The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness
A few veterans said checkpoint shootings resulted from basic miscommunication, incorrectly interpreted signals or cultural ignorance.
"As an American, you just put your hand up with your palm towards somebody and your fingers pointing to the sky," said Sergeant Jefferies, who was responsible for supplying fixed checkpoints in Diyala twice a day. "That means stop to most Americans, and that's a military hand signal that soldiers are taught that means stop. Closed fist, please freeze, but an open hand means stop. That's a sign you make at a checkpoint. To an Iraqi person, that means, Hello, come here. So you can see the problem that develops real quick. So you get on a checkpoint, and the soldiers think they're saying stop, stop, and the Iraqis think they're saying come here, come here. And the soldiers start hollering, so they try to come there faster. So soldiers holler more, and pretty soon you're shooting pregnant women."
"You can't tell the difference between these people at all," said Sergeant Mardan. "They all look Arab. They all have beards, facial hair. Honestly, it'll be like walking into China and trying to tell who's in the Communist Party and who's not. It's impossible."
But other veterans said that the frequent checkpoint shootings resulted from a lack of accountability. Critical decisions, they said, were often left to the individual soldier's or marine's discretion, and the military regularly endorsed these decisions without inquiry.
"Some units were so tight on their command and control that every time they fired one bullet, they had to write an investigative report," said Sergeant Campbell. But "we fired thousands of rounds without ever filing reports," he said. "And so it has to do with how much interaction and, you know, the relationship of the commanders to their units."
Cpt. Megan O'Connor said that in her unit every shooting incident was reported. O'Connor, 30, of Venice, California, served in Tikrit with the Fiftieth Main Support Battalion in the National Guard for a year beginning in December 2004, after which she joined the 2-28 Brigade Combat Team in Ramadi. But Captain O'Connor said that after viewing the reports and consulting with JAG officers, the colonel in her command would usually absolve the soldiers. "The bottom line is he always said, you know, We weren't there," she said. "We'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but make sure that they know that this is not OK and we're watching them."
Probes into roadblock killings were mere formalities, a few veterans said. "Even after a thorough investigation, there's not much that could be done," said Specialist Reppenhagen. "It's just the nature of the situation you're in. That's what's wrong. It's not individual atrocity. It's the fact that the entire war is an atrocity."
The March 2005 shooting death of Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari at a checkpoint in Baghdad, however, caused the military to finally crack down on such accidents, said Sergeant Campbell, who served there. Yet this did not necessarily lead to greater accountability. "Needless to say, our unit was under a lot of scrutiny not to shoot any more people than we already had to because we were kind of a run-and-gun place," said Sergeant Campbell. "One of the things they did was they started saying, Every time you shoot someone or shoot a car, you have to fill out a 15- or whatever the investigation is. Well, that investigation is really onerous for the soldiers. It's like a 'You're guilty' investigation almost--it feels as though. So commanders just stopped reporting shootings. There was no incentive for them to say, Yeah, we shot so-and-so's car."
(Sergeant Campbell said he believes the number of checkpoint shootings did decrease after the high-profile incident, but that was mostly because soldiers were now required to use pinpoint lasers at night. "I think they reduced, from when we started to when we left, the number of Iraqi civilians dying at checkpoints from one a day to one a week," he said. "Inherent in that number, like all statistics, is those are reported shootings.")
Fearing a backlash against these shootings of civilians, Lieutenant Morgenstein gave a class in late 2004 at his battalion headquarters in Ramadi to all the battalion's officers and most of its senior noncommissioned officers during which he asked them to put themselves in the Iraqis' place.
"I told them the obvious, which is, everyone we wound or kill that isn't an insurgent, hurts us," he said. "Because I guarantee you, down the road, that means a wounded or killed marine or soldier.... One, it's the right thing to do to not wound or shoot someone who isn't an insurgent. But two, out of self-preservation and self-interest, we don't want that to happen because they're going to come back with a vengeance."