War Crimes, Hard Choices, Harder Consequences
The first installment of my Iraq war crime series went up on Breach Bang Clear yesterday. As I said before, this is probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. I hope I do the story justice.
Today Breach-Bang-Clear begins a series of articles that every military man and woman should read. It isn’t our normal tongue-in-cheek look at cool gear or stoopid crap. It’s a true story, about real American soldiers, who committed a horrible war crime during their 2006 deployment to Iraq.
The articles are not about the war criminals, though. They’re about the other soldiers in the platoon, the ones who found out about the crime. The ones who were forced to decide between staying silent or turning in soldiers they had stood shoulder to shoulder in combat with. The ones who did right despite the risk. The articles are about the war crime’s long-lasting effects, what the men around its edges endured, and what the Army is doing to prevent crimes like it from happening again.
This series isn’t for entertainment. It’s for education. It’s to get us thinking. It’s to help us make the right decision now, in case the worst happens and we someday find ourselves faced with one of war’s most horrible dilemmas.
WAR CRIMES, HARD CHOICES, AND HARDER CONSEQUENCES
By Chris Hernandez
You’re twenty-three years old. You’re a lowly Private First Class with less than two years in the Army. You’ve been in Iraq eight months. Your platoon is overextended, barely able to cover all the patrols and static posts you’ve been assigned. Extra missions take what little rest time you have. Your losses have been horrendous; two men were shot at close range by a seemingly-friendly Iraqi, your platoon leader and a new man were blown apart by a buried bomb, one of your friends at an outpost was just killed and two others captured, tortured to death and mutilated. You’ve been living like animals, spending days at isolated, poorly protected, undermanned checkpoints where you’re regularly attacked with mortars and small arms. Your platoon has devolved into a tribe, where official leadership is almost nonexistent.
And if all that isn’t bad enough, you’ve just learned a horrible secret. Months earlier, some of your fellow soldiers committed a rape and mass murder. Two other soldiers knew but didn’t tell anyone. You’re aware that if you turn in the murderers, your life will be in danger. But you believe in honor and integrity. You do the right thing and report it.
Your battalion commander and sergeant major come to your outpost, demanding to see you. And in front of everyone, including one of the soldiers who hid the crime, the battalion commander accuses YOU of lying. He yells that you’re just trying to get out of the Army. He demands to know why you’re trying to destroy other soldiers’ careers. You desperately try to explain yourself but he brushes you off, sends you back to your post, and his convoy drives away.
Astonished, you sit behind your machine gun watching the Humvees roll out. You can’t believe you’re being abandoned; you did exactly what you’re supposed to do when you find out American troops committed a crime. The colonel and sergeant major are supposed to have your back. They wouldn’t just leave you there, would they?
As their convoy turns the corner and disappears, you know, without question, you’re dead. The men you reported are combat-hardened killers. They raped a teenager and wiped out her family, including her six year old sister. Word will spread that you turned them in. On the next patrol, enemy contact or not, you will somehow wind up shot in the back of the head. You’re done. If the battalion commander leaves you there, your life is over.
What do you do?
What I just described isn’t a hypothetical. It actually happened, eight years ago, during arguably the worst part of the Iraq War. That American troops committed a war crime is depressing but not shocking; all wars produce crimes, and every army has men whose criminal tendencies are barely kept in check by rigid discipline and constant supervision. The unforgivable acts committed by Steven Green, Paul Cortez, James Barker and Jesse Spielman occurred when that rigid discipline and constant supervision evaporated; their actions have been well documented, and I’m not going to focus on them here. My focus is on the men on the periphery of the crime, and the astounding way some of them were treated for showing the integrity and honor the Army claims it wants to instill in its soldiers.
I’m a longtime cop, former Marine and currently serving Army National Guard soldier. I’ve been to war twice, and spent 2005 on a convoy escort team in Iraq. The war crime in question happened a few months after I returned home from that deployment. I had heard of the Yusufiyah murders, and thought one of the soldiers involved had turned everyone in. The case seemed pretty straightforward; a few idiots committed a crime, one of them was overcome by guilt and said something, all the soldiers involved went to prison. Open and shut case.
But I recently discovered there was nothing open-and-shut about it. I was working on a story about two Iraq vets who had filmed an action movie, and one of them offered to put me in contact with his friend Justin, who helped train some of the actors. When the filmmaker told me about his friend, he asked a casual question.
“You remember the soldiers who raped the teenage girl and murdered her family near Yusufiyah in 2006?”
I replied that I did.
“Justin Watt is the guy who turned them in.”
My ears perked up. I started asking questions. Wasn’t the guy who turned them in also one of the guys involved? No, the filmmaker said. Watt had no involvement whatsoever. He found out about the crime months later, and risked his life to report it.
I spoke to Justin Watt that night. He had only a small part in the making of his friend’s movie, and that part of the conversation was brief. But when I asked if he was willing to talk about the Yusufiyah murders, he didn’t just say yes. He passionately gushed information for over an hour, and spoke with an intensity that displayed just how deeply he was affected by his experience. He didn’t sound like he was discussing events eight years past; he was more like a man recounting a tragedy that happened yesterday afternoon.
Justin Watt’s decision to turn in his fellow soldiers was gut-wrenching. The price he paid for his choice was steep. I was stunned at what I was hearing.
As he recounted his story, I wondered, How the hell have I not heard this before? Why isn’t this being taught to every officer, sergeant, and boot private in the Army?
Eventually I talked not only to Watt, but to another sergeant from the platoon named John Diem, and Watt’s former squad leader Eric Lauzier. Diem also played a crucial part in reporting the crime. Lauzier wasn’t in country when it happened, and was blindsided when the story exploded. He suffered a cruel fate because of what his soldiers chose to do in his absence.
Watt, Diem and Lauzier spoke at length about the crime and its effects. All of them bear, to varying degrees, scars from their experience. That deployment, crime and aftermath taught them painful lessons about leadership, human nature and war. Watt and Diem want to pass their knowledge on to others. They don’t want the next generation of warriors to go through what they did, or pay the overwhelming cost they and their comrades paid. At the Army’s request, they’re speaking to military audiences about their experience. Lauzier is more jaded; he’s not sure if anything he says will change the Army in any substantial way.
As I dug further into this story, I unexpectedly received a phone call from a former sergeant named Tony Yribe. Yribe was a central figure in the immediate aftermath of the murders, and made an extremely fateful decision when he learned about the crime. His voice is extremely unique, and only he can answer important questions about why the crime was hidden. This is the first time Yribe has publicly shared his story, and explained his decision.
Filed under: Iraq | 2 Comments
Tags: blackhearts, iraq war, john diem, justin watt, veteran writers, war crimes