Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The brutality of empire 

For the last couple of days there has been much talk of the number of U.S. military deaths topping 2,000. Personally, I don’t find it a very meaningful event. Its just one more number on the way to somewhere else. How significant will this marker seem when the deaths wind up toping 5,000 or 10,000 as it certainly looks like they will? Not very I suspect.

Another reason I don’t want to dwell on this event is it almost has the perverse effect as making it seem that the Americans soldiers are the victims. Listening to all the hand wringing over this one could almost forget that this war results from the U.S. invading, with no legitimate purpose, another country and trying to subjugate its population. One could also forget that the great majority of violence and brutality is being inflicted by Americans on Iraqis and not the other way around.

To help make sure that point is not forgotten I decided to post some excerpts from an article
in the New York Times this past Sunday. It is a long article which gives the story of one U.S. officer, Colonel Sassaman, and how his tactics towards Iraqis became more brutal over time. The excerpts won’t tell this story. But they will give some indication of U.S. brutality and serve to remind us all who are the aggressors and who are the victims. Always keeping this in mind is important and justifies the following lengthy quote:

The emergence of the Iraqi insurgency stunned senior American commanders, who had planned for a short, sharp war against a uniformed army, with a bout of peacekeeping afterward. Now there was no peace to keep. In response, American officers ordered their soldiers to bring Iraq back under control. They urged their men to go after the enemy, and they authorized a range of aggressive tactics. On a visit from his headquarters in Tikrit, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, ordered Sassaman and other officers simply to "increase lethality." Sassaman, adored by Odierno for the zeal with which his men hunted down guerrillas, took the order to heart. He sent his men into the Sunni villages around Balad to kick down doors and detain their angry young men. When Sassaman spoke of sending his soldiers into Samarra, his eyes gleamed. "We are going to inflict extreme violence," he said.


In late November 2003, I drove with a photographer to Sassaman's base as the Iraqi insurgency was gathering force. As we wound our way down a country road, we spotted Sassaman and a handful of his men standing on the roadside, gathered round an Iraqi man. It was an interrogation.

"If you weren't here with your camera, we would beat the [expletive] out of this guy," one of the soldiers said.


On the night of Nov. 17, as one of the battalion's patrols moved past Abu Hishma, a crowd of young Iraqis began taunting them. Seconds later, a team of insurgents fired a volley of rocket-propelled grenades directly at one of the Bradleys. One rocket-propelled grenade, or R.P.G., sailed directly into the chest of the driver, Staff Sgt. Dale Panchot. It nearly cut him in half.

The death of Panchot seemed to change everything for the battalion. Sassaman decided that the Sunni sheiks had broken the truce and that from that moment there would be no more deals. Building a democracy in places like Abu Hishma would have to take a back seat. The new priority would be killing insurgents and punishing anyone who supported them, even people who didn't.

The day after Panchot was killed, Sassaman ordered his men to wrap Abu Hishma in barbed wire. American soldiers issued ID cards to all the men in the village between the ages of 17 and 65, and the soldiers put up checkpoints at the entrance to the town. Around the camp were signs threatening to shoot anyone who tried to enter or leave the town except in the approved way. The ID cards were in English only. "If you have one of these cards, you can come and go," Sassaman said, standing at the gate of the village as the Iraqis filed past. "If you don't have one of these cards, you can't."


Yet the experience in Abu Hishma and the other Sunni towns posed a basic challenge for Sassaman's men: apart from killing insurgents, how could the Americans ensure that their authority would be respected and that they would be obeyed in a place where they were so thoroughly hated? In Sunni towns like Samarra and Abu Hishma, even the ones wrapped in barbed wire, the Americans found that if they were not being shot at, they were being challenged, and not just by small handfuls of villagers but by nearly everyone. Young men hurled rocks at American patrols. Adults stayed out past curfew. People scrawled graffiti exhorting their neighbors to kill American soldiers. Some of the resistance was passive: whenever American soldiers showed up in a Sunni village looking for insurgents, the locals, more often than not, just stood and shrugged. And some Iraqis, though not actually shooting at the Americans, were clearly cooperating with the insurgents. When Sassaman's soldiers would go on a patrol through a Sunni area, for instance, they might see a man on a rooftop a hundred yards away, unarmed and in street clothes, watching them go by. Farther down the road, another Iraqi might be standing off to the side, looking at his watch, marking the time of the convoy's pass. The myriad acts of defiance signified the steady erosion of American authority. And they led to the death of American soldiers. "If I don't do anything when the guy flips me off, then the next time I drive by there I'm going to catch an R.P.G.," Perkins said.


Under the prodding of the generals, Sassaman took the concept of nonlethal force to its limits. His theory was that no progress would be possible without order first and that ultimately, even if his men were hard on the locals, they would come around. When his men came under fire from a wheat field, Sassaman routinely retaliated by firing phosphorous shells to burn the entire field down. The ambush site would be gone, and farmers might be persuaded not to allow insurgents to use their land again.

Sassaman detained Sunni sheiks, holding them responsible when his troops were attacked. When Iraqis gave him bad intelligence, he detained them too. When locals scrawled graffiti on a wall, denouncing President Bush or calling on the Iraqis to kill Americans, Sassaman asked local leaders to paint it over, and if they did not, he ordered his men to destroy it. If kids threw rocks, his men threw rocks back. If they caught an Iraqi man out after curfew, they piled him into a Bradley, drove him miles outside of town and told him to walk home. "All I was getting at was, If grown-ups throw rocks at me, we're throwing them back," Sassaman said. "We are not going to just wave. We are not driving by and taking it. Because a lot of the units did."

On a mission in January 2004, a group of Sassaman's soldiers came to the house of an Iraqi man suspected of hijacking trucks. He wasn't there, but his wife and two other women answered the door. "You have 15 minutes to get your furniture out," First Sgt. Ghaleb Mikel said. The women wailed and shouted but ultimately complied, dragging their bed and couch and television set out the front door. Mikel's men then fired four antitank missiles into their house, blowing it to pieces and setting it afire. The women were left holding their belongings.


That same winter in Samarra, Sassaman's men moved through a hospital and pulled a suspected insurgent from his bed. When a doctor told the Americans to leave, a soldier spat in his face. Another time, an officer told Spanner, one of Sassaman's soldiers threw a wounded man into a cell and threatened to withhold treatment unless he told them everything he knew. "We've told him he's not getting medical attention unless he starts to talk," Capt. Karl Pfuetze told Spanner. The man's fate was unknown. (Pfuetze now denies the withholding of treatment. Sassaman insists he never condoned beatings or denial of medical treatment.)

The best explanation for such tactics was offered by an officer in the Fourth Infantry Division. Echoing the private comments of many American officers, he said that the Iraqis seemed to understand only force. "To an American, this might upset our sense of decency," he added. "But the Iraqi mind-set was different. Whoever displays the most strength and authority is the one they are going to obey. They might be bitter, but they obey."


But most of the tactics employed by Sassaman's men had been explicitly ordered or at least condoned by senior American officers, and many units in the Sunni Triangle were already using the same kind of tough-guy methods. The order to wrap Abu Hishma in barbed wire, for instance, was given by Col. Frederick Rudesheim, Sassaman's immediate supervisor. Odierno signed off on the wrapping of Saddam Hussein's birthplace, Awja. Destroying homes and detaining people as quasi hostages - those, too, were being condoned by American generals. At a news conference in November 2003, Sanchez, the top commander in Iraq, acknowledged that he had authorized the destruction of homes thought to be used by insurgents. That same month, American officers said they detained the wife and daughter of Gen. Izzat Ibrahim, a high-ranking member of Hussein's government who was still at large. The hope, they said, was that the women could lead them to Ibrahim.


It was around this time that soldiers in the 1-8 started getting people wet. It seemed to work so well the first time they tried it, in December 2003, when the men from Alpha Company's first platoon were driving their Bradleys toward the Balad airfield, and an Iraqi man, standing in front of his auto repair shop, raised his hand in an obscene gesture. On the way back, the Americans stopped and searched the shop but found nothing. Lt. Jack Saville, the platoon commander, told his men to take the Iraqi to a pontoon bridge that ran across the Tigris and throw him into the river.

"The next time I went back, the guy is out there waving to us," Perkins said. "Everybody got a chuckle out of that."


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