How We Lost the Iraq War
Interviews with combat veterans provide ample documentation
originally published July 19, 2007
This quote sums it up pretty well:
“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.“
The rest of the quotes are pulled in the order in which they appear in the article and emphasis is added throughout. While I recommend the article as required reading about what is happening on the ground in Iraq, these quotes appear to show a pattern and policy that leads to my unfortunate conclusion that the current American occupation of Iraq is not acheiving the goals of a safe and stable Iraq, and that it seems impossible to expect that our troops will be treated as liberators when reports like these detail how our troops are forced, by a lack of adequate resources and training, to behave like enemies of the Iraqi people.
As noted below, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a former coalition spokesman has said, “Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity.”
… According to the survey, conducted by the Office of the Surgeon General of the US Army Medical Command, just 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of marines agreed that civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. Only 55 percent of soldiers and 40 percent of marines said they would report a unit member who had killed or injured “an innocent noncombatant.”
… Veterans described reckless firing once they left their compounds. Some shot holes into cans of gasoline being sold along the roadside and then tossed grenades into the pools of gas to set them ablaze. Others opened fire on children. These shootings often enraged Iraqi witnesses.
… Fifteen soldiers we spoke with told us the information that spurred these raids was typically gathered through human intelligence–and that it was usually incorrect. Eight said it was common for Iraqis to use American troops to settle family disputes, tribal rivalries or personal vendettas.
… Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear Operations Center, Forty-Second Infantry Division, for one year beginning in October 2004. He said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources to investigate tips before acting on them. “We’re not police,” he said. “We don’t go around like detectives and ask questions. We kick down doors, we go in, we grab people.”
… Spc. Patrick Resta, 29, a National Guardsman from Philadelphia, served in Jalula, where there was a small prison camp at his base. He was with the 252nd Armor, First Infantry Division, for nine months beginning in March 2004. He recalled his supervisor telling his platoon point-blank, “The Geneva Conventions don’t exist at all in Iraq, and that’s in writing if you want to see it.”
… “That was when I totally walked away from the Army,” Specialist Delgado said. “I read these rap sheets on all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and what they were there for. I expected them to be terrorists, murderers, insurgents. I look down this roster and see petty theft, public drunkenness, forged coalition documents. These people are here for petty civilian crimes.”
… In Iraq, Specialist Middleton said, “a lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if they don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they’re not as human as us, so we can do what we want.”
… According to Sergeant Millard and several others interviewed, “It becomes this racialized hatred towards Iraqis.” And this racist language, as Specialist Harmon pointed out, likely played a role in the level of violence directed at Iraqi civilians. “By calling them names,” he said, “they’re not people anymore. They’re just objects.”
… According to descriptions culled from interviews with thirty-eight veterans who rode in convoys–guarding such runs as Kuwait to Nasiriya, Nasiriya to Baghdad and Balad to Kirkuk–when these columns of vehicles left their heavily fortified compounds they usually roared down the main supply routes, which often cut through densely populated areas, reaching speeds over sixty miles an hour. Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were frequently run over and killed.
… Sergeant Flatt was among twenty-four veterans who said they had witnessed or heard stories from those in their unit of unarmed civilians being shot or run over by convoys. These incidents, they said, were so numerous that many were never reported.
… The killing of unarmed Iraqis was so common many of the troops said it became an accepted part of the daily landscape.
… Several interviewees said that, on occasion, these killings were justified by framing innocents as terrorists, typically following incidents when American troops fired on crowds of unarmed Iraqis.
… Iraqis had no way of knowing where these so-called “tactical control points” would crop up, interviewees said, so many would turn a corner at a high speed and became the unwitting targets of jumpy soldiers and marines.
… Other troops, however, said they constructed tactical control points that were hardly visible to drivers. “We didn’t have cones, we didn’t have nothing,” recalled Sergeant Bocanegra, who said he served at more than ten checkpoints in Tikrit. “You literally put rocks on the side of the road and tell them to stop. And of course some cars are not going to see the rocks. I wouldn’t even see the rocks myself.”
… 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.
… 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.”
… 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.”
… on February 9, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, then coalition spokesman, writing on the coalition force website, insisted that the rules of engagement for troops in Iraq were clear. “The law of armed conflict requires that, to use force, ‘combatants’ must distinguish individuals presenting a threat from innocent civilians,” he wrote. “This basic principle is accepted by all disciplined militaries. In the counterinsurgency we are now fighting, disciplined application of force is even more critical because our enemies camouflage themselves in the civilian population. Our success in Iraq depends on our ability to treat the civilian population with humanity and dignity, even as we remain ready to immediately defend ourselves or Iraqi civilians when a threat is detected.
… “It just gets frustrating,” Specialist Reppenhagen said. “Instead of blaming your own command for putting you there in that situation, you start blaming the Iraqi people…. So it’s a constant psychological battle to try to, you know, keep–to stay humane.”
Thank you for reading. Please note that this post is in no way an attempt to blame our troops. My point is that the troops have been placed in an impossible situation, made even more impossible by a lack of training, resources and accountability. I am not trying to say that I have an answer about how to improve the situation, either. All I am saying is that this report has resulted in the destruction of my hope that American forces are currently capable of ‘winning’ peace and security in Iraq.
UPDATE: The Guardian reports on August 12, 2007:
“Exhaustion and combat stress are besieging US troops in Iraq as they battle with a new type of warfare.
… The Americans he commands, like the other men at Sullivan – a combat outpost in Zafraniya, south east Baghdad – hit their cots when they get in from operations. But even when they wake up there is something tired and groggy about them. They are on duty for five days at a time and off for two days. When they get back to the forward operating base, they do their laundry and sleep and count the days until they will get home. It is an exhaustion that accumulates over the patrols and the rotations, over the multiple deployments, until it all joins up, wiping out any memory of leave or time at home. Until life is nothing but Iraq.
… There is a corrosive anger, too, that bubbles out, like the words pouring unbidden from a chaplain’s assistant who has come to bless a patrol. ‘Why don’t you tell the truth? Why don’t you journalists write that this army is exhausted?’
… The anecdotal evidence on the ground confirms what others – prominent among them General Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State – have been insisting for months now: that the US army is ‘about broken’.”
UPDATE: ThinkProgress reports on September 4, 2007:
“Newly released documents regarding crimes committed by United States soldiers against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan detail a pattern of troops failing to understand and follow the rules that govern interrogations and deadly actions.” The documents, which were obtained by the ACLU, “show repeated examples of troops believing they were within the law when they killed local citizens.”
UPDATE: From ThinkProgress on September 5, 2007:
Tonight, President Clinton will appear on CNN’s Larry King Live. From his interview:
I don’t see any alternative, consistent with responsibilities for the national security, to a substantial withdrawal of troops this year. Because the military’s so overstretched. If we had a big national security emergency now, we’d be virtually compelled to meet it with Naval and Air Force forces because the Army, the Marine Corps, the National Guards and Reserves are all overstretched, all deeply stressed. … We’ll have to have a substantial drawdown of troops this year.