Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations

[The following is an excerpt from Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations by Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz, just published by Haymarket Books. From March 13 to 16, 2008, hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans gathered in Silver Spring, Maryland, to testify about atrocities they had personally committed or witnessed while deployed. Among those who testified was Adam Kokesh of Claremont, California (Sergeant, United States Marine Reserves, Civil Affairs). He served in Iraq in 2004.]

I was against the war before the war. Even though I believed all of the lies that Colin Powell told at the UN, all the intelligence, all the spin. I didn’t think it was going to be worth it, but in 2004 I thought that we were cleaning up our mess and genuinely trying to do good by the Iraqi people. That was something I wanted to be a part of, and something that I enthusiastically risked my life for.

This is the rules of engagement card that I was issued for our deployment to Iraq. [Holds up card.] This is held up as the gold standard of conduct in the occupation right now, and they couldn’t even cut it square. I’ll read a part of it. It says, "Nothing on this card prevents you from using deadly force to defend yourself. Enemy, military, and paramilitary forces may be attacked, subject to the following instructions: Positive identification is required prior to engagement. Positive identification is ‘reasonable certainty’-that’s in quotes on the card-that your target is a legitimate military target." We were supposed to keep this in our breast pocket.

In April of 2004,we got an order to pack for three days and have our vehicle and a convoy ready to go at midnight. We weren’t told where we were going. This was right after the four Blackwater security agents were killed and had their bodies burned and hung from the northern bridge over the Euphrates on the western side of Fallujah.

During the siege of Fallujah, we changed Rules of Engagement more often than we changed our underwear. At first it was, "You follow the Rules of Engagement. You do what you’re supposed to do." Then there were times when it was, "You can shoot any suspicious observer." So someone with binoculars and a cell phone was fair game, and that opened things up to a lot of subjectivity.

At one point we imposed a curfew on Fallujah, and then we were allowed to shoot anything after dark. Fortunately, I was never forced to make that decision, but there were a lot of marines who were forced to make that choice. In one incident, in the first couple of days we were there, there was a checkpoint shooting to the west of our perimeter. We were told a vehicle was approaching an impromptu vehicle checkpoint at a high rate of speed. That gave marines manning the checkpoint cause to be suspicious and they unloaded into that vehicle with a 50-caliber machine gun. The idea is that anybody coming at your position who doesn’t slow down to five miles an hour is an enemy combatant. Well, this is at dusk and marines are all wearing camouflage and this guy could just have been cruising through his neighborhood, or rushing home to see his family. We didn’t know, but it was enough that the marines got jumpy and shot a burst of 50-cal rounds into this vehicle.

The bullets started at the bumper and went up the engine compartment and then one round at least hit this Iraqi in the chest so hard that it broke his chair backwards and we saw the vehicle burning in the distance. Every- body tried to justify it and say, oh, they heard rounds cooking off in the fire, AK-47 rounds were bursting in the trunk or somewhere in the car. The next day they dragged the car into our sleeping area, and it was clear that there were no holes from rounds cooking off in the side of this car.

I posed on the hood of that car, and as someone mentioned earlier, it felt funny not because what we were doing was morally wrong, but because I wasn’t the one that killed this guy. There was a group of us marines that all took turns taking pictures and posing like this. At the first Winter Soldier in 1971, one of the testifiers showed a similar picture and said, "Don’t ever let your government do this to you." Our government is still doing this to patriotic young men and women who have volunteered their lives in the service of this country, putting them in a situation where this kind of thing is normal. At one point during the siege of Fallujah we decided to let women and children out of the city. We thought it was the most gracious thing we could have done. I went out on the northern bridge over the Euphrates on the western side of Fallujah, and our guidelines were that males had to be under fourteen years old. If they were old enough to be in your fighting hole, they were too old to get out of the city. I had to go there and turn these men back. We thought that we were doing something really noble and gracious, and it took me a long time before I could think about what a horrible decision we were forcing these families to make. They could split up and leave their husband and older sons in the city and hope a Spector gunship round doesn’t land on their head, or stay with them and hunker down and just hope that they made it through alive.

After the siege of Fallujah, my civil affairs team was pulled to set up a Civil Military Operations Center or CMOC two clicks east of Fallujah. My role there was manning the front checkpoint. We didn’t have enough translators and I was learning Arabic and spoke enough to run a checkpoint without a translator. We were still putting down Spector gunship rounds into the city, and one night some of those rounds started a fire. Iraqi firefighters and policeman responded and they were silhouetted against the fire. Since the marine’s Rules of Engagement at that time were to shoot anything after dark, marines started firing at these firefighters and policeman. An Iraqi policeman woke me up in the middle of the night and through pointing, pantomime, the little Arabic I spoke at the time, and a translation dictionary, I was able to figure out that marines were shooting at Iraqi firefighters and cops. We sent it down our chain of command and stopped it from happening, but how many incidents like that happen? I know that that happened while I was there, during the siege of Fallujah.

One day in the middle of summer I got a random call on my field phone at the checkpoint saying, "Take one marine and get up to the road and stop any black Opel that comes your way," because al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was fleeing the city in a black Opel. All I could say was, "What’s an Opel?"

I got up there, and I was with my marine, he was behind me, and I saw a black blur coming toward us, and I was like, "Hey, is that a black Opel?" He was like, "That’s a black blur, Sergeant."

So I got up on the road and I pointed my rifle down the freeway-the main road between Fallujah and Baghdad. I yelled, "Kif! Stop!" at this car that’s going about fifty miles an hour. It whizzed right by me and I turned around, and was like, "Oh, crap, I hope I don’t have to shoot out his tires." Fortunately he stopped and I pulled him out. The other marine was right Behind me. We got there, we pulled him out of the car and said, "We need to search you." They hadn’t told me that I was looking for Zarqawi, so I was like, "Alright, get out of the car." He had his wife and his kids in the back seat. I frisked him and called up and said, "Got one ‘pak’ detained. Please advise. Over."

My staff sergeant came out, trotted up, after coming out of the air-conditioned building, and he pulls out the al-Zarqawi wanted poster. He looks at the person we had stopped and then he looks at the poster and goes, "Ah, that’s not him. Let him go." That kind of thing, where we’re just harassing people unnecessarily, is part of daily life.

A lot of people who were detained are innocent. There are a lot of people who get detained who are guilty, but guilty or innocent, they usually get similar treatment. Even at Abu Ghraib, they’ll do six months and get out because we don’t have the capacity to provide any kind of due process.

We’re really pissing a lot of people off that way. If the game for the insurgency is: shoot at Americans and if you get caught, if you’re not killed, you’ll do six months and you’ll get out, then-not that being at Abu Ghraib is a picnic by any means-but the game is understood.

When I was activated, we were told we’d be working on schools and mosques and clinics and water projects, and rebuilding Iraq. I was really excited about that. I thought we were going to be the tip of the spear, and we were going to be leading the charge to rebuild Iraq.

We were six-man teams attached to these larger infantry units: regiments or battalions, usually. You couldn’t go anywhere in Fallujah without six Humvees and machine guns, and we were just six marines. So we had to beg these infantry commanders to tag along on their convoys so we could do our missions. We were constantly struggling to justify our existence, and we came up with a slogan: "We care so that you don’t have to." To the macabre Marine Corps sense of humor that’s pretty funny. But it’s easy to step back and think, "Man, we’ve got units in Iraq whose job is to care so that someone else doesn’t have to. But that someone else isn’t just those grunts in infantry, but it was everybody all the way up." We care so that Paul Bremer doesn’t have to, so that the Chiefs of Staff don’t have to, so that Congress doesn’t have to, and so that the President can gush on and on about how much he cares about the Iraqi people while continuing a policy that is decimating their country.

And we care so the American people don’t have to, so that these things can go on in our names and they can just go back to the mall and their daily lives and pretend like nothing’s wrong. That’s one of the things that disturbs me the most about the state of affairs right now.

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