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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.

Convoys

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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Two dozen soldiers interviewed said that this callousness toward Iraqi civilians was particularly evident in the operation of supply convoys--operations in which they participated. These convoys are the arteries that sustain the occupation, ferrying items such as water, mail, maintenance parts, sewage, food and fuel across Iraq. And these strings of tractor-trailers, operated by KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root) and other private contractors, required daily protection by the US military. Typically, according to these interviewees, supply convoys consisted of twenty to thirty trucks stretching half a mile down the road, with a Humvee military escort in front and back and at least one more in the center. Soldiers and marines also sometimes accompanied the drivers in the cabs of the tractor-trailers.

These convoys, ubiquitous in Iraq, were also, to many Iraqis, sources of wanton destruction.

According to descriptions culled from interviews with thirty-eight veterans who rode in convoys--guarding such runs as Kuwait to Nasiriya, Nasiriya to Baghdad and Balad to Kirkuk--when these columns of vehicles left their heavily fortified compounds they usually roared down the main supply routes, which often cut through densely populated areas, reaching speeds over sixty miles an hour. Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were frequently run over and killed. Veterans said they sometimes shot drivers of civilian cars that moved into convoy formations or attempted to pass convoys as a warning to other drivers to get out of the way.

"A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one," said Sgt. Ben Flanders, 28, a National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, who served in Balad with the 172nd Mountain Infantry for eleven months beginning in March 2004. Flanders ran convoy routes out of Camp Anaconda, about thirty miles north of Baghdad. "So speed was your friend. And certainly in terms of IED detonation, absolutely, speed and spacing were the two things that could really determine whether or not you were going to get injured or killed or if they just completely missed, which happened."

Following an explosion or ambush, soldiers in the heavily armed escort vehicles often fired indiscriminately in a furious effort to suppress further attacks, according to three veterans. The rapid bursts from belt-fed .50-caliber machine guns and SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons, which can fire as many as 1,000 rounds per minute) left many civilians wounded or dead.

"One example I can give you, you know, we'd be cruising down the road in a convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up," said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of Grand Junction, Colorado. He served in Baquba with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, from February 2004 to February 2005. "And, you know, you've got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I've seen this, I mean, on numerous occasions where innocent people died because we're cruising down and a bomb goes off."

Several veterans said that IEDs, the preferred weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, were one of their greatest fears. Since the invasion in March 2003, IEDs have been responsible for killing more US troops--39.2 percent of the more than 3,500 killed--than any other method, according to the Brookings Institution, which monitors deaths in Iraq. This past May, IED attacks claimed ninety lives, the highest number of fatalities from roadside bombs since the beginning of the war.

"The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried," said Sergeant Flatt. "You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see them. I mean, it's just by pure luck who's getting killed and who's not. If you've been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you're even more stressed and insecure to a point where you're almost trigger-happy."

Sergeant Flatt was among twenty-four veterans who said they had witnessed or heard stories from those in their unit of unarmed civilians being shot or run over by convoys. These incidents, they said, were so numerous that many were never reported.

Sergeant Flatt recalled an incident in January 2005 when a convoy drove past him on one of the main highways in Mosul. "A car following got too close to their convoy," he said. "Basically, they took shots at the car. Warning shots, I don't know. But they shot the car. Well, one of the bullets happened to just pierce the windshield and went straight into the face of this woman in the car. And she was--well, as far as I know--instantly killed. I didn't pull her out of the car or anything. Her son was driving the car, and she had her--she had three little girls in the back seat. And they came up to us, because we were actually sitting in a defensive position right next to the hospital, the main hospital in Mosul, the civilian hospital. And they drove up and she was obviously dead. And the girls were crying."

On July 30, 2004, Sergeant Flanders was riding in the tail vehicle of a convoy on a pitch-black night, traveling from Camp Anaconda south to Taji, just north of Baghdad, when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). He was about to get on the radio to warn the vehicle in front of him about the ambush when he saw his gunner unlock the turret and swivel it around in the direction of the shooting. He fired his MK-19, a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher capable of discharging up to 350 rounds per minute.

"He's just holding the trigger down and it wound up jamming, so he didn't get off as many shots maybe as he wanted," Sergeant Flanders recalled. "But I said, 'How many did you get off?' 'Cause I knew they would be asking that. He said, 'Twenty-three.' He launched twenty-three grenades....

"I remember looking out the window and I saw a little hut, a little Iraqi house with a light on.... We were going so fast and obviously your adrenaline's--you're like tunnel vision, so you can't really see what's going on, you know? And it's dark out and all that stuff. I couldn't really see where the grenades were exploding, but it had to be exploding around the house or maybe even hit the house. Who knows? Who knows? And we were the last vehicle. We can't stop."

Convoys did not slow down or attempt to brake when civilians inadvertently got in front of their vehicles, according to the veterans who described them. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty, 29, from Cañon City, Colorado, was based at the Talil Air Base in Nasiriya with the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Company for a year beginning in February 2003. She recounted one incident she investigated in January 2004 on a six-lane highway south of Nasiriya that resembled numerous incidents described by other veterans.

"It's like very barren desert, so most of the people that live there, they're nomadic or they live in just little villages and have, like, camels and goats and stuff," she recalled. "There was then a little boy--I would say he was about 10 because we didn't see the accident; we responded to it with the investigative team--a little Iraqi boy and he was crossing the highway with his, with three donkeys. A military convoy, transportation convoy driving north, hit him and the donkeys and killed all of them. When we got there, there were the dead donkeys and there was a little boy on the side of the road.

"We saw him there and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn't even stop," she said. "They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down. But, I mean, that's basically--basically, your order is that you never stop."

Among supply convoys, there were enormous disparities based on the nationality of the drivers, according to Sergeant Flanders, who estimated that he ran more than 100 convoys in Balad, Baghdad, Falluja and Baquba. When drivers were not American, the trucks were often old, slow and prone to breakdowns, he said. The convoys operated by Nepalese, Egyptian or Pakistani drivers did not receive the same level of security, although the danger was more severe because of the poor quality of their vehicles. American drivers were usually placed in convoys about half the length of those run by foreign nationals and were given superior vehicles, body armor and better security. Sergeant Flanders said troops disliked being assigned to convoys run by foreign nationals, especially since, when the aging vehicles broke down, they had to remain and protect them until they could be recovered.

"It just seemed insane to run civilians around the country," he added. "I mean, Iraq is such a security concern and it's so dangerous and yet we have KBR just riding around, unarmed.... Remember those terrible judgments that we made about what Iraq would look like postconflict? I think this is another incarnation of that misjudgment, which would be that, Oh, it'll be fine. We'll put a Humvee in front, we'll put a Humvee in back, we'll put a Humvee in the middle, and we'll just run with it.

"It was just shocking to me.... I was Army trained and I had a good gunner and I had radios and I could call on the radios and I could get an airstrike if I wanted to. I could get a Medevac.... And here these guys are just tooling around. And these guys are, like, they're promised the world. They're promised $120,000, tax free, and what kind of people take those jobs? Down-on-their-luck-type people, you know? Grandmothers. There were grandmothers there. I escorted a grandmother there and she did great. We went through an ambush and one of her guys got shot, and she was cool, calm and collected. Wonderful, great, good for her. What the hell is she doing there?

"We're using these vulnerable, vulnerable convoys, which probably piss off more Iraqis than it actually helps in our relationship with them," Flanders said, "just so that we can have comfort and air-conditioning and sodas--great--and PlayStations and camping chairs and greeting cards and stupid T-shirts that say, Who's Your Baghdaddy?"

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