After four years of war, most Americans still remain sheltered from the day-to-day realities of the occupation of Iraq, especially its effects on Iraqis. With reporter Laila Al-Arian, I spent the last few months interviewing 50 combat veterans, and in thousands of pages of transcripts, they told a brutal story.
With extraordinary honesty, these veterans - medics, MPs, artillerymen, snipers, officers and others - revealed disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops: innocents terrorized during midnight raids, civilian cars fired on when they got too close to supply convoys and troops opening up on vehicles that zip past poorly marked checkpoints, only to discover that they'd shot a 3-year-old or an elderly man. The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans said, has given rise to a culture of fear and even hatred among U.S. forces, many of whom, losing ground and beleaguered, have, in effect, declared war on all Iraqis.
The interviewed vets, who served in 2003, 2004 and 2005, emphasized that indiscriminate killing of civilians was carried out by a minority within their ranks. But most also agreed that such killings rarely spark investigations and almost never incur punishment.
Checkpoints, according to more than two dozen troops who manned them, have become particular flashpoints for violence.
"This unit sets up this traffic control point, and this 18-year-old kid is on top of an armored Humvee with a .50-caliber machinegun," said Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y., who served in Tikrit as assistant to a general and often sat in on high-level briefings on such actions. "This car speeds at him pretty quick, and he makes a split-second decision that that's a suicide bomber, and he ... puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed the mother, a father and two kids. "They briefed this to the general," Millard said, "and they briefed it gruesome. I mean, they had pictures.... And this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says, 'If these [expletive deleted] hajjis learned to drive, this [expletive deleted] wouldn't happen.' "
Sgt. Camilo MejÃƒÂa, 31, of Miami, told a similar story: An unarmed man driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his young son. Such accidents of war happen, but in MejÃƒÂa's experience - he served in Iraq for six months starting in April 2003 - they weren't rare: "This sort of killing of civilians had long ceased to arouse much interest or even comment."
Speeding American convoys and patrols, manned by troops who are terrified of becoming targets, have become another consistent source of civilian casualties.
"We'd be cruising down the road in a convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up," said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of Ft. Collins, Colo. "You've got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I've seen this, I mean, on numerous occasions, where innocent people died because we're cruising down and a bomb goes off."
Worse yet were home raids, or "cordon and search" operations. Twenty-four vets who participated in the raids described them as a relentless reality of the occupation. Generally on little evidence, Iraqis were rousted in the night, their homes turned upside down, the family patriarchs humiliated and sometimes arrested.
Staff Sgt. Timothy Westphal, 31, of Denver, said that he'll never forget one on a hot summer night in 2004. He and more than 40 other soldiers raided a farm near Tikrit and, pointing their rifles and lights at a group of sleepers, woke them up.
"The man screamed this gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, just horrified scream," Westphal recalled. "I've never heard anything like that."
It turned out the people weren't insurgents but a family sleeping outside to escape the heat.
"I just remember thinking to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag," Westphal said, "and that's just not what I joined the Army to do."
Soldiers and Marines who carried out hundreds of such raids said they rarely turned up anything of consequence - a small piece of wire or a detonating cord might be considered a major find. The troops also told me that many members of their units viewed Iraqis as little better than animals. "Hajji," an Arabic term for those who've made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, has become the slur of choice for U.S. troops. The troops regularly denigrate "hajji food" and "hajji homes" and throw around terms like "camel jockey." Two veterans reported seeing the corpses of dead Iraqis grotesquely abused by American troops.
The antipathy toward Iraqis was confirmed in a survey released in May by the Pentagon. Just 47% of soldiers and 38% of Marines agreed that civilians should be treated with dignity and respect. Only 55% of soldiers and 40% of Marines said they would report a unit member who had killed or injured "an innocent noncombatant."
The veterans who were interviewed had little good to say about senior military officers, many of whom encouraged reckless behavior - even though they spent most of their time in heavily fortified compounds and rarely saw combat. MejÃƒÂa said that, before deploying to Iraq, his battalion commander announced that he would not return home without a Combat Infantry Badge, awarded only after a unit has received enemy fire.
"This badge is a great honor," MejÃƒÂa said, "but going out of one's way to engage in combat, just to get a badge, is something few service members would accept. Yet once in Iraq, that is precisely what many soldiers believed our commanders to be doing."
The war in Iraq is leaving thousands of young men and women who have returned home deeply disturbed by what they have done and witnessed. It is also turning huge swaths of the Arab and Muslim world against us.
We need to muster the moral courage to face the reality of the war. To wallow in a myth that trumpets our goodness, denies our irresponsible rules of engagement and demonizes those who oppose us will leave us unable to end the occupation and begin the long, slow process of reconciliation.