The papers indicate that front-line troops were desensitised to civilian deaths, writes MICHAEL SCHMIDT
ONE BY one, the marines sat down, swore to tell the truth and began to give secret interviews discussing one of the most horrific episodes of America’s time in Iraq: the 2005 massacre by marines of Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha.
“I mean, whether it’s a result of our action or other action, you know, discovering 20 bodies, throats slit, 20 bodies, you know, beheaded, 20 bodies here, 20 bodies there,” Col Thomas Cariker, a commander in Anbar province at the time, said to investigators as he described the chaos of Iraq. At times, he said, deaths were caused by “grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians”.
The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last US troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered by a reporter at a junkyard outside Baghdad.
The documents – many marked secret – form part of a military investigation and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates river town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers. Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring resentment that not a single marine has been convicted. That is one of the main reasons that all US combat troops are leaving.
But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on soldiers and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand. In their own words, the report documents the dehumanising nature of this war, where marines came to view 20 dead civilians as not “remarkable” but routine.
Anbar commander Maj Gen Steve Johnson described it as “a cost of doing business”.
The stress of combat left some soldiers paralysed, the testimony shows. Traumatised troops became increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitised and inured to the killing that they fired upon civilians, while comrades took photographs, and were court-martialed.
Charges were dropped against six of the accused in the Haditha episode, another was acquitted and the last case is scheduled to proceed to trial next year.
A sense of impunity poisoned any chance for US forces to remain in Iraq because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.
Told about the documents that had been found, Col Barry Johnson, a military spokesman, said that many of the documents remain classified and should have been destroyed. “Despite the way in which they were improperly discarded and came into your possession, we are not at liberty to discuss classified information,” he said.
Many of those testifying at bases in Iraq or back in the US were clearly in the hot seat for not investigating an atrocity and may have tried to shape statements to dispel any notion that they had sought to cover up the events. But the accounts also show the consternation of the marines as they struggled to control an unfamiliar land and its people in what amounted to a constant state of siege from guerrilla fighters who were nearly indistinguishable from noncombatants.
Some, feeling they were under attack constantly, decided to use force first and ask questions later. If marines took fire from a building, they would often level it. Drivers who approached checkpoints without stopping were assumed to be suicide bombers.
“When a car doesn’t stop, it crosses the trigger line, marines engage and, yes, sir, there are people inside the car that are killed that have nothing to do with it,” Sgt Maj Edward T Sax, the battalion’s senior non-commissioned officer, testified. “I had marines shoot children in cars and deal with the marines individually one on one about it because they have a hard time dealing with that.”
Sgt Maj Sax said he would ask the marines responsible if they had known there had been children in the car. When they said no, he said he would tell them they were not at fault. He said he felt for the marines who had fired the shots, saying they would carry a lifelong burden.
“It is one thing to kill an insurgent in a head-on fight,” Sgt Maj Sax testified. “It is a whole different thing – and I hate to say it, the way we are raised in America – to injure a female or injure a child or in the worse case, kill a female or kill a child.”
They could not understand why so many Iraqis just did not stop at checkpoints and speculated it was due to illiteracy or poor eyesight.
“They don’t have glasses and stuff,” Col John Ledoux said.
Such was the environment in 2005, when the marines from Company K of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton, California, arrived in Anbar, where Haditha is located, many for their second or third tours in Iraq.
The province had become a stronghold for disenfranchised Sunnis and foreign fighters. Of the 4,483 US deaths in Iraq, 1,335 occurred in Anbar.
In 2004, four Blackwater contractors were gunned down and dragged through the streets of Falluja, their bodies burned and hanged on a bridge over the Euphrates. Days later, the US military moved into Falluja and chaos ensued in Anbar. The stress of combat soon bore down.
“We had the one where marines had photographed themselves taking shots at people,” Col R Kelly testified, saying that they immediately called the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and “confiscated their little camera”. He said the soldiers involved had received a court-martial.
All of this set the stage for what happened in Haditha on November 19th, 2005.
That morning, a military convoy of four vehicles was heading to an outpost in Haditha when one of the vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb.
Several marines got out to attend to the wounded, including one who eventually died, while others looked for insurgents who might have set off the bomb. Within a few hours 24 Iraqis – including a 76-year-old blind man and children between the ages of three and 15 – were killed, many inside their homes.
Townspeople contended that the marines overreacted to the attack and shot civilians, only one of whom was armed. The marines said they thought they were under attack.
Chief Warrant Officer KR Norwood, who received field reports on the day from Haditha and briefed commanders, testified that 20 dead civilians was not unusual.
“I meant it wasn’t remarkable, based off of the area I wouldn’t say remarkable, sir,” he said. “And that is just my definition. Not that I think one life is not remarkable, it’s just . . . ”
An investigator asked the officer: “I mean remarkable or noteworthy in terms of something that would have caught your attention where you would have immediately said, ‘got to have more information on that. That is a lot of casualties.’ ”
“Not at the time, sir,” the officer testified.
Maj Gen Johnson said he did not feel compelled to go back and examine the events because they were part of an continuing pattern of civilian deaths.
“It happened all the time . . . throughout the whole country,” Maj Gen Johnson testified. “So, you know, maybe . . . if I was sitting here at Quantico and heard that 15 civilians were killed I would have been surprised and shocked and . . . done more to look into it,” he testified, referring to Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. “But at that point in time, I felt that was . . . part of that engagement and felt that it was just a cost of doing business on that particular engagement.”
When marines arrived on the scene at least one thought it would be a good time to take photographs for his own keeping.
The papers uncovered by the New York Times remain classified. In a meeting with the media in October, before the military had been told about the discovery of the documents, the US commander in charge of the logistics of the withdrawal said files from the bases were either transferred or incinerated.
“We don’t put official paperwork in the trash,” said the commander, Maj Gen Thomas Richardson, in Baghdad. – (New York Times)