Shoot First — Ask Questions (Much) Later?

By: Greg Mitchell

These days, hardly a week passes without the arrival of another allegation of a U.S. atrocity or other unnecessary killing of civilians in Iraq by Americans.

Just in the past few days we?ve witnessed a McClatchy report from Baghdad revealing that U.S. soldiers have killed or wounded 429 Iraqi civilians at checkpoints or near patrols and convoys during the past year; an extremely troubling Los Angeles Times account of routine brutality, and a plea from Reuters for a military probe of the death of two of its staffers last week, possibly shot by U.S. copters. The Nation just published a massive cover piece by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian detailing the disturbing findings of on-the-record interviews with about 50 returning veterans of the war.

Today, in testimony at a Camp Pendleton hearing related to the Haditha killings, a lance corporal named Humberto Mendoza said that a Marine charged with murdering several Iraqis in November 2005, gave orders to shoot into a roomful of women and children. And Sgt. Sanick Dela Cruz testified that after the deaths, the same defendant, Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum, said he disapproved how the United States was waging war and wished troops had more leeway to shoot.

According to Dela Cruz, Tatum said he thought the war should be fought the way it was in Biblical scriptures — “where you just go in the city and kill every living thing.”

Perhaps these recent revelations will finally spark more sustained media interest in this subject, which has been tragically undercovered since day one of our invasion in 2003. Even the killings at Haditha, which did gain wide attention, were mainly ignored by the media for two months after the initial revelations in Time magazine.

There are two good reasons for this lack of investigation: reporters can?t get around much due to the horrific violence, and everyone recognizes the danger and pressure the soldiers face. But that doesn?t excuse most of the bad behaior nor the general lack of press enterprise. For example, here at home where the threat of getting blown up in the streets is presumably small, why was it left to The Nation to produce a survey of vets — when any major news outlet could have attempted it?

In this space over the years, I have tried to draw attention to this issue in various ways, from quoting the rare observations of embeds who witnessed some harsh or deadly military actions to exposing the huge amount of ?condolence? or solatia payments to survivors (thousands of payments and tens of millions of dollars). As with Vietnam, when the memoirs come out and the history is written, we will be shocked, I believe, by the level of wrongdoing by our troops who, to be fair, have been placed by their superiors in what Robert Jay Lifton called an ?atrocity-producing situation.?

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of likely everyday brutality by U.S. troops emerged in April, yet as far as I know, was not investigated by major media.

A U.S. Army Surgeon General study of over 1,300 troops in Iraq had revealed increasing mental stress — and an alarming spillover into poor treatment of noncombatants. It disclosed that at least 10% of U.S. forces reported that they had personally, and without cause, mistreated civilians (not prison detainees) through physical violence or damage to personal property.

The survey also noted that only 47% of the soldiers and 38% of marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.

Over 40% said they backed torture in certain circumstances. Even worse, nearly one in five said that all noncombatants “should be treated as insurgents.” About 30% said their officers had not made it clear that they should not mistreat civilians.

More: Only 40% of American marines and 55% of soldiers in Iraq said they would report a fellow service member for killing or injuring an innocent Iraqi. Of course, this only guarantees that it will happen again, and again.

Jeff Englehart, a 26-year-old Army specialist from Grand Junction, Colo., said in The Nation survey: ?I guess while I was there, the general attitude was a dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi. You know, so what?? You may wish to discount that, believing that The Nation is liberal and antiwar and that its pool of interviewees was drawn largely from veterans’ organizations critical of the war.

Then you are still left with yesterday?s L.A. Times piece, which reported on the testimony of a Marine corporal, Saul Lopezromo, at the trial of Cpl. Trent D. Thomas, charged with murdering an Iraqi near Hamandaya (others have pleaded guilty). Lopezromo said Marines in his unit began routinely beating Iraqis after officers ordered them to “crank up the violence level.? Echoing the Army survey, he added that Marines consider all Iraqi men part of the insurgency, and added that a procedure called “dead-checking” was routine: If Marines found a wounded man in a house, instead of checking to see whether he needed medical aid, they shot him to make sure he was dead.??

“If somebody is worth shooting once, they’re worth shooting twice,” he said.?

To the extent they can do so, is the media now willing to deeply probe the actions of our beleaguered troops in Iraq? As Bob Herbert concluded a column about The Nation survey last week, ?it?s one thing to lose a war. It?s much worse for a nation to lose its soul.?
***

THURSDAY UPDATE:

Two U.S. Army soldiers have been charged with the premeditated murder of an Iraqi, and a lieutenant colonel has been relieved of command in connection with the case, the U.S. military announced Thursday. Sgt. 1st Class Trey A. Corrales, of San Antonio and Spc. Christopher P. Shore of Widner, Ga., were charged with one count of murder in the death, which allegedly occurred June 23 near the northern city of Kirkuk, the U.S. said in a statement.

Also, a military jury has convicted a Marine of kidnapping and conspiring to murder an Iraqi man in a bungled attempt to abduct and kill a suspected insurgent in Hamdania. Cpl. Trent Thomas faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, his defense attorney said.

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