Dead-Check in Falluja

Embedded with the Marines in Iraq

In April 9, 2003, the day the statue of Saddam Hussein was being toppled in Baghdad, symbolizing the promised liberation of Iraq, I was embedded with a Marine unit engaged in fierce combat about 30 miles north of the city, on the outskirts of Baquba. Late that afternoon, the Humvee I was in was following about 50 feet behind a Marine Light Armored Vehicle when it pulled alongside a Toyota pickup pushed to the side of the road, its doors riddled with bullet holes. The head of at least one occupant was visible in the truck, but I couldn't determine if he was moving or not. Nor did I see any weapons. As our Humvee stopped behind the truck, a Marine in the vehicle ahead of us leapt out, pointed his rifle into the window of the pickup and sprayed it with gunfire. It was a cold-blooded execution.

As we continued forward, passing the truck, I glimpsed at least two corpses sprawled on the seats, the interior spattered with blood. During the brief moment I looked, I was unable to determine whether the dead men possessed weapons. None of the four Marines in our Humvee said anything. We had been awake for more than 30 hours, much of that time under steady mortar, rifle, machine-gun, and rocket-propelled grenade fire from enemy combatants who dressed in civilian clothes and moved around on the battlefield in Toyota pickups. (To make matters even more confusing, during the height of combat farmers were racing into the surrounding fields—where enemy soldiers were shooting at us from dug-in, concealed positions—in order to rescue sheep from the gunfire.)

In the previous few minutes we had already passed more than a dozen corpses strewn by the side of the road. Some had the tops of their heads missing, expertly hit by Marine riflemen. Others were burned—still smoking, actually—having crawled out of other vehicles set ablaze by rockets fired from Marine helicopters. The execution of one or two more men wasn't worth commenting on.

I greeted the sight of dead Iraqis in the pickup with a sense of numb relief. At least they would not be trying to kill us that day. In the preceding two-and-a-half weeks, the unit I was embedded with had come under frequent enemy attack, with three Marines wounded. There were 23 bullet holes in the Humvee I rode in—miraculously, none of the five of us inside had been hit. I had developed a strange relationship with the sight of dead Iraqis. I felt safer when I saw them.

I felt especially comforted when I saw dead men by the road still clutching weapons in their hands, a common sight. Unfortunately, of the hundreds of dead people I saw on the roads leading from the Kuwait border to Baghdad, perhaps 20 percent or more were obviously civilians. I will never forget the three or four women I saw fatally shot and partially burned, still seated in a bus on the road north of Nasiriyah. Or the little girl, about four, lying by the side of the road in a pretty dress, her legs neatly and inexplicably chopped off at the knees. Mercifully, I remember thinking at the time, she was dead like all the others.

Since my return from Iraq, I have continued to watch the horror unfold on television. It's different seeing the violence decontextualized from the battlefield, now playing out in discrete video clips that run between ads for Chevys and the Olive Garden. Videos of militants staging beheadings against dungeon-like backdrops, with the perpetrators wearing masks and the victims in colorful jumpsuits, seem almost like grotesque TV shows.

One of the great ironies of the Bush administration, obsessed as it is with Christian values and the attendant crusade to punish what it deems obscene and lewd in the media (from Janet Jackson's breast to Howard Stern's speech), is that it has given us a war in which the airing of snuff films on national TV has become routine. The conflict in Iraq, as seen through news coverage, has begun to resemble the macabre underground 1980s video series Faces of Death. Throw in the images produced by the U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib, and the administration has put itself in the running to successfully compete with the BDSM side of the porn industry.

Just as I thought I was adjusting to the video carnage, NBC correspondent Kevin Sites, embedded with U.S. forces in Falluja, gave us last week's shocker: the video of a Marine standing over a wounded, apparently unarmed Arab sprawled on the floor of a mosque and executing him with a gunshot to the head.

It brought back memories of the April 9 episode and others I witnessed in Iraq. Yet, watching this on TV, I felt the same outrage many others have expressed. American soldiers, we like to believe, don't shoot unarmed people. Not only is this morally repugnant, but execution of wounded, unarmed combatants violates Article Three of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which states in part that "persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely."

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