During 12 years in the US Marines, including three years putting new recruits through boot camp, Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey hardly questioned his role. But what he saw in Iraq changed that.
"In a month and a half my platoon and I killed more than 30 civilians," Massey said. He saw bodies being desecrated and robbed, and wounded civilians being dumped by the roadside without medical treatment. After he told his commanding officer that he felt "we were committing genocide," he was called a "wimp."
Massey, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and depression, left the Marines in November. Back home in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, he says the cause of the uprising in Iraq is that "we killed a lot of innocent people."
His 7th Marine Weapons Company, armed with machine guns and missiles, was one of the first into the country in March last year. "We would take over villages and control checkpoints," he said. "My men and I would fire warning shots at oncoming vehicles. But, if they didn't stop, we didn't have any qualms about loading them up."
The Marines were told that Iraqis were filling ambulances with explosives and that soldiers were dressed as civilians, but after pouring fire into vehicles and hearing no explosions, they started to doubt the truth of these claims.
"Iraqi military compounds had nothing in them except for dismantled tanks, equipment that was barely functioning and barracks that looked like ghost towns," Massey said.
The incident that haunts him most took place early in April, near an Iraqi military compound five miles from Baghdad's airport. "There were approximately 10 demonstrators near a tank," he said. "We heard a shot in the distance and we started shooting at them. They all died except for one. We left the bodies there.
"We noticed that there were some RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] about 200 meters away from them -- they might have come from the military compound. The demonstrators had the ability to fire at us or at the tank, but they didn't. The survivor was hiding behind a column about 150 meters away from us. I pointed at him and waved my weapon to tell him to get away. Half of his foot had been cut off. He went away dragging his foot. We were all laughing and cheering.
"Then an 18-wheeler [truck] came speeding around. We shot at it. One of the guys jumped out. He was on fire. The driver was dead. Then a Toyota Corolla came. We killed the driver, the other guy came out with his hands up. We shot him too.
"A gunny from Lima Company came running and said to us, 'Hey, you just shot that guy, but he had his hands up.' My unit, my commander and me were relieved of our command for the rest of the day. Not more than five minutes later, the Lima Company took up our position and shot a car with one woman and two children. They all died."
The next day the platoon guarded a checkpoint at Baghdad Stadium. "A red Kia Spectra sped toward us at about 45 mph. We fired a warning volley above it but the car kept coming. Then we aimed at the car and fired with full force. The Kia came to a stop right in front of me, three of the four men shot dead, the fourth wounded and covered in blood. We called the medics, but he died before they arrived. That day we killed three more civilians in the same circumstances. I talked to my captain afterwards and told him, 'It's a bad day.' He said, 'No, it's a good day.'"
Massey watched as badly injured Iraqis were repeatedly "tossed on the side of the road without calling medics." His reaction to the event that triggered the recent siege of Fallujah -- the sight of the blackened, mutilated bodies of four American private security men -- was that "we did the same thing to them".
Iraqis, he said, "would see us debase their dead all the time. We would be messing around with charred bodies, kicking them out of the vehicles and sticking cigarettes in their mouths. I also saw vehicles drive over them. It was our job to look into the pockets of dead Iraqis to gather intelligence. However, time and time again, I saw Marines steal gold chains, watches and wallets full of money."
Several members of his platoon expressed concern that so many civilians were being killed, but Massey says he told them, "We've got a job to do." Finally, however, he voiced his own doubts to his commanding officer. "I told him I felt like we were committing genocide in Iraq, that we were doing harm to a culture. He said nothing and walked away. I knew my career was over." Later, he says, his superior poured abuse on him, saying, "You're a poor leader. You're faking it. You're a conscientious objector, you're a wimp."
After being sent back to the US, Massey was offered a desk job. "I had seven years until retirement from the Marine Corps, but I told them I didn't want their money anymore," he said. The Marines' slogan -- "No better friend, no worse enemy" -- now embitters the former sergeant, who says remorse keeps him awake at night.
"One day we would go into a city and set up roadblocks where civilian casualties would take place, and then the next morning we would undertake a humanitarian mission," he said. "How do we expect people who've seen their brothers and mothers killed to turn around and welcome us with open arms?"
Natasha Saulnier is a writer based in New York City. Email Neljouan@aol.com. This originally appeared in the London Independent on Sunday.
Civilian casualties in Iraq are a big national taboo. The issue reopens the throbbing wounds of the Vietnam syndrome and forces a nation that partly legitimizes its foreign adventures on its quintessential innocence (or "divine nature," one should say nowadays) to shake off its deliberate amnesia and to look at itself though the not-so-indulgent eyes of other countries.
As I was writing a piece on the increased desensitization of the marines in the antiterrorist campaign, I came across former Marine Jimmy Massey who had returned from Iraq and was trying to speak out on the atrocities committed by his platoon in Iraq (his platoon killed approximately 17 civilians in two days). The marine's testimony was pretty strong as it was corroborated by other marines from different units (they wanted to remain anonymous, though) and subsequently by some members of his platoon. The story was published in the French press in early April and quickly translated into English by the Iraqi-American protest singer Stephan Smith.
I then set off to contact the mainstream American press (Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun ) thinking that they would be all too happy to print such a compelling story. Their reactions were confounding. All of them were extremely courteous and receptive. Most of them praised the article (the Washington Post said it was "great"). Yet, none of them would touch it.
One newspaper asked me if I could find some surviving victims to back up my story (don't you wish newspapers had been that cautious on the issue of the weapons of mass destruction?). Another one claimed that the indiscriminate shooting was part of the fog of war and should not be seen as "atrocities" (even if that were true, shouldn't we also take into account the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were even found in this "preventive" war?). A third one told me that their policy prevented them from publishing outside contributions for such sensitive issues (even though they were provided with all the contact numbers to do the fact checking). One newspaper went so far as to propose a new angle, that of the body desecration, claiming that Americans were "not ready" yet for the killing of civilians.
At the end, only a British newspaper, the Independent on Sunday, ran my story. I suppose Americans are now "ready" because Jimmy Massey is finally part of the national conversation regarding the abuses in Iraq.
After the publication of an interview by Paul Rockwell in the Sacramento Bee (in a less risky Q&A format), the former staff sergeant has been interviewed by CNN (which killed the story); Air America Radio; NPR (which declined to air journalist Reese Erlich's piece); AP; UPI (which killed the story); Democracy Now!; the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., newspaper; the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times; GQ Magazine; etc. as well as multiple radio networks such as the BBC Radio and the German public TV. He's currently doing his utmost to respond to an avalanche of requests and mails.
One cannot help wondering, however, how long it would have taken for Americans to be "ready" if 60 Minutes hadn't released the abominable pictures of Abu Ghraib prison. It proves that the climate is rapidly changing and that (guilt-riddled?) American media are overcoming their fears, and that's good news. It took almost two months, however.
This originally appeared at newsdissector.org.