Out of context, the picture seemed ordinary, open to interpretation. It showed the butt end of five or six rifles, sloppily stacked in a pile inside an armored vehicle. In context, it documented a cover-up of accidental -- or even intentional -- shootings of Iraqi noncombatants by U.S. Marines in Iraq's Anbar Province in 2005 and 2006.
At least three Marines who served in Anbar during that period said that their platoons carried "drop weapons" or tools that Iraqis were not permitted to possess to plant on the bodies of Iraqi noncombatant corpses in case of a wrongful killing.
They did so with the approval of their chain of command. "It was encouraged, almost with a wink and a nudge, to carry drop weapons and shovels with us," said Jason Washborn, a Marine corporal who served three tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. "In case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, so we could toss weapon on the body to make [him] look like an insurgent. I was told... that if [the Iraqis] carried a shovel, or if they dig anywhere, especially near roads], then we could shoot them [on suspicion of planting roadside bombs]. So we actually carried tools in our vehicles."
But over the last few days, the soldiers and Marines did testify to a gradual degradation of the rules of engagement. Many had served multiple tours in Iraq and said that during the early days of their deployments, there was an effort to restrict the use of force to clearly necessary cases. "As time went on and casualties grew higher and higher, the rules got a bit lenient," testified Sergio Kochergin, a Marine who served on the Iraq-Syrian border. Initially, when confronting a perceived threat, a Marine needed to call into the command post to await instruction in ambiguous cases. "We didn't question it. We were angry," he said. "It went down to, if there's a person who [had] a weapon, not calling the command post, or if [someone was] doing suspicious activity we were allowed to take them out. We'd call in, say, 'We have suspicious activity,' and we were allowed to take them out."
...by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a "heavy bag or a shovel" -- to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices -- could be killed. Kochergin said that by the end of his deployment, it was essentially authorized that any Iraqi who was seen having a "heavy bag or a shovel" -- to potentially dig trenches for improvised explosive devices -- could be killed. "We just basically changed [the rules] ourselves," agreed Garret Reppenhagen, an Army corporal who served in Baquba in 2004 and 2005. "You're not concerned with the rules of engagement and the Geneva Conventions. Your primary concern is getting yourself and your buddies home alive." The attitude in his company, he said, was, "We didn't get in trouble for that? Oh, let's try this."
One Marine sergeant named Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in Iraq, said, "The rules of engagement were broadly defined and loosely enforced. ... Anyone who tells you differently is a liar or a fool. They were gradually reduced to a case of non-existence."
Occupation is brutalizing, both to the occupiers and the occupied. This is yet one more lesson of Vietnam we have forgotten. I expect it doesn't help that the enemy here is so readily associated with the attacks of September 11th. For this reason, one can imagine the war in Iraq having an even more monstrous effect on the souls of those sent to fight there.
There is no way of telling how wide-spread these practices are. Hopefully, they are relegated the a narrow number of soldiers. I somehow doubt it, though. On can only glance at headlines saying "X insurgents have been killed" and wonder whether this hides a Haditha.