Monday, 18 March 2013

Tale of a Whistleblower A Different Kind of War Hero

I conducted the following interview with the most famous American veteran of the Iraq War, Private First Class Justin Watt. Watt came to public attention in 2006 for revealing the gang-rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi girl by US soldiers, in what is now known as the Mahmudiyah Killings. The event, which is too lengthy to describe (see Wikipedia: Mahmudiyah killings) showed the upmost humanity and courage from Watt in unimaginably dangerous and tense circumstances; and in 2007, it was adapted into a major Hollywood motion picture by Brian De Palma (the director of Scarface) called ‘Redacted’.

What made you want to volunteer in the army? Was it mainly a feeling of wanting to defend your country after 9/11, or were you vested in the President Bush’s claims in the build-up to the War in Iraq?
It was a number of things - mainly the 9/11 attacks. It’s a strange story - believe it or not, I had planned on enlisting well before 9/11. I had always had great respect for soldiers, as my father was a veteran of the army post Vietnam. I was always amazed with his unbreakable will, his tenacity and his toughness. I admired it so much that I wanted to cultivate the same qualities in myself. I had planned on joining the navy to become a SEAL; there was a program where you could enlist with a friend, and go through SEAL training together. Two weeks prior to shipping after I had turned 18, my friend bailed on me, and the computer specialist job on the SEAL teams no longer existed. I dropped out of the program and my ambitions for military service were put on the back burner for years. After 9/11 I was cleaning my room. My girlfriend had broken up with me recently, and I was throwing away all of our pictures etc. I went into my desk drawer, and found my DEP ID card (for allowing me on military bases to train etc.) - and I noticed the ship date. 9/11 - 2001. I felt like somebody was in my place. I felt like I had let my country down. I enlisted, and 12 days later I was in basic training in the army. My job was infantry, with the 101st airborne (air assault). I wanted to do something significant. I wanted to fight on the front lines. I wanted to help people. I wanted to defend my country, and help the Iraqi people get rid of what we thought was a horrible dictator.
What years were you deployed into combat? What were your objectives?
I was deployed from 05-06 with the 101st. I knew I wasn’t fighting a conventional army right away. It was as I expected. My objectives were to disrupt and destroy anti Iraqi and anti-American forces in the region of the Sunni Triangle.
What happened to you in Mahmudiyah, with the other marines; how did you come to the knowledge they had raped and murdered Abeer Qassim Hamza along with her entire family? What triggered you to want to tell the authorities when you found out, and how did you cope in Iraq for the remainder of your tour knowing if they found out you were planning on telling the authorities, you would have been murdered?
There were death threats against me in theatre - and yes, I would have been killed had they not moved me into a different unit and had the offenders arrested, once one of them confessed. I was sitting in the tent with my team leader, Sergeant. Yribe. Earlier in the day, Al-Qaeda forces had overrun one of our undermanned checkpoints and abducted two soldiers, and were in the process of torturing them to death. At that point we were two of maybe 14 guys of the starting 30 we deployed with who were not dead/maimed/evacuated out of the country. We were alone in a tent, and just talking about how messed up this deployment was. How it was so unbelievable they would send us to cover such a huge and combat heavy AO without more soldiers. We were just trying to cope. He then said to me - ‘you know what else is messed up? You remember that family that got murdered back in March?’ I didn’t remember at first, we found tons of dead families and people on a day to day basis from sectarian violence. He told me about the family that had the girl that got burned, and the little girl that got murdered. She was about 4. I remembered after he filled me in on the details. He said, ‘That was us man, that was Green’ - referring to PFC. Steven Green. I couldn’t believe it - I was appalled. In one sentence he had totally dismantled every sliver of honour we had in that deployment. Every good thing we did - every hospital we built, every school we protected. We guarded the first ever democratic election in Iraq. All of those accomplishments were now meaningless - and more importantly, the men we had lost were now dishonoured. I felt betrayed, disgusted, ashamed....and even more so - I was angry. I said we had to turn him in. He told me no - that God would judge them. It wasn’t our job. I didn’t accept that. I knew nobody would ever find out about it if we did nothing. He told me not to tell anybody and he went to sleep. I laid there, trying my best to piece together what I heard - trying to figure out how it was physically possible. From a tactical perspective, I knew after thinking about it - that it was impossible for a single man. No way could a single soldier sneak outside of a checkpoint without being caught by our own guards, hump 200m through shit terrain and canals - break into a family’s house and pull security on a family while conducting a rape - then murdering them with an AK47 and a shotgun - and at the same time have the checkpoint not hear a single shot. I knew that there were more people involved. I knew that it took more people to commit the crime, and I knew it took more people to cover it up. I referenced my log book I kept of all the sig-acts that happened on a day to day basis. I found out who was at the checkpoint that day, and I decided to confirm my suspicions. Coincidentally, I ran into two other soldiers from my platoon up at the base we were at. I pretended I knew more than I did  because I knew they were there at the checkpoint the day the family was murdered. I knew they had a part in covering it up. I pretended I knew what had happened - that somebody else had told me. He believed me and confirmed all the details for me. I did it under the pretence that Yribe used. I started the conversation by talking about how messed up it was: our boys were missing, being tortured to death, and to top it all off I had just found out that that happened. He told me everything. After I knew my suspicions were correct, and had information from a man who was there and confessed to me directly that he took part in the cover-up,  I knew I had to turn them in. How? That was the question. I decided the best course of action was to alert a group outside my chain of command and let them tackle it from the outside. They could plan an extraction for me, to get me out of the area before they arrested the people involved.

Like all things in the army - this didn’t work out. The guy I trusted with my life to be covert and notify the authorities went to the Commander. He decided that he was going to conduct his own investigation. In the process, he let everybody know that it was me who accused them of the crimes, and tried to leave me out there with them at a checkpoint in the middle of the Sunni triangle. Lucky for me , one of my friends saved my life and broke ranks and forced the Commander to take me out of there. His name is John Diem - and he is a fucking hero. He saved my life that day. I was extracted and brought for questioning by CID to fob Mahmudiyah. I was kept in confinement for 3 days being interrogated. They thought I was lying, trying to get out of the army. I stuck to my guns, and didn’t budge. I was terrified though - by this time I had realised there was no evidence. There was just my word against theirs. They threatened me with charges - false official sworn statement, perjury etc. They wanted to dishonourably discharge me and put me in jail. I was destroyed. It was hopeless. Because of the commander decision to blow the whole thing up and let everybody know what was happening, all the criminals had time to get their stories straight. It was my word against 5 people.

On the day we did the funerals (we didn’t have the bodies recovered yet, but Al-Qaeda had released videos of them being tortured/killed - so we knew they were dead) for Tucker, Menchaca and Babs, Howard, one of the criminals who covered it up broke during interrogation. He confessed that while he had no part in it, he was there and covered it up for the criminals, Cortez, Barker, Speilman and Green. He also told them that Yribe had covered it up as well.

Yribe copped a plea deal right away for immunity. With their testimony, the story broke and everybody knew I was telling the truth. I would have died, for sure. Murdered by my own men - had it not been for John Diem saving my life, forcing the Commander to pull me off the line at that checkpoint and bring me up to the base he was at.

I would have died if it wasn’t for the CID agent who broke Howard during interrogation. But he did - he broke him, and then everybody knew I was telling the truth. The only part left was owning it to the world. His name was Ryan Lenz. To this day he has protected his source who I think I know; I believe the source knew I was a good soldier - I had many friends die, I had gotten blown up, shot at, and picked up pieces of my friends and never quit once. I never asked for a break. I never felt sorry for myself. The source knew I wouldn’t lie - and knew that I wouldn’t try a stunt like this to get out of the army. I think that when the source found out that they were trying to charge me with crimes they leaked the story to the reporter to keep me safe. 
How did Americans react when you returned, knowing you had brought other American Soldiers under the weight of the law? The soldiers who broke the My Lai Massacre were called traitors and denigrated, were you treated the same?
Some people called me a traitor, I got some death threats - and many thought I was a hero. My friends all turned on me because I got a lot of attention from the media, and I was the only one who looked good. And all of them were branded as disgraceful soldiers, even though 99% of them have served honourably and never did anything wrong. It was hard. It was the hardest time of my life. Soldiers have a code of honour. The army is the most trusted group in our country - proven by studies that have been done. We are not perfect - but our creed demands that when things go wrong, we own them. In this case, to the world. Most Americans supported me, they don’t want their soldiers murdering innocents. Most soldiers support me now. My story is taught at West Point.
Are you satisfied with the sentences given? And how did the trial and media coverage change your life?
I have no opinions of the sentences. It is not my job to determine what the army or civilians deem fit for punishment. I believe in our system - and the system did what the system did. As far as the media coverage goes - nobody has any idea who I am except you (he laughs). I’m not exactly a big deal. I rent a house in Salt Lake City. I work a job. I have a girlfriend - I live a normal life. I worry about bills etc. just like the rest of the world.
Because of the poignancy of the Mahmudiyah killings and Brian Depalma, you’re the most famous American veteran of Iraq. Did you know Redacted was in production? If so, did anyone come to you for advice on how the film should look or on the script, for it to be accurate?
If I was in a room with Hitler, UBL (Osama Bin Laden) and De Palma, and I had a gun with 3 bullets, I would shoot Brian De Palma 3 times. His film is an abomination. He never asked for facts - he took a horrible event, twisted it around to suit his ends, profited from it - and gave me and a lot of other people a bad name. Fuck Brian De Palma - it’s not accurate at all, and he should be tried for what he did. I would never actually hurt him - but I wish I fucking could.
In America, 9/11 is commemorated as the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon when 3,000 people were murdered in cold blood. In Chile, 9/11 is commemorated as the anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet ascending to power in a military coup d’├ętat in 1973, with crucial help from the CIA and US government. He went on to murder thousands and torture tens of thousands. Do you think Americans’ lack of knowledge of their government’s actions and their own history makes it easier to subvert them into supporting every action abroad?
Without question most people are clueless about domestic policies and how it affects people, let alone foreign policy. That is not some uniquely American problem though - that is EVERYWHERE. There are plenty of intellectual pundits as well though, who have absolutely no idea how the real world works outside of books written by other pontificating idiots. Idiots who think that we are some elevated species who when left to our own devices aren’t total savages. If we were all more towards the middle of the spectrum of course things would be better. We responded to a terrorist attack, which is unconventional warfare, in a conventional way. The battlefield today is asymmetric. One man with a bomb and an idea is an insurgency. You can’t respond to that with conventional means. Of course ignorance plays a part in making it possible for horrible policy to come to fruition, but so does fear.
 Looking back at how America responded in the ten years that followed 9/11 - and specifically the invasion of Iraq – would you have wanted the administration to handle things differently? (I.e. Invading two countries, killing US civilians without due process using drones, passing the NDAA[2] and Patriot Act[3], opening Guantanamo Bay[4], torturing detainees etc.)
It’s hard, Aqib. I don’t know what to say. I didn’t understand so many things. To be honest, I thought I would understand the war after going. All I can say is that after coming home, after getting out - I am more confused than ever about every facet of what has happened. NDAA is terrible. Drone striking American citizens without due process is terrible. Rendition, extraordinary or otherwise is a terrible and scary thing. I guess all I can say is this - after it came out that the invasion of Iraq was essentially unjustified - what would have been the correct thing to do? After destroying the government, the military and disbanding the police - what would have been the best thing to do? We had achieved conventional military victory in roughly 40 days. Should we have just up and left? There were tribes of Sunnis destroying water treatment facilities and cutting off water to Shiites. There were factions just outright murdering each other in the streets. Then there were the Al-Qaeda operatives. They were using the poor via bribery, and themselves to conduct attacks against us, while we were trying to attack them but help everybody else. I'm sure there are myriad other outcomes that would have been more favourable, but none of them would have been able to make right the wrongs that had been done. The horrible things that have happened, not only the expense of human life, but also freedom - both here and abroad for innocent law abiding citizens - Iraqi, Afghani, American, British etc. - it’s a horrible mess. Only time will be able to tell if the world will be able to make this right. As a wise man once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I don’t think the US military at any point EVER thought they were there to hurt innocent people. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I know I didn’t have a single bone in my body that wanted anything but the best for innocent Iraqi people. It’s horrible how things turned out.
From overwhelming international sympathy immediately after 9/11, the United States’ standing in the world today - due to the response to 9/11 by jumping into Iraq- is at an all-time low. As a result of this, have you encountered anti-American hostility abroad? How did you feel about it?
Yeah, I experienced some anti-American hate in South Korea once, in Mexico once etc. It is what it is. Ignorant people are always going to be around. It’s like people who blindly hate soldiers and cops or think we are all war criminals or horrible weak minded people, or even bullies. People stereotype all the time and make brash judgments about huge groups or sects of people. It’s sad. Look at how people view Muslims now as an example.
A lot of the culture of any war that surrounds the reality is the gravity of a soldier’s first kill. Can you remember the first person you killed? Did you hesitate? Along with that, for the average person, where war is what they see on the 6 o’clock news comfortably from their sofa on in the theatre, was the fighting similar to how it’s made out in Hollywood?
It was more intense. Having somebody try and take your life is more intimate than the strongest love you have ever felt. More intimate and intense than the strongest fear - or even joy. It’s the most intimate and intense thing in the world. I do remember the first person I killed - he was trying to kill me - and no, I did not hesitate. He was about my age. 22-23 years old. People don’t die how they do in movies. It’s not a quick shot to the chest and they drop. Unless you hit somebody in a small horizontal rectangle overlapping both eyes, about 2 inches in height, they will not die right away. (Brain stem shots essentially.) We don’t train for head shots either. It is too hard to hit, and unreliable. When you are experiencing an adrenal dump because you are in a life or death scenario, or what we call a body alarm response (fight or flight) your gross and fine motor function go out the window, Your sense of time is altered. You get tunnel vision. Your breathing becomes erratic - and you might be capable of only 50 per cent of what you are during training. I shot him centre mass until he dropped - probably 12 to 15 times in about 2 - 2.5 seconds, then moved on once he dropped and continued to engage the other insurgents once he was no longer a threat. Hesitation will get you killed. He was still alive when we did our SSE (Sensitive site exploitation). This is once we have cleared an objective, and we are looking for Intel, identification, weapons, money, documents etc. After we cleared the objective and established security, it was our duty to provide medical aid to the wounded enemy forces and our own. The one I am talking about, my first kill, was still alive. I will never forget the way he looked. He was surprised - sobbing a bit in disbelief. I think he thought his god was going to protect him. He must have thought his god was going to save him, and destroy me instead. This is why I know there is no god now - and I think all religion is a disease upon the world. I also realized at this moment - that there are no good guys and bad guys. It occurred to me, and this may sound naive, but nobody wakes up and thinks they are the bad guy. That man who died, fighting against me that day, woke up committed. He woke up committed to the fight, thinking he was the righteous one. That he was fighting against evil. I woke up that morning thinking the same thing. I used to kill with anger in my heart. I used to take it personally. After that day it all changed. The scariest thing in the dark is us. Him, me - it’s all the same. I was his nightmare; he was mine - both evil in each other’s eyes. Both of us thinking that our side was right, and that god would save us and smite the other. I know now there are no evil factions in the world. Everyone is justified in their own mind. Perception really is the only truth, and violence really is the only authority - at least the root of all authority.

There is no dignity in a violent death, Aqib. You don’t get to tell your wife you love her. You don’t get to say goodbye to your children. There is no music, or slow motion camera pan. You die on a dirty floor, a million miles away from home, bleeding all over yourself - suffocating on your own blood - until you pass out from low blood pressure. He expired when we were trying to save him. I do not know his name.

A professional will always try hard to save his enemy. Intelligence that can be gathered is crucial. Alive enemy are always better than dead. There is also honour in it. We always tried hard to save the enemy we captured. 
There’s no beating around the bush, the trauma amongst returning soldiers is fuelling a pandemic. Latest figures suggest 6,500 US veterans are committing suicide yearly. With your experience as a soldier, what factors contribute to suicidal thoughts? If you had any, what helped you get through yours?
You lose everything in some cases. You are a million miles away - maybe your wife cheats on you and leaves you - takes your kids etc. Maybe you lost all your friends. Maybe you can’t make sense of your life anymore. Why did you live and your buddy died? Can you imagine the pressure of having to live a life that would honour those people? Maybe you get PTSD, you can’t sleep, you get angry all the time, you alienate people. Maybe you can’t relate to this world anymore. People are so disconnected with national events and specifically violence - that when you get back after doing my job - you often feel like a fish out of water. People don’t know what it’s like over there. People have no idea. It’s hard coming home man. Sometimes it’s really hard. As far as I go? I was lucky. Genetics maybe. I am pretty mentally tough - but at the same time, I spent a lot of time and energy as a soldier preparing for war. I was ready to die, and I was ready to kill. I never took a shot I didn’t have to; I was never more violent than I had to be. I was kind when I could be - and because of those things - the lack of regrets I guess you can say, I’m OK you know? I also am very introspective. When I knew I had problems, I went to the VA and got care. PTSD is not like cancer. It’s not a death sentence. You can overcome it.
After the previous decade or so the world’s been through, what were your perceptions of Muslims/Arabs before the Iraq War, during your time there and now?
I didn’t have any perceptions of Muslims or Arabs prior to going. Now? I know they are just like me for the most part. Hospitable, friendly etc. Being honest I think that Islam is holding back the development of most of the Arab world, but it’s really not a concern for American life. Islam has its radicals, just as Christianity has its radicals that blow up abortion clinics, or bomb federal buildings. We have our moderates just as they do. I am going to marry a girl from a Muslim family actually. (She is not a practicing Muslim, but they are.) Her family is from Pakistan - so between the deployment, and the relationship, I feel that I have as good a grasp as anybody can here in America of how the culture works. I am significantly more sensitive now to anti-Muslim propaganda than I used to be.
Looking forward, Are you hopeful for America’s future? Has your perception of your country changed?
I’m not always proud of the policies that we put in play, or of our politicians - but I am proud of America and what it stands for - what it was built on. I hope things change - and I do what I can to make sure they do. I speak to soldiers every month on behalf of the army and talk about moral decision making. I talk about my experiences and try to make our ARMY and our country better. I take time to answer questions like these, and give people a positive perception of Americans/soldiers. I think America is founded on intrinsically good principles - and we need to get back to that before we start working on everybody else’s business. Justin Watt now lives a calmer and more peaceful life in Utah with his girlfriend, whom he intends to marry.
Terms explained:

[1] The Sunni Triangle (not to be confused with the ‘Triangle of Death’, a separate entity, 90km to the south of Baghdad) is an area defined by its high population of Sunni Arabs (as opposed to Shi’ites in the south east of Iraq and Kurds in the north) located roughly between the cities of Baghdad, Tikrit and Ramadi, and also contains within it the cities of Samarra and Fallujah. These cities were subject to the most intense fighting of the Iraq War, with almost 100 Coalition fatalities in just one month of fighting in Fallujah, and over 1,400 killed in Baghdad alone. The close proximity of the cities, high casualty rates for Coalition soldiers, resistance fighters and civilians, earned the Triangle the title of the ‘most dangerous place on Earth’.

[2] The NDAA passed by President Obama gives the federal government the power of ‘indefinite detention without charge or trial’ of any civilian suspected of terrorism or plotting against the United States, effectively dismantling the core of western civilisation going back to the Magna Carta.

[3] The PATRIOT ACT gives US law enforcement agencies unprecedented powers to search, and wiretap, an individual’s phone and allocate their financial transactions without them being notified.

[4] Guantanamo Bay, see ‘Gulag’. 

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