Tired, Terrified and Trigger-Happy in Iraq

Among the less publicized incentives propelling Iraq overseer Paul Bremer’s urgent dash to Washington last week was the concern in various quarters of the administration that the U.S. expeditionary force in Iraq is in a dangerously unstable state. “We are one stressed-out reservist away from a massacre,” remarked one senior official closely involved in the search for an exit strategy.

He was expressing the fear that a soldier, possibly a reservist, stressed beyond endurance by the rigors and uncertainties of his or her condition in a hostile land far from home, might open up with a machine gun on an Iraqi crowd, with obviously disastrous consequences for the future of the occupation. In case anyone considers this contingency unthinkably remote, examples already abound of overstressed U.S. soldiers behaving in a lethally trigger-happy fashion. As U.S. soldiers get more and more stressed, their tempers fray and you see more altercations on the streets, more browbeating of ordinary Iraqis by soldiers and, as a result, a general deterioration in the already tense relationship that helps convince Iraqis that the U.S. is nothing but an ugly, arrogant occupying army.

In traveling around Iraq, I always stay well away from American convoys, for reasons well known to all Iraqi drivers and best illustrated by an incident (by no means unique) outside Fallouja last month. Gunners in an armored column responded to a roadside bomb blast by opening up, apparently indiscriminately, with heavy automatic weapons on traffic moving in the opposite direction on the other side of the highway median. Six civilians died, including four in a single minivan, some of whom were decapitated. An 82nd Airborne spokesman was later quoted as insisting that “the use of force was justified.”

Indiscriminate fire and other atrocities can be understood, if not excused, by the degree of stress endured by hot and exhausted soldiers terrified of an unseen enemy. U.S. Army Field Manual 22-51 addresses what it calls “misconduct combat stress behavior,” which it deems most likely in guerrilla warfare. The manual notes that, “even though we may pity the overstressed soldier as well as the victims,” such cases must be punished.

The manual also identifies other stress behaviors, including looting and pil laging, practices that many people in Iraq–including non-Iraqis–report is widespread among the occupation force.

“I keep hearing rumors about our attached infantry company. Apparently they are under investigation for a few ‘incidents,’ ” a young officer based in the Sunni Triangle wrote home to his family in August. “It seems that whenever they get the chance, they steal money from the locals. I’m not talking about small amounts of cash, I’m talking about a nice, fat bankroll. They take the money during raids, while searching cars, while detaining locals.”

Questioned about various examples of misconduct, the official military response in Iraq tends to range from professed ignorance about the incidents to excuses like “these things happen in the heat of the action” to vague promises of future investigation. Yet surely the anonymous author of the U.S. Army Field Manual was correct in writing that “only a strong chain of command and a unit identity which says ‘We don’t do that, and those who do aren’t one of us and will be punished’ can prevent such behavior from happening.”

Despite this commendable official doctrine, professional military personnel specialists are seeing a worrying trend in the profusion of stress-related cases in Iraq. “It’s not surprising,” says Maj. Don Vandergriff, who teaches military science at Georgetown University. “After six months in an intense environment, units start to degrade, especially when they are in combat and are likely getting very little sleep.”

Vandergriff is also fiercely critical of the Army’s practice of constantly rotating individuals, especially commanders, in and out of units. Morale and cohesion of the Army in Iraq “is deteriorating at four times the rate it did in Vietnam,” he states.

The high command should be seeking remedial measures, but perhaps the best we can hope for are the coldly realistic sentiments of the officer who wrote about the looting.

“I really don’t care for the Iraqi people, I don’t care about helping them get back on their feet,” he wrote in his letter. “However, I don’t condone stealing from them, hurting them unnecessarily or threatening them with violence if it is not needed. We will never win hearts and minds here, but what these guys are doing is wrong. I am positive that this isn’t happening in my company, and that’s all I can really affect.”

With any luck, his superiors are developing the same sense of responsibility. There is always that stressed-out reservist to worry about.

Andrew M. Cockburn is the co-author of “Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein” (Perennial Press, 2000). He can be reached at: andrew@counterpunch.org


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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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