War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences, the Final Chapter: Lessons Learned
A NOTE FROM CHRIS HERNANDEZ
Full disclosure: I struggled writing this chapter, and barely finished it late yesterday. I didn’t struggle because there weren’t any lessons to be learned, I struggled because there were so many. I think the lessons learned could fill a long, long book; obviously, I couldn’t list them all here. So I choose a few that stood out most, and explained them. Like my thoughts as I wrote this chapter, these lessons are explained at random, in no particular order. Unlike previous chapters, every opinion expressed here is mine and mine alone.
LESSON 1: DON’T OVERSIMPLIFY THE PROBLEM
This series may have gotten a very simple point across: don’t commit crimes or tolerate those who do. But war isn’t simple. I started this series asking you to put yourself into Justin Watt’s shoes, now I’ll ask you to consider another hypothetical situation:
You’re a soldier in first platoon. You arrive at the Alamo just after the attack and realize, to your horror, that Menchaca and Tucker have been abducted. You help pull Babineau’s body out of the muddy canal where he had been killed. Along with the rest of the platoon, you hope against hope that your friends will be rescued alive.
They aren’t. Several days later, their tortured, mutilated bodies are found. Dozens of IEDs are planted around them. Explosives are in their bodies. They suffered horribly before they died.
The day after Menchaca and Tucker’s bodies are recovered, the enemy releases a video. The video shows a group of masked insurgents standing around the mutilated bodies. Your battalion’s intelligence section watches the videos and recognizes one of the insurgents. He’s been detained before, intelligence has his biometrics and knows where he lives. Your platoon receives the mission to raid his home.
As you approach the house, someone opens fire from a window. One of your friends stumbles back toward the Humvees, wounded in the arm and leg. You and the rest of the platoon breach the door and start clearing rooms. An AK juts from a doorway and fires a burst down the hall. Another soldier falls, screaming in agony from a stomach wound. You and others trade volleys with the insurgent while a medic drags the shrieking casualty to safety. As you prep a grenade, the AK sails out the doorway and clatters to the floor.
Hands reach through the doorway, then a grinning man steps out. “Okay, Ameriki,” he sneers. “You catch me.” His hands are up, no weapons visible. You stow your grenade back in its pouch and take a step toward the man. And a full ten seconds after the man surrenders, the soldier beside you sends a three-round burst into him.
The insurgent falls dead. You turn toward your fellow soldier. He’s nearly in tears with fury. He was a close friend to Babineau, Tucker and Menchaca, and to the man shot in the stomach during the raid. He’s twenty years old, a good soldier. And he just committed murder.
Are you going to turn him in?
I think I know how most combat veterans would answer. I know how most soldiers have answered throughout history. I know Eric Lauzier’s answer, because I didn’t even finish the hypothetical before he blurted, “There’s no way in hell that guy would be taken alive. I’d tell my men to shoot him on sight. And to shoot him in the gut, so he wouldn’t die right away.”
And I think I know my answer. The Army wouldn’t approve of it.
I didn’t write this to defend murder, or justify not reporting a crime. I wrote it to remind everyone that we soldiers live in a world far from the theoretical, black and white, classroom version of war. Our rules say killing an insurgent who tortured our friends to death is wrong, but sniping a uniformed, unarmed 17-year old conscript as he fills canteens by a river is just peachy. War is not an activity that lends itself to clear definitions of right and wrong.
Lesson number one of this story might be, “Don’t oversimplify things.” Yes, rape and murder of civilians are always wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s simple for a criminal’s fellow soldiers to turn him in. The Army might do well to understand the varying levels of “wrong” we can do in war, make an effort to understand human nature, and stop pretending we can set a “just say no” policy about wrongdoing. Telling soldiers to always report misconduct, without acknowledging how insanely difficult that can be, doesn’t prepare soldiers to face Justin Watt’s horrible moral dilemma.
LESSON 2: DON’T FORGET WHY WE FIGHT FAIR
In The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer’s memoir of his service as a German soldier in World War II, he described his surrender on the Western Front. Sajer had fought through brutal campaigns against the Soviet Army, endured allied air raids and lost countless friends. At the end of the war he wound up in a trench with children and old men, facing advancing American troops. As he prepared for a fight he knew they would lose, an older man rushed down the trench ordering everyone to lay their weapons down.
“I surrendered to Americans in the First World War,” he told them. “They’re not a bad sort.”
How many Americans survived because of that old veteran’s advice? Germans knew they could usually surrender to us and live, so they didn’t fight us to the death. That wasn’t the case on the Eastern Front.
I think we soldiers sometimes forget the foundations behind the laws of war. They’re not there to tie our hands (although that’s how it often feels), and they’re not there to get us thrown in prison. They exist to show the world, and especially our enemies, that we’re not brutal conquerors. We fight fair and treat everyone with respect. That can be frustrating to those of us actually in the fight, especially when our enemy are brutal murderers who follow no rules at all. But in the end our adherence to rules keeps more of us alive.
And it should go without saying that we don’t victimize civilians. Yes, we have to watch our backs around many of them. We can’t trust many/most of them. But if we rape and murder them, we create lifelong enemies. In the book Nam, an anonymous Marine Vietnam veteran observed, “I knew Marines who made more [VC] than they killed, just by treating them bad.” If we act like Genghis Khan at the head of a Mongol horde, we guarantee eternal hatred of Americans.
LESSON 3: PLEASE, ARMY, DON’T OVERREACT
One thing I’ve learned after 25 years of service, 19 years with the Army, is that the Army’s standard reaction is overreaction. Why do I say that? Because American soldiers serving in combat zones have been issued rape whistles.
Our troops carry weapons everywhere. Any rapist should be terrified to discover that his intended victim is a soldier. Rather than blow a whistle, a soldier should stab a rapist’s guts out or shoot him repeatedly in the face. But because we have a highly-publicized sexual assault problem in the military, our leaders overreact and throw out ridiculous “solutions” to pacify public opinion. And soldiers are taught to blow a whistle and wait for rescue instead of giving rapists the painful death they deserve.
In regards to war crimes, our leaders’ overreaction would likely be along the lines of “turn in your fellow soldiers for any misconduct, no matter what.” Which can create an atmosphere where soldiers don’t trust each other and are more scared of getting into legal trouble than of being wounded or killed. This breeds hesitation, when action is required.
In Afghanistan I knew a retired Special Forces sergeant working as a contractor. One day he caught a supply convoy to our firebase, and a sergeant briefed the convoy team before they left Bagram. As the sergeant reviewed the escalation of force policy, he punctuated each step with a threat.
“If you have to fire a warning shot, aim in front of the car. But if the round hits someone, you’re going to jail! If you have to disable the car, aim for the radiator. But if you accidentally hit the driver you’re going to jail! Only shoot the driver as a last resort. But if the driver turns out to be a civilian you’re going to jail!”
The former SF soldier couldn’t take it anymore. He pushed his way forward, stood in front of the sergeant and said, “If you think you have to shoot, shoot. As long as you think you’re doing the right thing, everyone should have your back.” Then he stepped back into the ranks, leaving the sergeant speechless.
If a soldier acts in good faith and believes he did the right thing, whether that right thing was shooting when he truly thought he needed to shoot or turning in fellow soldiers for committing rape and murder, we should have his back. Threats of jail only encourage soldiers to do nothing.
LESSON 4: MY GOD, DID WE REALLY SEND MEN TO FIGHT IN THIS?
This series of articles hasn’t only been an indictment of individuals. It’s an indictment of an institution. This wasn’t simply a dishonorable act by four soldiers, it was a dishonorable act by the Army.
Why do I say that? Because when the smoke cleared, four soldiers were in prison, two others had been dishonorably discharged, others were unofficially punished, the platoon leader and company commander were removed from leadership positions. But the battalion commander, who was probably most responsible for the conditions that led both to the murders and the Alamo attack, was promoted. He’s now either retired or close to it.
The battalion sergeant major (whose name, along with several others, I haven’t mentioned because I didn’t want this series to turn into a Joe-level bitch session against leadership) may still be in the Army. I didn’t talk to him, and he refused to speak to Jim Frederick while Frederick was writing Blackhearts. Frederick described what was probably the second-best illustration of the sergeant major’s leadership ability: after the Alamo attack, the sergeant major went to first platoon’s patrol base. First platoon was going crazy trying to figure out where their abducted soldiers were. Rather than organize a search or give the men encouragement, the sergeant major got angry about discarded cigarette butts. And he made first platoon police call the base.
The best illustration of his “leadership”, in my opinion, was his abject failure to stand up for Watt when Watt turned in the murderers. As far as I know, the sergeant major never suffered any negative consequences for anything he did in Iraq.
No official Army sources would ever back up what I’m about to say, but from the perspective of a senior NCO, I’d say Colonel Kunk’s promotion and the sergeant major’s free ride provide a horrible, crappy lesson learned: we warfighters are on our own. Leadership that lives echelons above reality doesn’t understand what we’re really doing, and sometimes doesn’t care to find out. Whatever disaster befalls us at ground level will be no more than a blip on their career progression. Maybe that’s cynical, but there’s plenty of reason to believe it.
Like Watt, Diem, Lauzier, Yribe and every other soldier in this “NCO-driven war”, I’ve been outside the wire on missions where the highest ranking soldier was a staff sergeant and every officer was back on base. We faced the IEDs and small-arms fire, they set the policies. Often they didn’t understand the consequences of those policies.
Before we arrived in Iraq my battalion pushed us to create a “Convoy Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)”. So we wrote it in America, before we knew the actual conditions on the ground. When we arrived in Iraq it took about a week to learn our SOP was worthless. Our teams immediately changed their tactics to reflect that reality. Our battalion leadership didn’t.
A senior leader from our battalion staff joined us on a short convoy once. His vehicle was in front of mine. Battalion SOP said our convoy speed was 45 miles per hour, so that’s how fast his vehicle drove. We had learned that speed was our best defense against IEDs, so we pushed our vehicles to go as fast as possible. The rest of the convoy traveled at about 60, but the senior leader’s vehicle wouldn’t go faster than 45. It fell back and created a huge gap. We tailgated it and my gunner signaled to his gunner to speed up (they didn’t have a radio). His vehicle wouldn’t speed up. I told my driver to pass him. He fell further back in the convoy, but still wouldn’t speed up.
During a short halt the senior leader’s Humvee stopped in front of mine. The senior leader approached me, carrying a copy of the SOP, and angrily asked, “Where’s your convoy SOP?” I told him I didn’t have it. He glared at me and said, “You know the SOP says convoy speed is 45 miles per hour, right?” I tried to explain that IEDs are less effective against faster convoys. He simply pointed out the 45 MPH rule, and went back to his vehicle. When we moved again, he went 45. And we passed him again.
Eventually he gave up. His driver sped up so they wouldn’t be left behind, and he didn’t say anything else to me about it. But the battalion leadership still stuck to its ineffective SOP, and we on the roads continued to ignore it. Because our leaders were echelons above reality.
When our senior leaders don’t understand what we’re doing, or don’t get the actual conditions we’re facing, they set policies we can’t follow. Once we soldiers realize our leadership is out of touch and enforcing rules that make us more likely to die, we create our own rules and choose our own leaders. We don’t have any other choice. That’s how first platoon devolved from a platoon into a tribe.
I understand the delicate balance between keeping soldiers safe and preventing them from shooting everything in sight. But policies have to reflect actual reality rather than the theoretical, sterile view that too many senior leaders seem to have. To that end, I’d suggest every senior leader, from company command upward, actually go on missions with their troops. I don’t mean sleeping in the back of an MRAP on a convoy. I mean getting your fat ass out on foot and being an extra rifle. Perspectives change real fast when you’re facing the same dangers and problems you’re ordering your troops to face.
Colonel Kunk must have known about the IED threat his troops were facing; after all, his own PSD team took a hit that killed three men. Yet he continually disregarded input from company commanders and first sergeants about the danger their troops were in. When one of his companies developed a patrol SOP that helped them spot IEDs before detonation, he ordered everyone to follow it. But that company’s AO was wide open. Bravo’s AO was full of dense vegetation which sometimes grew right beside the roads. The other company’s SOP worked in their AO, but wouldn’t work in Bravo’s. But Kunk wouldn’t listen to Bravo’s objections.
He also made Bravo risk their lives to escort gravel trucks to battalion headquarters, so the battalion staff could walk on gravel instead of mud. And he made Bravo’s leaders travel IED-laden roads to go to him for briefings, instead of doing it by phone. At least one Bravo soldier was wounded by an IED on a mission to give an unnecessary face-to-face briefing.
None of the soldiers I interviewed remembered Kunk going on a single foot patrol with Bravo. If he had, he might have understood why his one-SOP-fits-all approach didn’t work.
Maybe this is so obvious I shouldn’t waste time explaining it, but I will anyway. To be an effective leader, you HAVE to know what your troops are facing. You can’t interpret reality from emails and intelligence reports. There is no substitute for actual experience.
In Afghanistan I had a much “bigger picture” view of the war than I did in Iraq. On convoys in Iraq, my entire focus often shrank to the left shoulder, two lanes and right shoulder of the highway immediately in front of me. In Afghanistan I was part of the intelligence community, but was on a small firebase and routinely embedded with maneuver elements. I knew what the war looked like up close, and what it looked like to senior leadership. I was always amazed at the disconnect between what we experienced outside the wire versus the perception of it back on the FOB.
This subject could fill its own series of books, and I won’t go too far into it. The bottom line is that too many leaders today are never given the opportunity to develop combat leadership skills. When they arrive in-country they’re immediately assigned to a staff where their primary responsibility is building PowerPoint slides to brief a commander. They come home from a yearlong deployment having been screamed at for not using the right color on a slide, or letting the explanation of their slide run thirty seconds longer during the brief than it did during rehearsal, but never having actually led troops on a mission. Many never even leave the wire.
How are these leaders then supposed to understand the stresses Justin Watt, John Diem, Eric Lauzier and Tony Yribe faced daily, for months at a time? And more importantly, isn’t it their responsibility to understand?
In 1917, British General Sir Douglas Haig began an offensive to capture the Belgian village of Passchendaele. He reportedly ignored multiple warnings about difficult terrain surrounding the objective. Before and during the battle, incessant shelling around the village created a vast sea of mud that literally swallowed soldiers alive. 250,000 British soldiers died in a fight that was supposed to last two days but actually took ninety-nine. 55,000 British soldiers are missing from that battle, most lost forever in the mud. Near the end of the offensive one of Haig’s generals, Sir Lancelot Kiggell, visited the battlefield. He reportedly saw all the mud, broke down in tears and asked, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in this?”
Today, almost 100 years after Passchendaele, there is no excuse for leaders to not know what their soldiers are facing. Any leader who doesn’t know, just doesn’t care to know. The information is there for any leader who wants it.
Based on reader reaction, I know that most of you understand how horrible rape and murder are, and understand why we expect our soldiers to act with honor no matter the conditions. But I’m sure some readers have still said, “Watt and Diem should have kept their mouth shut,” or some version of “Snitches get stitches.” Some people still have an “us versus them” mentality that demands loyalty to our side, no matter how wrong we might be.
Pure evil doesn’t deserve loyalty. The brutal gang rape and murder of a 14-year old girl are pure evil. So are the murders of her parents and 6-year old sister. If anyone doesn’t understand why soldiers who rape and murder little girls need to be punished for their crime, I can’t explain it to them.
What I can explain is this: Americans are better than Iraqi insurgents. We’re better than ISIS. We’re better than the Soviets who treated German women as their reward for defeating the Nazis. We aren’t better than them because we’re afraid of getting in trouble for rape and murder; we’re better because we aren’t rapists and murderers. I’m not proud to be American because of any “My country right or wrong” bullshit. I’m proud to be American because we try to do the right thing.
Yes, we’ve made mistakes. No, we’re not perfect. But we aren’t a nation of criminals. Despite all our mistakes during the last 13 years of war, Iraqis and Afghans are still trying like hell to move here. Despite all our sins during World War II, millions of Germans and Japanese gave up everything to become Americans afterward. Despite our tons of excesses in Vietnam, countless Vietnamese risked their lives to get here. They didn’t come here because they thought we’d murder them. They knew that to Americans, innocent lives matter.
Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi was an innocent 14-year old girl. Her life mattered. Hadeel Qasim Hamza was only 6, guilty of nothing at all. Her life mattered. Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin and Qasim Hamza Raheem weren’t insurgents, they were just parents who endured the agony of hearing their daughter being raped before they were murdered. Their lives mattered.
Four dishonorable criminals acted like their lives didn’t matter. But other Americans, who stayed true to who we are as a nation, remembered how important those innocent lives were. And they reminded me why I’m proud to be American.
Please share any other lessons you feel we should take from this incident. I hope all of us military leaders will use these soldiers’ stories to show our troops the true meaning of “honor under fire”. Thank you for reading, and thanks to Justin Watt, John Diem, Eric Lauzier and Tony Yribe for having the courage to talk about the hell they went through. They didn’t do it because they wanted to relive agony they’d rather forget. They did it to help us, the military, and every man and woman who will someday go downrange in our nation’s defense.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.