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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.

Intelligence

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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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 being told.

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 insurgents."

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