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.
"I had the idea that I was going over there to help the Iraqi people—you know, freedom and democracy," says McCord, an expectation that Stieber and Corcoles say they shared. They learned quickly that the reality was very different. All three of these former soldiers describe a general policy of, in McCord's words, trying to "out-terrorize the terrorists" in order to establish power in a neighborhood that clearly did not want US troops there. The next months would be spent raiding houses, responding to sniper fire and IEDs, and, as Corcoles says, "driving around just waiting to get shot at." All of them would witness the abuse, displacement and killing of Iraqi civilians.
When Bravo Company 2-16 arrived in New Baghdad to establish its Combat Outpost (COP) in an old factory, hundreds of angry residents gathered in protest. In grainy video footage brought back by McCord, residents can be seen converging around the soldiers and chanting, and McCord is seen standing in front of the crowd with his weapon drawn. Corcoles, behind the camera, was guarding the gate of the new post. "The first sergeant told me to shoot anyone who tried to rush the soldiers outside the gate," he says. Some Iraqis were then dragged inside, beaten and questioned. When the crowds dispersed, construction crews came in to begin building a wall around the new post. To clear the area, the military forced people to leave. "We were kicking people out of their homes," says McCord. "People who didn't want to move, we would basically force them to move...pretty much making them leave at gunpoint."
From then on the violence escalated. Corcoles describes the first IED death his unit suffered. "We did a mission that night till like midnight, and we were actually just sitting down.... I hadn't even got three or four drags off my cigarette and an IED went off.... We watched the Humvee burn, but we didn't realize [someone] was still in it."
The IED attacks left the soldiers angry and scared. McCord recalls one mission to impose curfews. Earlier that day, a popular soldier had died in an IED attack, and the troops took it out on the Iraqis. "There were a lot of people who got beat up that night," he says bluntly. This anger was turned into policy by the chain of command. "We had just lost three guys to an IED when the battalion commander came out to the COP," says McCord. He went on to explain that the commander gave orders to shoot indiscriminately after IED attacks. "He said, 'Fuck it, this is what I want...anytime someone in your line gets hit by an IED...you kill every motherfucker in the street,'" McCord testifies.
"When one [IED] went off, you were supposed to open fire on anybody," says Stieber. "At first I would just fire into a field. Then I wouldn't fire at all." He describes an IED that went off near a crowd of teenagers. "I said I wouldn't fire," even though "other people were firing," he recalls. Like Stieber, Corcoles describes incidents in which he purposely aimed his gun away from people. "You don't even know if somebody's shooting at you," he says. "It's just insanity to just start shooting people." Stieber pointed out that in incidents like these, it was very rare for US military vehicles to stop to help the wounded or assess how many people had been injured or killed.
Stieber was intimidated and reprimanded by his command for refusing orders to shoot. "One time when I didn't fire, people in my truck were yelling at me for the rest of the mission. When we got back, one or two leaders got up in my face and kept yelling at me and stuff," he says. The command eventually stopped sending him on missions as a gunner, and Stieber says he "faced a lot of criticism for it." Corcoles saw this too. "One night our truck got hit by an IED and Josh didn't fire, and another soldier didn't fire," he says. "And they were getting yelled at: 'Why aren't you firing?' And they said, 'There's nobody to fire at.'"
Corcoles recalls another "wall of steel" incident: "Our first sergeant was with us, and after we got hit by an IED, people started shooting everywhere, and they were also actually shooting at him." He explains that his sergeant happened to be within range of indiscriminate fire coming from US soldiers. After almost getting shot by the soldiers, "our first sergeant told us not to do this anymore," says Corcoles.
Excessive acts of violence were woven into daily missions, house searches and prisoner detention, says McCord. "This one time, in the summer of 2007, we were in a barbershop and my platoon leader was asking the barbershop owner about the local militia," he says. "The interpreter kept saying the owner didn't know anything. The platoon leader said, 'He is fucking lying,'" says McCord, explaining that it was always assumed that Iraqis who said they didn't know anything were lying. "I remember my platoon leader punching him in the face. When [the barbershop owner] went to ground, he was kicked by others in the platoon. Many other Iraqis were in there to get their hair cut. They were up against the wall watching him get kicked."
McCord says that when others in his unit saw this kind of behavior condoned by the leadership, they followed suit. He describes multiple instances in which soldiers abused detainees or beat people up in their houses. In one case, he says, someone was taken from his house, beaten up and then left on the side of the road, bloodied and still handcuffed.
In this setting, the "Collateral Murder" incident does not stand out as a drastic departure from the norm. That morning, Corcoles and McCord prepared for a "Ranger dominance" mission, "a clearing mission to basically go through every house, top to bottom, from one end of town to the next," says Corcoles. Stieber, who had been pulled off these missions because of his refusal to fire at crowds, was not with them this time. For the rest of the unit, what started as another day of house searches became a four-hour battle with militia members, say Corcoles and McCord. McCord was searching houses near Corcoles when he heard two Apache helicopters open fire nearby. He knew these helicopters were assigned to guard forces on the ground, so he knew something serious was occurring. "I heard over the net that we needed to move to that position," he recalls. He ran four or five blocks to the scene. "I was one of the first six dismounted soldiers to arrive there."
"It seemed unreal," says McCord, who describes running up and "seeing the carnage of what used to be human beings on the corner." A passenger van sat nearby, pocked with bullet holes and littered with bodies. Corcoles arrived on the scene shortly after McCord, who soon discovered two critically wounded children in the van and was able to pull them to safety. These moments would later be broadcast around the world in harrowing detail. McCord is seen in the video rushing wounded children away from the van. Photos that McCord took at the scene show mangled corpses lying in the road and one of the children, crouched in the front seat of the van next to a dead body.
Immediately following the incident, McCord was threatened and mocked by his commanding officer for pulling the children from the van. He says his platoon leader "yelled at me that I need to quit worrying about these 'motherfucking kids' and pull security." McCord later approached a staff sergeant and told him he needed mental healthcare after the incident. "He told me to stop being a pussy...to get the sand out of my vagina," he says. "I was told there would be repercussions." Fearing punishment, McCord did not ask again.
After conducting an internal investigation, the military cleared the unit of any wrongdoing. An "Investigation into Civilian Casualties Resulting from an Engagement on 12 July 2007 in the New Baghdad District of Baghdad, Iraq" found that "the proceedings comply with legal requirements" and "contain no material errors or violate any individual's substantial rights." The US Central Command refused several requests for an interview. And now Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, who is accused of leaking the video to WikiLeaks, is facing heavy charges punishable under the Espionage Act. The 22-year-old was transferred to Kuwait for a military trial that could lock him away in prison for decades.
In the months following the July 12 events, violence in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood subsided as the political winds shifted. After Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr declared a cease-fire and the United States moved toward a strategy of alliance with the Sunni Awakening Councils and some Shiite militia members, the soldiers began working with the very people they had once been told to fight, Stieber explains. "Things were pretty calm for most of the rest of the time, until like the last couple weeks that we were there," he says. As the troops finished their tour, some factions broke with Sadr's cease-fire and resumed fighting, and Bravo Company 2-16's COP was burned to the ground. "All hell broke loose," says Stieber. "The quick surge in violence at the end of our tour, when peace treaties were broken...show[s] that any progress that was made was [made] through negotiation as opposed to brute force." He says he found it contradictory that soldiers would end up legitimizing the people they had once fought.
McCord would return home early, suffering long-term injury from IED attacks that left him with a shattered lower spine and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He says the military at first tried to deny him treatment but eventually agreed to grant him back surgery after civilian tests showed serious injury. Despite TBI and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), McCord says the military refused to grant him a medical discharge and instead discharged him with a pre-existing personality disorder, a distinction that precludes him from receiving disability benefits from the military [see Joshua Kors, "Disposable Soldiers,"  April 26].
The three soldiers returned to the United States disillusioned with the war they had once volunteered to fight. "From my experiences in Iraq, we shouldn't even be in these countries fighting wars. This is a war of aggression, of occupation. There is nothing justifiable to me about this war," says McCord. "And this isn't someone sitting back saying 'I think' or 'I believe.' This is from someone who was there."
Three years after their deployment to Iraq, these former soldiers were forced to confront that war when the WikiLeaks video was thrust into the limelight. They watched as the familiar scene became a media sensation, making international headlines and raising the ire and disgust of people around the world.
By this point, Stieber, now 22, had become an outspoken peace activist. When he heard about the video, he was in the midst of planning a speaking tour with a man from Iraq with the goal of "showing that we have more in common with the people we're told are our enemies than those telling us who our enemies are," he says. After WikiLeaks posted the video, Stieber e-mailed several people from his former unit explaining that he was going to speak out about the incident. McCord, now 34 and raising two children, and Corcoles, 35 and raising a child, have both decided to join Stieber's effort.
The three have decided to go public to let the world know the context behind the acts caught on film. "If people don't like that video, then the entire system needs to be re-examined, and I think it illustrates why we shouldn't put soldiers in that situation," insists Stieber. Corcoles, now suffering from severe PTSD, says he wants the public to understand that "war kills civilians first." He says, "I think Americans...need to take responsibility. If you pay taxes, you pay for that soldier's wage. You're just as guilty as the soldier pulling the trigger."
"What was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created," reads an open letter from McCord and Stieber to the Iraqis who were injured or lost loved ones in the July 2007 attack. "From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region."
Of course, these three are not the first soldiers to break the silence about the rules of engagement in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the March 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland, more than fifty veterans and active-duty service members publicly testified about the orders they were told to carry out in these countries, sharing stories of excessive violence, as well as of abusive and threatening treatment they endured from their superiors [see Laila Al-Arian, "Winter Soldiers Speak ," April 7, 2008; and Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, "The Other War ," July 30/August 6, 2007].
The three former soldiers say they support the decision to leak these videos to the public. "Avoiding talking about what's going on is going to make us continue making the same mistakes and not learning our lesson," insists Stieber. About the most recent WikiLeaks revelations, Stieber says, "People all over the world have been confronted once again with the realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," adding that the latest release "confirms what veterans like Ethan, Ray and I, and so many other veteran witnesses, have been talking about."
But the occupations drag on, with President Obama continuing a Bush-era plan that will leave 50,000 "noncombat" troops in Iraq until at least the end of 2011. And top military brass have suggested that the August 31 deadline for withdrawal of "combat" troops may be extended. Meanwhile, Obama is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total force there to more than 100,000, in what is now the longest war in US history. June was the deadliest month for NATO forces in Afghanistan, with 102 deaths, and as of press time July had become the second deadliest, with seventy-eight deaths.
All three soldiers say they hope Americans will learn the right lessons from the WikiLeaks video. "We acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your loved ones as we tell Americans what we were trained to do and what we carried out in the name of 'god and country,'" write McCord and Stieber in their open letter. "The soldier in the video said that your husband shouldn't have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. We did unto you what we would not want done to us."
"Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny."