February 12, 2008—By forcing repeat combat assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan – and by winking at torture and indiscriminate killings – George W. Bush is degrading the reputation of the U.S. military, turning enlisted soldiers and intelligence officers into murderers and sadists.
After letting the 17-year-old son go, Vela’s squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley ordered Vela to use a 9-millimeter pistol to shoot the father, Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, in the head, an order that Vela carried out.
“It was murder, plain and simple,” military prosecutor, Major Charles Kuhfahl, told the court.
Janabi’s son, Mustafa, was allowed to make a statement, explaining how his father’s death had devastated the family and how one of his four younger brothers now avoids their home because he can’t stand the sight of his father’s empty room.
“Please don’t forget about us,” Mustafa told the court.
But Vela’s guilty verdict was a rare case of holding a U.S. soldier accountable in the killing or abusing of an Iraqi. Among the infrequent cases that have been brought, most end in acquittals or convictions only on minor charges.
Last November, for example, another military jury acquitted Hensley in the same murder of Janabi as well as in the killing of two other Iraqi men south of Baghdad in the early days of Bush’s troop “surge.” That jury ruled that Hensley was following the approved "rules of engagement," though it did convict him of planting an AK-47 on one victim.
Some of Vela’s military comrades complained that it was unfair to single any of them out for punishment because these killings are so common in Iraq.
Vela’s former platoon commander, Sgt. First Class Steven Kipling, said that if all U.S. combat soldiers in Iraq were subjected to the same scrutiny applied to Vela, “we would have thousands” of cases. [NYT, Feb. 11, 2008]
Indeed, the evidence does suggest that the handful of homicide cases from Iraq and Afghanistan that reach military trial represent only a small fraction of the unprovoked killings of locals at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
The murder and abuse cases that do result in trials often stem from incidents that get news media attention, like the mass killing of two dozen Iraqis in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, which Time magazine exposed.
Even more memorable was the case of the sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, mistreatment that was documented with photographs that reached the U.S. news media in 2004.
President Bush, who then was seeking reelection, joined in denouncing the low-ranking soldiers who had dressed Iraqi men up in women’s underwear or made them pose naked on leashes or in fake sexual positions.
Bush said he “shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated.” Other senior administration officials called the Abu Ghraib guards – mostly poorly trained reservists – a “few bad apples.”
Amid the furor, some Abu Ghraib guards claimed they were simply following guidance from intelligence interrogators on techniques to “soften up” detainees. But the Bush administration stuck to its story that the guards were an out-of-control night shift.
Army Sgt. Sam Provance was the only uniformed military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib to support the guards’ claim that the prisoner abuse was part of the “alternative interrogation techniques” that had made their way from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.
Provance, however, was punished for his candor and pushed out of the U.S. military. The Bush administration went ahead with plans to pin the blame on the MPs. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”]
Only after Election 2004 did evidence surface revealing that the sexual abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners did fit with the broader policy – approved by President Bush and other senior administration officials – to break down prisoners for interrogation.
For instance, alleged 9/11 plotter Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was sent to Guantanamo in 2002, was subjected to treatment similar to what later occurred at Abu Ghraib. Qahtani was forced to wear a bra, had a thong placed on his head, was paraded naked in front of women and was led around on a leash like a dog, military investigators reported in 2005.
Nevertheless, at Abu Ghraib, only the guards got serious punishment. Eventually, 11 enlisted soldiers were convicted in courts martial.
Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the harshest sentence – 10 years in prison – while Lynndie England, a 22-year-old single mother who was photographed holding an Iraqi on a leash and pointing at a detainee’s penis, was sentenced to three years in prison. Their superior officers either were cleared of wrongdoing or received mild reprimands.
Bush continued to treat the Abu Ghraib scandal like a freak incident that the media had blown out of proportion. At a press conference on May 25, 2006, he complained, “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.”
Never has Bush acknowledged that the abusive treatment of detainees – or the killing of unarmed Iraqis and Afghanis – are a natural result of his aggressive war strategies, nor that he is the one primarily responsible for dragging the worldwide reputation of the U.S. military and intelligence services into the gutter.
In the “war on terror,” Bush has asserted unlimited presidential authority that he claims lets him kill, imprison, spy on and torture anyone anywhere in the world, U.S. citizens and foreigners alike. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush ‘Apex’ of Unlimited Power” or the book, Neck Deep.]
A former senior administration official told the Washington Post in 2004 that Bush “felt very keenly that his primary responsibility was to do everything within his power to keep the country safe, and he was not concerned with appearances or politics or hiding behind lower-level officials.” [Washington Post, June 9, 2004]
Bush, however, has hid behind lower-level people, especially the soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom have faced multiple assignments to the war zones with relatively brief periods of home leave.
As one member of Sgt. Vela’s sniper team, Sgt. Anthony Murphy, said: “It’s a terrible war out there. And you have to make tough decisions. This war doesn’t provide that luxury to be perfect.”
In an e-mail interview with the New York Times, Sgt. Hensley, who gave Vela the order to execute the Iraqi detainee Janabi, complained that he [Hensley] should not have even faced a court martial because he was following guidance from two superior officers who wanted him to boost the unit’s kill count.
“Every last man we killed was a confirmed terrorist,” Hensley wrote. “We were praised when bad guys died. We were upbraided when bad guys did not die.” [NYT, Nov. 9, 2007]
In another incident near the town of Iskandariya, Iraq, on April 27, 2007, Army sniper Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. received an order from Sgt. Hensley to kill a man cutting grass with a rusty scythe because he was suspected of being an insurgent posing as a farmer.
Like Hensley, Sandoval was acquitted because the military jury accepted defense arguments that the killing was within the rules of engagement. (Sandoval was convicted of a lesser charge of planting a coil of copper wire on a slain Iraqi, and was sentenced to five months in prison.)
The Sandoval case also revealed a classified program in which the Pentagon’s Asymmetric Warfare Group encouraged U.S. military snipers in Iraq to drop “bait” – such as electrical cords and ammunition – and then shoot Iraqis who pick up the items. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2007]
A similar case of authorized murder of an insurgent suspect surfaced at a military court hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in mid-September 2007. Two U.S. Special Forces soldiers took part in the execution of an Afghani who was a suspected leader of an insurgent group.
Special Forces Capt. Dave Staffel and Sgt. Troy Anderson were leading a team of Afghan soldiers when an informant told them where the suspected insurgent leader was hiding. The U.S.-led contingent found a man believed to be Nawab Buntangyar walking outside his compound near the village of Hasan Kheyl.
While the Americans kept their distance out of fear the suspect might be wearing a suicide vest, the man was questioned about his name and the Americans checked his description against a list from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, known as “the kill-or-capture list.”
Concluding that the man was Nawab Buntangyar, Staffel gave the order to shoot, and Anderson – from a distance of about 100 yards away – fired a bullet through the man’s head, killing him instantly.
The soldiers viewed the killing as “a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement,” the International Herald Tribune reported. “The men said such rules allowed them to kill Buntangyar, whom the American military had designated a terrorist cell leader, once they positively identified him.”
Staffel’s civilian lawyer Mark Waple said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded in April that the shooting was “justifiable homicide,” but a two-star general in Afghanistan instigated a murder charge against the two men. That case, however, foundered over accusations that the charge was improperly filed. [IHT, Sept. 17, 2007]
According to evidence at the Fort Bragg proceedings, the earlier Army investigation had cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under rules of engagement that empowered them to kill individuals who have been designated “enemy combatants,” even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
In late September 2007, a U.S. military judge dismissed all charges against the two soldiers, ruling it was conceivable that the detained Afghani was wearing a suicide explosive belt, though there was no evidence that he was.
The U.S. counterinsurgency and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also have been augmented by heavily armed mercenaries, such as the Blackwater “security contractors” who operate outside the law and were accused by Iraqi authorities of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in a shooting incident on Sept. 16, 2007.
Though most media criticism has focused on trigger-happy Blackwater “security contractors,” Bush’s military strategy has employed its own indiscriminate firepower – from the loose rules of engagement for U.S. troops, to helicopter gun ships firing on crowds, to jet air strikes, to missiles launched from Predator drones.
For instance, the U.S. military acknowledged on Oct. 23, 2007, that an American helicopter killed 11 people, including women and children, after someone allegedly shot at the helicopter as it flew over the village of Mukaisheefa, north of Baghdad.
Iraqi police and witnesses said 16 people died, apparently as some rushed to help a wounded man, the New York Times reported. The helicopter gunners presumed the wounded man to be an insurgent and thus opened fire on the locals who came to his aid, according to witnesses.
“The locals went to check if he was dead and gathered around him,” said Mohanad Hamid Muhsin, a 14-year-old who was shot in the leg. “But the helicopter opened fire again and killed some of the locals and wounded others.”
When Iraqis carried the wounded into houses to administer first aid, the helicopter fired on the houses, killing and wounding more people, said Muhsin, who added that the dead included two of his brothers and a sister. A local police official said the 16 dead included six women and three children, while 14 other Iraqis were wounded.
The incident followed on the heels of an Oct. 21 gun battle in which 49 people died when U.S. forces attacked alleged Shiite militiamen in Sadr City, a crowded slum in eastern Baghdad. Local authorities said the dead included innocent bystanders. [NYT, Oct. 24, 2007]
Another account of the Oct. 23 incident in the Los Angeles Times quoted residents saying the men who were killed were farmers irrigating their fields in the pre-daylight hours.
Abdul Wahab Ahmed, a neighbor, said the U.S. attack also involved jets that conducted two bombing runs. The dead included two toddlers and four teenagers, he said. [Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 2007]
The U.S. military said one of those killed in the Oct. 23 attack was “a known member of an I.E.D. cell,” referring to improvised explosive devices that Iraqi insurgents have made their weapon of choice in fighting the U.S. occupation.
The American statement added that four other “military-age males” were killed along with five women and one child. U.S. military spokesmen often justify killings in Iraq and Afghanistan by noting that the dead are military-age males (or MAMs), slain in the vicinity of a firefight.
The shoot-to-kill strategy toward MAMs has a resonance back to the Vietnam War when U.S. helicopter-borne troops sometimes would spot a MAM working in a rice paddy, fire a shot near him and then interpret his running as an aggressive act justifying his killing.
This technique was described approvingly by retired Gen. Colin Powell in his widely praised autobiography, My American Journey.
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,” Powell wrote. “If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.
“Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”
While it’s true that combat is brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, the mowing down of unarmed civilians in cold blood doesn’t constitute combat. Under the laws of war, it is regarded as murder and, indeed, a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse to murder civilians. [For more on Powell’s justification for war crimes, see Chapter 8 in Neck Deep.]
In effect, Bush’s “global war on terror” has reestablished what looks like the Vietnam-era Operation Phoenix, a program that assassinated Vietcong cadre, including suspected communist political allies.
By early 2005, as the Iraqi insurgency grew, the Bush administration reportedly debated a “Salvador option” for Iraq, an apparent reference to the “death squad” operations that decimated the ranks of perceived leftists who were opposed to El Salvador’s right-wing military junta in the early 1980s.
According to Newsweek magazine, President Bush was contemplating the adoption of that brutal “still-secret strategy” of the Reagan administration as a way to get a handle on the spiraling violence in Iraq.
“Many U.S. conservatives consider the policy [in El Salvador] to have been a success – despite the deaths of innocent civilians,” Newsweek wrote.
The magazine also noted that many of Bush’s advisers were leading figures in the Central American operations of the 1980s, including Elliott Abrams, who is now an architect of Middle East policy on the National Security Council.
In Guatemala, about 200,000 people perished, including what a truth commission later termed a genocide against Mayan Indians in the Guatemalan highlands. In El Salvador, about 70,000 died including massacres of whole villages, such as the slaughter committed by a U.S.-trained battalion against hundreds of men, women and children near the town of El Mozote in 1981.
The Reagan administration’s “Salvador option” also had a domestic component, the so-called “perception management” operation that employed sophisticated propaganda to manipulate the fears of the American people while hiding the ugly reality of the wars. [See Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Bush has taken the position that he can override both international law and the U.S. Constitution in deciding who gets basic human rights and who doesn’t. He sees himself as the final judge of whether people he deems “bad guys” should live or die, or face indefinite imprisonment and even torture.
The troubling picture is that the U.S. chain of command, presumably up to Bush, has authorized loose “rules of engagement” that allow targeted killings – as well as other objectionable tactics including arbitrary arrests, “enhanced interrogations,” kidnappings in third countries with “extraordinary renditions” to countries that torture, secret CIA prisons, and detentions without trial.
This anything-goes approach has been conveyed down to soldiers in the field who believe they have wide discretion to kill Iraqis and Afghanis on the slightest suspicion. With rare exceptions – like the conviction of Sgt. Vela – the U.S. military has become a law onto itself, an extension of President Bush’s megalomania.
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This story was published on February 13, 2008.