At first glance they appear to be the archetypal Band Of Brothers of Hollywood myth, brave and honest men united in common purpose.
But a closer look at these American GIs, sweltering in the heat of an unwelcoming Iraq, reveals the glazed eyes and limp expressions of those who have witnessed a war they do not understand and have begun to resent. By their own admission these American soldiers have killed civilians without hesitation, shot wounded fighters and left others to die in agony.
What they told me, in a series of extraordinary interviews, will make uncomfortable reading for US and British politicians and senior military staff desperate to prevent the liberation of Iraq turning into a quagmire of Vietnam proportions, where the behaviour of troops feeds the hatred of an occupied people.
Sergeant First Class John Meadows revealed the mindset that has led to hundreds of innocent Iraqi civilians being killed alongside fighters deliberately dressed in civilian clothes. “You can’t distinguish between who’s trying to kill you and who’s not,” he said. “Like, the only way to get through s*** like that was to concentrate on getting through it by killing as many people as you can, people you know are trying to kill you. Killing them first and getting home.”
These GIs, from Bravo Company of the 3/15th US Infantry Division, are caught in an impossible situation. More than 40 of their number have been killed by hostile forces since 1 May – when President Bush declared major military operations were over – and the number of hit-and-run attacks is on the increase. They face a resentful civilian population and, hiding among it, a number of guerrilla fighters still loyal to the old regime. A lone Iraqi sniper nicknamed The Hunter is believed to have claimed his sixth American victim this week in a suburb of Baghdad.
The man, said to be a former member of the Republican Guard Special Forces, has developed a cult status among some Iraqis. One Baghdad resident, Assad al Amari, said: “He is fighting for Iraq on his own. There will be many more Americans killed because they cannot stop The Hunter. He will be given the protection of people who will let him use their homes for his shooting.”
In this hostile atmosphere the men of Bravo Company are asked to maintain order, yet at the same time win hearts and minds. It is not a dilemma they feel able to resolve. They spoke to me – dressed in uniforms they have worn for the past six weeks – at their base in Fallujah. Here US troops killed 18 demonstrators at a pro-Saddam rally soon after the war and now face local fighters bent on revenge.
Their attitude to these dangers is summed up by Specialist (Corporal) Michael Richardson, 22. “There was no dilemma when it came to shooting people who were not in uniform, I just pulled the trigger. It was up close and personal the whole time, there wasn’t a big distance. If they were there, they were enemy, whether in uniform or not. Some were, some weren’t.”
Specialist Anthony Castillo added: “When there were civilians there we did the mission that had to be done. When they were there, they were at the wrong spot, so they were considered enemy.” In one major battle – at the southern end of Baghdad at the intersection of the main highways – the soldiers estimate about 70 per cent of the enemy’s 400-or-so fighters were dressed as civilians.
Sgt Meadows explained: “The fight lasted for about eight hours and they just kept on coming all day from everywhere, from all sides. They were all in plain clothes.
“We had dropped fliers a couple of days prior saying to people to get out of the area if they didn’t want to fight, so basically anyone who was there was a combatant. If they were dumb enough to stand in front of tanks or drive a car
towards a tank, then they were there to fight. On that day it took away the dilemma of who to fire at, anyone who was there was a combatant.”
Cpl Richardson added: “That day nothing went with the training. There were females fighting; there were some that, when they saw you f****** coming, they’d just drop their s*** and try to give up; and some guys were shot and they’d play dead, and when you’d go by they’d reach for their weapons. That day it was just f****** everything. When we face women or injured that try to grab their weapons, we just finish them off. You’ve gotta, no choice.”
Such is their level of hatred they preferred to kill rather than merely injure. Sgt Meadows, 34, said: “The worst thing is to shoot one of them, then go help him.” Sergeant Adrian Pedro Quinones, 26, chipped in: “In that situation you’re angry, you’re raging. They’d just been shooting at my men – they were putting my guys in a casket and eight feet under, that’s what they were trying to do.
“And now, they’re laying there and I have to help them, I have a responsibility to ensure my men help them.” Cpl Richardson said: “S***, I didn’t help any of them. I wouldn’t help the f******. There were some you let die. And there were some you double-tapped.”
He held out his hand as if firing a gun and clucked his tongue twice. He said: “Once you’d reached the objective, and once you’d shot them and you’re moving through, anything there, you shoot again. You didn’t want any prisoners of war. You hate them so bad while you’re fighting, and you’re so terrified, you can’t really convey the feeling, but you don’t want them to live.”
These soldiers have faced fighters from other Arab countries. “It wasn’t even Iraqis that we was killing, it was Syrians,” said Sgt Meadows. “We spoke to some of the people and Saddam made a call for his Arab brothers for a holy war against us, and they said they came here to fight us. Whadda we ever do to them?”
Cpl Richardson intervened: “S***, that didn’t really matter who they were. They wanted to fight us so they were the enemy. We had to take over Baghdad, period, it didn’t matter who was in there.”
The GIs spoke of shooting civilians at roadblocks. Sgt Meadows said: “When they used white flags we were told to stop them at 400 metres out and then strip them down naked then bring them through. Most obeyed the order. We knew about others who had problems with [Iraqis] carrying white flags and then opening up on our guys. We knew about every trick they were trying to do. Then they’d use cars to try and drive at us. They were men, women and children. That day we shot up a lot of cars.
“We’d shoot warning shots at them and they’d keep coming, so we’d kill them. We’d fire a warning shot over the top of them or on the road. When people criticise us killing civilians they don’t know that a lot of these civilians were combatants, they really were . And they still are.”
The men have been traumatised by their experiences. Cpl Richardson-said: “At night time you think about all the people you killed. It just never gets off your head, none of this stuff does. There’s no chance to forget it, we’re still here, we’ve been here so long. Most people leave after combat but we haven’t.”
Sgt Meadows said men under his command had been seeking help for severe depression: “They’ve already seen psychiatrists and the chain of command has got letters back saying ‘these men need to be taken out of this situation’. But nothing’s happened.” Cpl Richardson added: “Some soldiers don’t even f****** sleep at night. They sit up all f****** night long doing s*** to keep themselves busy – to keep their minds off this f****** stuff. It’s the only way they can handle it. It’s not so far from being crazy but it’s their way of coping. There’s one guy trying to build a little pool out the back, pointless stuff but it keeps him busy.”
Sgt Meadows said: “For me, it’s like snap-shot photos. Like pictures of maggots on tongues, babies with their heads on the ground, men with their heads halfway off and their eyes wide open and mouths wide open. I see it every day, every single day. The smells and the torsos burning, the entire route up to Baghdad, from 20 March to 7 April, nothing but burned bodies.”
Specialist Bryan Barnhart, 21, joined in: “I also got the images like snapshots in my head. There are bodies that we saw when we went back to secure a place we’d taken. The bodies were still there and they’d been baking in the sun. Their bodies were bloated three times the size.”
Sgt Quinones explained: “There are psychiatrists who are trying to sort out their problems but they say it’s because of long combat environment. They know we need to be taken away from that environment.” But the group’s tour of duty has been extended and the men have been forced to remain as peacekeepers. Cpl Richardson said: “Now we’re in this peacekeeping, we’re always firing off a warning shot at people that don’t wanna listen to you. You make up the rules as you go along.
“Like, in Fallujah we get rocks thrown at us by kids. You wanna turn round and shoot one of the little f*****s but you know you can’t do that. Their parents know if they came out and threw rocks we’d shoot them. So that’s why they send the kids out.” Sgt Meadows said: “Can you imagine being a soldier and being told ‘you’re fighting a war, then when you finish you can go home’.
“You go and fight that war, and you win decisively, but now you have to stay and stabilise the situation. We are having to go from a full warfighting mindset to a peacekeeping mindset overnight. Right after shooting at people who were trying to kill you, you now have to help them.”
The anger towards their own senior officers is obvious. Cpl Richardson said: “We weren’t trained for this stuff now. It makes you resentful they’re holding us on here. It pisses everyone off, we were told once the war was over we’d leave when our replacements get here. Well, our replacements got here and we’re still here.”
Specialist Castillo said: “We’re more angry at the generals who are making these decisions and who never hit the ground, and who don’t get shot at or have to look at the bloody bodies and the burnt-out bodies, and the dead babies and all that kinda stuff.” Sgt Quinones added: “Most of these soldiers are in their early twenties and late teens. They’ve seen, in less than a month, more than any man should see in a whole lifetime. It’s time for us to go home.”
On whether the war was one worth fighting, Sgt Meadows said: “I don’t care about Iraq one way or the other. I couldn’t care less. [Saddam] could still be in power and, to me, it wasn’t worth leaving my family for; for getting shot at and almost dying two or three times, there’s nothing worth that to me.” Even though no Iraqis were involved, and there is no proof Saddam was behind it, the attack on the World Trade Center provides Cpl Richardson and many others with the justification for invading Iraq.
“There’s a picture of the World Trade Center hanging up by my bed and I keep one in my Kevlar [flak jacket]. Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think, ‘They hit us at home and, now, it’s our turn.’ I don’t want to say payback but, you know, it’s pretty much payback.”