Monday, November 30, 2009

Killing At The Canal

One March day in 2007, American soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd "Dagger" Brigade, after being fired upon, became suspicious of four Iraqis after spotting them near a cache of weapons. The soldiers’ detained the Iraqis, loaded them into the back of a Bradley fighting vehicle, drove them in a convoy with thirteen soldiers to a canal in Baghdad’s West Rasheed neighborhood where three American sergeants killed the four blindfolded and bound Iraqis in the back of the head execution style.

Nine months later, Sergeant Jess Cunningham, one of the soldiers present at the canal killings, only after he was facing military discipline for assaulting Sergeant Michael Leahy, came forward and ratted on his fellow soldiers on what had happened at the canal. Since Sergeant Michael Leahy was one of the three sergeants who committed the canal murders, Cunningham’s motive for betraying the trust of his comrades at arms certainly is not clear. Certainly in light of Sergeant Cunningham and other soldiers in the platoon who all were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, he was the only one who escaped punishment: He was given immunity for testifying against the three sergeants who actually committed the killings; the charges against him were dropped.

The three sergeants in explaining their action explained that in order to give them up to the military command for processing at a detention facility they would need to provide evidence of their involvement in attacking U.S. forces. As First Sergeant John Hatley, one of the three sergeants, said, prisoners are often released by the detention center two to three days after capture because there was not enough evidence to hold them. Adding insult to injury, when these prisoners were released, the same unit that facilitated their capture was responsible to pick them up from the prison and release them. They then would return to the fight and kill more of America's soldiers. They felt the only action they could take to prevent that from happening was to execute them.

The three sergeants, John Hatley, Joseph Mayo, and Michael Leahy, were convicted of premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit premeditated murder.

First Sergeant John Hatley was sentenced to life in prison but the sentence was later reduced to 40 years; Sergeant First Class Joseph Mayo and Sergeant Michael Leah were each sentenced to 20-year terms.

Some Americans have called for leniency. And perhaps their sentencing was too stiff, especially in consideration that the U.S. Army trained them to kill on our behalf, and we are responsible for putting them in that situation in the first place. During the Vietnam War, Second Lieutenant William Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of twenty two Vietnamese civilians when he was found guilty of ordering the March 16, 1968 My Lai Massacre. As many as 500 villagers were murdered that day and Calley was the only person convicted. He ended up spending 3 1/2 years in house arrest. How does one resolve the question of leniency when there are such very apparent disparities between the punishment of these three sergeants and that of Lieutenant Calley? However, if you read the circumstances of Calley’s murder trial, and house arrest, I believe any reasonable person would conclude that the leniency given Lieutenant Calley was very unacceptable. Nevertheless, were the sentences of Hatley, Mayo, and Leah too harsh in consideration of all known existential facts.

Some of the abbreviated blog comments on the killing at the canal:

They are American Heroes, not murderers;

You can’t understand unless you were there;

You people are stupid, If I were in combat, I would shoot anyone who wasn’t American; The killings in the canal were justified;

The wives say they are good men, they are heroes, and they had no choice but to murder those detainees;

They are an embarrassment to the US Army and the soldiers who serve honorably and ethically;

How many of these types of incidents are going unreported;

The fundamental war crime, that enabled all the rest, is starting an illegal war of aggression, which is what the Iraq war was;

The Army didn’t teach them to murder unarmed prisoners. They chose to do it, and they knew it was wrong when they did it;

I can give them a measure of sympathy and understanding;

These men are patriotic Americans serving in the US Army who executed under their own accord four detainees; Maybe we should call the executioners of American detainees heroes as well;

American soldiers are held to a higher standard than that of their enemies; what happened to these prisoners of war is not what we expect to happen to anyone in war;

So, were the Nazis that executed American soldiers who were prisoners during WWII heroes, as well? These American soldiers did the same thing; it was murder back in WWII, and it is murder now;

As depicted in the Good Soldier, our combat soldiers are trained to kill, but there are rules of engagement that must be followed;

It’s clear now that substantial fractions of Americans are perfectly fine with war crimes as long as they’re committed by Americans; Or more probably, it’s not a war crime -- or torture -- if an American does it;

Worse, they led their own Soldiers to do the same immoral and illegal act. The job of the NCO [non-commissioned officer] is to ensure that his soldiers do not become that which they behold [act the same as the other side]. The NCO is responsible for a soldiers discipline, that they follow the rules of engagement, and responsible for the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law are honored. Completely in conflict with what these NCO’s have done.

While I know there are many excellent men and women serving in the United States Armed Forces, and that there are true heroes (a person noted for courageous action above and beyond the call of duty), it does not mean every man or woman who voluntarily chose to serve are heroes, and certainly these men, as the word has been defined, are not.

Whether in war or not, it’s very troubling to me when Americans excuse the execution of anyone for any reason as being acceptable. Additionally, there is something extraordinarily wrong when a significant number of Americans think these three sergeants did nothing wrong by executing prisoners under their charge of safe care.

Part of the problem is that the nature of war has changed with the advent of Asymmetric warfare and counterinsurgency warfare as we are experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan. This type of engagement is more suitable if performed by para-military or conventional police forces. However, engaging the enemy in the mountains and areas of engagement outside of tribal, urban, and suburban communities, need conventional armed forces for success.

The U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to enforce rules of prima facie evidence, interrogation, and procedures that normally would be undertaken by police forces. That is a big mistake. United States Armed Forces are not trained to interrogate, gather evidence, or make individual judgments. If an Army combat team receives fire that team then takes certain actions and positions to engage the enemy and return fire – not to make a personal judgment before engaging and returning fire.

A combat soldier or combat team is trained to cause havoc and kill, pure and simple, and nothing more than that.

Investigative correspondent Abbie Boudreau and senior investigative producer Scott Zamost produced a documentary, Killing at the Canal, for CNN. Viewing this documentary will give one greater insight.