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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.

Rules of Engagement

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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Indeed, several troops said the rules of engagement were fluid and designed to insure their safety above all else. Some said they were simply told they were authorized to shoot if they felt threatened, and what constituted a risk to their safety was open to wide interpretation. "Basically it always came down to self-defense and better them than you," said Sgt. Bobby Yen, 28, of Atherton, California, who covered a variety of Army activities in Baghdad and Mosul as part of the 222nd Broadcast Operations Detachment for one year beginning in November 2003.

"Cover your own butt was the first rule of engagement," Lieutenant Van Engelen confirmed. "Someone could look at me the wrong way and I could claim my safety was in threat."

Lack of a uniform policy from service to service, base to base and year to year forced troops to rely on their own judgment, Sergeant Jefferies explained. "We didn't get straight-up rules," he said. "You got things like, 'Don't be aggressive' or 'Try not to shoot if you don't have to.' Well, what does that mean?"

Prior to deployment, Sergeant Flanders said, troops were trained on the five S's of escalation of force: Shout a warning, Shove (physically restrain), Show a weapon, Shoot non-lethal ammunition in a vehicle's engine block or tires, and Shoot to kill. Some troops said they carried the rules in their pockets or helmets on a small laminated card. "The escalation-of-force methodology was meant to be a guide to determine course of actions you should attempt before you shoot," he said. "'Shove' might be a step that gets skipped in a given situation. In vehicles, at night, how does 'Shout' work? Each soldier is not only drilled on the five S's but their inherent right for self-defense."

Some interviewees said their commanders discouraged this system of escalation. "There's no such thing as warning shots," Specialist Resta said he was told during his predeployment training at Fort Bragg. "I even specifically remember being told that it was better to kill them than to have somebody wounded and still alive."

Lieutenant Morgenstein said that when he arrived in Iraq in August 2004, the rules of engagement barred the use of warning shots. "We were trained that if someone is not armed, and they are not a threat, you never fire a warning shot because there is no need to shoot at all," he said. "You signal to them with some other means than bullets. If they are armed and they are a threat, you never fire a warning shot because...that just gives them a chance to kill you. I don't recall at this point if this was an ROE [rule of engagement] explicitly or simply part of our consistent training." But later on, he said, "we were told the ROE was changed" and that warning shots were now explicitly allowed in certain circumstances.

Sergeant Westphal said that by the time he arrived in Iraq earlier in 2004, the rules of engagement for checkpoints were more refined--at least where he served with the Army in Tikrit. "If they didn't stop, you were to fire a warning shot," said Sergeant Westphal. "If they still continued to come, you were instructed to escalate and point your weapon at their car. And if they still didn't stop, then, if you felt you were in danger and they were about to run your checkpoint or blow you up, you could engage."

In his initial training, Lieutenant Morgenstein said, marines were cautioned against the use of warning shots because "others around you could be hurt by the stray bullet," and in fact such incidents were not unusual. One evening in Baghdad, Sergeant Zuelow recalled, a van roared up to a checkpoint where another platoon in his company was stationed and a soldier fired a warning shot that bounced off the ground and killed the van's passenger. "That was a big wake-up call," he said, "and after that we discouraged warning shots of any kind."

Many checkpoint incidents went unreported, a number of veterans indicated, and the civilians killed were not included in the overall casualty count. Yet judging by the number of checkpoint shootings described to The Nation by veterans we interviewed, such shootings appear to be quite common.

Sergeant Flatt recounted one incident in Mosul in January 2005 when an elderly couple zipped past a checkpoint. "The car was approaching what was in my opinion a very poorly marked checkpoint, or not even a checkpoint at all, and probably didn't even see the soldiers," he said. "The guys got spooked and decided it was a possible threat, so they shot up the car. And they literally sat in the car for the next three days while we drove by them day after day."

In another incident, a man was driving his wife and three children in a pickup truck on a major highway north of the Euphrates, near Ramadi, on a rainy day in February or March 2005. When the man failed to stop at a checkpoint, a marine in a light-armored vehicle fired on the car, killing the wife and critically wounding the son. According to Lieutenant Morgenstein, a civil affairs officer, a JAG official gave the family condolences and about $3,000 in compensation. "I mean, it's a terrible thing because there's no way to pay money to replace a family member," said Lieutenant Morgenstein, who was sometimes charged with apologizing to families for accidental deaths and offering them such compensation, called "condolence payments" or "solatia." "But it's an attempt to compensate for some of the costs of the funeral and all the expenses. It's an attempt to make a good-faith offering in a sign of regret and to say, you know, We didn't want this to happen. This is by accident." According to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department issued nearly $31 million in solatia and condolence payments between 2003 and 2006 to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who were "killed, injured or incur[red] property damage as a result of U.S. or coalition forces' actions during combat." The study characterizes the payments as "expressions of sympathy or remorse...but not an admission of legal liability or fault." In Iraq, according to the report, civilians are paid up to $2,500 for death, as much as $1,500 for serious injuries and $200 or more for minor injuries.

On one occasion, in Ramadi in late 2004, a man happened to drive down a road with his family minutes after a suicide bomber had hit a barrier during a cordon-and-search operation, Lieutenant Morgenstein said. The car's brakes failed and marines fired. The wife and her two children managed to escape from the car, but the man was fatally hit. The family was mistakenly told that he had survived, so Lieutenant Morgenstein had to set the record straight. "I've never done this before," he said. "I had to go tell this woman that her husband was actually dead. We gave her money, we gave her, like, ten crates of water, we gave the kids, I remember, maybe it was soccer balls and toys. We just didn't really know what else to do."

One such incident, which took place in Falluja in March 2003 and was reported on at the time by the BBC, even involved a group of plainclothes Iraqi policemen. Sergeant Mejía was told about the event by several soldiers who witnessed it.

The police officers were riding in a white pickup truck, chasing a BMW that had raced through a checkpoint. "The guy that the cops were chasing got through and I guess the soldiers got scared or nervous, so when the pickup truck came they opened fire on it," Sergeant Mejía said. "The Iraqi police tried to cease fire, but when the soldiers would not stop they defended themselves and there was a firefight between the soldiers and the cops. Not a single soldier was killed, but eight cops were."

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