American soldiers and war crimes in Iraq

About the author
James M Skelly is senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies, Juniata College, Pennsylvania.
The complicity of senior United States military leaders in the killing of Iraqi civilians at Haditha and elsewhere should be investigated, says James M Skelly.

Why do American and British soldiers in Iraq kill innocent Iraqi civilians? To understand properly how massacres like those in the Iraqi town of Haditha in November 2005 can occur, it is important to appreciate how the stresses that soldiers experience are playing out in Iraq. It is true that soldiers suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and committed war crimes in Vietnam, but one of the differences between Vietnam and Iraq is in the nature of the collapse of the armed forces: in Vietnam this was ultimately because of combat refusals, whereas in Iraq it tends to be more profoundly psychological in nature.

This generally shows up individually in post-traumatic stress cases like that of Chuck Norris (as revealed in this New York Times Magazine profile); but it also manifests itself collectively in the rage that soldiers who commit war crimes feel. Although the details of individual cases may differ, this emotion is something that the United States troops involved at Haditha and elsewhere evidently experienced.

Although some of the stresses that soldiers confront in Iraq are sufficient to cause even normally well-integrated individuals to break down psychologically, the Pentagon is so desperate for soldiers that it has been recruiting individuals who have already demonstrated psychological problems that make them more likely to "cross the border" and commit atrocities.

An example of such individuals is Sergeant Jeffrey Waruch, who was discharged from the United States army in late January 2006 after shooting a mother, Shaha Jawad al-Jabouri, and her two daughters in mid-February 2004. The group was weeding a beanfield about a half mile from where an improvised explosive device (IED) hit an army convoy near the village of al-Abbassi.

The IED caused only minor injuries. Yet Waruch, who spotted the women tending their crops, ran hundreds of yards from the bomb site toward al-Jabouri and her daughters, Samira and Intisar. As they attempted to flee, Waruch shot them all. Intisar al-Jabouri, 13 years of age, died of her wounds.

An investigation by Major Samuel Schubert found that Waruch's actions were not in accordance with the rules of engagement. But the commander of the 25th infantry division in Iraq, Major-General Benjamin R Mixon, discharged Waruch without criminal charges because, he said, there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

James M Skelly is senior fellow at the Baker Institute for Peace & Conflict Studies, Juniata College, Pennsylvania

Also by James M Skelly in openDemocracy:

"Iraq, Vietnam, and the dilemmas of United States soldiers",
(25 May 2006)

The deeper reason may have been that the army did not want to publicise Waruch's problematic psychological character and that they were relying upon soldiers like him to supposedly win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. In the months leading to his deployment, two women who alleged domestic abuse by Waruch won temporary restraining orders against him that included the proviso that he surrender his weapons to the police.

His military supervisor prior to his deployment, Staff-Sergeant Marcus Warner, tried unsuccessfully to prevent Waruch from being sent to Iraq because, "he was a cancer to my soldiers" whom Warner wanted "to get … out of my platoon." An army spokesperson, asked why Waruch was allowed to continue training following the issuance of the two restraining orders and why he was later sent to Iraq, said: "We don't have specific information on this case." It is noteworthy that the army did not conduct a formal investigation of the killing of Intisar al-Jabouri until a year after the shootings and a request for official records from the Dayton Daily News which was reporting about related incidents.

Who is responsible?

Who is responsible for the atrocities at Haditha and elsewhere, as well as the killing of Intisar Jabouri? It is clear that Jeffrey Waruch at al-Abbassi, and the soldiers who were complicit in the crimes that occurred in Haditha and elsewhere in Iraq, are responsible for their specific actions. However, those who are responsible for creating the context, the general climate in which such atrocities flourish – "atrocity-producing situations" – also bear major responsibility.

As I noted in an earlier openDemocracy article, "Iraq, Vietnam, and the dilemmas of United States soldiers", the political and military leaderships do everything they can to maintain that wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq are not organised murder, because they themselves are fundamentally complicit. As Philip Caputo argued in Rumor of War, civilian deaths cannot be admitted to be the inevitable product of the war itself; for that would have raised the question of "the morality of the American intervention in Vietnam" (and, currently, in Iraq as well).

Remember that Joshua Keys, a US soldier who served in Iraq and is now seeking asylum in Canada, said that he and his comrades in arms were told that international law governing armed combat was just a "guideline". Keys also said: "It's shoot first, ask questions later. Everything's justified."

Ben Griffin, the British former SAS soldier said that the American soldiers he served with in Iraq had "a well-deserved reputation for being trigger-happy." His compatriot, Brigadier-General Nigel Aylwin-Foster, noted that US troops suffered from "the erroneous assumption that given the justness of the cause, actions that occurred in its name would be understood and accepted by the population, even if mistakes and civilian fatalities occurred in the implementation."

Moreover, a 2003 Human Rights Watch report said that civilian deaths in Iraq "reveal a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal forces." Such assessments are echoed in the comment of the new Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki after the exposure of Haditha that violence against civilians had become a "daily phenomenon" by many troops in the American-led coalition who "do not respect the Iraqi people" and "crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion."

The Nuremberg precedent

According to the legal principles deriving from the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal following the second world war, those who are complicit in war crimes – including those who have placed the soldiers involved in the "atrocity-producing situations" in Haditha and elsewhere – share the guilt of those who pull the trigger.

In September 2003, I co-authored with Guy Grossman an open letter to soldiers involved in the occupation of Iraq. In it, we cited the analysis by Telford Taylor, chief US counsel at the Nuremberg tribunals, that – according to the standards developed there – members of the US joint chiefs of staff might be guilty of war crimes for atrocities that occurred in Vietnam.

We also noted that other junior officers and I had requested that the secretary of defence during part of the Vietnam war (1969-73), Melvin Laird, convene a military court of inquiry to determine if the joint chiefs qualified as war criminals under Article 135 of the uniform code of military justice. Article 135 provides a legal mechanism that allows those subject to military law who believe that other military personnel have violated the uniform code to be formally investigated and ultimately brought to justice by convening an initial court of inquiry. It would be perfectly legal for soldiers today to publicly request that the current defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, convene a court of inquiry to determine whether the members of the joint chiefs of staff are complicit with the war crimes that have occurred in Haditha and elsewhere in Iraq.

Such an action might be considered even more appropriate in light of the fact that Rumsfeld, and his longtime friend and political ally Dick Cheney, have a history of suppressing war-crimes investigations. Cheney was White House chief of staff, and Rumsfeld secretary of defence, in November 1975 when the army investigation into the horrific atrocities committed by Tiger Force in Vietnam was stopped by the White House and the Pentagon; this ensured that no one was charged with well-documented war crimes.

The request to convene a court of inquiry into the possible complicity of senior military figures in war crimes committed in Iraq may not succeed. But it would put those in charge of military operations in Iraq on notice that they are the ones who may ultimately be judged as war criminals. It would also check the tendency of those in command to place all the blame for war crimes on a few so-called "bad apples" who often bear the brunt of military "justice". It is the lower-ranking soldiers – in Iraq, as in Vietnam – who know all too well that "military justice is to justice, as military music is to music."