The atrocities began in Iraq at the very start, from the first days and hours when the "mission" was being "accomplished" to a chorus of hosannas from the ex-generals and the war-profiteering commentators like Richard Perle brought in by the networks to provide "expert" analysis of the victorious campaign:
Jason Washburn...fought in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 where, he says, he met little resistance. Most people were surrendering. "There were massive amounts of artillery strikes before we even invaded. We saw the results of that. Streets full of bodies – women and children – body parts, extremely indiscriminate. I’m talking about rolling through villages here, not military encampments."
He was told there was a military structure in one village. “I didn’t see it. I didn’t see any army uniforms. Or weapons. All I saw were civilians.”
Two years later – now on his third tour in Iraq, banging down doors and terrifying families in midnight "home raids" – Washburn was in Haditha the day that a group of his fellow Marines massacred 24 civilians. Washburn wasn't at the site, but he knew many of the men who took part.
"I have a lot of feelings about this incident," [Washburn said.] "A friend of mine from my first two tours was in that squad. He was the guy they gave immunity to to testify against the squad leader. The people on the ground are looking at serious prison time. Like life. The people who were giving orders were only relieved of command. And I don’t think that’s right."
Washburn says Haditha was not an isolated incident. "It’s the one that just happened to be uncovered."
And how do these orders for "irregular" action get conveyed? Through what veteran Perry O'Brien called "the three-stomp signal," which commanders use to differentiate between "the book way" and the "real way" they want things done.
"If someone is giving a briefing and they stomp their foot three times after what they are saying, it means 'disregard what I just said,''" [Perry said.]. "For instance, 'Make every effort to avoid civilian property damage,' stomp stomp stomp – [means] ignore that. The idea is that when you get back [from combat], anything that you did the book way can be spoken about – but not what was done the real way."
It isn’t just between the book way and the real way, he says; it’s become between the honourable way and the immoral way.....“The book way was we treat everyone the same...” Perry smiles and taps his foot three times. “You are ordered to do things that are clear violations of our conscience and what we know to be moral. It’s not even what’s prescribed by the Geneva conventions. It’s what every human being knows to be right and wrong."
For example, in Afghanistan, O'Brien witnessed the despoiling of corpses after wounded Afghans civilians died on the operating table after treatment by a MASH unit:
Rather than prepare the corpse for the family, O’Brien witnessed the surgeons and the medics use the body to practise on. "One doctor said, 'Come up and feel his heart! This is what a heart feels like.'"
Half the platoon, if not more, participated. Daniel Paulsen, 27, was there and corroborates this story. There are photographs as well. Someone had grabbed O’Brien’s digital camera and taken photographs of the heart and the medics walking around and poking it. These photographs were taken for fun. Eventually the chest of the corpse was closed up.
"It was a total violation of our medical oath to use a corpse for medical training," says O’Brien. "What’s particularly terrible is that these were all doctors that had practices back home – they were familiar with the law and the Hippocratic oath. There was such a huge disconnect between the way they treated Afghans and the way they treated American patients. When Americans died, the corpses became these sacred objects that were treated with tremendous care. There was this solemn funerary attitude around them. When an Afghan died, it was [as if they were] treating them like they weren’t human."
O'Brien is on the verification team vetting testimony for the conference – a process so rigorous that anyone caught" fabricating their experience or pretending to be a veteran will be handed over to the authorities and charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act, a law signed by President Bush in 2006." O'Brien says that one of the most common atrocity orders he is hearing about from confirmed testimony is "the shovel order."
"Anyone carrying a shovel or any sort of implement that could be used to bury an IED could be considered a target," he says. "After dark, you can shoot anyone who is outside. Or anyone who puts anything on the side of the road can be considered a target. You won’t find it in writing, but it’s an order indicated to soldiers."
Logan Laturi, an Army forward observer in Iraq, said that soldiers were given a green-light for this practice by a commander at a training base back in the States:
Laituri was in Fort Irwin, California in May 2006 during a pep talk at the National Training Center. He alleges that a commander made a speech to his company, and that he "made it clear to us that if an innocent person was shot he would stage a scene to protect us." The explicit message was: "We would make sure there was a weapon found at the scene."
....In 2007, [that] officer was relieved of his command after a death on June 23 last year in the vicinity of Kirkuk. He is not currently a suspect and was never charged – but two soldiers who were under his command have been charged with premeditated murder.
Last month a top army sniper testified in military court – under immunity – that he had ordered a subordinate to kill an unarmed Iraqi man, then planted an AK-47 assault rifle near the body to back up a false claim of returned fire.
But the truths they tell will not disappear – just as the blowback from all this crime and moral chaos will not be deflected simply by ignoring it or wishing it away.
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This story was published on March 3, 2008.