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Comments by YACCS
Monday, June 05, 2006

"The most dangerous thing in the world is a teenager with a rifle"

The Marines were well prepared for war, but not for insurgency. Did some of them snap—and slaughter innocent civilians in cold blood?

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.

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."

................. 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......................

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."

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 17i, 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."

.................... 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. ........................

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 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."


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.

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 counter-insurgency tactic. Long ago, the Romans used it against barbarians.

When Philip Caputo, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune took, over his platoon in Vietnam his platoon sergeant told him about how young Marines used to zero their weapons on South Korean farmers. Then, he said "The most dangerous thing in the world is a teenager with a rifle".

Chessani was fired by the Marines, which is rare in the modern military, because of the career killing aspects. The fact that he was means he's likely to wind up in the dock as well.

The fact that the Army was brought in and the former commander of Delta was brought in to investigate meant they ran into a wall of bullshit and didn't trust the Navy Department to investigate.

The Marines don't have the greatest relationship with Army special forces to begin with, but the reason you bring in the former head of Delta is based on two reasons: he has a great deal of experience in dealing with counterinsurgency issues, and he can't be bullshitted by tales of combat stress. He ran the Army's most professional unit. He knows combat.

It means they realized that something was up from jump. And someone smart was sending a message: "this isn't one of your buddies, hell, he probably thinks you're idiots, so lie to him at your peril."

Something bad happened, and not just in the town. Command broke down, badly, things were said, and someone thought child murder was acceptable.

Jespen is also probably half-right, that IED didn't blow up on their own and insurgents were probably around, only problem: they killed the wrong people.

posted by Steve @ 1:16:00 PM

1:16:00 PM

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