One by one, soldiers just arriving in Baghdad were taken into a room and questioned by their commanding officers. "All questions led up to the big question," explains former Army Spc. Josh Stieber. "If someone were to pull out a weapon in a marketplace full of unarmed civilians, would you open fire on that person, even if you knew you would hurt a lot of innocent people in the process?"
It was a trick question. "Not only did you have to say yes, but you had to say yes without hesitating," explains Stieber. "In refusing to go along with the crowd, it was not irregular for somebody to get beat up," he adds. "They’ll take you in a room, close the door and knock you around if they didn’t like your answer," says former Army Spc. Ray Corcoles, who deployed with Stieber.
According to these former soldiers, this was a typical moment of training for Bravo Company 2-16 (2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment), the ground unit involved in the infamous "Collateral Murder" video, which captured global headlines when it was released in April by WikiLeaks, the online clearinghouse for anonymous leaks. (In late July WikiLeaks dropped another bombshell with its release of more than 90,000 secret US military documents from the war in Afghanistan, including detailed reports on Pakistani collusion with the insurgents—who have successfully used heat-seeking missiles against allied forces—US assassination teams, widespread civilian casualties from US attacks and staggering Afghan government incompetence and corruption.)
The graphic video from Baghdad shows a July 2007 attack in which US forces, firing from helicopter gunships, wounded two children and killed more than a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters employees and the father of those children. The video quickly became an international symbol of the brutality and callousness of the US military in Iraq. What the world did not see is the months of training that led up to the incident, in which soldiers were taught to respond to threats with a barrage of fire—a "wall of steel," in Army parlance—even if it put civilians at risk.
Now three former soldiers from this unit have come forward to make the case that the incident is not a matter of a few bad-apple soldiers but rather just one example of US military protocol in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, where excessive acts of violence often stem from the chain of command. This comes at a time when the top brass in Afghanistan are speaking openly of relaxing the rules of engagement. After Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent ouster for publicly criticizing the Obama administration, his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, has asserted that military protocol in Afghanistan should be adjusted because of "concerns" about "the application of our rules of engagement," a move that critics fear will cause civilian deaths to skyrocket.
The story that Stieber, Corcoles and former Army Spc. Ethan McCord tell provides crucial background for the incident that WikiLeaks made famous. Bravo Company 2-16 deployed to Iraq in February 2007 during the "surge" ordered by George W. Bush. Their spring arrival in New Baghdad, a dangerous neighborhood in eastern Baghdad bordering Sadr City, coincided with the start of the deadliest three-month period for US forces during the Iraq War.