America’s Heroes on Trial

Col. Michael Steele is a hero to some for his role in the “Black Hawk Down” affair in Somalia back in 1993. Recall that the first President Bush had sent in U.S. troops on a “humanitarian” mission, maintained by his successor Bill Clinton. The duties of the men under Steele’s command included capturing militia leaders considered unfriendly to the U.S. and its local favorites. In the course of performing such missions in Mogadishu, Steele’s Rangers lost two Black Hawk helicopters and 18 men—while U.S. forces killed about 1000 Somali civilians in a “rescue operation.” The 2001 film “Black Hawk Down” depicts the episode from the imperialist point of view, glorifying Steele (played by Jason Isaacs, best known to many as the evil Lucius Malfoy in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”).

Recently acquiring more glory in Iraq, Steele has boasted of his unit’s death count. Last November he declared, “We are absolutely giving the enemy the maximum opportunity to die for his country.” This piece of petty bravado indicates that the colonel at least recognizes that the Iraqis he faces are indeed men fighting for their country, against an invader. What to do with these patriots, but to kill them?

Recall that four U.S. soldiers have recently been charged with murdering three Iraqi civilians. It happens that they were all under the Col. Steele’s command, and Steele has been reprimanded in connection with the incident. More than that, he is under investigation for issuing an order to his men during “Operation Iron Triangle” in Samarra on May 9 to “kill all military age males.” His men, as part of their defense, are claiming he did.

The phrase “all military age males” surfaced earlier in official commentary on the rape of Fallujah. Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, who commanded the 5th Marine Battalion in Fallujah in 2004 told the London Guardian that “95% of those” killed by U.S. forces “were military age males that were killed in the fighting That’s fine, because they’ll get whipped up, come out fighting again and get mowed down … Their only choices are to submit or die.” (Submit to the invaders, kids. Or have your fucking jihadi heads blown off.)

In the Black Hawk Down episode, a certain Spc. John Stebbins helped rescue Ranger comrades from the righteous wrath of the Somalis. He was your all-American hero for a time, but his part got written out of the Hollywood “Black Hawk Down” script. (He’d been convicted of raping his preteen daughter and sentenced to 30 years in Leavenworth Prison.) Reportedly the Pentagon, intimately involved in the propaganda film project, urged that the Stebbins role be omitted. Just too embarrassing. Neither the Pentagon nor Hollywood wants to glorify soldiers who’ve been exposed as total scumbags.

Even in the current warmongering atmosphere—intensified by the U.S.-endorsed Israeli assault upon Lebanon—it can be difficult to urge public reverence for those linked to the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Not impossible, mind you; the currently comatose Ariel Sharon, found responsible by an Israeli court for the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla, was pronounced “a man of peace” by the current American president. But more difficult in the present quasi-democracy than under a thoroughly fascist regime. So let’s hope that the investigations into these murders clarify for millions more the viciousness and rapacity of the whole so-called “War on Terrorism.”

“Kill all military age men.” Free-fire zone, any 13 year-old boy fair game. Mow the boys down! says the heroic colonel. Let them die for their country. Show them what happens when they hijack planes in the U.S. and kill Americans. There’s evil in the Muslim Arab world, and it has attacked us. We (the good) respond with righteous wrath, with shock and awe and moral certitude. We are trying to give freedom to the Iraqi people, in order to stop terrorism. But a lot of them fight us because they hate freedom. In self-defense in certain areas where there are lots of insurgents, we have to kill all military age men.

No doubt this was the argument fed the four soldiers mentioned above, whose case is being heard by a military court in Tikrit. Polls show a staggering majority of the troops actually believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9-11 attacks. That suggests that their commanders have been telling them a lot that is simply wrong.

Steele among other Army officers has announced his intention not to testify at the hearing in Tikrit. So have the four, invoking their right not to incriminate themselves. One of them, a Sgt. Raymond Girouard, has been accused by Private First Class Bradley Mason of threatening him before he testified about the May 9 incident: “If you say anything, I’ll kill you.”

Here we have, I submit, a Hollywood movie so much richer than “Black Hawk Down.” A courtroom film, with lots of legalistic eloquence and lots of battlefield flashbacks. I’d love to hear Jason Isaacs bark, “Kill all military age men!” Maybe that would arouse some moral indignation in the audience at the terrorist quality of the war in Iraq.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: