By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
With no end yet in sight for the long dark night of the Iraq war, The Nation magazine is coming out this week with an article that goes into great and disturbing detail about the brutal treatment of Iraqi civilians by some U.S. soldiers and marines.
The article does not focus on the handful of atrocities that have gotten substantial press coverage, like the massacre in Haditha in November 2005. Instead, based on interviews conducted on the record with dozens of American combat veterans of the war, the authors address what they describe as frequent acts of violence in which U.S. forces have abused or killed Iraqi civilians — men, women and children — with impunity.
The combination of recklessness, wantonly destructive behavior born of panic and deliberate acts of cold-blooded violence by G.I.’s are believed to have cost the lives of thousands of innocent Iraqis, the article says. The soldiers interviewed said they believed that only a minority of U.S. troops engaged in objectionable behavior, but the toll of their actions has been huge.
The article describes soldiers and marines frustrated and fearful in an alien environment in which the enemy hides among civilians and uses acts of terror as the primary tactic. “The mounting frustration of fighting an elusive enemy and the devastating effects of roadside bombs, with their steady toll of American dead and wounded, led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis,” said the authors, Chris Hedges, a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, and Laila al-Arian.
Jeff Englehart, a 26-year-old Army specialist from Grand Junction, Colo., said in the article: “I guess while I was there, the general attitude was a dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi. You know, so what?”
For a lot of troops, he said, that attitude tended to morph into a debilitating sense of guilt after their return home.
Kelly Dougherty of Cañon City, Colo., who served in Iraq as a sergeant with a National Guard military police unit, remembered investigating an incident in which a military convoy ran over a boy, about 10 years old, and his three donkeys. When she and others from her unit arrived at the scene, the boy was lying dead by the side of the road. The donkeys had also been killed.
“We saw him there,” she said, “and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn’t even stop. They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even slowed down.”
Accidents, even those caused by recklessness, are bad enough. More disturbing are the incidents described in the article in which G.I.’s routinely abused civilians. Among the worst abuses have been the shootings of innocent civilians and the improper arrests that have occurred in the course of raids carried out by soldiers and marines looking for insurgents.
There have been thousands of such raids. An extraordinary number of them — the vast majority, according to the interviews for article — were exercises in futility, yielding nothing but grief and terror for the innocent families whose homes were invaded.
“So you have all these troops, and they’re all wound up,” said Army Sgt. John Bruhns of Philadelphia, who participated in many raids while serving in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib. “And a lot of them think once they kick down the door there’s going to be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons to start shooting at them.”
In most cases, there is nothing more than a terrified family on the other side of the door. In instances in which unarmed civilians are shot and killed in raids, which happens frequently, it’s not unusual for G.I.’s to plant weapons by their bodies and to arrest survivors on false charges of participating in the insurgency, the article says.
“Every good cop carries a throwaway,” said Joe Hatcher, who served with the Army’s Fourth Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. “If you kill someone and they’re unarmed, you just drop one on ’em.”
The article emphasizes the extreme stress that G.I.’s are operating under in Iraq. A byproduct of that stress is the tendency to stereotype and dehumanize all Iraqis. What the soldiers find out, after they get home, is that in dehumanizing the people they supposedly were fighting for, they often end up dehumanizing themselves.
There is no upside to this war. It has been a plague since the beginning. But it’s one thing to lose a war. It’s much worse for a nation to lose its soul.
Photo Credit: Bob Herbert. (The New York Times)