'I Just Pulled the Trigger'
By Bob Graham
At first glance they appear to be the archetypal Band Of Brothers of Hollywood myth, brave and honest men united in common purpose.
But a closer look at these American GIs, sweltering in the heat of an unwelcoming Iraq, reveals the glazed eyes and limp expressions of those who have witnessed a war they do not understand and have begun to resent. By their own admission these American soldiers have killed civilians without hesitation, shot wounded fighters and left others to die in agony.
What they told me, in a series of extraordinary interviews, will make uncomfortable reading for U.S. and British politicians and senior military staff desperate to prevent the liberation of Iraq turning into a quagmire of Vietnam proportions, where the behavior of troops feeds the hatred of an occupied people.
Sergeant First Class John Meadows revealed the mindset that has led to hundreds of innocent Iraqi civilians being killed alongside fighters deliberately dressed in civilian clothes. You cant distinguish between whos trying to kill you and whos not, he said. Like, the only way to get through is like getting through it by killing as many people as you can, people you know are trying to kill you. Killing them first and getting home.
These GIs, from Bravo Company of the 315th U.S. Infantry Division, are caught in an impossible situation. More than 40 of their number have been killed by hostile forces since May 1when President Bush declared major military operations were overand the number of hit-and-run attacks is on the increase. They face a resentful civilian population and, hiding among it, a number of guerrilla fighters still loyal to the old regime. A lone Iraqi sniper nicknamed The Hunter is believed to have claimed his sixth American victim this week in a suburb of Baghdad.
The man, said to be a former member of the Republican Guard Special Forces, has developed a cult status among some Iraqis. One Baghdad resident, Assad al Amari, said: He is fighting for Iraq on his own. There will be many more Americans killed because they cannot stop The Hunter. He will be given the protection of people who will let him use their homes for his shooting.
In this hostile atmosphere the men of Bravo Company are asked to maintain order, yet at the same time win hearts and minds. It is not a dilemma they feel able to resolve. They spoke to medressed in uniforms they have worn for the past six weeksat their base in Fallujah. Here U.S. troops killed 18 demonstrators at a pro-Saddam rally soon after the war and now face local fighters bent on revenge.
Their attitude to these dangers is summed up by Specialist (Corporal) Michael Richardson, 22. There was no dilemma when it came to shooting people who were not in uniform, I just pulled the trigger. It was up close and personal the whole time, there wasnt a big distance. If they were there, they were enemy, whether in uniform or not. Some were, some werent.
Specialist Anthony Castillo added: When there were civilians there we did the mission that had to be done. When they were there, they were at the wrong spot, so they were considered enemy. In one major battleat the southern end of Baghdad at the intersection of the main highwaysthe soldiers estimate about 70 per cent of the enemys 400-or-so fighters were dressed as civilians.
Sgt. Meadows explained: The fight lasted for about eight hours and they just kept on coming all day from everywhere, from all sides. They were all in plain clothes.
We had dropped fliers a couple of days prior saying to people to get out of the area if they didnt want to fight, so basically anyone who was there was a combatant. If they were dumb enough to stand in front of tanks or drive a car towards a tank, then they were there to fight. On that day it took away the dilemma of who to fire at, anyone who was there was a combatant.
Cpl. Richardson added: That day nothing went with the training. There were females fighting; there were some that, when they saw you fucking coming, theyd just drop their shit and try to give up; and some guys were shot and theyd play dead, and when youd go by theyd reach for their weapons. That day it was just fucking everything. When we face women or injured that try to grab their weapons, we just finish them off. Youve gotta; no choice.
Such is their level of hatred they preferred to kill rather than merely injure. Sgt. Meadows, 34, said: The worst thing is to shoot one of them, then go help him. Sergeant Adrian Pedro Quinones, 26, chipped in: In that situation youre angry, youre raging. Theyd just been shooting at my menthey were putting my guys in a casket and eight feet under. Thats what they were trying to do.
And now, theyre laying there and I have to help them, I have a responsibility to ensure my men help them. Cpl. Richardson said: Shit, I didnt help any of them. I wouldnt help the fuckers. There were some you let die. And there were some you double-tapped.
He held out his hand as if firing a gun and clucked his tongue twice. He said: Once youd reached the objective, and once youd shot them and youre moving through, anything there, you shoot again. You didnt want any prisoners of war. You hate them so bad while youre fighting, and youre so terrified, you cant really convey the feeling, but you dont want them to live.
These soldiers have faced fighters from other Arab countries. It wasnt even Iraqis that we was killing, it was Syrians, said Sgt. Meadows. We spoke to some of the people and Saddam made a call to his Arab brothers for a holy war against us, and they said they came here to fight us. Whadda we ever do to them?
Cpl. Richardson intervened: Shit, that didnt really matter who they were. They wanted to fight us so they were the enemy. We had to take over Baghdad, period, it didnt matter who was in there.
The GIs spoke of shooting civilians at roadblocks. Sgt. Meadows said: When they used white flags we were told to stop them at 400 meters out and then strip them down naked then bring them through. Most obeyed the order. We knew about others who had problems with [Iraqis] carrying white flags and then opening up on our guys. We knew about every trick they were trying to do. Then theyd use cars to try and drive at us. They were men, women and children. That day we shot up a lot of cars.
Wed shoot warning shots at them and theyd keep coming, so wed kill them. Wed fire a warning shot over the top of them or on the road. When people criticize us killing civilians they dont know that a lot of these civilians were combatants, they really were. And they still are.
The men have been traumatized by their experiences. Cpl. Richardson-said: At night time you think about all the people you killed. It just never gets off your head, none of this stuff does. Theres no chance to forget it, were still here, weve been here so long. Most people leave after combat but we havent.
Sgt. Meadows said men under his command had been seeking help for severe depression: Theyve already seen psychiatrists and the chain of command has got letters back saying these men need to be taken out of this situation. But nothings happened. Cpl. Richardson added: Some soldiers dont even fucking sleep at night. They sit up all fucking night long doing shit to keep themselves busyto keep their minds off this fucking stuff. Its the only way they can handle it. Its not so far from being crazy but its their way of coping. Theres one guy trying to build a little pool out the back, pointless stuff but it keeps him busy.
Sgt. Meadows said: For me, its like snap-shot photos. Like pictures of maggots on tongues, babies with their heads on the ground, men with their heads halfway off and their eyes wide open and mouths wide open. I see it every day, every single day. The smells and the torsos burning, the entire route up to Baghdad, from March 20 to April 7, nothing but burned bodies.
Specialist Bryan Barnhart, 21, joined in: I also got the images like snapshots in my head. There are bodies that we saw when we went back to secure a place wed taken. The bodies were still there and theyd been baking in the sun. Their bodies were bloated three times the size.
Sgt. Quinones explained: There are psychiatrists who are trying to sort out their problems but they say its because of long combat environment. They know we need to be taken away from that environment. But the groups tour of duty has been extended and the men have been forced to remain as peacekeepers. Cpl. Richardson said: Now were in this peacekeeping, were always firing off a warning shot at people that dont wanna listen to you. You make up the rules as you go along.
Like, in Fallujah we get rocks thrown at U.S. by kids. You wanna turn round and shoot one of the little fuckers but you know you cant do that. Their parents know if they came out and threw rocks wed shoot them. So thats why they send the kids out. Sgt. Meadows said: Can you imagine being a soldier and being told youre fighting a war, then when you finish you can go home.
You go and fight that war, and you win decisively, but now you have to stay and stabilize the situation. We are having to go from a full war-fighting mindset to a peacekeeping mindset overnight. Right after shooting at people who were trying to kill you, you now have to help them.
The anger towards their own senior officers is obvious. Cpl. Richardson said: We werent trained for this stuff now. It makes you resentful theyre holding us on here. It pisses everyone off, we were told once the war was over wed leave when our replacements get here. Well, our replacements got here and were still here.
Specialist Castillo said: Were more angry at the generals who are making these decisions and who never hit the ground, and who dont get shot at or have to look at the bloody bodies and the burnt-out bodies, and the dead babies and all that kinda stuff. Sgt. Quinones added: Most of these soldiers are in their early twenties and late teens. Theyve seen, in less than a month, more than any man should see in a whole lifetime. Its time for us to go home.
On whether the war was one worth fighting, Sgt. Meadows said: I dont care about Iraq one way or the other. I couldnt care less. [Saddam] could still be in power and, to me, it wasnt worth leaving my family for; for getting shot at and almost dying two or three times, theres nothing worth that to me. Even though no Iraqis were involved, and there is no proof Saddam was behind it, the attack on the World Trade Center provides Cpl. Richardson and many others with the justification for invading Iraq.
Theres a picture of the World Trade Center hanging up by my bed and I keep one in my Kevlar [flak jacket]. Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think, They hit us at home and, now, its our turn. I dont want to say payback but, you know, its pretty much payback.
Evening Standard, (London, UK) June 19, 2003