Stay the lie

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

As we stare with sudden revulsion at the apparent cold-blooded murder of Iraqi civilians in Haditha — at least 15, maybe twice that number, killed by Marines avenging a buddy, including a 3-year-old girl, and men shoved into a closet, and a man kneeling in prayer — let us have the wit not to feign shock.

The massacre in this farming town on the Euphrates, about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, may not be precisely part of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s official mission, but neither is it an aberration. Indeed, it is, as Iraq vet Charlie Anderson said to me, a “foreseeable consequence” of an occupation that from day one was clumsy, brutal and clueless. As it grinds into its fourth year, with thousands of GIs caught by stop-loss orders in a tour of duty without end, and with all claims of noble purpose long since abandoned by our government like burned-out tanks in the desert, the frustrations and hatreds generated by our presence continue to intensify.

What happened in Haditha six months ago — two days after Rep. John Murtha introduced his brave, lonely resolution to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq — shatters every argument of the stay-the-course crowd and throws the dithering cowardice of Congress into stark relief. The longer we force our exhausted troops to stay not the “course” but the lie, the more dangerous the occupation becomes, for the Iraqis, for us, for the world.

Last Nov. 19, a Marine convoy was hit by an IED as it drove through Haditha; one soldier was killed. The Marines initially claimed the roadside bomb also killed the Iraqis, but thanks to Time magazine’s investigative work (rare indeed from the embedded U.S. media) we know this isn’t true. Video footage and 28 eyewitness reports “made an extremely strong case that the Marines of Kilo Company went on a vengeance rampage,” according to a statement by Iraq Veterans Against the War. In their armed grief, the Americans kicked in the doors of civilian homes and wasted at least 15 Iraqis, including children and grandparents.

The vets’ group, standing in solidarity with Murtha, excoriates a Congress so removed from what it calls “the ground truth of warfare” that it can see our presence in Iraq only as a geopolitical chess game and remains untouched by the blood we spill and oblivious to the smoldering (and utterly understandable) hatred we generate in pursuit of “our interests.”

“They’d allow us to do test fires on the road with live ammo, out there on these long desert highways,” Iraq vet and IVAW member Fernando Brago, who was with the Army National Guard, told me. On a desolate stretch of road to Kuwait, he recalled, someone asked permission to do a test fire on an old auto graveyard. “It was a Mark 19 grenade machine gun — spits out grenades instead of bullets,” he said. The soldier “test-fired on the auto graveyard. All of a sudden he sees people running from behind the cars. That’s like a common type of thing. It’s very easy for people’s lives to get lost for no reason.”

That’s a slice of ground truth. Stay-the-coursers are invited to digest it. “These little day-to-day atrocities — you shoot and you don’t know where the round goes,” Brago said. “You just keep moving. You shoot and you go.”

Rule No. 1 of the American occupation: Iraqi life is cheap. “You shoot and you go.” This begins to put Haditha into context, along with every other outrage that has made its way through the embedded media censorship-by-indifference machine these past three years into U.S. newspapers and TV reports. They aren’t aberrations, or the regrettable price of liberation (“freedom isn’t free”). They are the foreseeable consequences of an occupation that regards all Iraqis as expendable.

“We moved into Sadr City — then called Saddam City,” said Anderson, a Navy hospital corpsman assigned to a tank battalion during the invasion. “There were thousands of kids (in the streets) begging for food. It was really scary. ‘Come see the Americans.’ You look for the one guy that wants to kill you in a crowd of 5,000 people. . . .

“All of a sudden all hell breaks loose. There was a long rattle of machinegun fire. There’s a Pavlovian reaction to fire. Every vehicle in the unit began lighting up. All I know is that I started firing and kept pulling the trigger till somebody told us to stop.”

And all those kids in the street? Anderson said he had no idea how many may have been caught in the crossfire. “We didn’t stop, so I have no idea what happened.” But the incident has haunted him ever since — and indeed, the guilt is his and his alone, because all accountability stops at the lowest possible rank (rising, for high-profile screw-ups like Haditha, to the level of captain). That, of course, is rule No. 2 of the occupation.

No wonder GIs hate this war by a large majority. The number of AWOLs since the war began is approaching 10,000, according to Pentagon figures reported recently by USA Today. Camilo Mejia, another vet against the war, noted: “These are division-level numbers, wiped out by conscience.”

The powers-that-be may still believe this war can be won, but those with “ground truth’ embedded in their psyches know, as Anderson said, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”