War Crimes, Hard Choices, and Harder Consequences: Part V


Sergeant John Diem: “We can only do our best to deserve the public’s trust.”

Sergeant John Diem in Iraq

Sergeant John Diem in Iraq

Sergeant John Diem had four hours to think about his decision.

After Justin Watt told Diem about the war crime, Diem had guard duty. He had decided, within seconds of hearing Watt’s story, to report it. But then he sat in a guard tower, with hours to change his mind.

He didn’t know Watt had already reported the crime. As far as he knew, he would be the whistleblower. He knew the turmoil that would result from reporting it. Heads would roll, and not just the heads of those responsible. He initially brushed off Watt’s fears of retaliation, because he “just couldn’t see a firefight happening between American soldiers.” But he eventually realized Watt was right; the soldiers he reported might try to kill him. Diem was in the same platoon, and logically would face the same danger of retaliation.

And Diem could have just washed his hands of the whole thing. He thought Watt was going to report it anyway. Diem didn’t have to get involved at all.

But Diem never considered staying quiet.

When Watt told Diem about the murders, Diem saw only one course of action. He had to notify his chain of command. The probable second- and third-order effects of reporting the crime were obvious, and substantial. He never let those concerns affect his decision.

As soon as his guard shift was over, he went straight to his platoon sergeant and platoon leader and relayed Watt’s story. He intentionally went around his squad leader. He made the platoon leader tell him when he was going to report it higher. The report went up the chain exactly the way it was supposed to. Diem never doubted for a second that he had done the right thing. And he never worried about retaliation, either. He did what he had to do, and didn’t look back.

Watt and Diem shared traits which suggest Watt’s decision should have been as “simple” as Diem’s. In 2006 they were only twenty-three years old. Both are smart guys. Both had substantial combat experience. So why, I wondered, was Watt so terrified about reporting the crime, but Diem so calm about it?

Diem was calm partly because his circumstances were different. While Watt and Diem were both young, Diem was far more experienced and established. He was a veteran of the Iraq invasion and had been promoted to sergeant shortly before the 2006 deployment. Watt was a peer to the men who committed the rape and murders, but Diem, as a sergeant, was above and intentionally distant from them. He was there to lead soldiers, not to be their friends. And despite all the problems with discipline and failed leadership in first platoon, Diem still had a solid NCO network behind him. Watt only had the few people he trusted for support.

Strangely enough, nobody seemed angry at Diem for reporting the crime. Nobody I spoke to mentioned threats against Diem, and Diem says he was never threatened or rebuked. Apparently, nobody in the platoon expected him to do anything other than report it. Watt has been the target of much anger for his decision, but Diem seems to have been given a pass. Maybe that’s because Watt, as a lower-enlisted soldier, is viewed as having had a choice.

But Diem was, well, Diem. Nobody thought he would do anything but report it. Watt is seen as the whistleblower, Diem simply the conduit.

But I don’t think differences in their status or situation are all that made Diem so confident in his decision. I think Diem just believed so strongly in the mission and in what being a soldier means, he simply didn’t feel fear over doing the right thing. I suspect he wouldn’t have been scared even if he had been in PFC Watt’s shoes, rather than being a sergeant in another squad. Which doesn’t mean Watt shouldn’t have been scared, or that Diem would have been right not to be. It just means his confidence in his beliefs somehow transcends fear.

Iraq is Hell 118

In Blackhearts, Diem is described as a Dungeons and Dragons-playing nerd. Diem bristles at that depiction. So does Watt. Watt says, “Yeah, John plays computer games. And he’s an absolute killer in combat. The rock-steady tone he uses in phone conversations is the same tone he uses when someone’s shooting at him. He’s just a solid, unshakeable guy.”

None of the soldiers I interviewed about this incident are stupid. All are well above average intelligence, but Diem is brilliant. As a former armorer, range coach, tanker, scout and current intelligence soldier, I’ve made many good-natured jabs toward my “dumb infantry” friends. But nobody who spends ten seconds talking to Diem could even joke about him being stupid (during the recent FIFA championship he posted on Facebook, “I think the current uptick in soccer’s popularity is a fairly strong case for a considerable amount of slumbering nationalism present in the US population. We are just looking for an acceptable opportunity,” to which I replied, “Are you sure you’re infantry?”). Diem could be, and probably will be, a college professor someday, despite the fact that he doesn’t yet have a college education.

Some of the nonveteran public likes to view soldiers as poor, stupid, mostly minority kids who only joined the military because they couldn’t find a job. If they meet Diem, a profoundly intelligent man who willingly chose an infantryman’s life and four combat deployments, they’ll likely never buy that stereotype again. He truly believes in the Army and in soldiering. Like me, he’s not a blind idealist; he sees the problems that plague the Army, and recognizes institutional shortcomings that contributed to the Yusufiyah murders. Unlike me, he believes the solutions to those problems lie within Army doctrine, training and education. He’s self-assured, introspective, and brutally candid about leadership failures.

About his 2006 deployment, he says, “We did not deploy to win, we deployed to bring everyone home at the company level. Some junior leaders wanted to conduct combat operations but did not tie these operations to a coherent tactical vision. It was too reactive. For the most part we only did what we had to.”

Alone among the men I interviewed for this story, Diem chose to stay in the Army. And he’s not just staying for a paycheck, or biding his time until he can retire with benefits. He’s actively trying to make institutional changes that will prevent another incident like the one that destroyed an innocent Iraqi family and nearly tore his unit apart in 2006. He’s one of the few “true believers” I’ve met during my military and law enforcement careers.

I know a little about true believers. As a cop I helped train many officers how to respond to mass shooting incidents like Sandy Hook or Columbine. One thing we stressed to our students was belief in the mission; if you truly believed in what you were doing, you were less likely to hesitate when circumstances demanded action. An officer who thinks “I’m not dying for someone else’s kids” or “My only job is to get home at the end of my shift” isn’t who you want to show up when someone opens fire inside a school. You need an officer who believes in his heart that the lives of strangers’ children are just as precious as his own. You need someone who doesn’t view survival as the only indicator of success, you need cops who know that dying to defend the innocent is better than staying safe while innocents are slaughtered. You need true believers.

Many of us look back with envy at the warriors of World War II because, in our idealized view of that war, they epitomize the true believer. Yes, they faced horrible combat and staggering losses, much worse than what most of us Iraq and Afghanistan vets faced. But unlike our generation’s dubious struggles to create democracy for people who don’t want it, the causes during WWII seem pure. Hitler’s evil and the Imperial Japanese Army’s inhuman brutality were worth dying to defeat. As a child I often heard my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles discuss family and friends who died in Europe or the Pacific. They never discussed those losses with bitterness or resentment. Yes, the deaths were painful and tragic. No, those young lives weren’t wasted. They died for a just cause.

In Iraq, I struggled to believe in the mission. My company had the unglamorous job of escorting supply convoys to various bases. We didn’t often escort material vital to the war effort, instead we usually guarded food and creature comforts. The objective truth was that we were risking our lives to ensure “fobbits” had weekly steak and lobster, the latest gangsta rap CDs and every XBox game known to man. And I was bitterly resentful about that. That made convoy missions harder for me, because I just didn’t think they were worth my life. I never tried to weasel out of one, but I never truly believed in their importance.

Afghanistan was, to a point, very different. I did believe in the mission. For most of my deployment I felt, should I have died there, it would have been worth it. The belief helped me through difficult times. During one fight, a captain simply suggested I help him do something vitally important. I knew, without question, this thing had to be done. We all would have died rather than leave it undone, and there was a very good chance we would die doing it. Because I believed so strongly in this task, I did it without hesitation. Looking back now, five years later, I don’t remember feeling any fear at all. I had accepted its importance. I understood that my life was worth less than this task. I was, for that short time, a true believer.

John Diem leads his life as a true believer.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-v/


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