In a week when the American establishment has been ludicrously lauding "the end" of the most decidedly unended war in Iraq, a new book takes us back to the very heart of darkness in this still ongoing war crime, which is nowhere near its end.
In the Guardian, novelist and Vietnam War veteran Edward Wilson reviews what he calls "the best book by far about the Iraq war": Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, by Jim Frederick. The book tells the story of the horrific rape and multiple murder carried out one night by American soldiers in an Iraqi village in 2006. As Wilson puts it:
This isn’t a book for armchair war junkies. It’s about what Wilfred Owen called "the pity of war". The centre and the pity of Jim Frederick’s account is the murder of the Janabis, an Iraqi family, and the rape of their 14-year-old daughter by four US soldiers. The most chilling aspect of the crime was the casual manner in which it was carried out. It was almost a jape – something to break the boredom of endless hours at a checkpoint. The soldiers did it because they had the power to do it; they didn’t need a reason why – almost the invasion of Iraq in microcosm.
The details of the case were laid out well by Gail McGowan Mellor, when the chief instigator of the atrocity, Stephen Green, was convicted in a civilian trial in May 2009:
Fourteen-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi’s home in Iraq was a sturdy farmhouse full of light in an isolated area but only a few hundred yards from a U.S. traffic checkpoint [TCP.] After watching the tall, modestly-dressed girl working in her family’s field, U.S. 101st Airborne Private James Barker, as he testified, decided to rape her. He recruited Green, who wanted to kill some civilian Iraqis and then their sergeant. In uniform, Barker became bold enough to barge into her home, leering at Abeer in front of a family which was helpless to stop U.S. troops in full gear. Off again to themselves, drinking whiskey which they would later say they got from the Iraqi Army, the eventually five U.S. soldiers reasoned that the family would be easy to kill and that nothing more substantial than her parents stood between them and Abeer. Sex was incidental; the goal, they all testify, was to hurt Iraqis. All but one of the five got out of uniform, putting on the dark Army "ninja" outfits that the Army had designed to keep them warm at night. Then they deserted their post, maneuvering through backyards to burst into the house in black clothes in full daylight.
While Specialist James Barker pinned a terrified Abeer down, and Cortez raped her, Green shoved her parents and six-year-old sister Hadeel at gunpoint into a room with him and shut the door. The mother Fakhriya Taha Muhasen and the father Qassim Hamza Raheem huddled in a corner trying to shield Hadeel, so Green killed the father, then the mother, then Hadeel, shooting the six-year-old point blank in the face with an AK47. He then re-entered the main room where she was, threw the AK47 down, raped Abeer, and standing up from doing it, put a pillow over her face and shot and killed her.
The soldiers used kerosene to set the lower part of her dead body on fire, and after they left, flames caught the house, bringing the family’s relatives who saw the smoke then the bodies. They ran to the U.S. checkpoint for help, but two of the killers who were among the U.S. troops responding managed to blame the slaughter on "insurgents." Abeer’s two younger brothers, surviving because they had been at school, came home to find their house burned, their family dead and blood and brains all over the walls. The killers meanwhile celebrated with a barbeque. Green bragged to anyone who would listen about what he had done, including the officer. Then Green, unpunished, was honorably discharged with a diagnosis of "antisocial psychiatric disorder."
To "justify" the crime — or at least mitigate it — the defense called numerous witnesses who revealed that inevitable mindset of counterinsurgency cited above:
The witnesses said that the family whom Green and the other four soldiers had slaughtered were killed because they were Iraqi; that combatants and non-combatanbts seemed indistinguishable; or as one said with what sounded like bewildered accusation, "they look just like me and you," they were "all out to get us."
In his review of Frederick’s book, Wilson describes how this murderous mindset evolved:
There are three basic things to avoid in war: getting killed, being convicted of war crimes and having a commanding officer who thinks you are useless. B Company’s ill-fated 1st Platoon avoided none of these. By the end of their deployment, 11 of 1st Platoon’s 33 members were dead or in jail for murder. Why? According to their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kunk, it was all their fault: "You 1st Platoon are fucked up. Fucked up! Every single one of you!" Colonel Kunk was straight out of Catch-22. His officers referred to his control-freak outbursts as "getting Kunked" or being under the "Kunk gun". He seemed to have had every tact and empathy instinct removed: 1st Platoon’s seven killed in action "were dead because of their failings", and the survivors were "quitters, crybabies and complainers". Such leadership is not unknown in the US military. Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t, the results can be bloody.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The platoon’s best leaders were killed early on, and the remaining soldiers were a mixture of seething resentment, indiscipline and combat exhaustion. Young soldiers on a battlefield packed with civilians need constant and close supervision. This didn’t happen.
The best of 1st Platoon’s lost leaders was Sergeant Kenith Casica. A photo shows James Barker, one of the rapists, with his arms around gentle giant Casica. The expression on Barker’s face as he hugs Casica is pure bliss. Barker has found a replacement for the father who died when he was 15, but soon afterwards the surrogate father is dead as well. Casica was openly friendly to the Iraqis. When he was teased as a "hadji hugger" he reminded his men that they were there to help the Iraqis. If Casica had lived, Abeer Janabi and her family would also be alive today.
But of course, Sgt. Casica was tragically deluded — judging the system, and his superiors, by his own morality and intentions, perhaps. For the undeniable fact is that the American military was not in Iraq "to help the Iraqis." This has not only been confirmed by the evidence of what has actually happened — a million innocent people killed, four million displaced, a society destroyed and plunged into a state of permanent terror, violence and extremist hatred – – but also by the historical record of the preparations for the war at the highest levels. The record shows that the intention of the war was to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein and through military force implant a more favorable government in what was considered a key strategic area for enforcing and extending American dominance over world affairs.
In fact, just this week, buried in the hoopla over the "end of combat operations" in Iraq, we saw fresh proof of the war’s true intentions, in a small business story from AP: Halliburton gets letter of intent for Iraq oil.
Halliburton Co. said on Wednesday that it has gotten a letter of intent from Shell Iraq Petroleum Development BV that would make Halliburton the project manager for developing the Majnoon field in southern Iraq.
… Iraq reached a deal with Shell in January to develop the mammoth oil field, along with partner Petronas, Malaysia’s state-run oil company. Shell and Petronas plan to raise production in the field from the current 45,900 barrels per day to 1.8 million barrels per day over 10 years.
Halliburton shares rose 9 cents to close at $28.79 on Wednesday.
And of course even the stated reasons for starting the war had absolutely nothing to do with "helping the Iraqi people." These war-fomenting propaganda points centered removing the (non-existent) threat of Iraq’s (non-existent) "weapons of mass destruction," and also framed the invasion as a response to the "terrorists who attacked us on 9/11," although Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, or with the forces involved in them.
But there they were, the soldiers thrown into a criminal enterprise by their commanders and their civilian chiefs. What else could such an operation spawn but more crime? Wilson continues:
Frederick acknowledges the adrenaline buzz of battle but does not attempt to gloss over war’s inherently brutal and dehumanising nature. … Inevitably, there are echoes of Vietnam, the most chilling of which comes from a 1st Platoon soldier: "You can’t think of these people as people." The same dehumanisation that led to My Lai led to the murder of the Janabis. And in both wars, the soldiers who refused to tolerate dehumanisation were the real heroes … Black Hearts is the best book by far about the Iraq war – a rare combination of cold truth and warm compassion.
Below is my first piece on these crimes, shortly after they came to light — a look inside the blood-clouded, war-battered mind that birthed atrocity:
Did you see her and want her so bad, that young, forbidden fruit? Did she once smile nervously at the checkpoint, and you thought it was just for you? Did you come on strong the next time around, flash a little money maybe, or lay a syrupy line on her that you got from a phrasebook? What did she do – recoil? Look away? Look disgusted? Look blank? What did she do to bring on the big hurt from a big, tough man like you?
So you planned it all out. You cased the house, you reconnoitred. You got your buddies in on it – or were they in from the start, did they make a play too, were they too turned away by this haughty Arab bitch, this piece of trash from a shitheap town in a shitheap country filled with nothing but lazy, lying, murdering towelheads? Somebody like that thinks they’re too good to give it up to you? You liberated her goddamned country, for Christ’s sake, and now she won’t even put out? That dog won’t hunt. Hell no. You and your pals had to teach her a lesson. You had the power, you had the guns, you were Americans; who was going to stop you?
So you set up the mission. You knew how to do it. How many houses had you raided before? Dozens, hundreds – who the hell knows? Who the hell cares? You went in and got her, you did what you wanted to her. You shoved the other hajjis into the next room, put a gun on them, then got down to business. Did your buds take a turn? Everybody get a taste? Or maybe you’d already ruined her before they got a chance – beat her, tore her, pounded her into goo? Who the hell knows? Who the hell cares? At some point, she just wasn’t worth it anymore. No fight left in her. Laid there like a limp rag. Passed out maybe.
So you took out your gun, you took out your power, you took out the thing that makes you an American – a ralteal person, a human being — instead of a walking piece of shit like everyone else in that godforsaken hellhole of a country, you took it out and you shot her in the head. One shot, clean kill. Did you say anything? Crack a joke? "Not tonight, honey, I’ve got a headache." Or did you just stand there and curse her, puking your self-righteous rage all over her dead body?
Who took charge after that? Was it you, or one of the others? It all started moving so fast, like a dream had been broken – or maybe this was the dream? Maybe it was all a dream, the whole fucking thing, from day one, all of it nothing, happening to nobody, going on nowhere, never. But the smell was real, you couldn’t get away from it, that wet smell, meat and guts in a slime of blood. It filled your nose, filled up your whole head behind your face, it lined your throat, coated your skin. And if the smell was real, then the whole thing….
Move, fast, now! The hajjis in the other room: no witnesses, goddamn it! Who’s this, the mother? Head shot, head shot, down. Who’s this old bastard? Father, brother? Who cares? Head shot, head shot, in the face, down. And what’s this? Oh for Christ’s sake, how old is she? Six? Seven? Eight? What are you going to do, wait till she grows up and comes looking for your ass? Catch her, goddamn it, just shoot, shoot! Down.
Now burn the other one. Yeah, the bitch in the other room. Set her on fire and get the hell out. Report terrorist activity. The Sunni bastards in the area. Secure the perimeter. Get your fucking story straight and keep your fucking mouth shut. We’re home free. Home free….
Is that how it went down? Does it still feel good? They got two of your brothers from the same platoon later, chopped off their heads. Reckon that was payback? Now the squealers are coming out. It’s in the goddamned papers. The brass are going to throw you to the dogs. They can be big men, they can rape whole countries, kill tens of thousands of people — but just let some grunt try to get a little on the retail side, and all hell breaks loose. It just ain’t fair.
Well, buddy, what can we say? You should have your fun last year, when there wasn’t an election. Nobody would have paid a blind bit of notice. And you should have called in an airstrike, not that half-assed burning job – nothing buries evidence like a 500-pound bomb.
The only thing now is to get a good lawyer, then hunker down. If you can string it out long enough, Bush’s media brigades can start working the refs for you, muddying the waters, smearing your accusers, providing the proper context, invoking 9/11. And speaking of 9/11, isn’t that what it’s really all about? Isn’t that what you were really doing when you raped that girl and shot her in the head and burned her body and killed her family – defending our country from those who attacked us on that tragic day? What you did was justice, damn it, not a crime! Just like the whole war.
But you’re on your own this time, comprade; Uncle Rummy’s done cut you loose, set you up for the old "bad apple" shuck-and-jive. Sure, he’s personally signed direct orders that he knew would kill thousands of civilians every bit as innocent as that family you massacred — but then, he’s an Ivy League man, a corporate chieftain, a respected public servant, and you are just another hick from the sticks. He’s home free; you’re going all the way down.
Let this be a lesson to all the cannon fodder out there: don’t get above your raising, don’t emulate your betters. Law is for the lowly, not the great and good.