The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness
The US military checkpoints dotted across Iraq, according to twenty-six soldiers and marines who were stationed at them or supplied them--in locales as diverse as Tikrit, Baghdad, Karbala, Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk--were often deadly for civilians. Unarmed Iraqis were mistaken for insurgents, and the rules of engagement were blurred. Troops, fearing suicide bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, often fired on civilian cars. Nine of those soldiers said they had seen civilians being shot at checkpoints. These incidents were so common that the military could not investigate each one, some veterans said.
"Most of the time, it's a family," said Sergeant Cannon, who served at half a dozen checkpoints in Tikrit. "Every now and then, there is a bomb, you know, that's the scary part."
There were some permanent checkpoints stationed across the country, but for unsuspecting civilians, "flash checkpoints" were far more dangerous, according to eight veterans who were involved in setting them up. These impromptu security perimeters, thrown up at a moment's notice and quickly dismantled, were generally designed to catch insurgents in the act of trafficking weapons or explosives, people violating military-imposed curfews or suspects in bombings or drive-by shootings.
Iraqis had no way of knowing where these so-called "tactical control points" would crop up, interviewees said, so many would turn a corner at a high speed and became the unwitting targets of jumpy soldiers and marines.
"For me, it was really random," said Lieutenant Van Engelen. "I just picked a spot on a map that I thought was a high-volume area that might catch some people. We just set something up for half an hour to an hour and then we'd move on." There were no briefings before setting up checkpoints, he said.
Temporary checkpoints were safer for troops, according to the veterans, because they were less likely to serve as static targets for insurgents. "You do it real quick because you don't always want to announce your presence," said First Sgt. Perry Jefferies, 46, of Waco, Texas, who served with the Fourth Infantry Division from April to October 2003.
The temporary checkpoints themselves varied greatly. Lieutenant Van Engelen set up checkpoints using orange cones and fifty yards of concertina wire. He would assign a soldier to control the flow of traffic and direct drivers through the wire, while others searched vehicles, questioned drivers and asked for identification. He said signs in English and Arabic warned Iraqis to stop; at night, troops used lasers, glow sticks or tracer bullets to signal cars through. When those weren't available, troops improvised by using flashlights sent them by family and friends back home.
"Baghdad is not well lit," said Sergeant Flanders. "There's not street lights everywhere. You can't really tell what's going on."
Other troops, however, said they constructed tactical control points that were hardly visible to drivers. "We didn't have cones, we didn't have nothing," recalled Sergeant Bocanegra, who said he served at more than ten checkpoints in Tikrit. "You literally put rocks on the side of the road and tell them to stop. And of course some cars are not going to see the rocks. I wouldn't even see the rocks myself."
According to Sergeant Flanders, the primary concern when assembling checkpoints was protecting the troops serving there. Humvees were positioned so that they could quickly drive away if necessary, and the heavy weapons mounted on them were placed "in the best possible position" to fire on vehicles that attempted to pass through the checkpoint without stopping. And the rules of engagement were often improvised, soldiers said.
"We were given a long list of that kind of stuff and, to be honest, a lot of the time we would look at it and throw it away," said Staff Sgt. James Zuelow, 39, a National Guardsman from Juneau, Alaska, who served in Baghdad in the Third Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, for a year beginning in January 2005. "A lot of it was written at such a high level it didn't apply."
At checkpoints, troops had to make split-second decisions on when to use lethal force, and veterans said fear often clouded their judgment.
Sgt. Matt Mardan, 31, of Minneapolis, served as a Marine scout sniper outside Falluja in 2004 and 2005 with the Third Battalion, First Marines. "People think that's dangerous, and it is," he said. "But I would do that any day of the week rather than be a marine sitting on a fucking checkpoint looking at cars."
No car that passes through a checkpoint is beyond suspicion, said Sergeant Dougherty. "You start looking at everyone as a criminal.... Is this the car that's going to try to run into me? Is this the car that has explosives in it? Or is this just someone who's confused?" The perpetual uncertainty, she said, is mentally exhausting and physically debilitating.
"In the moment, what's passing through your head is, Is this person a threat? Do I shoot to stop or do I shoot to kill?" said Lieutenant Morgenstein, who served in Al Anbar.
Sergeant Mejía recounted an incident in Ramadi in July 2003 when an unarmed man drove with his young son too close to a checkpoint. The father was decapitated in front of the small, terrified boy by a member of Sergeant Mejía's unit firing a heavy .50-caliber machine gun. By then, said Sergeant Mejía, who responded to the scene after the fact, "this sort of killing of civilians had long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment." The next month, Sergeant Mejía returned stateside for a two-week rest and refused to go back, launching a public protest over the treatment of Iraqis. (He was charged with desertion, sentenced to one year in prison and given a bad-conduct discharge.)
During the summer of 2005, Sergeant Millard, who served as an assistant to a general in Tikrit, attended a briefing on a checkpoint shooting, at which his role was to flip PowerPoint slides.
"This unit sets up this traffic control point, and this 18-year-old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun," he said. "This car speeds at him pretty quick and he makes a split-second decision that that's a suicide bomber, and he presses the butterfly trigger and puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed the mother, a father and two kids. The boy was aged 4 and the daughter was aged 3. And they briefed this to the general. And they briefed it gruesome. I mean, they had pictures. They briefed it to him. And this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says, 'If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn't happen.'"
Whether or not commanding officers shared this attitude, interviewees said, troops were rarely held accountable for shooting civilians at checkpoints. Eight veterans described the prevailing attitude among them as "Better to be tried by twelve men than carried by six." Since the number of troops tried for killing civilians is so scant, interviewees said, they would risk court-martial over the possibility of injury or death.