Monday, June 05, 2006
After Vietnam Americans Blamed The Troops and Called Them Babykillers. It Was Disgraceful. Now We Know Who To Blame for Iraq: BUSH.
Probing a Bloodbath
The Marines were well prepared for war, but not for insurgency. Did some of them snap—and slaughter innocent civilians in cold blood?
By Evan Thomas and Scott Johnson / Newsweek
June 12, 2006 issue - The Marines know how to get psyched up for a big fight. In November 2004, before the Battle of Fallujah, the Third Battalion, First Marines, better known as the "3/1" or "Thundering Third," held a chariot race. Horses had been confiscated from suspected insurgents, and charioteers were urged to go all-out. The men of Kilo Company—honored to be first into the city on the day of the battle—wore togas and cardboard helmets, and hoisted a shield emblazoned with a large K. As speakers blasted a heavy-metal song, "Cum On Feel the Noize," the warriors of Kilo Company carried a homemade mace, and a ball-and-chain studded with M-16 bullets. A company captain intoned a line from a scene in the movie "Gladiator," in which the Romans prepare to slaughter the barbarians: "What you do here echoes in eternity."
Fallujah was a vicious battle. The 3/1 lost 17 men in 10 days, fighting house to house. But the Marines were prepared. They had been taught to tie a rope to a wounded man to pull him to safety and to lay down a murderous blanket of covering fire. They expected their foe to resort to ruses, like dressing as women and using human shields. But the men of the Thundering Third had been given liberal rules of engagement to make sure people who looked like civilians didn't trigger hidden roadside bombs. "If you see someone with a cell phone," said one of the commanders, half-jokingly, "put a bullet in their f---ing head." During the battle, a TV camera crew photographed a Marine shooting a wounded, unarmed man. The Marine was later exonerated.
Fallujah was another victory for a Marine battalion with a bloody, valorous history—Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Inchon, Chosin Reservoir, Hué City. But Haditha, that was different. In the fall of 2005, when Kilo Company arrived in the flyblown city in Anbar province, three hours from Baghdad, up where the jihadists slipped across the Syrian border, the young Marines were worn out. This was their third tour in Iraq in three years, but they were not quite sure what to expect. The place was alien, sinister. The local jihadists were said to chop off the head of anyone found cooperating with the Americans. The Marines found scores of unexploded IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, but the insurgents seemed to have slipped away—or maybe they'd just gone behind closed doors, or blended into the population. Some of the locals seemed friendly enough, bringing them soft drinks and sweets and even helping them find the bombs. But could they really be trusted? And why didn't anyone warn them about those 155mm artillery shells wired to a telephone, found along the road in mid-November?
The Marine grunts of Kilo Company had been trained to kill, not to practice "counterinsurgency," whatever that meant. Not that their leaders were much better informed. Neither the Army nor the Marines had a counterinsurgency doctrine when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and since then soldiers and Marines had received at best patchwork training in the subtle arts of winning hearts and minds. (Indeed, only now, in the late spring of 2006, when the Iraq war has been spluttering along for almost as long as the time it took America to win World War II, is the military finalizing a draft of a manual on counterinsurgency.) Haditha, quiet but menacing for the first several weeks after Kilo Company arrived, is far more the norm in Iraq than the full-scale, all-out fighting of Fallujah. In Haditha, the Marines of Kilo Company sometimes handed out candy to kids but mostly patrolled about in Humvees, making some kind of show of force, presumably, but really just offering themselves as targets.
It is not clear exactly what happened in Haditha on the morning of Nov. 19. One Marine and 24 Iraqis died, that much is certain. Local survivors say Americans on a rampage massacred their neighbors in cold blood. The videotaped eyewitness accounts provided to NEWSWEEK and other news organizations are horrifying, hard to believe in their sordidness and brutality. The Marines at first said 15 civilians, along with Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, had been killed by an IED, and that the rest died in a shoot-out with insurgents. But the official story changed, in part because of a Time magazine exposé in March. Now, according to congressmen who have been briefed by the Pentagon, the military is investigating Kilo Company for possible war crimes. Investigators have seen grisly photographs and are pursuing allegations of a cover-up. Ominously, there are also reports of atrocities in other places, committed by young soldiers who cracked under the pressure of a war fought on a battlefield with no front lines, no easy way to tell civilians from insurgents, and no end in sight.
In Vietnam, when the doleful news came home of burned villages and slaughtered civilians, many Americans blamed the military. Vets came home to be spat upon and called "baby killers." Americans have learned from their disgraceful behavior back then, and generally honor today's Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen. But increasingly, they blame their leaders for putting young men and women into situations they were not trained or equipped to handle. As more accounts of civilian killings come to light, the pressure is likely to grow on the Bush administration to bring home the troops, not just to save their lives, but to rescue their honor and decency.
Haditha may turn out to be the worst massacre since My Lai. And Iraqis may be entirely justified in their outrage. But the scale of the tragedy should not be exaggerated. America still fields what is arguably the most disciplined, humane military force in history, a model of restraint compared with ancient armies that wallowed in the spoils of war or even more-modern armies that heedlessly killed civilians and prisoners. The 24 Iraqis killed at Haditha are a fraction of the 300-plus lined up and murdered at My Lai in 1968, just as the roughly 2,500 U.S. soldiers who have perished so far in Iraq pales against the 58,000 dead in Vietnam.
Still, Haditha underscores an uncomfortable truth of the Iraq war. Young men join the Marines to be like the warriors in those recruiting ads, brave knights in noble combat. They do not imagine they're joining a military version of the Peace Corps to be humanitarian workers. In training, they spend endless hours learning how to fire their weapons and kill the enemy. They do not spend much time learning how to be tolerant and neighborly with foreign peoples who speak a different language and practice a different religion. "I'm pissed off that they sent us over there to do a police action," says Kilo Company's Cpl. James Crossan, who was wounded when the IED exploded in Haditha. "There's still a war going on."
The tension between fierce warrior and friendly aid worker is inherent in counterinsurgency, and not necessarily a contradiction. To win hearts and minds—to pacify a village that is threatened or dominated by shadowy insurgents—it is necessary, as the saying goes, to present the locals with a choice: between being their best friend and their worst enemy. But the balance between carrot and stick is often subtle and usually requires highly specialized soldiers to pull it off. Typically, U.S. Special Forces trained in counterinsurgency are older, more mature, better educated and more fluent in foreign languages than your average grunt. But there are not nearly enough Special Forces (about 20,000 worldwide) to go around in Iraq, which means that young soldiers and Marines are left to do the job.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Lt. Gen. James Mattis, then commander of the First Marine Division, realized that his men needed to take a more measured, creative approach in dealing with the Iraqi citizenry under occupation. Unlike some Army units, which stayed in their armored vehicles, Mattis's men were ordered to get out into the street and interact with the locals. The Marines played soccer with kids, helped rebuild houses and schools, and—a small detail, but important—took off the sunglasses that made them look like invading aliens. Mattis was ahead of all but a few generals (most notably Lt. Gen. David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne) when it came to embracing the tactics of counterinsurgency.
And yet, Mattis sent unforgivably mixed signals to his troops. Appearing last year on a panel in San Diego near his former home base at Camp Pendleton, Mattis said, "Actually, it's quite fun to fight them. You know, it's a hell of a hoot ... I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."
Mattis was scolded by the top brass for his remarks, but not too harshly, for he had just been nominated by President George W. Bush to become commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force and head of Marine Forces Central Command. The impact of Mattis's remarks on an average 19-year-old jarhead can be imagined: killing is fun, like videogames.
The Marine Corps, though justly famous for loyalty and discipline, has a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality, according to some grunts interviewed by NEWSWEEK. The Marines were happy with the loose rules of engagement for the Battle of Fallujah in 2004—like "the Wild West," said one—and not so keen about the stricter rules for ordinary street patrols imposed since then. One Marine, Cpl. Khalid Aziz of Maryland, mocked the rules: "You're supposed to wave, throw a flashbang, say hi, make a baloney-and-cheese sandwich, shoot in front, shoot the tire, shoot the other tire, have some tea, shoot the engine, then shoot the windshield."
The restrictions, combined with the omnipresent danger, can cause enormous mental strain. In December, NEWSWEEK interviewed some Army soldiers going home as conscientious objectors. To fight boredom and disgust, said Clif Hicks, who had left a tank squadron at Camp Slayer in Baghdad, soldiers popped Benzhexol, five pills at time. Normally used to treat Parkinson's disease, the drug is a strong hallucinogenic when abused. "People were taking steroids, Valium, hooked on painkillers, drinking. They'd go on raids and patrols totally stoned." Hicks, who volunteered at the age of 17, said, "We're killing the wrong people all the time, and mostly by accident. One guy in my squadron ran over a family with his tank."
Hicks's own revulsion peaked while he was on patrol in January 2004. He came upon a bloody scene in a Baghdad housing project, where some soldiers had mistaken celebratory shots fired at a wedding for an attack, returning heavy fire and killing a young girl. "I looked in the door and she was dead, shot through the neck, Mom there, Grandma there, all losing it. Then I started thinking, this is really f---ed up, this is horribly wrong." Hicks stopped taking his malaria pills, hoping he'd get sick and shipped out. He says that infantry soldiers sometimes stick their legs out of the Humvee under sniper fire, hoping to get a nonlethal wound.
Hicks claims that "there's a lot of guys who steal from the Iraqis. Money, family heirlooms, and then they brag about it. Guys would crap into MRE bags and throw them to old men begging for food."
The accounts of Hicks and some other vets returning as C.O.s or with disabilities are obviously tinged with bitterness and may be exaggerated. But Iraqi leaders have long protested abuses by the American occupiers (even as they privately beseech the Americans to stay and keep the country from falling into civil war). Last week Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was quoted by The New York Times saying that many troops in the American-led Coalition "do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable." (Maliki later said he was misquoted, but the Times found only a minor mistranslation—Maliki did not say that the violence was a "daily phenomenon" but rather a "regular occurrence.") In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, was equally blunt about an atrocity that, he claims, happened to his own family. A year ago, says Sumaidaie, Marines raided the home of his cousin, a school principal in a small village in Anbar province. The Marines shot the man's son, a student home from college. The only weapon in the house was an AK-47 loaded with blanks. Ambassador Sumaidaie protested all the way to Gen. George Casey, the Coalition forces commander, but was told that the Americans fired in self-defense—and that the ambassador had to file a Freedom of Information Act request if he wanted to see the investigative file. "It was a cold blooded murder," says Sumaidaie. The killers, he says, "should be weeded out openly and without hesitation."
Civilians are routinely killed in Iraq in ambiguous situations—during fire fights with insurgents or when they fail to slow down and stop at a checkpoint. It is difficult to know how often the shootings are unwarranted or could be called war crimes. Investigations tend to get launched and then drag on and sometimes just fade away. Lately, however, more charges have been popping up in the press. Last week American investigators cleared an Army commander who had led a raid in the village of Ishaqi that killed as many as nine civilians, according to U.S. estimates. Iraqi police had charged that the Americans executed civilians, including a 75-year-old woman and 6-month-old baby. In a separate case, several Marines and at least one Navy corpsman are in the brig or confined to base at Camp Pendleton, waiting to find out if they will be charged in the killing of an Iraqi man on April 26. According to news reports, Marines pulled the man from his house and shot him, then planted a weapon by his body to make it appear that he was an insurgent.
The incident at Haditha is sure to attract massive media attention as it winds through the military criminal-justice system. No men have been charged with any wrongdoing, and a lawyer who represents two Marines under investigation has angrily declared that "the bastards who are leaking information should be strung by their necks in a public square." The attorney, David Brahms, a retired brigadier general who was the corps's top lawyer in the 1980s, says, "There are some startling things that are going to come out down the road and not from the mouths of the Pentagon." But he would not say what.
The stories told by the villagers of Haditha are bloodcurdling. Nov. 19 was a "shiny morning," clear and chilly, recalled Thaer Thabit al-Hadithi, who was sound asleep when the explosion went off. It was an enormous clap that shook the walls. He rushed to the kitchen window and looked across the street. An IED had gone off nearby, killing an American soldier, though Thabit did not know that. He could hear voices outside, then soldiers shouting in English: "F---, f---," he thought he heard them say. The shouts grew louder and were drowned by other sounds, the crackle of a machine gun and the sound of flashbang grenades. Thabit could see American troops heading toward the house of his neighbor Abdel Hamid Hassan. He couldn't see how many Marines went into Hassan's house, but he could soon see smoke pouring out the window.
A novice journalist, Thabit went to the morgue the next morning with a video camera. In Hassan's house, seven of the 11 members of the family had been found dead. The elderly patriarch—blind, and confined to a wheelchair—had been shot at close range, along with his wife. The Marines hit two other houses, smashing furniture and shooting occupants, Thabit recounted in an interview with NEWSWEEK.
One of those houses was owned by Jamal Ayed Ahmed, 40, a used-car salesman. He was there with his three brothers, a policeman, a local bureaucrat and a college student. "The Americans came and asked Jamal, 'Erhab? Erhab? [Terrorism? Terrorism?],' and he said, 'No'," recalled Jamal's wife, Asmaa, who was interviewed on videotape by a human-rights investigator hired by NEWSWEEK to help report. The Marines demanded to know, "Do you have any weapons?" The brothers produced two AK-47s, one with five bullets inside.
The scene apparently became chaotic. One of the women in the house was pushing frantically on a door to one of the rooms; the Americans tried to get the women to stop screaming. Shots rang out and the Americans left. The four brothers were found dead in a small room.
Hiba Abdullah, another Haditha resident who spoke on videotape, recalled lying in bed with her husband, Rashid, when the IED exploded in front of her house. "I opened my eyes and looked at Rashid and he told me, 'I swear that we will die'." Hiba asked, "Why do you say that?" but the shrapnel was already starting to come down, Hiba recalled. "It was like rain."
The Americans were soon shooting at Hiba's door. They entered and started rounding up family members. Hiba heard two shots, then her mother-in-law saying, "Oh my God." There were more shots and Rashid cried out, "They killed my mother!" Hiba tried to hush her husband, and heard an American soldier say to her father-in-law, "You, you." They shot him in the chest as he tried to stand, recalled Hiba, crying as she spoke into the camera. The soldiers were laughing and saying "OK" and "good" as they counted the bodies. Hiba says she saw her mother-in-law lying on the ground, with her hands raised in the air. The American soldiers, she says, shot the woman as she lay there.
The saddest and ugliest story was told to a NEWSWEEK reporter by a 12-year-old girl named Safa Younis. When the Marines entered her house that morning, she fled with her mother into a bathroom. A soldier followed them, shooting, she says. When the soldiers left, Safa tried to talk to her mother, but she was covered with blood. "Mama, Mama," cried the girl, until she realized that her mother was dead. So was her father, whom she found lying near the kitchen door. And her aunt, and her five siblings—all shot to death. "I was sorry for staying in the bathroom. I should have died like them," recalls Safa, who now lives with a cousin. "The Americans are murderers, criminals. They have no mercy."
The Americans directly involved in the Haditha incident are not talking. But a corporal who was on Kilo Company's civil-affairs team—the Marines who come in after the battle to deal with the civilians—offered NEWSWEEK a different, if far less complete version of events.
On the morning of Nov. 19, "the entire city was in an uproar," says Scott Jepsen, who was monitoring the radio back at Kilo Company's base in Haditha. Jepsen, who is now a sheriff in New Jersey, was on a team sent to do a damage assessment of Iraqi homes. The team later paid out money to civilians who had lost family members. It is common practice to compensate civilians or their families wounded or killed by American fire, up to $2,500 per civilian; at Haditha, the Marines handed out a total of $38,000 to relatives of 15 victims. Jepsen went through the houses entered by the Marines. He recalls talking to one resident, a divorce lawyer. "He wasn't showing much emotion," says Jepsen. "It was weird." Jepsen says the Iraqis they spoke to "knew that there were insurgents involved ... knew that there were some houses that let insurgents in." The former corporal insists that four men and a taxi driver gunned down as they fled a cab at the scene of the bombing were also insurgents. Locals told the Marines that the men were on their way to school, while Jepsen contends, "there was not one school open that day." (According to residents videotaped by the human-rights worker, the students were on their way to a technical college in Baghdad.) Jepsen says the Iraqi civilians are lying and covering up in Haditha. There were "no executions," he says.
The American top brass appears to suspect otherwise. A formal criminal investigation now underway may take months, but an investigation into a possible cover-up could produce results more quickly. Eager to avoid another Abu Ghraib, with its leaked photographs and stumbling official response, the Pentagon has brought in a big gun to investigate, Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a veteran Special Forces operator who once ran Delta Force and is known as a no-nonsense type. The thinking behind the investigation, said a senior officer on the Joint Staff, was, "Go fast, go senior, go independent."
Though no one is talking openly at Camp Pendleton, Marines and their families are buzzing about what might have gone wrong inside Kilo Company. The wife of a staff sergeant in the 3/1 battalion, who declined to be identified because she doesn't want to get her husband in trouble, told NEWSWEEK that there was "a total breakdown" in discipline and morale after Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani took over as battalion commander when the unit returned from Fallujah at the start of 2005. (Chessani's friends in his Colorado hometown defended him as a dedicated, patriotic, religious Marine.) "There were problems in Kilo Company with drugs, alcohol, hazing, you name it," said the woman. "I think it's more than possible that these guys were totally tweaked out on speed or something when they shot those civilians in Haditha."
But Lucian Read, a freelance photographer who spent seven months with Kilo Company, both in Fallujah and Haditha, did not see warning signs. "Their morale wasn't bad, it was more fatalistic; this is the grunts-get-screwed-every-time," he said. "They were not happy, not pleased, but not angry, either," Read said. "Nothing they ever did or said even hinted at this kind of event. I never saw it coming. No one saw it coming."
When Marines of the Thundering Third returned home to Pendleton this past winter, they were given sensitivity training and told to stop using some of their more-offensive call signs, like "Slayer" and "Killer." They were also admonished against the usual growling retorts of a Marine grunt, a kind of "rrrrr" sound. "Everyone was wondering, 'Why this soft stuff?' " says the wife of the 3/1 staff sergeant. Since the Haditha scandal broke, however, all Marines—not just the ones in the 3/1—are being required to spend more time learning "core values."
What the Marines and all the U.S. soldiers in Iraq really need is better training in counterinsurgency. After losing a guerrilla war in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and early '70s, the Pentagon inexplicably chose not to learn from its mistakes, but rather focused on more-conventional warfare, which favored American technology. Guerrilla fighting was left to Special Forces, the "snake eaters" disdained by most regular Army and Marine commanders. When General Casey took over as commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq two years ago, he told his staff to set up a meeting with his HQ's counterinsurgency expert. He was told there wasn't one.
That story is told in an essay called "Fire the Generals!" written by retired Col. Douglas MacGregor, who was one of the architects of the original lean-and-mean invasion of Iraq. The initial, sudden and overwhelming rout of Saddam's rotten Army gave the military a false sense of superiority. Some at the top knew the victory was hollow. As the insurgency began to take shape, the then acting chief of staff of the Army, Gen. Jack Keane, warned his fellow chiefs, "The United States Army does big wars. We do them better than anyone. But we have no skills in counterinsurgency."
In July 2003, Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. forces in the region, acknowledged that the United States faced a "classic guerrilla-type campaign." But MacGregor points out that Abizaid did nothing to alter American deployments or tactics. Rather, he exhorted everyone to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis—who had no military or police force worth mentioning. The Joint Staff was extremely slow to provide the training teams needed to build a new Iraqi Army.
MacGregor also faulted U.S. generals for not accompanying platoon and squad leaders as they patrolled—to better understand their environment and what they needed to survive in it. Had the generals done so, writes MacGregor, they would have known what a sergeant on patrol in Ramadi meant when he told a journalist, "You can have my job. It's easy. You just have to drive around all day and wait for someone to bomb you. Thing is, you have to hate Arabs."
Left to their own devices, grunts sometimes improvise. It is possible that Kilo Company was determined to "leave a calling card," which is to say, to warn Haditha that IEDs would be met with heavy retribution. It's an old and primitive counterinsurgency tactic. Long ago, the Romans used it against barbarians.
With Sarah Childress in Baghdad, Salih Mahdi in Haditha, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Michael Hirsh in Washington, Michael Hastings in New York, Jamie Reno in San Diego, Rod Nordland in London, Stefan Theil in Berlin and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut