Out of context, the picture seemed ordinary, open to interpretation. It showed the butt end of five or six rifles, sloppily stacked in a pile inside an armored vehicle. In context, it documented a cover-up of accidental — or even intentional — shootings of Iraqi noncombatants by U.S. Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2005 and 2006.
At least three Marines who served in Anbar during that period said that their platoons carried “drop weapons” or tools that Iraqis were not permitted to possess to plant on the bodies of Iraqi noncombatant corpses in case of a wrongful killing.
They did so with the approval of their chain of command. “It was encouraged, almost with a wink and a nudge, to carry drop weapons and shovels with us,” said Jason Washborn, a Marine corporal who served three tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. “In case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, so we could toss weapon on the body to make [him] look like an insurgent. I was told… that if [the Iraqis] carried a shovel, or if they dig anywhere, especially near roads], then we could shoot them [on suspicion of planting roadside bombs]. So we actually carried tools in our vehicles.”
Washborn was one of 14 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who testified at the Mar. 13-16 Winter Soldier investigation — an eyewitness indictment of what was called systemic brutality in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The veterans declared that permissible uses of force in the wars became more and more broadly defined in response to the strength of the insurgencies there over time. The investigation, sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War and held in Silver Spring, Md., was intended, according to a background briefing, to “mobilize the military community to withdraw its support for the war and occupation in Iraq.” It featured photographic and video evidence of potential war crimes and proved to be an emotionally grueling experience for both testifiers and witnesses.
The investigation took great pains, as IVAW’s Jabbar MacGruder said during Friday’s panel on the rules of engagement, not to blame any soldier or even policy-maker. “It would be a mistake to blame any individual soldiers or individual leader,” MacGruder said. “This is not a failure of leadership… but the consequence of the nature of occupation.”
The charge that the original 1971 Winter Soldier investigation smeared soldiers and Marines as war criminals but exculpated the Vietnam war itself was a deliberate disinformation strategyby Nixon operative John E. O’Neill. It has since gained great currency in the Vietnam veterans’ community and the popular imagination.
But over the last few days, the soldiers and Marines did testify to a gradual degradation of the rules of engagement. Many had served multiple tours in Iraq and said that during the early days of their deployments, there was an effort to restrict the use of force to clearly necessary cases. “As time went on and casualties grew higher and higher, the rules got a bit lenient,” testified Sergio Kochergin, a Marine who served on the Iraq-Syrian border. Initially, when confronting a perceived threat, a Marine needed to call into the command post to await instruction in ambiguous cases. “We didn’t question it. We were angry,” he said. “It went down to, if there’s a person who [had] a weapon, not calling the command post, or if [someone was] doing suspicious activity we were allowed to take them out. We’d call in, say, ‘We have suspicious activity,’ and we were allowed to take them out.”
…by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a “heavy bag or a shovel” — to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices — could be killed.
Kochergin said that by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a “heavy bag or a shovel” — to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices — could be killed. “We just basically changed [the rules] ourselves,” agreed Garret Reppenhagen, an Army corporal who served in Baquba in 2004 and 2005. “You’re not concerned with the rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions. Your primary concern is getting yourself and your buddies home alive.” The attitude in his company, he said, was, “We didn’t get in trouble for that? Oh, let’s try this.”
One Marine sergeant named Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in Iraq, said, “The rules of engagement were broadly defined and loosely enforced. … Anyone who tells you differently is a liar or a fool. They were gradually reduced to a case of non-existence.”
The chain of command, the testimony asserted, facilitated the degradation of standards for using deadly force. Most veterans testifying spoke of a willingness on the part of their company and battalion-level commanders to accept false explanations for civilian deaths; to not investigate U.S. culpability for wrongful death, and to knowingly miscast blame for U.S.-caused killings of civilians on insurgents.
Planting guns on killed civilians and calling them insurgents was “commonly encouraged [by commanders] but only behind closed doors,” said Washborn. Lemieux said that in 2006, he saw his commander “shoot two old ladies walking [in Anbar Province] carrying vegetables.” Initially the commander, whom Lemieux did not identify, ordered one of his men to shoot the women, but when the Marine refused, “the commander shot them himself.” Later, the same Marine engaged in similar acts. “He was following the example [his] commander set.”
Through tears, a Marine named James H. Gilligan recounted a story about an artillery barrage on an Afghan village in 2004. The barrage occurred because Gilligan relayed incorrect coordinates to his Tactical Operations Center after his platoon came under a brief and disorienting attack. He was pressured by his commanders after the fact to falsify a report saying the attack was legitimate. Weeks later, Gilligan’s unit experienced its first IED attack after visiting the devastated village. A unit leader, he said, spoke to a village leader about the attack and told him, “If the Taliban does it again, let us know.”
This weekend’s Winter Soldier included two elements that its Vietnam-era predecessor lacked. The first was video footage. Jon Michael Turner of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines showed video of on e fellow Marine bragging, “I think I just killed half the population of northern Ramadi.” Another one showed a laser-guided bomb decimating a building Turner identified as belonging to the Iraqi Ministry of Health. “It was still in use and there were people in it,” he said. A third video showed the minaret of an Anbar Province mosque coming under sustained and deliberate gunfire for nearly a minute. Turner explained the Marines shot the minaret to “take out aggression after a guy in our weapons company got shot. … For those who don’t know, it is illegal to shoot at a mosque unless [you are] taking fire. We did not take any fire.” Another addition to the Iraq/Afghanistan-vintage Winter Soldier was video interviews with members of the population under occupation. The team behind the web-documentary series Alive in Baghdadprovided clips of a middle-aged man and a teenaged boy who had both been shot by U.S. troops and survived. When a third Iraqi, from Baghdad’s violent Sunni Adhamiyah neighborhood, was asked if he wanted to say anything to IVAW, he replied, “If they can end the occupation, I will be very thankful.”
Some soldiers and Marines testifying at Winter Soldier said they did so to honor the memory of fallen comrades. Turner showed photographs of memorials for five dead friends after ripping his ribbons and medals off his chest and hurling them into the audience — an act reminiscent of Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s 1971 protest on the steps of the Capitol. Fighting back tears, Kochergin ended his testimony by saying, “I want to apologize to all the people in Iraq. I’m sorry and I hope it will be over as soon as possible.”
On Thursday, the first day of Winter Soldier, President George W. Bush participated in a video conference with U.S. soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. “It must be exciting for you,” he said, as reported by Reuters. “[And] in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks.”