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-combatants 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: