Dead-Check in Falluja

Embedded with the Marines in Iraq

Even to those unfamiliar with the Geneva Conventions, it seems obvious from the mosque video that a war crime was committed. The response from the administration and military officials has been unusually swift. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte conveyed his regrets to Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and vowed that "the individual in question will be dealt with." The Marine in the video, whose name has been withheld, was pulled from duty, and his commanders issued a statement promising to investigate what they called "an allegation of the unlawful use of force in the death of an enemy combatant." Lieutenant General John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, added in an interview, "We follow the law of armed conflict and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability."

One thing military officials are not saying is that the behavior of the Marine in the video closely conforms to training that is fairly standard in some units. Marines call executing wounded combatants "dead-checking."

"They teach us to do dead-checking when we're clearing rooms," an enlisted Marine recently returned from Iraq told me. "You put two bullets into the guy's chest and one in the brain. But when you enter a room where guys are wounded you might not know if they're alive or dead. So they teach us to dead-check them by pressing them in the eye with your boot, because generally a person, even if he's faking being dead, will flinch if you poke him there. If he moves, you put a bullet in the brain. You do this to keep the momentum going when you're flowing through a building. You don't want a guy popping up behind you and shooting you."

Marines prepare for battle
Marines prepare for battle

What I'd seen on that road outside of Baquba on April 9 was a dead-check. The Marine who fired into that Toyota with wounded men inside didn't want anybody shooting at us as we went past. It may have been a war crime, and had I possessed a video camera at the time and filmed it, the Marine who fired into the truck might have faced punishment. As it was, no one questioned the Marine's actions.

In fact, commanders in the Marine Corps during the period I was embedded with them in the spring of 2003 repeatedly emphasized that the men's actions would not be questioned. As one of the officers in the unit I followed used to tell his men, "You will be held accountable for the facts not as they are in hindsight but as they appeared to you at the time. If, in your mind, you fire to protect yourself or your men, you are doing the right thing. It doesn't matter if later on we find out you wiped out a family of unarmed civilians."

Commanders didn't want their men to suffer casualties because they were overly constrained by rules of engagement. At the same time, Marines were constantly drilled in refraining from shooting their weapons, even at certain times when they came under fire. On one afternoon I recall in particular, the unit I was with was ordered to hold a position on the outskirts of a hostile town. For six hours, insurgents fired at the Marines from rooftops and from behind piles of rubble they'd set up in streets as barricades. But the Marines I was with, unable to pinpoint the exact locations of the enemy shooters, refused to fire back for fear of hitting civilians. The 22-year-old radio operator of the team I was with had it within his power to call in an artillery strike on the corner of the town where most of the enemy forces seemed concentrated. At one point, while I was crouched in the dirt, taking cover behind the tire of the Humvee as enemy sniper rounds popped into the dust nearby, I asked him why he didn't call in a strike. He simply laughed at my display of fear.

There were other times when the enlisted men in the unit fell into violent quarrels with others whom they felt were too aggressive and risked civilian lives. In one instance, enlisted men nearly came to blows with an officer whom they accused of firing a weapon into a house that they believed contained civilians. Despite their concern, terrible mistakes were made. I was standing next to a 22-year-old Marine from the Humvee I rode in when he fired his machine gun prematurely at a civilian car approaching a roadblock, striking the driver, an unarmed man, in the eye. The unit was subsequently ordered to drive past the car without rendering aid. I sat next to the gunner as we crept past, listening to the dying man gasp for breath. The gunner didn't talk for the next three days. A few days earlier, the youngest Marine on the team had shot a 12-year-old boy four times in the chest with his machine gun, mistakenly thinking a stick the boy had been carrying was a weapon. When the mother and grandmother of the boy later dragged him to the Marines' lines seeking medical aid, the sergeant who led the team dropped down in front of the mother and cried.

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