of misconduct are treated seriously.... Soldiers have an obligation to immediately report any misconduct to their chain of command immediately."

Last September, Senator Patrick Leahy, then ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, called a Pentagon report on its procedures for recording civilian casualties in Iraq "an embarrassment." "It totals just two pages," Leahy said, "and it makes clear that the Pentagon does very little to determine the cause of civilian casualties or to keep a record of civilian victims."

In the four long years of the war, the mounting civilian casualties have already taken a heavy toll--both on the Iraqi people and on the US servicemembers who have witnessed, or caused, their suffering. Iraqi physicians, overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, published a study late last year in the British medical journal The Lancet that estimated that 601,000 civilians have died since the March 2003 invasion as the result of violence. The researchers found that coalition forces were responsible for 31 percent of these violent deaths, an estimate they said could be "conservative," since "deaths were not classified as being due to coalition forces if households had any uncertainty about the responsible party."

"Just the carnage, all the blown-up civilians, blown-up bodies that I saw," Specialist Englehart said. "I just--I started thinking, like, Why? What was this for?"

"It just gets frustrating," Specialist Reppenhagen said. "Instead of blaming your own command for putting you there in that situation, you start blaming the Iraqi people.... So it's a constant psychological battle to try to, you know, keep--to stay humane."

"I felt like there was this enormous reduction in my compassion for people," said Sergeant Flanders. "The only thing that wound up mattering is myself and the guys that I was with. And everybody else be damned."

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