As the anniversary of the Iraq invasion approaches, another milestone has
quietly passed, leaving a window into the protracted and unimaginable human
costs of this war in Iraq and here at home. A year ago, 14-year-old Abeer
Qassim Al-Janabi was stalked, gang-raped, shot in the head and her corpse
burned in her own home in Mahmoudiya, Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers and one former
soldier are charged with the crimes.
The soldiers were so confident of their abilities to achieve their
intended crimes that they rounded up the Al-Janabi family from their daily
chores in broad daylight. Pfc. Stephen Green allegedly shot Abeer's parents and
5-year-old sister to death in the room next to where she was being raped by
Sgt. Paul Cortez. His buddy, Pfc. James Barker held the struggling, crying
teenager down while two other soldiers, Pfc. Jesse Spielman and Pfc. Bryan
Howard, reportedly stood watch.
All this in the middle of the day under the hot afternoon sun, March 12,
Such are the unpleasantries of invasion, war and occupation. The medical
journal Lancet estimated in 2004 that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been
killed, more than half of them women and children. Today, in the absence of
accurate figures, that number likely has been far surpassed. To Americans, far
from Iraq, these are presented as the sanitized statistics of collateral
damage. But the Al-Janabi rape and murders were too well documented to ignore,
just as the souvenir photos taken by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison forced
Americans to see the torture being committed by their own troops.
The U.S. government and military are prosecuting the five accused men --
a sixth was charged with dereliction of duty -- without an inquiry into the
pressures and rules of engagement that led "a really good kid," as Cortez was
called during at his court-martial, to commit war crimes against civilians. In
his sworn testimony describing how he and the others planned and carried out
the rape and murders at the Al Janabi home, Cortez pointedly stated that he and
his fellow defendants "weren't the only soldiers who talked about having sex
with Iraqi women." In Islamic Iraq, "having sex" in this context can only mean
Numerous observers, including soldiers themselves, say that abuses of
Iraqi civilians are not uncommon. A report by Code Pink and the Global Exchange
describes incidents where U.S. soldiers tortured female detainees, among them
young girls, in the form of sexual abuse and rape, including stripping them
naked, then burning their skin or dousing them with water. Sometimes women were
tortured in prison cells near their husbands so that their screams could be
used to torture the Muslim male detainees.
Under the War Crimes Act of 1996, which Congress passed overwhelmingly so
that the United States could, under the Geneva Convention, prosecute North
Vietnamese who tortured U.S. soldiers during the war in Vietnam, it is a
federal crime for any U.S. national, whether military or civilian, to violate
the Geneva Convention by engaging in murder, torture or inhuman treatment.
Significantly, the statute applies not only to those who carry out the acts,
but also to those who order it, know about it, or fail to take steps to stop
it. Yet no officers or military brass have been questioned for their gross
failure to stop the crimes in Abeer's home -- let alone for any military
policies that contributed to these abuses. This is not surprising in an
administration that has demonstrated, time and again, its predilection for
blaming a fall guy and refusing to hold accountable those higher up in
The White House and Pentagon choose to eschew prosecution for such crimes
under the War Crimes Act, because it could implicate their own responsibility.
However, their failure to recognize such war crimes also makes it impossible to
acknowledge the psychological harm done to the soldiers who have been placed in
horrific situations that can turn a really good kid into a war criminal. Where
will returning soldiers get the treatment they need if they have been witnesses
to or participants in war crimes and abuse of Iraqi civilians?
Family counselors and military mental-health workers have long recognized
the psychological trauma exhibited by veterans of Iraq -- and that too little
help is available for them. Only six counseling sessions are allowed for
soldiers who are referred for service. Soldiers can also get counseling
services through mental-health clinics, but mental-health visits are noted on
their military records -- and thus can be used against them. For example,
airborne soldiers cannot fly if they are being treated for depression, a career
ender for troops in the 101st Airborne Battalion -- to which the five
soldiers involved in the rape and killing of Abeer and her family belonged.
About 1.4 million soldiers, reservists and National Guard have served in
Iraq and Afghanistan. So have several hundred thousand private contractors,
such as truck drivers, who must traverse roads laced with Improvised Explosive
Because of low levels of enlistment, more than 125,000 "moral waivers"
have been granted to enlistees who previously would have been rejected for
service -- some because of criminal backgrounds. All are subject to the
serious effects of post-traumatic stress disorders and other mental health
problems, yet the resources to help them and their families are too few.
Even as politicians call for national probes into the lapses at Walter
Reed Army Medical Center in the medical treatment of returning soldiers, little
mention is made of their mental health needs. If these veterans and private
contractors don't get treatment for their invisible wounds, all of society will
suffer with them.
At the end of his court-martial, Cortez apologized to brothers of Abeer
Qassim Al-Janabi for turning them into orphans. His sentence for the capital
war crimes he committed: 100 years, with possible parole in 10, minus his time
served. For committing the gang rape of Abeer and four murders, he could be out
in nine years. One can only hope that he receives the treatment he needs during
his confinement before he rejoins the general population.
Cortez paused to wipe his tears at several points during his testimony,
becoming most emotional when he expressed his remorse for letting his fellow
soldiers down. But one year after the war atrocities that took her young life
with violence and terror, who weeps for Abeer?
Helen Zia, a Bay Area writer, attended the court- martial of Sgt. Cortez in Ft. Campbell, Ky., for the Women's Media Center.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.