Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
June 15, 2006
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Have questionable incidents gone unnoticed?
SOME TROOPS QUESTION RIGOR IN ROUTINE PROBES OF IRAQI CIVILIAN DEATHS
As concerns mount about ongoing investigations into the suspected murder of two dozen Iraqis by a small group of Marines in Haditha, some military officials and outside experts are beginning to ask whether there may have been additional incidents of excessive violence or even revenge killings that have gone unnoticed during the three-plus years of U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf nation.
While commanders say all cases of American troops killing Iraqi civilians are routinely investigated – and most are the result of stray fire, accidents or individuals mistaken for insurgents – a number of officers and troops who have served in Iraq say the diligence exercised in the battlefield inquiries varies widely.
For uniformed personnel this is an extremely sensitive issue, largely because of the great lengths to which many commanders go to ensure their troops respect Iraqi citizens and investigate any civilian deaths that do occur.
U.S. commanders increasingly see disregard for Iraqi lives not only as inhumane but also capable of undermining the war effort. A key tenet of fighting a counterinsurgency campaign is cultivating public support by protecting the population from violence.
In fact, most soldiers and Marines in Iraq “have shown incredible restraint” despite the tremendous stresses involved in fighting day after day, for extended periods, against a formidable insurgency, says one retired senior Marine.
“The hard cases are the ones that happen nearly every day: these are the grindingly routine judgment calls, the snap decisions soldiers have to make when their foes (like suicide bombers) refuse to wear uniforms,” Sarah Sewell, a former defense official during the Clinton administration, wrote in a June 13 op-ed in The New York Times.
There is little debate that Iraqi civilians have died in great number over the past three years, many of them purposefully targeted by insurgents as a means of terrorizing the population.
President Bush said in December that about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed “as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence,” though Pentagon leaders insist they do not track civilian casualties. Estimates by an independent group called Iraq Body Count, whose numbers reflected Bush’s estimate at the time, are that the death toll among Iraqis has since grown by at least another 8,000.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on June 1 decried what he termed “unacceptable” violence by U.S. troops against civilians, asserting such incidents had become a “regular occurrence” by American-led forces who “do not respect the Iraqi people.”
The same day, Bush said he found the Haditha allegations “very troubling.” Military leaders are undertaking a criminal investigation of the facts and another inquiry into a possible cover-up.
Casualties Iraq Body Count has recorded from press reports show Iraqi civilian deaths mounting higher with each year of occupation. More than 12,000 civilians were killed in the third year, twice the number lost in the first. Last year’s death toll includes 370 known casualties resulting from U.S.-led military action, as compared to 2,231 deaths resulting from anti-coalition violence. However, most media reports “do not allow a clear identification of the perpetrators or their motives,” according to a March 9 statement issued by the organization.
U.S. military condolence payments to the families of Iraqis killed or injured in operations involving American troops surged last year to $20 million, up from $5 million in 2004, The Boston Globe reported June 8.
Government officials told the paper the restitution should not be viewed as an admission of guilt or responsibility for the casualties.
The second-ranking U.S. officer in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, has put new priority on reducing the number of Iraqi civilians killed at checkpoints. Using new tactics and equipment, the average has dropped to about one death a week compared to seven or so a week as of 11 months ago, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.
Still, the day-to-day violence seen in Iraq, combined with the notion that almost any adult civilian could actually be an insurgent, has affected U.S. forces, according to retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Gary Solis, who served as a military lawyer. Until recently a law professor at West Point and now at Georgetown University, he has stayed in close touch with troops returning from duty in Iraq.
“I don’t think there have been other Hadithas, but onesies and twosies, yes,” Solis says of the possibility of premeditated killings by U.S. troops in Iraq. “When you’re in such a brutal war, you become brutalized.”
“There’s almost no way to know,” says retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Roger Charles. “[But] you can imagine the incredible stresses this kind of war puts on people, and the leadership required to help the troops keep it together and to keep them disciplined and focused,” he says.
Charles is president of Soldiers for the Truth, a nonprofit group that advocates better troop training, leadership and equipment.
Active-duty and retired officers and troops tell Inside the Pentagon that any past incidents in which U.S. troops killed innocents in premeditated fashion almost surely would have been limited to a very small number of civilians.
“Anything’s possible,” says Maj. Paul Hackett, a Marine Corps reservist who served in Iraq for seven months ending in March 2005. “Is it likely that it’s happened on any sort of quasi-regular basis? I doubt it seriously.”
Many Iraq veterans express shock at the notion that so many civilians were killed in Haditha Nov. 19 and cannot explain how a cover-up – which is suspected of having taken place at least at low levels – could have been carried out over a period of months.
“Within minutes of [an incident] happening, you have to render a report,” says one Army officer recently serving in Iraq. “It would be very hard to do [a cover-up]. . . . There’s too many young guys who would crack.”
But the possibility that not all Iraqi deaths have been fully examined or explained is apparently on Chiarelli’s mind. In April, he ordered his subordinate commanders to investigate all incidents in which U.S. troops might be responsible for seriously wounding or killing Iraqis or causing more than $10,000 in property damage, The Wall Street Journal reported June 6.
In the past, Army and Marine Corps units have launched informal investigations when Iraqi civilians have died as the result of action involving U.S. troops, but the quality of these probes has varied from unit to unit, uniformed officials tell ITP.
Army commanders typically dispatch battlefield investigations under Army Regulation 15-6, while Marine Corps officers launch preliminary inquiries according to guidelines laid out in the Navy Manual of the Judge Advocate General. Both documents say a commander may name a subordinate – usually a combat officer, warrant officer or military lawyer – to conduct interviews and gather facts. The investigator concludes the inquiry with a report on findings and recommendations, submitted to the commander who commissioned the probe, according to the guidelines.
“Just talking about our own experience, whenever there was a civilian death there was a full investigation,” says one Army officer with significant time in Iraq. “It wasn’t cursory at all.”
In such cases, a military lawyer and at least two officers up the chain of command reviewed the investigator’s written report on each incident, said the Army officer, who spoke on condition of not being named.
Commanders were intent on “really getting to the bottom of it, not only in terms of determining whether somebody should be held responsible but also to make sure that we learn from it, so . . . we could prevent a similar incident from happening,” the officer said.
But the high volume of civilian deaths in the highly volatile Iraqi environment, particularly in and around Baghdad, has at times made the informal investigations more routine than rigorous, others with Iraq experience suggest.
“Iraqi civilians are killed almost daily, accidentally by allied forces and intentionally by insurgents,” says Hackett. Though reports on such incidents are issued, “they don’t send ‘Haditha CSI’ to follow up,” he says.
An Army reservist who has served in Iraq describes a similar experience. His squad was sent out at one point in 2003 to report on Marines who had just killed a half-dozen suspected insurgents in a firefight. The Marines said they believed at least one in the group had a weapon and might have fired it, but it was unclear, said the soldier, who agreed to speak to ITP on condition of not being named.
“It seemed to me at the time to be excessive force,” the Army reservist said. “If a police officer in [Washington] DC or Arlington County had done that, it would have been [a big] story.”
Yet in the context of an urban battlefield where insurgents often look much like innocent civilians, the investigating team was hesitant to second-guess its comrades who believed they were under fire.
“I don’t think we were the most objective investigators because we were under the same stresses and pressures they were under,” says this soldier. “We were going to give our buddies the benefit of the doubt.”
By the same token, officers receiving reports up the chain of command “are reluctant to ask too many questions,” according to the Army reservist. Officers are “already overstretched” and fear they may “lose the respect” of their unit if they were to doubt the troops’ battlefield judgment or credibility, this source says.
Career concerns also may play a role if commanders make clear they do not want to hear bad news, says the reservist.
An incident involving questionable judgment on the battlefield “ends up on everyone’s record,” this source says. “It’s not good for promotions.”
Not everyone buys that thinking.
“In light of the Marines who’ve gone to jail for the occasional lapses, it would give one pause before saying that we are characterized by a lack of desire to pass bad news up the command chain,” says one senior Marine Corps officer, also invoking anonymity for this article.
At the same time, Hackett questions the implicit message sent to U.S. troops when any judgment they make under fire can become subject to armchair quarterbacking later on.
“I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be laws of war and those who violate the laws of war should not be punished,” he says. But an increased focus on investigations, rather than on fighting a challenging counterinsurgency operation, might make U.S. troops “more reflective and thus hesitant in a combat situation, which is bad,” according to Hackett.
“The eventual effect is there will be an increase in American casualties,” he says.
Last year, Hackett narrowly lost a Democratic bid in Ohio for a seat in the U.S. House. An attorney, he is representing a 1st Marine Division company commander who he says was recently relieved of command for reasons unrelated to the Haditha incident.
“I believe there has been a very quick trigger finger,” says Solis. Troops he has queried “are a little taken aback about how badly the locals are treated,” he says.
Solis’ point echoes the findings of a British officer, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, who wrote in an article published in November asserting that “the U.S. Army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent style, which left it ill-suited to the kind of operation it encountered [in Iraq] as soon as conventional warfare ceased to be the primary focus.”
Though Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker circulated the piece as recommended reading for his general officers, service officials also have said the Army has already become more proficient in counterinsurgency operations since 2004, when Aylwin-Foster served in Iraq alongside U.S. forces.
Sewell, now director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, applauds Chiarelli’s new focus on investigating civilian deaths in Iraq and altering tactics to reduce harm to the local population. She says the Pentagon’s earlier refusal to track civilian casualties effectively denied leaders an “early warning system” for a troubling trend.
“To learn from Haditha is to learn to notice not just the alleged massacres but the steady stream of civilian deaths that for too much of this war have remained invisible,” Sewell writes in the recent op-ed piece.
But according to soldiers and Marines interviewed for this article, troops continue to recite a saying that dates back at least to Vietnam:
“Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.” The idea is that even if killing a possible enemy fighter ultimately results in a court martial, the alternative – failing pulling the trigger – could leave you dead.
“If there’s any doubt in your mind, you should pull the trigger,” says the Army reservist who served in Iraq. He says this notion is in keeping with the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in Iraq, which allow troops to defend themselves anytime they believe their lives are in danger.
Those rules have not only safeguarded American troops but also largely protected Iraqi civilians, insists one official.
“Our record in Iraq, under the most pervasive embedded media in the history of war, shows the overwhelming American effort to not endanger innocents,” says the senior Marine officer.
One Army officer with Iraq experience cites “the hundreds of times – thousands of times maybe – that [troops] have not pulled the trigger, have placed themselves at greater risk to protect civilians. That was happening every day and this obviously was never documented because it worked out right.”
—Elaine M. Grossman