At a rally Sunday, September 18, 2010, outside of the gates of Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, Iraq veterans spoke on behalf of a soldier imprisoned inside, Pfc. Bradley Manning.
Manning has been held in solitary confinement at Quantico for almost three months now, accused of being the source of the “Collateral Murder” video which was released in April by the online whistleblower web site WikiLeaks. The video shows US forces firing 30 mm cannons from helicopter gunships into a crowd in Baghdad, killing over a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters journalists, and seriously wounding two children.
The government has intimated that Manning may also be considered the source of the “Afghan War Diaries,” a series of almost 100,000 documents pertaining to the Afghan war published in July by WikiLeaks, which all together constitute the largest leak in military history.
A former soldier from the ground unit that responded to the helicopter shooting seen in the now-infamous video described the incident as a typical moment in his 2007 deployment to Baghdad as part of the Surge. “It was by no means abnormal,” said the former soldier, Josh Stieber, who served 14 months in the New Baghdad neighborhood.
In a previous interview with me, Stieber and two other soldiers from his unit, Bravo Company 2-16, detailed the paradox of attempting to “win hearts and minds” while systematically abusing people. “I think it illustrates why we shouldn’t put soldiers in that situation” he said of the video.
“That’s what the war looks like,” he told the crowd Sunday, while explaining that those who leak such information to the public are doing a service to the country. “It’s important in order to even have a conversation on [these wars] where soldiers are supposedly fighting on behalf of the American public,” he added, “for the American public to realize what kinds of situations soldiers are being put into.”
Matt Southworth, a former soldier who now works for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, spoke to the crowd as well and echoed Stieber’s experience. “So many things were commonplace,” he said of his 2004 deployment to Mosul and Tal Afar in northern Iraq. “Abuses of Iraqi detainees, unjustified raids, unjustified trashing of peoples homes,” he says. “It was hard to qualify what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong.'”
Like Stieber, Southworth has a specific interest in the case of Manning. As an intelligence analyst with the Army’s 2nd ID, Third Brigade, 1-14 Cavalry Squadron, he shared the same Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) as Private First Class Manning, which means they had roughly the same job. And as a former intelligence analyst, he believes that whoever leaked the “Collateral Murder” video and the “Afghan War Diaries” was justified in doing so. “Exposing the things that happen, I think, is actually crucial,” he tells me. “It’s imperative that we really think about these things.”
Jacob George, a three-tour Afghanistan veteran who served with the Army Special Operations Command’s 528th Special Operations Support Battalion, has been publicly supporting Manning as well. He too calls the accused a hero, if indeed he is the WikiLeaks source. “He’s doing this country a favor,” he states bluntly. “I think whistle blowing is the only way to challenge the narrative of war that we have right now. The media and our government, which closely controls the media, doesn’t allow transparency and cultivating transparency is the thing that [the WikiLeaks source] did. It is a heroic act.”
To shine light on the fact that these leaks show only relatively small portions of two very long wars, these veterans tell me about some similar things they witnessed that haven’t been brought to the public’s attention by a whistleblower. Southworth describes a car “full of women and children” driving past his convoy too fast. “Some of the soldiers at the back of the convoy opened fire and killed everybody in the car,” he says, “because they got too close.”
This he says, like the helicopter shooting documented in the “Collateral Murder” video, was “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).” The soldiers in the WikiLeaks video “followed SOP; they requested permission to engage and they did ‘everything right’ by the military’s standard,” he confirms.
George recalls a gruesome story of what he thought was an isolated incident – that is, until a similar story of soldiers organizing “Kill Squads” and cutting off fingers of victims in Afghanistan came to light earlier this month. In the summer of 2002, George was stationed at a firebase in southern Afghanistan. “One day, there was a visit from some British Special Air Service (SAS) guys, and they were in their normal tactical vehicle,” he says. “As they were approaching the base, I could see something dangling on their side view mirror.” When he realized what it was, George was disgusted. “It was a bunch of ears hanging off of a necklace,” he says. “There’s no telling how many ears were on that thing.”
In light of recent stories suggesting similar incidents among US soldiers in Afghanistan, he concludes that things like this “probably happened way more over there than I want to know about.”
In Afghanistan, George also witnessed a scene very similar to the one depicted in the “Collateral Murder” video. After receiving intel that possible insurgents had entered a nearby building, Special Forces soldiers approached. “No one knew who was in the building,” he says, describing how one or two insurgents could have just run into a building housing civilians as well. “They caught some small arms fire from the building as they approached.” George says, “and the end result was that a bunch of Apaches came and just leveled it.” He does not know how many people were killed in the attack because “all we could find was arms and legs.” The limbs were loaded into two body bags and George had to carry them back to Bagram Air Base “so they could figure out who we just killed.”
Southworth says it wasn’t just the killing, but the daily abuse and degradation that he witnessed and participated in that really made him question the war. “The thing that affected me most,” Southworth tells me, “was detaining Iraqis and holding them for hours, sometimes days.” He says he and his fellow soldiers would “break down doors at three in the morning and we’d separate all the men and women. We’d take all the men of fighting age and put f—king sacks on their heads and zip cuff ’em.” As they transferred these young men to detainment centers, “they would sometimes urinate or defecate on themselves and we’d have to hose them off,” he says.
He describes a system of mass detainment of “suspected insurgents,” mostly young men who were picked up during random house searches simply for being of “fighting age.” He explains that these raids were often based on faulty intelligence and the detainees, after going through the Army’s “Observation Areas,” where they would often sit in plexiglass boxes for days – sometimes with bags over their heads – would usually just be released without charges.
“They were presumed guilty until decided innocent by some counter-intel guy who was interrogating them through a translator,” Southworth says. “He didn’t even speak Arabic … This guy gets to decide the fate of these people and who knows where they go. They could have ended up at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, or be extraordinary renditioned somewhere around the world.”
These are the wars that Southworth, Stieber and George want the American people and the world to see, because it was the daily reality for them as they put their lives at risk on the frontlines. And they want the world and especially Americans, to put themselves in the shoes of the occupied.
“I don’t think it takes a whole lot of imagination to think about what would happen if something similar were to happen in our own neighborhoods,” Stieber told the crowd. “We probably wouldn’t be very sympathetic to the army that came in and did that.” George frames it similarly, talking about the “Collateral Murder” shootings. “If someone were to do that on the streets in our own country,” he suggests, “how would they be treated?”
Who Is Really Putting Lives at Risk?
Though some military officials and political leaders have accused WikiLeaks of putting US troops and Afghan allies in harm’s way by leaking the “Afghan War Diaries” documents, these former soldiers do not see this as an honest assessment.
“First and foremost” says Southworth, “we have to point out that what endangers the lives of these soldiers most is the government that sends them to war … There is a legitimate concern about keeping people safe, but I don’t think these documents make anyone less safe than the fact that they’re deployed in the first place into senseless places, fighting just to fight.”
George does not see the “Afghan War Diaries” as exposing much more than what the average Afghan or US troop already knows, but rather, he sees it mainly as an intelligence report for the American public. “The one thing that probably was alarming [in the leaked documents] was that in almost every military operation that I looked through, there were civilian causalities,” he says. “One here, two there, sometimes five to ten … when five to ten people are killed daily over the course of a few weeks, that adds up.”
Stieber says all these leaked documents are “an indicator of a much broader situation,” and he believes that the transparency made through these leaks is an important factor in the public getting a real understanding of that broader situation “so people can make informed decisions about what goes on on the ground.” When that information is available, he says, “the official narrative of what’s going on with these wars shows itself to not be completely accurate.” George echoes this, speaking of accused WikiLeaks source Manning. “We have to re-write the narrative of this man’s deeds.”
“I really hope [we] spend more time thinking about the content of the documents rather than how whomever leaked them should be punished,” Southworth says. “We have orders as soldiers to disobey unlawful orders. And [in these wars] it’s Standard Operating Procedure to do things that are against the Geneva Conventions.”
“I think as long as we’re doing things that are unjust and unlawful,” he concludes, “someone should expose those. And I don’t think someone exposing those is a crime. I think it’s something that can be viewed as the right thing to do.”