Revolution #126, April 13, 2008

Testimony from Veterans

Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan

March 13-16, Winter Soldier Investigation: Iraq and Afghanistan was held in Washington D.C.  At these hearings, organized by the Iraq Veterans Against the War, almost 50 American veterans testified about what they had done to the people and land of Iraq and Afghanistan. The audience, about 350 people at any time, were mostly American veterans, military families, and parents whose children were killed in the war.
The four-day event brought together veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan—and present video and photographic evidence.  In addition, panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and other specialists gave context to the testimony.  These panels covered everything from the history of the GI resistance movement to the fight for veterans’ health benefits and support.
The following excerpts are from the testimony of two veterans who spoke at the second panel on “Rules of Engagement.” Readers can listen to testimony at

Jason Lemieux
My name is Jason Wayne Lemieux and I’m a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. I served four years and ten months in the United States Marine  Corps infantry and was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant. During my time in the Marine Corps, I served three deployments to Iraq including the invasion, and in case any inquiring minds want to know, I served four years and ten months because I voluntarily extended my enlistment contract by ten months to redeploy with my unit for the third tour.

My first tour started in January 2003 and ended in September of that year. My second tour was from February to September of 2004, and my last tour was from September of 2005 to March 30, 2006.

Proper rules of engagement serve an important strategic purpose, which is to legitimize military force. By projecting an image of restraint and professionalism, militaries seek to reinforce the idea that they’re protecting local residents rather than oppressing them. Not only do these rules undermine support for any local opposition, they also deflect accusations of occupation and oppression from foreign countries and, in some cases, the people of the country the military is supposedly serving....

During the invasion of Iraq, during the push north to Baghdad, the rules of engagement given to me were gradually reduced to the point of non-existence. Similar to the cases that you’ve already heard. When we first crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border at Azubad in March 2003, we were operating under Geneva Convention guidelines and were authorized to shoot anyone wearing a military uniform except for medical and religious personnel, unless they had surrendered.

By the time we got to Baghdad, however, I was explicitly told by my chain of command that I could shoot anyone who came closer to me than I felt comfortable with if that person did not immediately move when I ordered them to do so, keeping in mind I don’t speak Arabic. The general attitude that I got from my chain of command was “better them than us,” and the guidance that we were given reinforced that attitude across the ranks. It was an attitude that I watched intensify greatly throughout the course of my three tours. I remember in January of 2004 attending the formation where we were given what was going to be our mission for the second deployment. And I was sitting there, like a good Marine, with my pen and paper ready to write down those carefully chosen, thoughtful words that would justify my existence in Iraq for the next seven months, and my commander told me that our mission was, and I quote, “to kill those who need to be killed and save those who need to be saved,” and that was it. And with those words he pretty much set the tone for the deployment.

At the start of that second deployment, our standing rules of engagement were that someone had to be displaying hostile intent and committing a hostile act before deadly force could be used. I won’t get into the absurdity of asking one to discern what is going on in the mind of another individual except to say that it was the individual Marine’s job to determine what is hostile intent and a hostile action.

However, during the April offensive of 2004 in which attacks erupted all over Anbar province, my unit was involved in a two-day firefight. Shortly after the firefight was under way, the same commander who had given us the mission issued an order that everyone wearing a black distasha [long garment] and a red headscarf was automatically displaying hostile intent and a hostile action, and was to be shot.

An hour or two later he gave another order, this time that everyone on the streets was considered an enemy combatant.

I can remember one instance, after the order was given that afternoon, when we came around a corner and an unarmed Iraqi man stepped out of a doorway. I remember the Marine directly in front of me raising his rifle and aiming at the unarmed man; and then I think, just for some psychological reason, my brain blocked out the actual shots, because the next thing I remember is stepping over the dead man’s body to clear the room that he came out of. I remember that it was a storage room and it was full of some Arabic brand of cheesy puffs, like Cheetos. There weren’t any weapons in the area except for ours.

The commander told us a couple of weeks later that “over 100 enemy” had been killed, and to the best of my knowledge that number includes all of the people who were shot for simply walking down the street in their own city. After the firefight was over, the standing rules of engagement for my unit were changed so that Marines didn’t need to identify a hostile action anymore in order to use deadly force. They just had to identify hostile intent.

The rules also explicitly stated that carrying a shovel, standing on a rooftop while speaking on a cell phone, or holding binoculars, or being out after curfew were automatically considered hostile intent and we were authorized to use deadly force, and I can only guess how many innocent people died during my tour because of those orders.

On my third tour, the rules of engagement were stricter, but they really only existed so that the command could say there were rules of engagement that were being followed. In reality, my officers explicitly told me and my fellow Marines that if we felt threatened by an Iraqi’s presence, we should just shoot them and the officers would “take care of us.”

By this time, many of the Marines who were on their second or third tour had suffered such serious psychological trauma, having watched friends die and lose limbs, that because of these experiences, they were moved to shoot people who, in my opinion, were clearly non-combatants.

There was one incident when a roadside bomb exploded and a few minutes later I watched a Marine start shooting at cars that were driving down the street hundreds of meters away and in the opposite direction from where the IED had exploded. We were too far away to identify who was in the cars and they didn’t pose any threat to us and, for all I could tell, as I was standing about 20 meters away from the Marine and about 300 meters from the cars, they were just passing motorists. It was long enough after and far enough away from the explosion that the people in the cars might not have even known that anything was going on or that anything had even happened, but the Marine was shooting at them anyway.

This Marine had had his best friend get killed on our last deployment, and had also related to me a story about the two-day firefight that I had mentioned earlier, when he watched the commander, who had given us the order to shoot anyone on the street, shoot two old ladies that were walking and carrying vegetables. He said that the commander had told him to shoot the women and when he refused because they were carrying vegetables, the commander shot them. So when this Marine started shooting at people in cars that nobody else felt were threatening, he was only following the example that his commander had already set...

Jason Washburn
My name is Jason Washburn. I was a corporal in the United States Marine Corps in which I served four years. I did three tours in Iraq. My first two tours were with the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, Charlie Company, and my third tour was with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Weapon Company. I was in the initial invasion and, eventually after the invasion was done, we settled down in Ohillah; this was in ’03. From ’04 to ’05 I was in Najaf, and from ’05 to ’06 I was in Haditha.

During the course of my three tours, the rules of engagement changed a lot. It seemed like every time we turned around we had different rules of engagement, and they told us the reasons they were changing them was because it depended on the climate of the area at the time, what the threat level was deemed to be, and the higher the threat level was, the more viciously we were permitted and expected to respond. And for example during the invasion, we were told to use target identification before engaging with anyone, but if the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat, if the unit that went through the area before we did took a high number of casualties, we were basically allowed to shoot whatever we wanted—it was deemed to be a free-fire zone. We would roll through the town and anything we saw, everything that we saw, we engaged it and opened fire on everything.

There was really no rule governing the amount of force we were allowed to use on targets during the invasion. I remember one woman was walking by, and she was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading towards us, so we lit her up with a Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled we realized that the bag was only full of groceries.  She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces for it.

After the invasion ended and Bush declared “mission accomplished,” the rules changed pretty drastically. Instead of actually firing, we used a lot of close combat, just hand-to-hand type stuff, just simple hand-to-hand violence to subdue people.

There were a lot of times where we would be out on foot patrols and we were ordered to not allow people to pass through our patrol formation. And unsuspecting villagers would try to pass through or cut through the formation. We would butt stroke them, jab them with a muzzle, you know, kick them or whatever, just get them out of the formation. One time there was a guy on a bicycle with a basket full of groceries, and he tried to just roll through, and we clothes-lined him, and we smashed up his bicycle. For what? Passing through the formation. But this is what we were expected to do.

In another instance we were ordered to guard a fuel station. At the end of the day, nothing had happened and we had mounted up into our trucks; and right when we were about to take off, a bunch of people—Iraqi people—rushed to the fuel pumps to try to take some fuel, and our squad leader called it in and the response over the radio was, “What do you think we want you to do? Go f… them up.” Obviously in more colorful language. So we jumped off the trucks and charged at the Iraqis and we really beat the hell out of them with rifles, fists, feet, and everything else that we had available. So once they had either fled or were broken and bleeding unconscious on the ground, we mounted back up on our trucks and left. We were never told to detain anyone there or question anyone, just mess them up, you know.

Most of the innocents that I actually saw get killed were behind the wheel of a vehicle, usually a taxi driver. I’ve been present for almost a dozen of those types of people that got killed, just driving. Through my third deployment, there was a rule in place where all Iraqi traffic had to pull off of the road to let military convoys pass by. If they didn’t comply or somebody got back on the road too early, they would get shot up. If they approached a checkpoint too fast or too recklessly, they would get shot up. Also we were often told to be on the lookout for vehicle-borne IEDs, improvised explosive devices, matching the description of every taxi in Iraq, you know, “Be on the lookout for a car that has orange panel doors and a front that’s white or vice versa.” And it’s like every taxi in Iraq, that’s exactly what it looks like. And those are the cars we’re supposed to be looking out for that could be VB IEDs. So quite a few of those guys got shot up just because their car looked like what we were told to look out for.

In another instance it was actually a mayor of a town in our AO [area of operation] near Haditha that got shot. Our command showed us pictures from the incident; they had gathered the whole company together and they were showing pictures of all of this, what everything looked like, and pointed out that the reason that they did this was because there was a “really nice tight shot group” in the windshield, and he announced to the company that “this is what good Marine shooting looks like.” And that was the mayor of the town. It was actually my squad that was, after that, tasked with going to apologize to the family and pay reparations, but it was kind of like basically all we did was go there and give them some money and then leave. You know, “oh well,” is the way it seemed they wanted us to apologize to them. It was really a joke.

Something else we were actually encouraged to do, almost with a wink and a nudge, was to carry “drop weapons,” or by my third tour, “drop shovels.” What that basically is, we would carry these weapons or shovels with us because in case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body and make it look like they were an insurgent, or, like my friend here was saying, we were told by my third tour that if they were carrying a shovel or a heavy bag, if they were digging anywhere, especially near roads, that we could shoot them. So we actually carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles in case we accidentally shot an innocent civilian, we could just toss it on them and be like “well he was digging, I was within the rules of engagement.” This was commonly encouraged, but only behind closed doors; it wasn’t obviously a public announcement that they would make. But it was pretty common.

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