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.”
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.”
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.
The Marines constantly debated the morality of what they were engaged in. A sergeant in the platoon told me he had consulted with his priest about killing. The priest had told him it was all right to kill for his government so long as he didn’t enjoy it. By the time the unit reached the outskirts of Baghdad, this sergeant was certain he had already killed at least four men. When his battalion commander praised the unit for “slaying dragons” on the way to Baghdad, the sergeant later told his men, “If we did half the shit back home we’ve done here, we’d be in prison.” By then, the sergeant told me, he’d reconsidered what his priest had told him about killing. “Where the fuck did Jesus say it’s OK to kill people for your government? Any priest who tells me that has got no credibility.”
He and several other Marines recently returned from Iraq (many from their second tours) whom I’ve talked to about the Falluja shooting say they are not sure they would have dead-checked the wounded man in the mosque had they been in the same position. Most say they probably would have, even though the mosque had already been cleared once. “What does the American public think happens when they tell us to assault a city?” one of them said. “Marines don’t shoot rainbows out of our asses. We fucking kill people.”
Another Marine in the unit I followed—a Democrat’s dream, he returned home from fighting in Falluja in time to vote for Kerry—added, “Americans celebrate war in their movies. We like to see visions of evil being defeated by good. When the people at home glimpse the reality of war, that it’s a bloodbath, they freak out. We are a subculture they created and programmed to fight their wars. You have to become a psycho to kill like we do. To most Marines that guy in the mosque was just someone who didn’t get hit in the right place the first time we shot him. I probably would have put a bullet in his brain if I’d been there. If the American public doesn’t like the violence of war, maybe before they start the next war they shouldn’t rush so much.”
Evan Wright is the author of Generation Kill, about a Marine reconnaissance unit in Iraq.