BAQUBAH, IRAQ—It’s not hard to imagine what the soldiers of the 272nd Chemical Company, a unit of the New York National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division, were thinking when they spotted a vehicle barreling toward them through the falling darkness.
Strewn out on the highway near this Sunni city on January 29, their own vehicles idling as they effected quick repairs to a malfunctioning truck, the company’s soldiers were probably imagining the horror stories they’d heard in recent weeks while training in Kuwait for their year-long deployment to the Sunni triangle—stories about drug-addled jihadists in automobiles packed with explosives.
Just two days earlier, a foreign bomber in a compact car blew himself up alongside some Iraqi policemen in downtown Baqubah, wounding several people and scattering pieces of himself all over a city block.
To the inexperienced Guardsmen of the 272nd—a unit that, before now, had never been to war in its quarter-century of existence—the vehicle drawing ever closer to their vulnerable convoy could very well contain a 72-virgins-crazed suicidal terrorist heaven-bent on blowing himself up and taking some foreign infidels with him.
The driver of one of the outermost idling trucks flashed his lights as a warning to the approaching vehicle.
It kept coming.
A U.S. soldier manning a truck-mounted .50-caliber machine gun—a weapon powerful enough to shoot down aircraft—opened fire.
And several Iraqi Army officers inside the approaching vehicle were pierced by shattered glass and thumb-sized metal slugs.
One died instantly. At least two more were badly injured. Their vehicle came to a halt.
Soon, the soldiers of the 272nd realized what they’d done. They’d killed an ally.
Wonks call it friendly fire. Military historians call it fratricide. To military planners, it’s a nagging problem in a country where friend and foe are nearly indistinguishable.
Just ask Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad in February and released earlier this month. On March 4, Sgrena was wounded when American soldiers manning a checkpoint near Baghdad International Airport opened fire on a compact car carrying her and Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari only hours after Sgrena’s release. Calipari was killed. Sgrena underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from her shoulder.
Sgrena said she may have been deliberately targeted. The White House said the shooting was an accident and promised an investigation. Newsweek correspondent Christopher Dickey speculated that jumpy Americans and reckless Italians shared the blame. After all, a compact car speeding toward a checkpoint looks a lot like a suicide bombing in the making.
At Camp Buehring and other U.S. bases in Kuwait, grizzled veterans teach incoming soldiers to treat every oncoming civilian vehicle as a potential threat. “They make them paranoid,” says Staff Sergeant Jeff Wagoner of Second Platoon, Charlie Company, Task Force 82, part of the First Infantry Division.
Second Platoon Sergeant First Class Rufus Beamon, 34, calls the soldiers involved in the January 29 Baqubah shooting “jumpy and stupid.” And some observers say that mistakes by “jumpy and stupid” soldiers will become more common as reservists replace active-duty soldiers in Iraq. Reservists of all types—including 2,000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve, some of whom left active service more than 10 years ago—now make up nearly half of all American soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, up from 30 percent in 2004, according to the Army.
The 42nd Infantry Division—a National Guard outfit with units based in more than a dozen states, including New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont—is in the process of replacing the active-duty First Infantry Division, which has occupied Diyala Province, in eastern Iraq, since early 2004. This is the first overseas deployment of a National Guard division since World War II.
The 42nd’s deployment and the IRR call-up are just the Army’s latest tacit admissions that it’s in over its head with the occupation of Iraq, which has cost 1,500 American dead, more than 10,000 Americans wounded, and hundreds of billions of dollars. And while the January 30 elections were a baby step toward Iraqi self-rule, the insurgency continues unabated. The potential for bloody civil war between the fractured country’s major ethnic and religious groups grows as Shiites consolidate their control over the government.
After two years of fighting, the U.S. Army is all but exhausted. The powerful active-duty force that toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in just weeks has given way to a much smaller active force propped up by large numbers of reservists.
Full-time soldiers thrive on doing what soldiers do, and doing it well. But reservists are civilians first and soldiers second. Their enthusiasm for the hardships of war and occupation is minimal, and their reservations great. They’re scared and they act like it. And in a place as dangerous as Iraq, fear can kill.
The American soldiers’ local rules of engagement usually prohibit opening fire until an enemy has been positively identified. Suspicion’s simply not enough.
Back in Baqubah on January 29, Sergeant Wagoner, hearing of the 272nd’s attempts to signal the Iraqi vehicle, is dismissive—and angry, saying, “How does that change the rules of engagement?”
Beamon, Wagoner, and the rest of Second Platoon are furious. For months, they’ve lived and trained with local Iraqi Army units at Camp Gabe in downtown Baqubah. They eat with the guys. They sleep next door to them. They’re friends.
Wagoner admits that his platoon was nervous and inexperienced, too, when it first arrived in Iraq in February 2004. “We were just like them,” he says.
But Second Platoon didn’t accidentally kill any good guys as a result. And Second Platoon is active-duty, whereas most of the 42nd’s soldiers were part-timers before they were activated for deployment. That means less training and—some say—an increased likelihood of fatal mistakes.
Not so, says Lieutenant Colonel Roch Switlik, a 43-year-old Merck employee from New Jersey and the commander of the New Jersey National Guard’s 50th Main Support Battalion, which hauls supplies and fixes trucks for the 42nd.
“We’re one team,” Switlik says in response to comparisons between active soldiers and reservists. He adds that reservists bring different, but not inferior, “skill sets” to military operations—like experience in various civilian fields, sometimes years of active-duty experience, and “maturity.”
But he admits that in combat situations, part-time soldiers are at a disadvantage compared to their professional counterparts.
As for the Baqubah incident, Switlik says that accidents are “always possible.”
But maybe more possible. Second Platoon Staff Sergeant Joshua Marcum, 25, says that in his experience, National Guardsmen are less disciplined than active-duty soldiers and more likely to shoot first and ask questions later.
He should know. Last summer, just a few months after he and his comrades arrived at Camp Gabe, a National Guardsman keeping an eye on Gabe’s walls opened fire at some Iraqi civilians he mistook for insurgents, killing a 14-year-old girl.
The event was a tragedy for both the girl’s family and for Marcum—he’s a father of a little girl—but it wasn’t even a blip on the international media’s radars, or the Army’s.
The Voice was unable to independently verify the shooting. But incidents like the one Marcum witnessed—while not always fatal—are common in Iraq, according to a story in the independent Army Times profiling the Army’s efforts to monetarily compensate victims.
“They were just scratching in the dirt, looking for food,” Marcum says of the victim and her family. His face contorts as he recalls the scene. “I was the one who had to clean up the mess. I carried the girl past that guy and showed him—’Look what you did, dumbass.’ It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. And nothing ever happened to that guy [the shooter]. It was just an accident, right?”
The nature of the Iraq occupation—in which insurgent fighters and a sometimes hostile but nonviolent population are indistinguishable—makes such accidents more common. Most American fatalities come from ambushes, roadside bombs, and suicide bombings. Only sometimes do insurgents attack in the daytime. Rarely do soldiers see their assailants. Even when they do, the attackers never wear uniforms or identifying marks of any kind. While there is an “insurgent profile” (young, male, and pissed), there are always exceptions. The bottom line is that anyone is a potential killer. And when it comes to bombings, any abandoned car or donkey cart, every ditch or pile of garbage could conceal three or four South African artillery shells wired to explode with the touch of a button. Bombs like that have taken out even armored vehicles that were previously thought all but impervious.
All of this makes for fearful soldiers, according to 29-year-old First Lieutenant Kai Chitaphong, a military counselor deployed to Iraq, where he specializes in treating “combat stress”—the Army’s term for post-traumatic stress disorder. “The worst part,” says Chitaphong, “is not knowing who the enemy is.”
Hundreds of bombings (Wagoner has survived at least five) have made Second Platoon particularly wary of passing cars.
“You get that feeling in your gut whenever a car rolls past,” says Private First Class Timothy White, 23. “But what can you do?”
You can shoot first, that’s what. Never mind that most units’ rules of engagement prohibit shooting until you’re certain that a target is hostile.
On the morning of February 7, one of Lieutenant Colonel Switlik’s platoons, led by First Lieutenant Jennifer Wehrle, 33—a Californian on loan to the New Jersey Guard—gathers on a gravel-covered field in the corner of a former Iraqi air force base near Tikrit. This morning, they’ll be hauling 30 truckloads of supplies to the 42nd headquarters 25 miles away. For many, this will be their first mission in a war zone.
The tension in the air is palpable. Another Californian on loan, Specialist Tim Wood, 31, nervously stamps his feet and readjusts his body armor, while Specialist Vanessa Collins smokes and jokes about how shopping back home in New Jersey is a lot like combat.
“What do you think it’s going to be like?” she asks Wood. He just shrugs.
In their brand-new uniforms and armor, these newly deployed Guardsmen look like toy soldiers next to the seasoned active-duty troops from Second Platoon. They wear neck armor and knee and elbow pads—items most soldiers see as overkill—even though their convoy is unlikely to draw any fire. And for a 30-minute mission hauling supplies on heavily patrolled roads, they sit through hours of briefings and inspections. Most units conducting actual combat missions spend only a few minutes preparing. The overall impression one gets of the Guardsmen is one of over-preparation—and of fear. One briefing highlights attacks that took place months ago on roads the convoy won’t even be traveling.
And everyone talks about Kuwait, Kuwait.
Before heading into Iraq, most soldiers —and all Guardsmen—undergo varying periods of training in Kuwait, usually at Camp Buehring. Wagoner says this training paints a false portrait of Iraq as a country where the dead are piled on the streets, gunfire erupts from every darkened window, and Americans who venture off their bases immediately come under attack by rockets and suicide bombers. “They make them paranoid,” Wagoner says.
This paranoia is in evidence as the convoy crawls out of the base’s front gate, stopping briefly to let its handful of gunners shoot two or three rounds into a sand berm—a “test fire,” they call it. Specialist Ernest Benjamin, 51, of New York City pulls the trigger on his .50-caliber and holds it, spraying rounds up and down the berm. “I live for this,” he says, so high on adrenaline —the chemical product of fear—that you can almost smell it.
Less than an hour later, the convoy pulls into its destination. No shots were fired. No suicide bombers took interest. Iraqis waiting in line for gasoline in downtown Tikrit waved as the trucks sped past. Climbing out of his vehicle, Wood looks flushed. “That wasn’t so bad,” he says.
Sergeant John Branick, a 52-year-old mailman back home and a driver here, shakes his head and says, “What I couldn’t believe was all the people around.” Branick sees all Iraqis as a threat—and today, the threat was everywhere. “I mean, they were just out there.”
Major Michael Lyons, 40, a New Jersey resident who is Switlik’s second in command, says his troops are just “green”—inexperienced—but he says that’s a problem not only with Guardsmen, but with any soldier new to Iraq. He says that may have been a factor in the January 29 shooting.
Besides, he adds, the average Guardsman has more experience in the military—if not in actual combat—than the average active-duty soldier. Many older soldiers spend the last years of their enlistments or commissions in the reserves, where they train only a few weeks per year and can devote themselves to new civilian careers and to their families.
But tactical skills—like knowing when to shoot and when not to—decay quickly if you don’t exercise them every day, says Captain Stephen Short, 41, a Texan who’s an officer with the Tennessee-based 467th Engineer Battalion, 50 of whose 115 members were recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve, some after years of civilian life. Short himself came from the IRR. “Tactically,” he admits, “we’re at a disadvantage.”
This disadvantage can be fatal to innocent people caught in reservists’ crosshairs.