The War is the War Crime: Abused Iraqis, Abused Americans
- by M. Junaid Alam
This was a war to transcend all wars - a war fought not for crass interests or crude motives, but for freedom and democracy. Or so we were told. Once this grand narrative was felled by reality, however, the story of its basic actors was twisted to meet new requirements: since it could not possibly be that the war aims were themselves corrupt, it must be the Iraqis - the supposed recipients of liberation, and the American soldiers - the deliverers of that liberation - who were flawed. This twist was to serve as punishment for those Iraqis who interpreted "freedom" to mean not only freedom from Saddam but freedom from US control, and as a smear job against those US soldiers who interpreted "defending the country" to mean something other than killing innocents and creating more hatred for America.
And so a new narrative was fleshed out by the administration and its sycophants: Iraqis are not so good after all; many of them are terrorists, dead-enders, and crazed murderers who need to be brought to heel or wiped out. Moreover, not all those Americans who signed up to defend their country are good, either: those who report atrocities, fight against illegal extension of their service, and reject a war based on lies are deemed cowards, criminals, and traitors.
As the struggle in Iraq intensifies, its bitter and revealing ironies rise like angry waves, pummeling the eroding promontory of the war's many myths - foremost among them its very viability. Iraqis resisting occupation, soldiers exposing the brutalities that are fueling anti-occupation sentiment, and other Americans reluctantly being pressed into service to strengthen that occupation, are, in uneven, overlapping and contradictory ways, all victims of this war.
Consider the case of the case of Sergeant Frank Ford, a counterintelligence agent in the National Guard's 223rd Military Intelligence division with 30 years of military service. He was witness to five incidents of torture and abuse of Iraqis in Samarra before he decided he could no longer stand by and do nothing. US Army counterintelligence agent David Debatto, who spoke with Ford, related his story thusly:
"He described multiple incidents of what he called 'war crimes' and 'torture' of Iraqi detainees in age from about 15 to 35. According to Ford, his teammates, three counterintelligence agents like himself - one of them a woman - systematically and repeatedly abused several Iraqi male detainees over a two to three week time period. Ford describes incidents of asphyxiation, mock executions, arms being pulled out of sockets, and lit cigarettes forced into detainee's ears while they were blindfolded and bound."
Ford, his anger apparent, also noted, "I guess one of the things that pisses me off most is the arrogance…Some of the medics, too. Saying things like 'So what, he's just another haji,' like they were scum or some kind of animal, really just pisses me off."
So what happened when Ford brought the brutalities to the attention of his superior officer in June 2003? His immediate superior was himself involved in the abuse, and the one above him, when told of the allegations of war crimes by Ford, simply said chillingly, "Nope, that never happened. You're delusional, you imagined the whole thing. And you've got 30 seconds to withdraw your complaint. If you do it, it will be as if this conversation never took place." What happened next topped even this surreal Orwellian encounter: "[Ford was ordered] to report immediately to Captain Angela Madera, an Army psychiatrist, at the base mental-health facility for a 'combat stress evaluation.'" When Madera evaluated Ford as having no mental health issues, the superior officer, according to another witness, was "just livid," and berated and intimidated Madera into altering the report.
Ultimately, Ford was strapped down to a gurney and literally shipped out of Iraq illegally on the basis of non-existent mental problems - all because he had the courage to speak out against abuses he personally witnessed. His case is not unique: a military doctor charged with examining Ford in Germany (and who cleared him of any illness) noted "that he had treated 'three of four' other US soldiers from Iraq that were also sent to Landstuhl for psychological evaluations…after they reported incidents…" Another soldier who reported abuse, Julian Goodrum was "allegedly locked in a psychiatric ward as punishment for filing a complaint over the death of a soldier under his command;" he had also appeared before Congress to air grievances about the poor quality of medical care Reserve soldiers received. In another known case, Sergeant Samuel Provance of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade lost his security clearance and was shipped off to Germany after reporting abuses at Abu Ghraib. (1)
That Iraqis and other Arabs are being illegally abused, tortured, and killed on a systematic basis - and that the top levels of command are assiduously covering it up - is not in any doubt. A leaked letter from July 2004 sent by a senior Justice Department official to the Army's leading criminal investigator reveals that FBI agents witnessed acts of torture and abuse committed against detainees at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, and reported them to the Pentagon - which proceeded to do nothing. "Harrington [the FBI counterterrorism expert who wrote the letter] said FBI officials complained about the pattern of abusive techniques to top Defense Department attorneys in January 2003, and it appeared that nothing was done."
One of the incidents witnessed by an FBI agent was as follows: "Sergeant Lacey [a female] whispered in the ear of a handcuffed and shackled detainee, caressed him and applied lotion to his arms…" This occurred during Ramadan - when sexual activity is forbidden for Muslims. But this was not about sex: "Later, the detainee appeared to grimace in pain, and the FBI agent asked a Marine who was present why. The Marine said [Lacey] had grabbed the detainee's thumbs and bent them backward and also indicated that she also grabbed his genitals."
The Marine also "implied that her treatment of that detainee was less harsh than her treatment of others by indicating that he had seen her treatment of other detainees result in detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain." (2) It does not take much imagination to understand what was happening: Arab prisoners at Guantamo were having their testicles crushed by female military personnel.
Another classified report written around the same time recently (partially) released indicates similar horrors were imported into Iraq: "…one of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's closest advisers learned of allegations that a clandestine military task force in Iraq was beating detainees, ordering Defense Intelligence Agency debriefers out of the room during questioning, confiscating evidence of the abuse and intimidating the debriefers when they complained." The director of the DIA is the highest official in the administration known to complain of abuse, though the Bush administration "fought vigorously to keep the new documents from public view." The two-page memo explains that a group named "Task Force 121" (now Task Force 6-26) hid "ghost detainees" in secret facilities and beat them up, including, as DIA agents noted, "punch[ing] a prisoner in the face to the point the individual needed medical attention," and leaving burn and bruise marks all over detainees. (3)
Outside America's new gulags, Iraqis still face the wrath of Bush's freedom campaign. According to military prosecutors and several soldiers, in an August 28 raid in Sadr City, two "American soldiers shot to death two unarmed Iraqi men in their homes, then tried to cover up their crimes by claiming that the Iraqis had reached for guns." Soldiers from the 41st Infantry Regiment, 1st Battallion who participated in the raid in which the civilian Iraqis were killed "said they immediately suspected that their two colleagues had murdered the Iraqi."
This followed another killing.
" The second killing occurred less than 30 minuters earlier, soldiers testified, when troops discovered an AK-47 rifle during a search of another house down the street….Williams ordered that the Iraqi man, who had been handcuffed and was being held on his knees in front of the house, be brought inside…
William cut off the plastic handcuffs, laid the rifle near the Iraqi and said aloud to other soldiers in the room, 'I feel my life has been threatened.'
Williams then shot the man twice…"
One of the testifying soldiers, Private first class Gary Romriell, who had to switch units after complaining about the murders said, "It was a real moral dilemma. On the one hand, my friends and associates were involved in the crimes. On the other hand, it was wrong." Romriell rejected the perverse right-wing notion that the any act is moral so long as "our side" commits it. He rejected the logic of "my country, right or wrong" - as a citizen serving his country, he did what was right, and called out those citizens of his country who were wrong. (4)
Other soldiers have gone further. Former US Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey "said his unit killed more than 30 innocent Iraqi civilians" in testimony before a Canadian tribunal, which is deciding whether it will allow deserting paratrooper Jeremy Hinzman, formerly of the 82nd Airborne, to seek asylum in that country - and therefore avoid prosecution in the US. In support of Hinzman, Massey told the court, "I do know that we killed innocent civilians," adding, "I was never clear on who was the enemy and who was not. When you don't know who the enemy is, what are you doing there?" (5)
Hinzman himself has said he began having doubts about the military when "I was walking to chow hall with my unit, and we were yelling, 'Train to kill, kill we will,' over and over again. I kind of snuck a peek around me and saw all my colleagues getting the red in the face and hoarse yelling - and at that point a light went off in my head and said, 'You know, I made the wrong career decision.'" (6)
Hinzman is one of over 5,500 servicemen who have deserted the armed forces since the war in Iraq began. Many of these soldiers left the military not because they are cowards, but because they discovered that war was based on lies. Private first class Dan Felushko, 24, for instance, remarked, "I didn't want, you know, 'Died deluded in Iraq' over my gravestone," noting that he - along with every intelligence community around the world - saw no connection between September 11th and Hussein. One youngster from Texas who signed up for the Army two months before the war started said that at first, "I was supportive. I didn't think to question." But then, he did:
"I found out, basically, that they found no weapons of mass destruction…and the claim that they made about ties to al Qaeda was coming up short, to say the least. It made me angry, because I felt our lives were being thrown away as soldiers…my image of my country always being the good guy, and always fighting for just causes, has been shattered" (7)
Only a handful of the deserters have actually fled to Canada. But those who desert during wartime and remain within the US military's reach are usually thrown in jail for years. The full penalty under the law is execution.
When the war machine is not forcing Americans into morally compromising situations, transforming some into killers; when it is not actively intimidating and attacking those brave enough to speak out against atrocities; when it is not trying to hunt down and jail those who reject an illegal war, it still ensnares, grinds up, and spits out perfectly "patriotic" military personnel - and even Americans who aren't supposed to be part of the military anymore.
Official casualty statistics show that more than 1,230 American soldiers have died and more than 9,300 have been wounded in action. But this is misleading. A Pentagon letter recently disclosed that more than 15,000 troops with "non-battle" injuries and diseases have been evacuated from Iraq. These include injuries arising from "accidents," as well as emotional and psychological trauma. According to a CBS report, only 20% of these 15,000 troops return to their units. (8)
Also misleading are the official non-fatality casualties: over half of them are serious enough to prevent a return to the war theater. Because more troops are being spared death from improved body and battle armor, more of those who survive suffer from severely crippling injuries. US troops injured in Iraq "have required limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars, and as many as 20 percent have suffered head and neck injuries that may require a lifetime of care." A majority of casualties come not from bullet fire but IEDs, which retired US Army Surgeon G. Holt explained, are particularly vicious because, "The angle of the force of these IEDs is right for the neck and face." (9)
What becomes of those military veterans who undergo amputation? The case of Army specialist Robert Loria is instructive. His arm ripped off by an IED while in Baqubah, Loria spent several months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., before being sent back to his base in Fort Hood, Texas. There, he was expecting to leave the Army with $4,486 in pay. But instead he received something else: an Army bill totaling $6,255.50 for medical care, an "erroneous" previous payment, and items in his possession that were blown up in the attack. Now he is $1,768.81 in debt and doesn't even have enough money to return home. His wife was outraged: "They want us to sacrifice more…His being blown up was supposed to be the worst thing, but it wasn't. That the military doesn't care was the worst." (10)
While the Army is busy booting out some of its discarded material, it is equally busy trying to recycle others. It has called up 5,000 Americans from the Ready Reserve for two years of service, who "generally don't train or get paid or belong to units, but…can be called up in case of war or national emergency." The vast majority of them never dreamed they would be called up for duty: they served years ago and are tied to the military through an obscure clause relegated to the "remark section" of their contracts - and represented only in the form a six-digit reference to the actual clause itself - that requires them to resign their commissions to fully exit the service.
Therefore people like Carey Trevino, a 31 year-old woman with three kids, including a baby boy, and Margaret Murray, a 4 foot 8 inch 55 year-old woman, and Rick Howell, a 47 year-old who is disabled at the knee from an injury suffered during his military career, are all being thrown onto the front lines. Howell, who said he would serve if he was restricted to carrying out duties in the United States and was refused that request, now says, "They're going to have to come and get me. I mean literally…They'll have to drag me away and make me go." (11)
The military's resort to desperate and draconian measures should come as no surprise. Its forces in Iraq are overstretched, overextended, and unable to cope with battlefield requirements, a fact most military experts freely admit. A full 43% of the 138,000 troops deployed in Iraq - soon to be boosted to 150,000 - are part-timers. Many are trapped there under "stop-loss" orders extending their stay; one of the eight soldiers who recently sued the military for this tactic lost his court battle to prevent the Army from turning his one-year contract into a two-year (at least) ordeal.
Still, soldiers are resisting lucrative bonuses designed to entice them into staying in the service. In fact, a recent army survey revealed that half the existing force was not planning to re-enlist at all. (12) No serious person can doubt, therefore, that a continuation of the war at this level will require full-blown military conscription.
This war is a multi-layered disaster for an ever-expanding swath of Iraqis and Americans. The fundamental contradiction of war is that it can be based on lies, but it cannot be fought by liars. If people were willing to fight for lies, then they would not have to be lied to in the first place. Those American soldiers in the battlefield, like all Americans at home, were subjected to an intense propaganda barrage about the motives, aims, and goals of the war. They were deceived. But today, those soldiers are facing a barrage of an altogether different sort: that of an Iraqi insurgency whose very existence, success, and growth explodes all the official war claims.
The government believes that it can lie without consequence because, as one administration minion put it, such matters only concern "the reality-based community." It must be conceded that is true. But it must also be conceded that those soldiers witnessing their friends and comrades dying and suffering around them, those troops aware of the horrific atrocities taking place, those families seeing their loved ones sent off without warning and return home without limbs, are leading members of "the reality-based community." It is the duty of American anti-war activists to reach out to these people - as we have already begun to do - and end the war that is destroying America's soul.
M. Junaid Alam, 21, is co-editor of the radical youth journal Left Hook (http://www.lefthook.org); he can be reached at email@example.com
1. "Whitewashing torture?" David DeBatto, Salon.com, December 8, 2004.
2. "FBI witnessed Guantanamo 'abuse'." The Associated Press, December 7, 2004.
3. "Report to Defense Alleged Abuse By Prison Interrogation Teams." Barton Gellman and R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post. December 8, 2004.
4. "U.S. Military Prosecutors Allege Murder, Cover-Up." By Edmund Sanders, LA Times, December 6, 2004.
5. "U.S. Marine claims unit killed Iraqi civilians." ABC News, December 8, 2004.
6. "Deserters: We Won't Go To Iraq." CBS News, December 8, 2004.
7. See note 6.
8. "Press Routinely Undercounts U.S. Casualties in Iraq." E &P; Staff, November 25, 2004.
9. "Amputation rate for US troops twice that of past wars." By Raja Mishra, Boston Globe, December 9, 2004.
10. "He lost an arm in Iraq; the Army wants money." By Dianna Cahn, Times Herald-Record, December 10, 2004.
11. "Old Soldiers Back on Duty." CBS News. December 5, 2004.
12. "U.S. Army Plagued by Desertion and Plunging Morale." By Elaine Monaghan, The Times U.K., December 10, 2004.