On March 14 President George W. Bush spoke from the White House to U.S. soldiers during a video conference about their deployment in Afghanistan. "I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you...in some ways, romantic...you know, confronting danger."
Romantic was not the picture painted just a few miles away in Silver Spring, Maryland, during the second day of testimony by U.S. veterans during "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "For those of you who don't know, those are brains," said Jon Turner, a former Marine, while showing a slide of the inside of a man's head who had been killed by one his friends in his platoon.
Turner and other soldiers on the "Rules of Engagement" panel depicted their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as horrifying events in which soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians, wantonly destroyed property, conducted house raids, planted weapons on civilians (in order to be able to classify their deaths as insurgents), and mutilated the dead.
"I want to apologize to all the people in Iraq," said Sergio Kochergin, abruptly breaking off the end of a story about a friend who had shot himself in the shower four days after arriving in Iraq. "I'm sorry and I hope this war is going to be over as soon as possible."
Kochergin's testimony helped establish how the rules of engagement used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to many of the atrocities described by the soldiers. The rules define when and how soldiers can fire their weapons or engage in combat. Kochergin described how initially his platoon, which patrolled an Iraqi town on the Syrian border, had to radio to the command post and "If they're doing some sort of illegal activity, we were allowed to take them out."
After a while, though, these rules were abandoned by commanders, who, at one point, told soldiers to fire at any Iraqis carrying bags and shovels, assuming that they were planting explosive devices. Finally, the soldiers were given no rules of engagement at all. "It was up to us to make the decision," said Korchergin, who called that policy "inappropriate."
For many soldiers, the rules of engagement in Iraq were "broadly defined and loosely enforced. Anyone who tells you different is a liar and a fool," said Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in the Marines. While he was initially given rules of engagement that corresponded to the Geneva Conventions, "By the time we got to Baghdad, I could shoot at anyone who came close enough to make me uncomfortable," said Lemieux, who described being so traumatized by the shooting of an unarmed Iraqi man, by a commanding officer shooting "two old ladies carrying groceries," and by fellow soldiers taking potshots at unarmed civilians, that he blocked it all out.
Garrett Reppenhagen, who served in Baquba, Iraq, described a firefight in which U.S. soldiers began spraying bullets into several vehicles of what they thought were armed insurgents. After killing seven Iraqis, the soldiers discovered, to their dismay, that the men were actually bodyguards to the deputy governor. "All these men were not only innocent, they were our allies," said Reppenhagen. "This is the kind of confusion that goes on every day in Iraq."
Jason Washburn described members of his unit shooting an Iraqi woman carrying a large shopping bag, only to find out that, "She had been trying to bring us food," said Washburn. "And we blew her to pieces for it."
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