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Week of 6.30.06

Toxic Transport

Murder Amidst War: Interview with Paul Rieckhoff


Paul-Rieckhoff Paul Rieckhoff served for the U.S. Army National Guard as a First Lieutenant and Infantry Platoon Leader in Iraq. He is the Executive Director and Founder of the non-profit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Rieckhoff is the author of "Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier's Fight for America from Baghdad to Washington."

On Sunday (June 25) U.S. soldiers were charged with killing an unarmed Iraqi near Ramadi in the volatile Anbar Province. Having served in the Iraqi war, can you imagine this happening?

Absolutely, very possible. In fact, given the number of troops that we have in theater, the repeated deployments, the increased violence, I'm surprised we don't hear more stories like that. The fact that there aren't more is a testament to how high a level of proficiency we have in our military. If you had a drafted army like you did after World War II or after Vietnam under this type of stress I think you would have seen more of these types of incidents. It comes down to individual responsibility and on the personal level, there is no excuse for what happened. If this was ultimately a cold blooded murder there are a number of reasons why that person chose to break the law and disregard the law, the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war. If there is a leadership failure in that unit, where a squad leader or a team leader told other people to do something then that is larger, and if there is a cover up it's even larger beyond that.

Recently we've heard of a number of such cases, including the case of Marines in Haditha who are accused of killing 24 people. Is something larger going on in the military?

"My guys used to say that you can tell the bad guys from the good guys because the bad guys shoot at you."
There are policy factors that increase the likelihood of something like this happening. There's an increase in the violent insurgency, you also have Marines there for a third, sometimes fourth, time. What I try to tell people is to imagine if you were at your job for three years with no vacation. You would start to make more mistakes. I think that as we continue to run this military hard, and the people in it hard, you're going to see an increase in the frequency of those mistakes. There going to just start to breakdown ... because these people are exhausted.

What is it about being on the ground in Iraq that makes something like this possibly happen?

They are under a tremendous amount of stress and they are fighting an enemy that is hard to clearly define. They [the military] are increasingly wounded and killed in high numbers. The nature of this battlefield environment is that the civilians and the enemy are mixed together and you can't tell who is who. My guys used to say that you can tell the bad guys from the good guys because the bad guys shoot at you. Sometimes the difference between a security guard and an insurgent is the angle of his weapon. You could have someone standing next to a ministry building for example and think the person is a security guard and then as you drive by he turns his weapon to you and shoots you ...

What is interesting to me is that all of a sudden these stories are coming out and they're not all happening right now, they're just all coming out right now.

Why do you think that is interesting?

I think there are two factors that explain why this is happening now. I think probably there is an increase tightening within the military, they're saying lets get to the bottom of these things, we don't want to let bad news get worse with age. But I think there is also a freeing up of the press. The press has been sitting on some of these stories. We knew about Haditha in December. A Time magazine reporter started calling me last fall about it. So I know people have been sitting on stories.

Do you think that there was some pressure from somewhere to keep this quiet?

To keep it under wraps? Sure. I think the press has fallen asleep at the switch in many ways or has been intimated by the administration in many different ways. Ultimately the administration controls access, which defines pretty much everything. But the biggest thing that bothers me about Haditha is that the president didn't know until March. General Pace [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] didn't know until March. Even it if was alleged he needed to know. That leads me to believe there may have been a cover up, and that is very problematic. Secrets aren't going to stay secrets.

If something happened and people screwed up, we have a responsibility to be honest about it and demand accountability.

"When someone in your unit is killed, in certain situations, you want payback."
There have been reports that the Marines in Haditha were living under disturbing conditions. What do you know about that?

We lived in those types of conditions. We lived in bombed out buildings with no latrines and no running water. It becomes very stressful and you start to feel like your nerves are frayed all the time. It is up to the officers to try to take care of their soldiers. If you're living in squalor for a very long time, then you're not taking care of your guys. We know as soldiers on the ground that killing civilians is counterproductive. We know we are trying to win hearts and minds. This is not something we view as productive. We know that if you kill a little girl or an old lady it will put you in bad standing with that whole neighborhood. Our soldiers demonstrate tremendous restraint. I've seen soldiers take fire on themselves and hold fire because there are civilians around. It's chaos. You don't know where the fire is coming from, especially in an urban environment.

The living conditions, the repeated deployments, the early stage problems with equipment and armor, the lack of interpreters, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of economic and political opportunities to be able to offer the people, all drive up the friction on both sides. When someone in your unit is killed, in certain situations, you want payback.

So that really goes through you mind?

Absolutely. Imagine if you're with your wife or husband and you're sitting in the car and someone blows them away and at the same time there's fire coming at you and you have friends around. It's like an attack on your family. There's this visceral response to fight back and that when the training has to kick in.

What is your main criticism of the administration in terms of the Iraqi war?

There were no weapons of mass destruction, we failed to plan for the insurgency, we disbanded the Iraqi army, we never had enough troops, we didn't have humanitarian and political options on the table. When I was there in Baghdad in 2003 I expected truckloads of blankets, food and medicine to roll in and they didn't. Ultimately in the summer of 2003 the Iraqi people were behind us and did support us and were welcoming but we couldn't deliver on our promises, and we couldn't improve their standard of living. Over time they got more and more frustrated and more and more angry and that's how the insurgency started to develop and that's why it's blossoming today.

And the other thing is the arrogance. The arrogance of the administration, the 'bring it on', the cowboy talk that really doesn't help the situation, that pours gasoline on the fire. Also the failure of this administration to understand the severity of what's happening on the ground ... President Bush has always argued that Iraq will make us safer. I would argue that Iraq will not make us safer because you've sucked so many people into one place that you've left your backdoor wide open. President Bush has said we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here, well what I ask is 'what if we have to do both?'

You said in your book that Iraqi vets are critical for the 2006 elections. What did you mean by that?

There are seven Iraq veterans running for Congress this fall, five Democrats, two Republicans. As a veteran, I know that they understand Iraq. I think they will be the leaders to guide us through a very difficult time. There is not a single member of the Senate or the House that served in Iraq or Afghanistan. You have a very small percentage of people who understand the region, who understand the military, who understand this war. If we have one or two of them in Congress this fall. When you talk about Sunnis or Shias they know what they're talking about. Having credibility on the most important issues is how they will change the dialogue.

When you talked to veterans from the war, what do they say about the current situation in Iraq?

Most people say its worse than the last time they were there. More than half of the last rotation were there for a second time. The security situation has gotten worse by every conceivable security metric.

What does the title of your book Chasing Ghosts refer to?

Fighting the insurgency in Iraq is like chasing ghosts. When you are hit by a roadside bomb or sniper fire, you want to fight back. What I found and my unit found, that when we went to fight back these guys were gone. They would melt back in to the population or they would drop their guns and look like the shopkeeper. Time and time again we would get hit, we'd kick in a door, and no one would be there or the wrong person would be there. One of my Sergeants once said to me 'hey sir it's like chasing ghosts, you fell like they're always slipping through your fingers.' The other meaning is that when I came home I faced a country that didn't understand this war. It's largely detached and still looks at the war through the prism of Vietnam. And we have to make the same arguments that Vietnam vets had to make. We haven't learned our mistakes from Vietnam, so in many ways we are chasing the ghosts of Vietnam as well.