A War Over Nothing

Green was interviewed by Tilghman while the reporter was embedded with the the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Infantry Regiment in Iraq. Tilghman said the next time he saw Private Green was five months later – in a photo on the front-page of a newspaper. According to Tilghman, the picture was one of Private Steven D. Green "standing outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina, where he had pled (sic) not guilty to charges of premeditated rape and murder." The brutal killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah had apparently happened within weeks of Tilghman’s ominous interview with Private Steven Green. Iraqi authorities identified the young girl as Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Her father, mother and 5-year-old sister were also killed.

The Stars and Stripes reporter says Private Green’s unit was posted on the edge of the so-called Triangle of Death located in Mahmudiyah and so-named because for the past few years it has been the nerve center of the bloody Sunni-led insurgency. Tilghman describes Mahmudiyah as "a deadly patch of earth that inspires such fear, foreboding and uneasiness that my most prominent memory of the three weeks I spent there was the unrelenting knot it caused in my stomach." The company commander in charge of Green’s unit told Tilghman that the situation in Mahmudiyah was so stressful that [the commander] himself had "almost had a nervous breakdown" and had been sent to a hotel-style compound in Baghdad for three days of "freedom rest" before resuming his command. All six men involved in the rape/murders were from the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division and stationed in Mahmudiyah.

Back in February, Tilghman spent many hours interviewing members of Green’s battalion. He says that during the course of one conversation with Private Green, the subject of Iraqi civilians came up. "These guys are cool," Green told the reporter. But then, Tilghman says that Green added with a shrug, "I wouldn’t really care if all these guys got waxed." The private told Tilghman that he had once "shot a guy who wouldn’t stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing…Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like ‘All right, let’s go get some pizza.’ "

The Pentagon announced in May that Pfc. Steven Green had been discharged from the Army and returned to the states because of an "anti-social personality disorder." At Private Green’s rape-murder hearing, one member of Green’s unit testified that to numb their physical and emotional pain, stressed-out soldiers drank whiskey and downed painkillers. Further testimony revealed that the soldiers who committed the crimes were likely under the influence of drugs and alcohol. According to news reports, the soldiers began to recount the rape of the young teenage girl and the murder of her and her family during stress counseling after two members of their unit were kidnapped from a checkpoint and killed. The men testified that their unit couldn’t cope with the loss of their two friends and that things began to fall apart around that time. Further adding to their stress, the men said that they sometimes went weeks without hot food and showers or contact with family and friends. One soldier said that he and other soldiers were constantly in fear and that the unit was "full of despair."

But military personnel stationed in Iraq, many of whom maintain there own blog sites, say the problem is even worse than that. The military itself has become "deeply and systemically cynical," one sergeant/blogger writes in his diary. Others report that despair, drugs and alcoholism are ubiquitous and one recruit said in his blog that Iraq was worse than Vietnam, "because at least they had smack [in Vietnam] to kill the pain." The situation in Iraq "drives you nuts," one soldier told Tilghman. "You feel like every step you might get blown up. You just hit a point where you ‘re like, ‘If I die today, I die.’ You’re just walking a death walk."

All For One and One For All

In August, hundreds of troops officially scheduled to return to the states were told with little or no notice that they would not be going home. Instead, their superiors informed them, there would be a new and even more aggressive assault on Baghdad "to mop up any remaining insurgents." CNN’s fleeting coverage of the story included brief interviews with the soldiers, visibly devastated by the orders. Today, Iraq has again all but vanished from television screens, replaced first by the "war" in Lebanon, which was itself replaced by the "new terror threat." 

There was a moment in time, before the media simply turned its back on Iraq – and before reporters became frustrated and bored by their inability to get out of the "green zone" and cover the story – that Pentagon officials allowed them to talk relatively freely with (pre-selected) recruits.  When asked by reporters, "How do you maintain your morale?," the response was always the same: "My buddies." In the absence of that "All for one and one for all" mentality, most soldiers say they would be incapable of doing what is required to "defeat the enemy." The significance of such blind solidarity, especially for young soldiers under severe stress, was embodied in one recruit’s response to a question posed by Pfc. Green’s Defense Attorney. When asked whether all of the soldiers were involved in the murders or if it was possible that Green did it alone. The recruit replied, "Green does nothing by himself."

The story of Pfc Green and the crimes committed by him and his comrades in Mahmoudiya is finally getting the press it deserves. But it is hardly an isolated incident. The savage slaying of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi and her family is one of many alleged atrocities committed by US troops in Iraq currently under investigation. Army surgeon general Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley told CNN last summer that 15 to 30 percent of troops returning from Iraq have "mental health issues." That is a significant statistic by any standard yet likely a gross underestimate of the problem as it refers only to the relatively small percentage of recruits who actually seek professional help. Kiley’s caveat that the statistic was "not unusual" may be more significant in that it acknowledges implicitly that war, by its very nature, is aberrant. That subject has never been part of the national conversation. But it should be.

On August 11, 24-year old Sgt. Ricky Clousing from Sumner, Washington, was a guest on Amy Goodman’s "Democracy Now." Sgt. Clousing chose to serve in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, but became a war resister after witnessing how the war was being fought. He served in Iraq from December 2004 until April 2005. Within months after returning home, he went AWOL. Sgt. Clousing told Amy Goodman that in June 2005 he sneaked out of Fort Bragg in the middle of the night, leaving behind a quote from Martin Luther King. It read, "Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right."

The Pentagon now estimates that as many as 40,000 troops have deserted the US Armed Forces over the past six years. Many have refused to fight in Iraq.

Sandy Leon Vest is the Editor of StinsonSolarTimes.  She can be contacted at: stinsonsolartimes@yahoo.com

Andrew Tilghman was a correspondent in Iraq for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He can be contacted at: andrewtilghman1@yahoo.com.

Further information can be found at: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/node/13646, http://www.ftssoldier.blogspot.com/