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Legacy: Who Is Accountable In Iraq?

12/22/2011 11:50 am ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

Responsibility starts with the trigger-puller, but ends in the White House.

With only a handful Christmas shopping days left, we can tell that the U.S. military involvement in Iraq is coming to an end. Talk in the media, in the White House and in the barracks has turned to legacy. Liz Sly of the Washington Post has a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or as purposeful vengeance or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via reconstruction.

While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also references the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the "control" of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Heartsare missing. There are just too many dead.

Black Hearts

The Black Hearts killings are especially significant to me. I read that book while in Iraq, learning that in 2005 American soldiers raped and killed a 14-year-old child, murdering her family and setting fire to her home to hide the evidence. About a third of the way into the book I realized that the incident took place only a mile or two from where I sat, that it took place in the area where my Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) worked, that we regularly visited the town nearest the kill site. Yet none of us knew this. I asked my State Department colleagues, as well as the soldiers we were embedded with, and while some had heard of the atrocity, all were surprised to learn it took place on ground we regularly traveled. It was never included in any of our preparatory briefings for Iraq service. Our bosses wanted us ignorant, or, more likely, were ignorant themselves. The chain of responsibility, even for knowing, ran higher up than us.

You can damn well bet that the Iraqis we met remembered, even if we did not.

It was that realization that informed my comments to Sly, quoted in her Washington Post article:

We tried to convince them we were the good guys and that we'd got rid of Saddam, but given all the killings that had happened, that never hung together... It's in the air, it's in the water, it's the background music to what we do. The Iraqis remember it even if we don't. It will be a very dark legacy, and it's one that will follow us around the Middle East.

Sly's article also quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying "when you look at it from the soldiers' point of view, it was justified. It's very hard."

Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi ("Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones"), I sort of agree. Sort of.

Iraq Worked Like This

I spent a sweaty cold night at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baghdad hanging around with soldiers who spent more than too many nights out there. Soldiers who would joke about anything became really quiet on a checkpoint because they knew they would be making kill-or-be-killed decisions many times that night.

Within the limits of available electricity, they would try to light up the spot as best they could so drivers could see them. Iraq at night was a dark and dangerous place, and drivers were not going to stop without a good reason. The next step was to somehow communicate to drivers that they had to stop. You could start with big signs in Arabic and English that told folks to slow down, but there was that light problem again, plus many Iraqis were illiterate. You could set up all manner of flashers and twirling things -- a good start but ambiguous. Drivers might think it was a wedding party (plenty of guns there as well). Car bombs were a big thing to be scared of at a checkpoint. Usually the explosives were intended for some other target and were just passing through your point. But if the driver thought you were on to him, he'd blow up the car bomb right there and never mind the real target. Checkpoints made everyone nervous, and nervous people and guns were a bad mix.

As cars approached, soldiers would be thinking about the ROE, rules of engagement, which stipulate when you are allowed to kill someone. Even wars have rules, and nobody went outside the wire without knowing exactly what they were. At a checkpoint they typically went like this: Try to stop the car with lights, sound, and hand gestures. If it keeps coming, try shining a laser or bright light at the driver (called "beaming"). If that does not work, fire a warning shot or a nonlethal round. Still coming? Fire into the engine block to disable the car. Not enough? Kill the driver.

In theory, this all seemed logical enough. In reality, it didn't work as well. The soldier might have been up the last 18 hours on patrol and is staying awake only with the constant application of Rip It energy drinks and instant coffee crystals crunched between bites of candy. Last night one of his buddies was almost killed by a driver who got scared and hit the gas. He is on the move and sweating despite the cool weather because standing still anywhere, never mind under bright lights, can attract snipers and he does not want to get popped. The vehicle approaching has only one headlight and it looks like there are several people in the front seat, where there are usually only one or two. In the span of three seconds he needs to try to wave down the driver, beam him with the laser if the guy doesn't slow down, fire a nonlethal round if he keeps going, and then switch weapons and be ready to take a life. He's Zeus, Thor throwing lightning bolts. Make the decision. Shoot or don't shoot. Decide.

He doesn't shoot this time. The vehicle with one headlight slowed down of its own accord late in the cycle. Maybe the driver couldn't find the brake, maybe the brake didn't work, maybe he was rehearsing for a suicide run later that week, who knows, he slowed and stopped. Front seat full of kids, driver dad, mom in the backseat with a baby. They stopped, the search came up empty, the IDs didn't have any of the unpronounceable Iraqi names on the bad-guy list. They pulled out, likely with no idea the soldier had just weighed their lives against his. He chugged another hit of energy drink and waited for the next car.

Who Is Responsible?

The issue of legacy is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don't we demand justice for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and the others for creating a war that created such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in Iraq ran higher up than us.

In this rare moment of American reflection about Iraq that the military pull-out offers us, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Iraqis -- and those Americans -- killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America's legacy in Iraq.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the U.S. Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this posting.