|THE NEW YORKER|
|Published: 07/6/2009 & 07/13/2009|
|The Kill Company|
| Three years ago, at a hastily built command center in the Iraqi desert, near Samarra, a U.S. Army colonel knelt over a dust-caked body bag. Inside were the remains of a man who had just been killed by soldiers in the colonel's brigade, which was engaged in a vast air-assault mission called Operation Iron Triangle. The soldiers had been hunting for militants in nearby villages and crumbling Baathist-era buildings, some of which had been constructed by Saddam Hussein to serve the Al Muthanna chemical-weapons complex-a series of dirt-covered bunkers that rise from the desert like Babylonian temples. After the Gulf War, soldiers working for the United Nations and the U.S. military had sealed the bunkers with concrete. Farmers and herders began occupying the surrounding villages, and after Saddam's overthrow, in 2003, they were joined by Al Qaeda fighters, who came to the remote area to train or hide. The colonel, looking at the corpse, saw that it was that of an old man who had been shot in the chest-he was unshaved but not bearded, and a white dishdasha that clothed his body was blood-soaked. A pair of dentures, loosened from his gums, protruded from his jaw.
The colonel, Michael Dane Steele, was a man of daunting physical stature and reputation. Forty-five years old, with an angular face and cropped graying hair, Steele had grown up on a farm near Athens, Georgia. He played college football as a walk-on offensive lineman, at the University of Georgia, and eventually earned an athletic scholarship there, practicing so relentlessly that his coach named an award for perfect attendance after him. (Nobody has since managed to win it.) Within the Army, he was best known for his actions in Somalia, where, in 1993, he commanded a company of Rangers that engaged in a fifteen-hour gunfight in Mogadishu. When he landed in Iraq, in 2005, Steele was the only brigade commander there to have experienced sustained urban warfare before 9/11. He arrived with a clear sense of purpose: to subdue violence with violence, to hunt down and kill insurgents in a region of roughly ten thousand square miles within Salah ad Din province, which includes the cities of Samarra, Tikrit, and Bayji. Steele had memorized the faces of dozens of high-value targets in the region-Al Qaeda operatives and other militants-and he inspected the bodies of people his soldiers killed, looking for tattoos and other identifying marks. He personified the motto that his brigade, numbering nearly four thousand men, had adopted during the war: "We give the enemy the maximum opportunity to give his life for his country."
Steele asked another officer to photograph the corpse for intelligence purposes. A tag attached to the body bag indicated that the man's name was Jasim Hassan Komar-Abdullah, and that he was seventy years old. Steele walked away. About an hour later, three more body bags arrived by helicopter. These contained the bodies of Akhmed Farhim Hamid al-Jemi-a thin, bearded man wearing a green dishdasha-and two boys, whose tags indicated that they were under sixteen years old. None of them were known militants, either. Their remains had been disfigured by bullet wounds, and engineering tape had been loosely wrapped around their eyes, to blindfold them; around their wrists were severed black plastic zip ties-used by American soldiers to handcuff detainees.
Helicopters were landing nearby, and wind kicked up by their blades caused the unzipped body bags to flap wildly. Using a pocketknife, Steele removed the tape from the face of a corpse, so that it could be properly photographed. A few soldiers, seeing the bodies, sensed that something had gone wrong. Steele's intelligence officer asked, "Why would we shoot somebody, and then put a blindfold on them?" The brigade had been conducting the operation with members of the Iraqi Army, and the officer wondered if there was a ritual significance to the blindfolds. Steele thought for a moment, and said, "They must have had the blindfolds on when they got shot."
By the end of the day, it had become apparent that members of Steele's brigade had fatally shot eight Iraqi men, all of them apparently unarmed, and that they might have killed more had some soldiers not disobeyed a platoon leader's orders to gun down farmers digging in a field and men gathered near a gas station. Like the 2005 massacre at Haditha-when, in a near-spontaneous response to the death of an American soldier, marines killed twenty-four Iraqi civilians-the killings that occurred during Operation Iron Triangle suggested a grave problem within the chain of command. Determining what went wrong has proved exceedingly difficult; the case is still being debated in review boards and appellate courts, and truth has become obscured by rumor and apocrypha. A number of soldiers, among them General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's Vice-Chief of Staff, believe that Steele set the conditions for a massacre by cultivating reckless aggressiveness in his soldiers, and by interpreting the rules of engagement in a way that made the killing of noncombatants likely. Shortly after the operation was completed, Chiarelli issued Steele a severe reprimand, effectively ending his career.
Steele has since entered Army folklore as a cautionary figure-a man who travelled to a murderous place believing, as Conrad's Mr. Kurtz did, that with the "simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded," but ultimately concluding it necessary to "exterminate all the brutes." Thomas Ricks, in his recent book on Iraq, "The Gamble," portrays Steele as a soldier whose actions "directly led to atrocities." At the Army's Command and General Staff College, Steele has been compared to William Calley, the lieutenant who, during the Vietnam War, led the massacre of villagers in My Lai. Yet Steele is not a convicted war criminal, as Calley was, and at least seven retired or active-duty generals who have worked closely with him, or are familiar with his leadership in Iraq, believe that he is an exemplary, misunderstood military leader. A senior officer who served under him told me, "He's the soldier you keep behind the panel-the one that reads, 'Break glass in case of war.' " Major General Michael Oates, who, as the 101st Airborne Division's deputy commander, was one of Steele's immediate supervisors in 2006, wrote to me from Iraq to say that Steele was "one of the very best combat commanders I have seen in three tours over here." Even as top leaders in the Army reprimanded Steele, his immediate superiors praised him for running the best brigade in his division, and the military's Central Command issued his unit an award for combatting terrorism.
Operation Iron Triangle began on May 9, 2006, and lasted for three days, but it emerged from a way of thinking and a set of tactics that were developed more than a year earlier, when Steele first assumed leadership of his brigade. The debate over Steele's leadership touches upon larger questions about the ethics of modern warfare: about the distinction between killing and murder on the battlefield; about the culpability of officers when their soldiers do wrong; about the kind of force that is necessary to fight an insurgency. As General Oates told me, "The story of Colonel Steele and Operation Iron Triangle is about a fundamental difference of opinion about how to prosecute the war in Iraq."
Fort Campbell, an Army base on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee, is home to the 101st Airborne Division, which fought on the beaches at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st includes the only air-assault unit to have fought in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm; the unit's members are known as Rakkasans. (The word, which loosely translates as "falling-down umbrella men," was used by Japanese civilians to describe paratroopers.) William Westmoreland and David Petraeus once commanded Rakkasans, and since the late nineteen-seventies, when the Army began encouraging a sense of regimental identity among its soldiers, the Rakkasans have emphasized aggressiveness and individual initiative. In part, the unit's ethos emerged from the chaos that accompanies jumping from airplanes, as its soldiers used to do, and descending on ropes from helicopters, as they do now.
In 2004, Steele arrived at Fort Campbell to lead the Rakkasans, and he was on his way to becoming a general officer. Promoted rapidly, he had become known for his emphasis on intense preparation and for his willingness to go into the field with his men. Retired Colonel Danny McKnight, who was Steele's commanding officer in the nineties, when Steele was a Ranger captain, told me, "He took his company to Thailand for training there, and I went over to visit him, and it was tough, rigorous, hot, ugly training, in terms of conditions." In 1993, McKnight, impressed by Steele and his subordinates, assigned the company to a task force assembled to capture Mohammad Farah Aidid, Somalia's most powerful warlord. The deployment came to define Steele's reputation, largely because of "Black Hawk Down," Mark Bowden's account of the tour's worst day, when American helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu. Soldiers who had served in Somalia later recalled that Steele could be impolitic, and often used bravado-laced language borrowed from football-some Rangers called him Coach. But he also helped guide many soldiers to safety, including one whose shin had been pulverized. Steele earned a Bronze Star for valor during the operation.
Eighteen soldiers died during the Black Hawk Down incident, and Steele took the deaths so hard that he rarely spoke about the deployment. Retired Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, the mission's tactical-operations commander, told me, "Somalia left Mike Steele with a determination that he would never go into combat with soldiers that he was responsible for without making sure that they were fully prepared. I think he thought that it was problematic that some of the young soldiers were not expecting the impact of trauma, not prepared emotionally for the impact of seeing dead bodies."
At Fort Campbell, Steele added to the standard Army training a program that he called "Psychological Inoculation of Combat." Believing that soldiers should not witness severe injury and death for the first time in battle, he arranged for officers to visit a morgue, and ordered medics in the unit to ride in ambulances. Though he organized lectures with a military expert to help the men overcome the stress of killing, he was reluctant to share his own war stories. One of Steele's senior officers told me, "I asked him one day, 'Sir, it would be a really good idea if you would give a professional-development lecture to all the officers on Somalia.' And he looked at me kind of funny, and he said, 'Why would I want to do that?' And I said, 'Well, I think that there are a lot of good lessons that people could learn from your experiences.' And he said, 'If people would read my command philosophy and my training guidance, they'll know the lessons that I learned. But I have no desire to talk publicly about one of the worst days of my life, and the deaths of eighteen people who were good friends of mine.' "
Even within a unit as tough as the Rakkasans, soldiers noticed that Steele had intensified and refocussed their training. "We were not doing Arab cultural awareness," the senior officer recalled. "We were not doing Arabic-with-Iraqi-dialect language training." Instead, Steele instituted a harsh regimen of physical conditioning-he led the brigade on eight-mile runs-and incessant practicing at the rifle range. By the time the unit reached Iraq, the vast majority of his soldiers had become expert marksmen. Steele pushed his senior officers to seek out special equipment-such as M14 rifles, which are more often used by Special Forces-and kept a wish list in his pocket, in case a general officer asked him, "How can I help you?" The standard Army pistol is a 9-mm., which often only wounds an adversary. Steele wanted his men to carry more deadly .45s; he tried unsuccessfully to obtain some through official Army channels, but eventually borrowed others from Glock, the gun manufacturer. (Later, in Iraq, the Army ordered Steele to return the Glocks, and he did.)
Steele designed his training regimen to counter a trend within the Army which he believed was deeply misguided. After the Cold War, many deployments, such as those in the Balkans, were peacekeeping operations, and Steele-who had served in Bosnia-felt that these missions had placed excessive nonmilitary burdens on soldiers. As a result, he told his senior officers, infantrymen entered combat without honed fighting abilities. Steele wanted to make his men skilled at killing, but also capable of restraint. He called his soldiers "sheepdogs"-creatures bred to protect the defenseless. General Oates told me that Steele's single-minded emphasis on core fighting skills put him in conflict with other officers "who do not share his sense of urgency for realistic combat training." Before deploying to Iraq, Steele announced that Rakkasans would not be firing warning shots: they would shoot to disable or kill. The decision was unorthodox for the American military, and some officers objected to the policy, but Steele argued that police never fired warning shots, because it was too risky, especially in urban settings.
The brigade became known for its cultivated pugnacity. The Rakkasans engaged in fighting tournaments, designed by Steele. After one such event-a platoon-on-platoon brawl-dozens of soldiers sustained injuries requiring medical attention, but many emerged feeling deep kinship with their regiment. The senior officer recalled going to the hospital after a late-night tournament. "I had broken two bones in my hand," he told me. "I think there were six officers that got hurt. But it was fun. It wasn't like 'Oh, I'm hurt.' It was like 'Oh, I broke two fingers hitting a major in the back of the head!' That was a good thing. So word got out across the division: 'Oh my God, they're nuts!' But there was always a point to being physical in that way-it was about teaching soldiers what you do as a soldier. Nobody likes to talk about it, but if you are in an infantry brigade that's what you do."
Before the Rakkasans left for Iraq, on September 18, 2005, Steele readied the brigade with speeches reinforcing his core principles: be precise; be lethal; protect yourself. He promised trophy knives for the killing of insurgents or for exemplary service. In one speech, Steele spoke in a darkened auditorium. "The Rakkasans are going into the worst spot in Iraq," he said, pacing. "That's not something that you droop your head down [and] say, 'Woe is me.' That's something that you stick your chest out, and you say, 'You're damn right we're going there,' because where we're going they couldn't send a bunch of Girl Scouts and left-handed midgets." The crowd laughed, and Steele, echoing the "blood and guts" rhetoric of General George S. Patton, continued, "The guy that is going to win on the far end is the one who gets violent the fastest."
Steele told his men that he wanted "to whip somebody's ass" when he heard soldiers talk about taking known enemy fighters as prisoners. "They say, 'Well, you know, they're shooting at you. What we need to do is, we need to go over and we need to kick their feet out from under them, and flex-cuff them, and bring them back and put them in a room, and give them some water because they're probably dehydrated and not thinking well-give them some food because they have not eaten well, put our arm around them, give them an open-mouth kiss, tell 'em we love 'em.' " Some soldiers laughed again. "After we've befriended them, then they're gonna tell us all this intelligence. Man, that is bullshit." He continued, "If you go out and somebody presents a lethal threat to you, and you shoot him, do not feel bad and think that you should have brought him back, because I didn't want to talk to him." Steele told his men to think of themselves as apex predators ("If you mess with me, I will eat you"), but he also insisted that they act lawfully. "We are not gonna be driving around Iraq raping, burning, pillaging, being undisciplined," he said. "That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the moment of truth, when you're about to kill the other son of a bitch. I do not want you to choke."
A folded American flag was on a lectern at the back of the stage. Picking it up, he explained that the flag had been recovered from Building No. 7 at the World Trade Center. Steele vowed to take the flag with him to Iraq. "Men, it is time to go hunting," he concluded. "You're the hunter. You're the predator. You're looking for the prey. Rakkasans!"
THE HERBIVORESAt the time of Steele's deployment, the 101st Airborne's base of operations in Iraq was in Tikrit, and its offices were divided into two wings: one was devoted to operational matters, such as raids to kill or capture insurgents; the other was focussed on civil and legal affairs. Someone had posted a sign reading "Carnivores" over the entrance to the operations wing, and a sign reading "Herbivores" over the other entrance. Though intended as satire, the signs reflected a deep division. Military operations aimed at crushing Iraqi resistance were poorly cošrdinated with civic efforts aimed at encouraging democracy and reconstruction. In 2005, the insurgency gathered force, and bombings and civilian deaths increased dramatically, making it clear that America's strategy was failing. It was not until the surge of 2007 that the work of the Carnivores and the Herbivores was synthesized, under the command of General David Petraeus, into a strategic framework that made protecting the Iraqi population its focus.
The year before the surge, however, some Herbivores had attempted to recalibrate America's Iraq strategy. At the start of 2006, General Chiarelli took command of the Army's day-to-day operations in Iraq, and he was certain that no amount of killing or capturing could exhaust the ranks of unemployed and angry Iraqis willing to join the insurgency. Chiarelli, who taught political science at West Point and has advanced degrees in public administration and national security, experienced sustained combat for the first time in 2004, in Iraq, as the head of the First Cavalry Division. That year, Chiarelli's men participated in a campaign to subdue Baghdad, fighting militias controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric. Chiarelli became convinced that the way to win Baghdad was through civilian outreach, not skirmishes. When Chiarelli's men compared maps of insurgent activity with those showing access to electricity and drinkable water, they found a direct correlation between terrorist incidents and a lack of services. Chiarelli became an evangelical proponent of improving life for the "have-nots." While some of his soldiers engaged in intense urban battles, others, blocks away, protected contractors rebuilding infrastructure. Some people called him Mr. Wastewater Treatment.
In 2006, in his new job, Chiarelli had considerable leverage to impose his vision throughout the country. Three years into the war, the number of American soldiers dying each day showed no signs of diminishing, and Al Qaeda, led in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was becoming more active. A number of Army commanders believed that it was the wrong time to shift the focus away from killing, but Chiarelli argued that the Carnivore approach was doing more harm than good. In his view, the Army had fallen for a false dichotomy-security versus reconstruction-when, by rebuilding cities, it could achieve both. "If you're saying you've got to get an area secure before you do any reconstruction, you'll never get any reconstruction done," he told a group of officers, and he pushed to spend millions of dollars on projects that increased Iraqi employment. Chiarelli instructed soldiers to capture rather than kill militants whenever possible. He urged soldiers to use a "soft knock" approach when entering houses, so that "people feel good about their security." Before Chiarelli arrived, American soldiers had been killing, on average, one Iraqi a day, at checkpoints or roadblocks, or on highways; Chiarelli demanded investigations of such incidents, and their frequency soon dropped by eighty-five per cent. Whenever civilians were killed, Chiarelli insisted that their families be compensated. He wanted Iraqis to regard the Army as a just institution that was serving their interests.
Many of Chiarelli's ideas were anathema to Steele, who has master's degrees in administration and strategic studies, and who wanted the Army to demonstrate, above all, that it had a monopoly on power in Iraq. His men razed houses that had been harboring insurgents, and he limited reconstruction projects. Steele's former deputy commander, Colonel Craig Collier, told me, "Although the general belief is that the more money into the mix the better, we didn't find that that was the case. Samarra was a perfect example. You paid a guy to pave a road, and, if someone else knew, they would go threaten him. They may blow up his equipment. After a while, you begin to wonder: Who is really doing this? Is it a rival faction? Is it the insurgency? I don't know. All I know is that money didn't decrease the violence-it increased it." Disregarding Chiarelli's explicit guidance, Steele and his staff dramatically cut spending on local development projects that didn't directly relate to security.
The relationship between Chiarelli and Steele quickly devolved into a feud. (Both men declined to talk about the deployment for this article.) When Chiarelli brought an Iraqi police commander to Salah ad Din province, Steele wouldn't sit in the same car with the commander. On one occasion, Steele's brigade observed two insurgents firing mortars. They tracked the militants to a hut, and attacked it from the air, killing the men and a pregnant woman who was inside. Chiarelli's staff insisted that Steele's soldiers find and compensate the woman's family; Steele's brigade staff refused, and epithets were exchanged.
In February, 2006, after insurgents blew up the al-Askari Mosque, in Samarra, triggering sectarian violence throughout Iraq, Chiarelli came to Samarra and was briefed by Steele's staff. Chiarelli demanded to know how much the brigade was spending on reconstruction and, midway through the meeting, stormed out, saying that Steele had not invested heavily enough in infrastructure. Around this time, Steele's brigade came to believe that they were being scrutinized by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. If a soldier returned to base with a detainee who had been bruised during a struggle to apprehend him, a formal investigation was launched, even if the man did not complain of being abused. "They were out for our heads," one soldier told me. "They were trying to limit our aggressiveness."
THE KILL BOARDLong before Steele's brigade assumed command of Salah ad Din province, it was evident that Samarra and its environs would be extremely hard to control. An Army commander, who had attempted to subdue the city in 2003, wrote in a memoir, "Nowhere did the battle seem more hopeless than in Samarra. The city itself reminded me of something you might have found in Germany or England in World War II-a battered metropolitan area that had survived multiple bombings." When one of Steele's infantry battalions arrived, Samarra had no functioning government. Despite more than fifty million dollars' worth of American investment, the city had sporadic electricity, no sewage system, and a central water plant working at twenty-per-cent capacity. A street war raged between two clans, one of them possibly linked to Al Qaeda, and a criminal gang operated an extortion ring that frequently threatened contract workers.
In some respects, the desert extending from Samarra toward Falluja, through the heart of the Sunni Triangle, was more dangerous than the city. It contained isolated settlements where insurgent leaders who had been pushed out of urban areas were in hiding. Steele's most daring unit, Charlie Company, patrolled the area. The unit had about a hundred and forty men; its commanding officer, Captain Daniel Hart, had been First Captain at West Point. He was soft-spoken, religious, and bookish, but also an extremely assertive soldier. "When it came to civilians, anybody that may or may not be posing a threat, he really didn't screw around," a soldier said. During one patrol, an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., detonated near several company members; Hart wanted to find the attackers, who appeared to have taken cover nearby. The soldier recalled, "There was a market with various shops, and he sat everybody down, and he just said, 'We don't want any more trouble from this area. We do not want to take a bulldozer and blow your shops over, but we will if we have to.' "
Charlie Company's ranking noncommissioned officer, First Sergeant Eric Geressy, grew up on Staten Island. He had served in the Army for seventeen years, and was known for his black humor and sarcasm-"your typical grumpy first sergeant," another soldier told me. Geressy was unapologetic about wanting to kill insurgents, and about pushing his men hard to do so. He later told a general with the 101st Airborne that, if military law allowed for killing, but circumstances allowed for capture, he believed that his commanders expected him to shoot. This attitude echoed one of Steele's oft-repeated command priorities: "Anytime you fight, you always kill the other son of a bitch-always." In 2007, Geressy earned a Silver Star, for leading his unit in a six-and-half-hour battle in Baghdad "while instilling confidence in his men, directing key weapons systems on enemy positions, and evacuating a wounded soldier out of harm's way." (Steele, who participated in the ceremony, said he hoped that his son, a West Point cadet, would one day "walk shoulder by shoulder into combat with a man like Eric Geressy.")
After a few months in Samarra, Charlie Company became known to some soldiers as the Kill Company. By midsummer, 2006, the infantry battalion had reported sixty-eight kills; roughly half of them had been committed by Hart's men. Hart's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Johnson, told me that the high rate was a reflection of the violence of the region that Charlie Company had to control. "Look at the battle space they had," he said. Charlie Company units patrolled relentlessly, sometimes for weeks at a time, and suffered a large spike in attacks soon after they arrived in Samarra. Even so, some of the company's own soldiers were disturbed by the emphasis on killing. A Charlie Company staff sergeant told military investigators, "When we were coming over here, people would say, 'I can't wait to kill one of those Beebs' "-Army slang for Iraqis. "I would say, 'You don't want that, because it would be something you would have to live with for the rest of your life.' " Later, the staff sergeant told me that many of his fellow-soldiers hated Iraqis: "I think they wanted to fight, but we really never had fight fights, and I guess a lot of guys got frustrated. They wanted to do what an infantryman is supposed to do, and that is to kill."
At the company's headquarters, a dry-erase board, known as the Kill Board, listed the number of confirmed enemy kills by platoon. Geressy told me that the Kill Board was intended to help soldiers overcome guilty feelings that they might have after killing insurgents. "It does not do a lot for your soldier when the only thing he sees is how many dead Americans were killed today," he said. "That was a big part of it." Tallying deaths became a kind of game, a way to keep score. Someone jokingly started a record of how many animals the company cat had killed. For a time, the words "Let the bodies hit the floor"-a reference to a rock song popular within the Army-were on the board. To the dismay of some company members, including Hart, civilian deaths were sometimes counted, too. "It disgusted me," an officer belonging to Charlie Company told me. "Everyone understands that if you are going after a legitimate target there may be collateral damage, and no one in my platoon had anything but complete remorse when a noncombatant was killed." He went on, "Any kill would wind up on the Kill Board, and when you do that you aren't putting enough emphasis on the remorse that makes you go above and beyond to insure that civilians are protected." The Kill Board was eventually erased.
Some soldiers believed that Geressy's leadership was at times needlessly violent, and oblivious of the political realities of a counterinsurgency. A sniper who worked closely with Charlie Company told military investigators that some people in the unit had been "brainwashed throughout the deployment to kill," even in ambiguous situations, adding, "I feel that the problems are caused by the first sergeant and the commanding officer." But other soldiers-among them men who disapproved of the Kill Board-maintained that Geressy was, on balance, tough but capable. Pete Hegseth, a former Charlie Company platoon leader, told me that even if Geressy "did cross the line at certain times," he was "an American hero and a trained warrior." Not long after arriving in Samarra, for instance, Geressy, along with two other soldiers, risked his life to save eight Iraqis from a vehicle that was on fire. Hegseth said of Geressy, "I think he had a lot of frustration with what an insurgency is-that we are fighting a bunch of cowards who won't fight us man to man, who hide amongst women and children, who don't wear uniforms."
Early in the deployment, members of the company identified a pair of enemy snipers; they killed one and detained another. A soldier who was there told me that Geressy announced a plan to parade the dead sniper's body among locals. "He wanted to go to the market and show people what happens when you mess with us," the soldier recalled. When a platoon leader protested, Geressy responded, "You are goddam half-retarded." In the end, the soldier said, Geressy did not parade the body. (Geressy denies that the discussion even took place.) A member of the brigade staff told me, "Did he want to kill bad guys? Absolutely. He was very focussed on it. Was there false machismo going around? Absolutely."
Hegseth told me that Charlie Company's sense of when it was appropriate to use force, and how much force it could use, was partly shaped by the guidance that the Rakkasans had received at Fort Campbell. When the unit first arrived in Iraq, he said, its soldiers struggled to find the right balance between lethality and restraint. Members of the unit were initially instructed to enter a house ready to fire their weapons. "That's what we trained on," Hegseth told me. But the policy was soon changed. "It came to me in my bed one night that Sergeant So-and-So is going to come into one of those houses hot and start shooting people, not because he is a bad person but because that is what he has been told to do." Before a raid one day, he recalled, "I went to Captain Hart and I said, 'Sir, I don't feel comfortable telling my guys to go into that door hot.' And I can't quote him directly, but he said, 'What do you mean? This is an enemy target, we have intelligence that it is an Al Qaeda mortar team.' And I said, 'I understand that, sir, and I don't want to put my platoon in danger, but at the same time I am talking to other people who have been here for a while and nobody else goes in hot-nobody. And if we go in hot we are going to kill civilians.' "
The Army's rules of engagement, or R.O.E., which govern when and how much force a soldier may use in combat, can fit on two dozen printed pages, and are classified as secret. During much of the war, they were a mess of papers. Changes were often made piecemeal, sometimes a few words at a time, by "fragmentary orders." In early 2006, fragmentary orders were dizzyingly numerous, and many commanders were unfamiliar with them all. Still, the core rules rarely changed. Generally, soldiers in Iraq are trained to use force against what are known as "conduct-based targets": people who act in a hostile manner or display hostile intent. Hostile actions are easy to identify. (If a cabdriver fires a rifle at a soldier, he instantly becomes a combatant.) Establishing hostile intent is harder. (If a cab is racing toward a soldier, is the driver's intent hostile, or is he drunk?) Whenever a soldier uses force, the rules say, his reaction must be proportional to the threat. In part because judging intent and proportionality are subjective, the Army scrutinizes every incident in which one of its weapons is discharged.
For many years, soldiers have also been permitted to kill people because of who they are, rather than what they are doing-such people are "status-based targets." During the Second World War, an American infantryman could shoot an S.S. officer who was eating lunch in a French cafe without violating the Law of War, so long as he did not actively surrender. The officer's uniform made it obvious that he was the enemy. In Iraq, the R.O.E. listed about two dozen "designated terrorist organizations," including Al Qaeda, and, if it can be proved that someone is a member of one of these groups, that person can legally be killed. For a time, the R.O.E. designated as a status-based target any armed man wearing the uniform of the Mahdi Army-the militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. (After Sadr called a truce, in 2004, the militia was provisionally taken off the list.) But most insurgent groups in Iraq don't wear uniforms, so their members must be "positively identified" by informants or other forms of intelligence before they can legally be killed. An insurgent is positively identified if there is "reasonable certainty" that he belongs to a declared hostile group.
An air strike is a classic example of a status-based operation. On the ground, such targeting is most often used by snipers and Special Forces-soldiers of maturity and skill, who have access to high levels of intelligence. But Steele believed that the infantrymen in his brigade could also make use of it. "We were reading the R.O.E. and it says that, if you are a member of one of these groups, then you are a lawful armed combatant," a former member of the brigade staff told me. "We were like, Why aren't we getting rid of these guys when we see them, like we would kill an Iraqi soldier in the first part of the war?"
A few weeks before Operation Iron Triangle, Steele and his staff briefed the battalion commanders on status-based targeting, instructing them that their men could kill someone if two credible informants confirmed that the person belonged to one of the listed terrorist groups. Several battalion commanders expressed concern that status-based targeting might result in the killing of innocents, and three of them decided not to tell their company commanders about the policy. The commander of Steele's battalion in Samarra, however, did discuss status-based targeting with his company commanders, and Captain Hart embraced the idea.
One of Hart's status-based operations was called by his men Operation Judgment Day. Charlie Company soldiers had conducted weeks of surveillance on targets in the Samarra region who appeared to be operating unambiguously as insurgents. During the operation, three soldiers entered a grocery store, and confronted a target who had been positively identified by Hart moments earlier. As the soldiers walked in, the target was attempting to make a call on his cell phone; in Iraq, I.E.D.s were sometimes set off by cell phones. The soldiers executed the target. At a different location, soldiers stormed a target's house, accidentally killing a young girl while they gunned the man down in his kitchen. In another instance, the operation pushed to the limit the distinction between target and detainee. "We raided a house, and I had this guy up against a wall, with my weapon at the back of his head," a Charlie Company infantryman recalled. "And my platoon leader comes over the radio and says, 'If it is this guy, shoot him.' " (It wasn't.)
Colonel Steele sometimes told his officers, "We will never cross the line, but we might get chalk all over our feet," and maneuvers such as Operation Judgment Day seemed to exemplify the sentiment. "It sparked a pretty sizable philosophical debate within our office," an officer in the battalion's staff told me. "The crux of the debate we had was: Is Charlie Company following the letter of the law, or are they running as far as they can with it to kill as many bad people as possible?" Ultimately, the battalion's leadership gave its blessing to operations such as Judgment Day, because they appeared to reduce violence. "We had one insurgent go to the city-council president looking for amnesty," the officer recalled. "He was like, 'I am on this list and I don't want to die, and I am willing to work with you.' "
It is fair to assume that Steele was unaware of the debates that lower-level soldiers had about Charlie Company's leadership; and despite numerous investigations the Army had never judged any of Charlie Company's operations to be criminal. Over all, the unit appeared to operate as Steele wanted it to, and he made use of it for a number of large missions. In March, 2006, after an aerial strike on some huts near a remote wadi, Charlie Company and other Rakkasans flew in to the settlement. The soldiers discovered maps, weapons, cash, and Al Qaeda expense accounts. (One senior militant had spent sixteen million dollars in a month.) The soldiers also found several Nintendo Game Boys and one-terabyte hard drives containing valuable intelligence, such as a detailed chart of Al Qaeda's main leadership in Iraq. The military learned that Zarqawi had divided his organization into nine groups, of about forty-five men each, and that he drew on a support network extending into eleven nearby countries. The hard drives contained the names of the Al Qaeda fighters in charge of each Iraqi region. Afterward, General George Casey, the top military official in Iraq at the time, called Steele to congratulate him. He said that the Rakkasans had seized the largest cache of information in the war to date.
CHASING ZARQAWISteele was so haunted by Zarqawi that he dreamed about him. A member of the brigade's command staff told me that it would be an understatement to say that Steele was obsessed by the idea of killing Al Qaeda's leading operative. In March, 2006, Steele conducted Operation Swarmer, the largest air-assault mission in Iraq since the American invasion; intelligence later suggested that the Rakkasans narrowly missed finding Zarqawi, who apparently had left the vicinity just before the mission began.
That spring, Steele planned Operation Iron Triangle, which grew out of months of surveillance in the area near the Al Muthanna chemical-weapons complex. The bevelled, windowless cruciform bunkers of Al Muthanna loom over the flat, dun-colored earth. Twenty miles to the west is a reservoir, Lake Tharthar. Canals and tributaries cleave away from the lake's eastern embankments like rivulets coursing through dirt, creating easy-to-defend, striplike islands, some of them fringed with marshland. Steele's intelligence team, along with members of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Task Force 145-a Special Forces unit attempting to hunt down senior Al Qaeda fighters-had gathered a wealth of information about insurgents operating in the area. (Members of the task force had killed at least two dozen people there.) Numerous informants attested that the complex had become an Al Qaeda hideout, and that fighters-some of them foreigners-often cleared civilians from the area while they trained, or made improvised explosive devices. In late 2005, according to one raw-intelligence report, most of Al Qaeda's leadership in Iraq had gathered near the complex for a meeting. Similar reports stated that insurgents had attempted to develop crude chemical weapons there, and that a militant who engaged in beheadings, and was known as a "prince in the city of Falluja," had held meetings in a "garage or parking area behind a gas station" near the complex. In February, 2006, an informant told the military that the "prince" was forming a unit of suicide bombers drawn from male volunteers between the ages of thirteen and fifteen.
On May 1st, a raw-intelligence report wired to Steele's headquarters summarized news from an Iraqi in Baghdad who claimed to know someone working with insurgents near Al Muthanna. The informant, who was deemed to be "fairly reliable" by the Army, stated that on April 30th Zarqawi, wearing a "high-quality false beard," had driven to an area near the complex, in an armored blue Mercedes without license plates. Zarqawi had with him a laptop computer containing instructional material on shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Training was being conducted among reeds in a marsh.
Steele arranged to have the Baghdad informant flown by helicopter over the Al Muthanna complex and the surrounding area. From the air, the informant, sitting alongside members of the brigade's senior staff, identified isolated dwellings being used by foreign fighters. An officer who was in the helicopter later told me, "I remember the informant said, 'There could be nobody there, but if you hit at the right time, and training was going on, this is what you could find.' " The helicopter passed over the southern tip of an island, three miles long and half a mile wide, just west of the complex. Near a bank along a canal, the men in the aircraft could see two lone mud huts. The informant waved his hand over them, in a gesture that appeared to include the whole island. "All Zarqawi's men," he said.
The huts were to be targeted as part of Operation Iron Triangle, which was set to begin in just over twenty-four hours, and members of Steele's command worked into the night to assemble what the Army calls a Kinetic Strike Request-in this case, a formal proposal to bombard the structures before any soldiers touched down. The request called for the use of guided rockets and Hellfire missiles, and was sent up the chain of command, eventually reaching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who concluded that Major General Thomas Turner, the commander of the 101st Airborne, should make the final decision. Turner, concerned that the missiles might disperse deadly chemicals, decided against the strikes. So Steele and his staff narrowed the request to the two mud huts, calling the target Objective Murray. Not only had the informant identified the spot; Steele's men had previously listened to Al Qaeda fighters communicating from the huts by satellite phone. Other intelligence suggested that jihadi scouts on motorcycles patrolled the area.
Hours before the operation was scheduled to begin, Turner once again declined the air strikes, and Steele suddenly faced the possibility of sending his men on the most treacherous mission of their deployment without air cover-a situation as potentially lethal as the day that his company had been pinned down in Mogadishu. "It was like, 'Fuck you, guys, you're on your own,' " one Rakkasan said of Turner's decision.
In most status-based operations, soldiers must identify combatants by name, and then prove, with reasonable certainty, that they are members of a terrorist organization before they can be killed. The intelligence that Steele had acquired about the mud huts made him feel certain that anyone there was a member of Al Qaeda, but he was unable to identify them individually. But, based on the way that Turner had denied the air strikes, Steele inferred that he could declare everyone at the mud huts a "hostile target." Turner had never questioned the notion that only combatants would be found at the mud huts; moreover, earlier that year, he had begun delegating authority to conduct air strikes, in certain situations, to the commander who was on the scene at the time. Steele concluded that initiating an attack on the two mud huts with his soldiers was a comparable act, and that once the Rakkasans touched down anyone they encountered "could legally be engaged or destroyed."
Before Operation Iron Triangle began, a tragic misconception arose. One of the operation's main planners later said, "The R.O.E. from the brigade commander on down was: Shoot all military-aged males on Objective Murray" But, during a meeting to cošrdinate the various components of the operation, two members of Charlie Company's leadership later recalled, someone said that the entire island had been declared a hostile target, even though Objective Murray constituted only the two mud huts. This became consequential when Steele's senior officers discussed the rules of engagement with their men. In the hours before the operation, at least fourteen soldiers, of varying rank, recall receiving guidance to shoot any military-aged male on the island. Some of the soldiers said that they had been given the instruction directly from Steele, who later wrote, "While I never specifically stated that every military-age male should be killed on Objective Murray, the unit's understanding fell within my intent. This didn't mean that soldiers should wantonly kill every man on the objective. It meant that individuals on the objective were combatants by status unless they made a clear and objective action to become a non-combatant (e.g., stood still with their hands raised)."
Captain Hart was among the soldiers who believed that there were numerous buildings on the island housing combatants, and that Steele and others had talked about killing all military-aged males. "I think we said it a lot," he told military investigators. As new intelligence was obtained, Hart said, he continually updated his soldiers about its effect on the rules of engagement. "All the compounds on the island belong to guys that are in Al Qaeda," he remembered telling them after the informant had been flown over the island, adding, "When you go in there, be ready to kill them."
On the evening of May 8th, Steele visited some of Hart's men as they were making final preparations for the assault. Steele's intent was to hand out trophy knives to a few soldiers; in the days leading up to Operation Iron Triangle, the members of Charlie Company had endured a gruelling series of patrols and missions, often going without sleep. When Steele arrived, the men gathered around him, and he shared a few words. At such times, Steele often reminded the Rakkasans to face danger with confidence. Before their deployment to Iraq, he had told them, "Men, when you walk out that gate, fly out that gate, drive out that gate, I expect you to look like a killer," and "Send a message: I am the dominant predator on this street, and if you mess with me I will eat you."
In the anxious hours before Operation Iron Triangle commenced, it may have been that Steele, who was more cognizant of the impending dangers than his men, feared more for his soldiers' safety than they did. As he spoke, a few soldiers did not pay much attention. Others recalled him employing the usual rhetoric-of explaining that the Rakkasans were to "kill the sons of bitches" at the objective. But Steele later described giving a more muted speech, anchored by the notion that no amount of soldierly conviction could insure everyone's safe return. "Guys, you are going to get shot coming off the helicopter," he recalled saying. "If you don't get shot, you ought to be surprised. This is the most dangerous objective that we have ever gone into."
SHOOT THAT MANOperation Iron Triangle began at midnight on May 9, 2006, when soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Michael Horne, a Charlie Company platoon leader, left a base outside Tikrit and headed toward Al Muthanna. Horne, who was twenty-three, had enlisted in the Army in 2004, mainly to get a college scholarship, but also because he was moved by the events of 9/11. One soldier described him as "a good old Irish boy from Massachusetts, a real go-getter, a real good kid, but a little overeager and inexperienced." Horne had been nominated for a Bronze Star with valor for his actions during a raid to hunt down and kill one of Samarra's criminal overlords.
Horne had been to the Lake Tharthar region before. In February, he had witnessed the aftermath of an ambush by insurgents there, which left a member of the Special Forces dead. Al Muthanna, he told me, was a "nasty area." For Operation Iron Triangle, Horne was to lead several Humvees in what the military terms a ground-assault convoy, driving for hours along the primary thoroughfare from Samarra to Falluja. The Army calls the road A.S.R. Golden, but it was known to some soldiers as Anti-Iraqi Forces Highway. In late 2005, insurgent activity along the route became so intense that the brigade in charge of the province at the time cordoned it off with barbed wire and abandoned it.
Horne's mission was to sweep through a dusty region south of the chemical complex and east of the island. An Al Qaeda leader known as Abu Abdullah, who was providing medical expertise and military training to local insurgents, was said to be in the area. Abdullah, among the most-wanted men in Salah ad Din province, was allegedly responsible for ten American deaths. Status-based targeting had not been sanctioned for this part of the operation, but Horne told me that during the planning phase he could not grasp the rules of engagement. "It was very confusing, at least at the platoon level," he said. "When we left on that mission, I don't think I had a clear understanding of how it was supposed to happen." A number of other infantrymen in the convoy also appeared to be confused.
After travelling for five hours on the highway, Horne and his men arrived at their destination: decrepit administrative buildings that appeared to have been bombed during Saddam's regime, and a village that seemed mostly abandoned. On the faades of some houses were painted handprints-symbols of the insurgency. The soldiers searched the village and spotted a few Iraqi men digging in a field near a white truck. Horne ordered a sergeant to kill the Iraqis, a soldier who was present later told military investigators. The sergeant replied that they were beyond his rifle range; another soldier recalled, "I remember looking at Horne, and him saying, 'We're going to give the snipers a try,' and he had a big fucking smile on his face."
Two snipers, Geoffrey Kugler and Jason Stachowski, climbed a nearby hill, and used their rifle scopes to get a better look at the Iraqis. Stachowski, peering through his lens, said, "Geoff, these guys, they're not digging a hole for an I.E.D. I think they're farming."
"That's what I'm thinking," Kugler said.
The snipers informed Horne, who, they recalled, bluntly ordered them to kill. (Horne told me that he gave orders for the men to be shot only if they appeared to be behaving like combatants.) They looked at each other with concern. "I did not see a reason to kill the men at that time," Kugler later told military investigators. "I looked at Stack and said, 'Hey, this is fucked up.' I told him, 'Shoot and miss. Scare them.' " The snipers fired about five shots into the dirt, far short of the Iraqis. Stachowski recalled, "It would have been murder, and Geoff knew that. I knew that. Lieutenant Horne, probably deep down, knew that."
Horne's soldiers, with help from members of the Iraqi Army, detained the men in the field-who were, in fact, farming-and took them to the village, where the unit was still clearing the area. In a house at the south end of the village, the Rakkasans found a man, his wife, and three children. The man, who identified himself as a "sheikh," was heavyset, with a bushy beard; he invited them inside, and told them that Al Qaeda fighters came to the village every few weeks, forcing the locals to house and feed them while they trained nearby. He said that none of the fighters had been in the village for several days, but he spoke of a gas station, several miles away, where Al Qaeda members had meetings. Horne asked when the Al Qaeda fighters gathered there. The sheikh looked at his watch and said, "Right now."
Horne decided to raid the gas station and bring the sheikh with him to identify Al Qaeda fighters. A soldier who was at the sheikh's house later wrote, in a sworn statement, that Horne announced, "We are going to a gas station and killing everyone in it, and levelling the gas station." (Horne does not recall making this statement.) From his Humvee, Horne radioed Captain Hart and, explaining that he had detained an informant who was able to identify insurgents, asked permission to move to a new objective. Hart said yes, and dispatched two Apache helicopters to Horne's location for support. The request made sense to him; Special Forces had targeted the area for a raid earlier in the morning, but then had cancelled it at the last minute. Horne left the village with four Humvees and a dozen or so soldiers. As the group headed south, he worried about the potential dangers ahead. How would so few of his men handle a complement of Al Qaeda fighters?
The convoy arrived at the settlement with the gas station at around eleven o'clock. People stared at the Humvees as they drove by, and their demeanor did not seem welcoming. Men loitering near the gas station began to scatter. A few of them drove away in vehicles. The Humvees cordoned off the building, where half a dozen of Horne's soldiers encountered an unarmed Iraqi man sitting on the curb. He was dressed in a white dishdasha, and his hands were either in his lap or holding a newspaper-the soldiers' memories differ. Horne, who had stayed in his Humvee, saw the Iraqi man, too. "I sort of got scared, you know, straight up got scared," he told me. "Just from the reporting I got from the sheikh-and knowing what I know of the region, which is why I believed the sheikh-I was expecting an absolute uproar to come out of that village." The sheikh, Horne recalled, had identified the man on the curb as an insurgent leader.
"Kill him!" Horne yelled. "Shoot that man!"
The soldiers looked back to their team leaders.
"Kill him!" Horne repeated.
Horne's men refused. "I remember him distinctly, vividly, telling me to shoot," one told me. "The guy was about fifty yards away from me, sitting on the curb, hands in his lap. I am not in any danger from him, he is not posing any danger to me. And for somebody to look at me, and say, 'Kill that motherfucker, right there!' " A squad leader shouted, "No." A sergeant, Nathan Beal, also protested. The Rakkasans detained the man and entered the gas station, where they found and detained several more men.
By then, a number of things were happening at once. According to Stachowski and a sniper scout named Josh Fuson, Horne gave orders to shoot the detainees inside the gas station-to "kill everyone over there." (Horne denies this.) At about the same time, the sheikh told Horne that there were insurgents in a residential compound across the street, and Horne tried to arrange for a helicopter to attack the building with a Hellfire missile. One of the unit's gunners suggested shooting tracer bullets at the roof that they wanted the helicopters to attack, and began firing an MK-19 grenade launcher that was fixed to the top of the Humvee. Meanwhile, Iraqis continued to flee the area, by vehicle or on foot.
Horne ordered his soldiers to fire at the fleeing vehicles and the residential compound, and nearly everyone began shooting. He told me that a truck had appeared to be approaching two of his men. Other soldiers who were there said that the shots were fired to stop people from driving away. A number of Rakkasans who were in the gas station rushed out to the street, where, because of all the shooting, they concluded that their unit was under attack. Fuson recalled, "Dust and smoke were so thick, we could not clearly see the targets." He took cover near a vehicle, and began shooting in the direction where he gauged other soldiers to be firing, but he stopped after about six rounds because he sensed that nobody was shooting back. He told a soldier near him to stop, too.
Although the shooting lasted less than a minute, nearly seven hundred rounds of ammunition were fired. When the MK-19 gunner noticed a small green truck and a white sedan pulling away, he emptied the remainder of his ammunition-about twenty rounds-into them. The driver of the truck was shot in the chest. A woman in the car was wounded in the arm. She began screaming. Two Iraqis in a blue semi-truck had also attempted to drive away. Horne's men fired at its tires and engine block. The driver jumped out of the cab and ran. Amid the hail of bullets, he fell.
Sergeant Beal noticed that there were women and children amid the fleeing men, and he ordered everyone to hold fire. "What the hell were you shooting at?" he yelled at Horne. "If there is a kid over there, I'm kicking someone's ass." Horne responded that he was protecting the unit; one soldier remembers him saying, "Fuck that, it's collateral damage." (When investigators questioned Horne about the comment, he admitted using the term "collateral damage," but could not recall how. "It was something foolish that came out of my mouth during the heat of the moment," he said. "I regret saying it.") Only later did it become apparent that none of the Iraqis in the area had fired a weapon. Five were wounded.
As the smoke cleared, some Rakkasans walked over to the semi-truck, and nearby they found the driver: a large man with a beard, face down in the dirt. He was clearly dead, Stachowski later recalled: "I saw some grit or sand in his wide-open eyes." Stachowski sensed that a moral boundary had been crossed. He believed that he had seen bullets enter the driver's body after he had fallen to the ground. Was the driver mortally wounded when he fell? Did he dive down in self-preservation, or to surrender? If the Rakkasans had initiated fire without adequate cause, then, on some level, hadn't the driver been murdered?
Shortly after the shooting stopped, First Sergeant Geressy and twenty-two soldiers arrived, in two Black Hawk helicopters. Geressy, finding Horne frantically tending to wounded Iraqis, asked him, "What the fuck is going on?" Horne could not provide a clear response, so Geressy took command of the unit. He prepared the soldiers to search the compound across from the gas station. "Unless you are fired at, no firing," he told them. "See all these water tanks on the roof? That means that there are fucking people, probably families, living in there. Slow it down, take it easy, and we'll see what we get." Families were, in fact, living there, but the soldiers also detained sixty-four men, including Iraqis from Falluja, three men with ties to Al Qaeda, and Abdullah-the high-value target-who had attempted to escape while cradling a baby.
An After Action Review was held several days after the incident. Lieutenant Horne expressed regret to his men for losing control, and thanked Sergeant Beal for calling the ceasefire. Not everyone there believed Horne's sincerity, but the Army did. He was issued a reprimand, which was not included in his permanent file, and the following year he was promoted to captain. He left the military earlier this year. "You just don't want to kill someone," he told me. "It was the worst day of my life. Not a day goes by when I don't think about it."
A QUICK DECISIONEarly the same morning, twenty eight helicopters took off from the base near Tikrit and flew toward the Al Muthanna complex. Some seventy members of Charlie Company were on board seven of the aircraft, which were heading for Objective Murray, on the island with the mud huts. Colonel Steele rode with the Rakkasans going to the island. Though Captain Hart was in charge of the company, Steele wanted to accompany the men who he expected would face the greatest danger. "It's important for them to know I'm not sitting in a plane somewhere," he later told military investigators. "I'm going to come in with them."
Amid the whirring drone of the helicopter blades, some soldiers tried to lessen their anxiety by telling jokes; others slept. The helicopters banked over the southern end of the island at around 5 A.M.-six hours before the incident at the gas station. First Sergeant Geressy, who was in one of the helicopters, was helping to guide this mission as well. Looking out the window at the predawn sky, he saw tracer shots arcing from the ground toward him. He removed his night-vision goggles and saw them again. Geressy recalled saying to himself, "This is for real, the intel isn't bullshit." The helicopters landed on the island some distance from the huts. A member of Charlie Company spoke to me about what it is like to jump off an aircraft and head into unknown peril: "Your senses become heightened. Your ears, your smell, your taste become a lot sharper. You can't see in the dark before, but as soon as you hit the ground and are ready to roll you can see in the dark just fine."
The members of Charlie Company ran into the darkness, ready to confront an enemy that, they were told, was bloodthirsty and irreconcilable. And they fired their weapons as they ran, until they realized that they weren't shooting at anyone. The site was abandoned. "Just your typical, adobe-shit-hole, mud-shack buildings," Geressy recalled. "Like something maybe Jesus was living in." Steele and his senior staff members gathered some distance from the huts while members of Charlie Company searched the area.
The sky lightened into shades of blue. Several gunners climbed onto the roof of one hut. From there, they saw a house three hundred yards away. Through a window, the glow of an oil lamp was visible. Hart ordered his third platoon to search the hut. As the soldiers approached the door, the gunners on the roof fired at the distant house's lighted window. Geressy, who was with the third platoon, immediately got on his radio and called a ceasefire. "We don't know what the fuck is in those buildings," he recalled. "We didn't get fire from those buildings, and the enemy on the ground is not the enemy we were briefed on. You gotta be able to switch gears right away. Worst thing I want is we're shooting up a fucking building with women and kids." The platoon soon surrounded the lighted house. Nobody was there. Adrenaline had been wasted, and some of the men were disappointed.
While the soldiers secured the mud huts, Hart and his senior staff began setting up a makeshift command post. The pilot of an Apache flying overhead radioed Hart to say that he could see three men in a small motorboat racing away from the shore near the huts. There were several other boats on the water, but they were stationary, and Hart concluded that they were fishing boats. It was possible, though, that the men in the moving boat had just run out of the house with the lamp, but it was too dark to tell if they were armed. Steele had told his men to shoot anyone at Objective Murray who was fleeing across the river; militants in the area had used boats as escape vehicles before. Hart later recalled, "I made a quick decision." He relayed an order to shoot to the Apache's gunner, who killed the men as they disembarked on the opposite side of the canal. The men apparently fell into the water and were pulled downstream. Later, Steele and his staff looked for the bodies but found none.
Once Charlie Company secured Objective Murray, the unit fractured into smaller groups, and descended into the mission's darkest hour. All large military operations bear the markings of both their planners and the soldiers who carry those plans out. It is the collective nature of violence in war, the shared culpability, that partly allows soldiers to find it within themselves to kill. Colonel Steele understood this. Part of "Psychological Inoculation of Combat"-his addendum to the Fort Campbell training program-was based on a book by retired Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, "On Killing," copies of which he bought and distributed to his brigade. Grossman observes that most soldiers, even when confronted with mortal danger, hesitate before pulling the trigger; but this wariness, he argues, can be greatly overcome with conditioning. During the Korean War, American soldiers fired their weapons at a rate more than twice that of soldiers in the Second World War, and in Vietnam the rate was nearly double what it was in Korea.
Since Vietnam, as deployments have become more complex, enemies less conventional, and moral lines less immediately clear, Western armies have struggled to calibrate the many psychological pressures placed on soldiers. As the military historian Richard Holmes has written, if "men reflect too deeply upon their enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with a task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate." However, if the enemy is depersonalized too much, "the restraints on human behavior in war are swept aside." Steele left Objective Murray shortly after he landed on the island, returning to the command center near the Al Muthanna complex. It remains bitterly debated, however, whether his command guidance was connected to the deaths that followed.
After its initial assault, Charlie Company spread out across the island. Captain Hart sent his infantrymen to nearby mud huts to insure that they, too, did not house insurgents. He sent his third platoon, along with a unit of Iraqi soldiers, to investigate a couple of houses three miles north of Objective Murray. Every platoon comprises two or more squads, and the leader of the platoon's third squad was Ray Girouard, a twenty-three-year-old staff sergeant from eastern Tennessee. Girouard's father drifted away from his family when he was young, and in 1989 his mother died in a car accident. Raised by his grandparents, he left high school early (he later completed a G.E.D.), and entered the military in August, 2001. Girouard graduated from Ranger school, and in evaluations he was uniformly commended. He taught himself Arabic. His platoon leader, Lieutenant Justin Wehrheim, regarded him as one of the best squad leaders in the unit. By May, 2006, he was halfway through his second combat tour.
To his men, Girouard had been a mentor and a friend; because of his rapid promotion, he was not much older than the soldiers beneath him, and at times he appeared to trade discipline for affection. On one patrol, members of his unit goofed around by a canal, and one jumped in for a swim. A few soldiers told me that Girouard kept an AK-47 in his Humvee, and that he had told his men to use it as a "drop weapon" at the scene of an illegitimate kill, should they need a cover story. Whether or not this was bravado is hard to say. A soldier who had been on patrol with Girouard's squad said that his men sometimes confiscated alcohol from locals and drank it. In the weeks before Operation Iron Triangle, it appeared, Girouard had become worn down; several members of Charlie Company recalled him abusing military-issue Valium. The soldier recalled an incident on patrol: "He was in the Humvee, knocked out."
Girouard checked in with Lieutenant Wehrheim, who ordered him to gather his men and prepare to head north from the mud huts. "I said, 'Roger, sir, what about R.O.E.?' " Girouard later testified. "He said it still applied. Basically, like, 'Hey, idiot, it still applies.' " Then, as the sky began to brighten, Girouard and his men took off in a Black Hawk.
Minutes later, they landed several hundred feet from a house with a thatched roof. Girouard led his squad toward it, sprinting ahead of his men. "I noticed movement in the first window-maybe a male, maybe a white sheet," he recalled later. He fired his gun at the window. "It did not matter if he was armed or not," Girouard explained. "He was a military-aged male, and we were told to kill all military-aged males." Other soldiers fired, too, and followed Girouard inside. "The first thing I seen were these three men holding two women as human shields," William Hunsaker, a specialist from Missouri, later recalled. "I mean, physically holding them by their dresses." Two of the "men" were, in fact, teen-agers. On the floor near a window in the next room was an old man-Jasim Hassan Komar-Abdullah, whose body Steele later inspected at the temporary command center. Komar-Abdullah was bleeding profusely.
"We have one down in here," Hunsaker called out.
Girouard approached Komar-Abdullah. "He had maybe two or three breaths," he testified. Hunsaker and another soldier, Sergeant Leonel Lemus, began to take the man outside, so that a medic could treat him, but as they dragged him toward the door Girouard said, "Stop. He's about to go."
The women in the house had become hysterical, and several Iraqi soldiers who had arrived tried to comfort them. The Iraqis learned that two of the three men who had been hiding behind the women were related to Komar-Abdullah, and one of the women was his daughter. The American soldiers ushered the men outside. When Hunsaker and Lemus began escorting the women outside, Girouard yelled, "What the fuck are you doing? Put the women back in there." He added, "Go put a veil, or go put a sheet over their head-something. I don't want them to see. This could be their father." Hunsaker and Lemus covered the women's heads. Moments later, a medic, looking at Komar-Abdullah, said, "He's gone."
The unit conveyed the news of Komar-Abdullah's death to Lieutenant Wehrheim, who, in turn, radioed First Sergeant Geressy to inform him that Girouard's squad had killed one man and detained three others. Geressy, who was at the island command post, says that he was under the impression that insurgents had attacked Girouard's soldiers.
"Why do I have three fucking detainees that should have been killed?" he asked Wehrheim.
"I'm not sure what happened," Wehrheim said.
"O.K.," Geressy said. He ordered Wehrheim to prepare the detainees to board a helicopter that would deliver them to the command post for questioning.
Word spread among Girouard's squad that Geressy had said that the detainees should have been killed. "Everybody got a kick out of it," Lemus later recalled. "I laughed, too."
While Girouard's men were photographing the detainees for Army records, Iraqi soldiers at the scene began arguing with the Americans about Komar-Abdullah's death. "This incident makes the people, the citizens, hate us," an Iraqi sergeant later explained at a military hearing. Several Iraqis tried to speak with the detainees, who had been bound with zip ties and blindfolded, and were spread out, face down, near the hut. They were unsure whether the detainees-Akhmed Farhim Hamid al-Jemi, and the two teen-agers-were insurgents. The Iraqi sergeant recalled, "We told them, 'If you guys are innocent, you will get released.' "
Leaving Komar-Abdullah's house, Girouard's soldiers climbed over a nearby berm, and discovered an adobe-brick house partly enclosed by a chicken-wire fence. An orange carpet was draped over the fence, and a cow wandered nearby.
Girouard ordered his men to approach the house, but this time to shoot over it, to avoid killing noncombatants. After the soldiers began firing, a middle-aged Iraqi with a mustache emerged from a rear doorway. Wearing a white headdress and a dishdasha, he held a baby girl in his arms. He appeared to be using the girl as a human shield, lifting her body up and down to prevent the soldiers from firing at him. "Put the baby down!" Girouard yelled in Arabic, but the man did not comply. The soldiers rushed forward and grabbed the baby. "The fact that he came out with a little girl as a shield just pissed me off, so I wound up dragging him by his damn hair into his damn hut, and started whooping the shit out of him," Hunsaker later recalled. Lemus joined Hunsaker in the hut and punched the man several times. ("I was disgusted by him," he later said.) Girouard, standing outside, heard the sounds of the man being beaten. He, too, was livid; he later testified that the baby girl had caused him to think of his own infant son. But as a combat photographer came over the berm Girouard told his men to stop the abuse. They searched the premises and found nothing suspicious; leaving a soldier behind as a guard, they returned to Komar-Abdullah's house.
In the heightened atmosphere of a military operation, seemingly inconsequential incidents can have a pronounced psychological effect. All soldiers must see killing as purposeful, even honorable, in order to cope with it; the Iraqi villager, by using the baby as a human shield, had seemingly twisted this moral framework. The squad had been told by the Army that the villager was a brute deserving death. Yet had they killed the baby they would have become brutes themselves. In "On Killing," David Grossman observes, "The presence of women and children can inhibit aggression in combat, but only if the women and children are not threatened. If they become threatened, and if the combatant accepts responsibility for them, then the psychology of battle changes from one of carefully constrained ceremonial combat among males to the unconstrained ferocity of an animal who is defending its den."
It is difficult to say precisely what followed, in part because of conflicting memories. Five soldiers testified that Girouard called his squad inside Komar-Abdullah's house, to discuss killing the detainees. Nobody has exact recollections of the discussion, or of the motivation, but all agree on its general substance, and that Girouard was more fraternal than commanding. Lemus told me, "He brought us into the room, kind of said, 'O.K., bring it in,' and he says, 'Hey, we're gonna go ahead'-he's kinda pausing in between words-and he's like, 'Hey, we're gonna go ahead and change the zip ties and, you know, we're gonna go ahead and do these guys.' " Two of the soldiers at the meeting may have said that they had wanted to kill the men. Lemus and another infantryman, Juston Graber, walked out because they didn't want to have anything to do with it.
After the squad disbanded, Girouard had an exchange with another soldier who had objected to the idea of killing detainees. "I said it was murder," the soldier testified. "He said that I just murdered somebody. I said, 'How?' He goes, 'The man in the window.' I was like, 'That's not murder. That is a K.I.A.' "-killed in action. "Pretty much then, the firing started."
Two infantrymen performed the executions. One of them was William Hunsaker, the specialist. Just before Operation Iron Triangle, he was told that he would be promoted. His platoon sergeant considered him to be "one of the better soldiers that I had." He was admired for his discipline and work ethic-he once cleaned up the remains of Iraqis who had been shot in a truck. He read voraciously, and quoted Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." At some point, Hunsaker decided that the three detainees were monsters, and that killing was "a lesser evil for a greater good." He has since said, "The men I killed were terrorists, men who would have done worse to us if the situation was reversed." Even today, he says, he has not lost sleep over the killings. The other soldier, Private First Class Corey Clagett, was known for his lack of discipline and for bragging, and he seemed to take lightly the idea of shooting the detainees. "I thought it was basically like an initiation," he later testified.
Hunsaker and Clagett used a knife to cut the zip ties on the detainees' wrists, then partly lifted the men's blindfolds. Hunsaker looked each detainee in the eye, and gestured for them to run. Al-Jemi and the teen-agers did not understand him, or perhaps they were reluctant to run, so Clagett yelled, "Yalla! "-"Hurry," in Arabic-at which point they fled. Clagett threw the knife in their direction, hoping to create the impression that one of them had dropped it while escaping.
Hunsaker shot the youngest detainee first. "I was going to make it quick, and as painless as possible for him," he later testified. "So I took careful aim and shot the first one through the heart and the back, and shot him in the head." Hunsaker shot a second detainee through the chest. Then, he recalled, "Clagett opened up fire, and just sprayed bullets, eventually fatally wounding the third, before I could get a shot at him."
Hunsaker felt disoriented. He removed his helmet, walked back to Komar-Abdullah's house, and squatted in the doorway. He put his face in his hands to control his feelings. "I was angry at Clagett," he recalled. "If you are going to do it, you know, do it right. There is no sense in causing the extra suffering by just spraying bullets." Clagett, who had not killed anyone before, later told a psychiatrist that during the shooting his "mind just went blank."
At the sound of the gunfire, the rest of the squad ran over; when Girouard saw the bodies, he turned pale. One of the detainees had somehow survived the shooting, and Graber-one of the infantrymen who had objected earlier-recalled Girouard telling him, "Put him out of his misery." Graber, focussing on the dying detainee's strained breathing, fatally shot him.
GONELater that day, at the command center near Samarra, Steele examined the blindfolded bodies of the detainees and immediately ordered an investigation. At the time, he says, he did not know the circumstances of the deaths. The soldiers involved in the murders had concocted a false account, claiming that the detainees had broken free of their restraints. Girouard had punched Clagett in the face, and had cut Hunsaker with a knife, to make it appear as though they had been attacked. The detainees had supposedly been shot while escaping.
After the operation, Steele returned to the United States, on leave. While he was away, a rumor made its way to General Chiarelli's office that Steele had attempted to cover up the execution of detainees during Operation Iron Triangle. A private, who earlier had tested positive for cocaine, accused Steele of stepping on the head of a corpse at the temporary command center while posing for a trophy picture, and of saying, "We need more bodies" and "We'll have to say these guys tried to escape." The accusations could not have circulated at a more inauspicious time for the brigade. They followed the revelation, in March, 2006, of the Haditha massacre and other war crimes involving Americans. Chiarelli was deeply troubled by the Haditha case-he had read through the investigative materials-and this no doubt strengthened his resolve to act when word of abuses within Steele's unit reached his office. When members of Charlie Company later gave sworn statements about Operation Iron Triangle's rules of engagement-which, they had said, was to "kill all military-age males on the island"-the order appeared to echo the disastrous "free-fire zones" of Vietnam.
Chiarelli appointed Brigadier General Thomas Maffey, from the Fourth Infantry Division, to investigate Steele. After considering the testimony of many witnesses, Maffey determined that Steele "did not condone or attempt to cover up detainee deaths," and that the private's other accusations were unfounded. (The private later told the Army that he was not "a hundred per cent" sure of his recollections.) Maffey concluded that Steele should have reported the blindfolded bodies to his superiors more quickly-a procedural infraction, not a war crime-and that Steele had not been "crystal clear" about the operation's rules of engagement. The miscommunication, he said, might have resulted in the deaths of unarmed people.
Maffey argued that Steele had honestly and reasonably believed that he could designate as a terrorist everyone at Objective Murray, because the potential for human collateral damage there had been estimated by the Army to be zero, and in such circumstances General Turner had delegated to lower-level officers his authority to attack such a target. But Maffey also said that Steele had failed to consider a fundamental aspect of the Law of War: that even if a group of people in a geographic area can be legitimately targeted, combatants must be individually identified when the means permit it. "Dropping a bomb or firing missiles does not permit this type of individual distinction," he concluded. "Apparently, Colonel Steele and his soldiers thought that if Objective Murray could be engaged with bombs and missiles, it could be engaged in the same manner using individual and crew-served weapons." In his zeal to protect his soldiers, Maffey seemed to suggest, Steele had lost sight of their capacity for moral discrimination.
Even so, Maffey's findings were more forgiving than they might have been, as they suffered from the confusion that Objective Murray had encompassed the entire island. It took months for the military to sort out that Objective Murray constituted only the two empty mud huts, and that none of the killings had occurred there.
The Army ultimately decided that five of the deaths were not murders. But in the summer of 2006, after members of Charlie Company came forward with information about the conspiracy to execute the captives, prosecutors deemed the killing of the three detainees worthy of military courts. Hearings were set for Hunsaker, Clagett, Girouard, and Graber. For a brief time, the prosecutors trying the four soldiers pursued the death penalty-making theirs the first capital cases in the war-but the Army eventually settled on life sentences. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been fewer than a dozen war crimes ending in murder convictions. In the Haditha case, all the murder charges were dropped.) In January, 2007, Hunsaker and Clagett pleaded guilty to murder, and Graber pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. In exchange for cošperating with the prosecutors, they received reduced sentences: eighteen years for Hunsaker and Clagett, and nine months for Graber. As part of their plea agreements, all of them stipulated that the rules of engagement were not a factor in the murder of the detainees.
Girouard, who was prosecuted for murder, was convicted of negligent homicide. The conviction may have reflected the jury's uncertainty about what was said during the huddle-whether he gave orders to kill the detainees, or simply allowed others to kill them. Or it may have reflected the jury's reluctance to sentence Girouard to life when the soldiers who actually shot the detainees had negotiated for less severe punishment. Either way, the verdict had the appearance of a legal compromise. Girouard is the first American soldier to be convicted of negligent homicide resulting from the actions of subordinates in combat. He is serving a ten-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth.
Despite their plea agreements, the three soldiers who are now imprisoned refuse to accept full culpability for their actions, and hope to share some blame with Steele. In a petition for clemency, Hunsaker recently wrote that, though his decision to kill the detainees was unjustified, "it is not fair for the men above me, the men who gave the orders, to do less time, or none at all." Clagett has echoed this view. Girouard is appealing his case. He insists that he never orchestrated the huddle, never told Graber to put anyone out of his misery, never described the AK-47 as a "drop weapon," and never heard Geressy's comment that the detainees should have been killed. Girouard accepts guilt only for helping Hunsaker and Clagett cover up their crime, which he says he did out of loyalty. In his appeal, he is also seeking to make the rules of engagement an issue-to demonstrate that Hunsaker and Clagett were motivated to kill largely because of the speech Steele had given just prior to this operation, "suggesting that we should take no prisoners."
Not long after Operation Iron Triangle, General Chiarelli sought to relieve Steele of his command, but the leadership of the 101st Airborne resisted. And so, on July 11, 2006, before all the deaths had been fully evaluated by the military, Chiarelli formally reprimanded Steele. Because it was evident that Steele had technically followed the rules of engagement, the reprimand carefully faulted Steele for his "intricate and questionable" interpretation of the rules, and noted that he had been unclear with his soldiers, resulting in the deaths of "five unarmed people." (In a later version, Chiarelli referred to "five innocent people," though he never specified which five.) Chiarelli argued that the deaths would not have occurred had Steele considered the "second- and third-order effects" of his actions, writing, "Your acts, omissions, and personal example have created a command climate where irresponsible behavior appears to have been allowed to go unchecked." Chiarelli called Steele to Baghdad to discuss the reprimand, and, according to Steele, said that he would be calling the operation "Haditha II." A soldier familiar with the meeting told me that, afterward, "Steele vowed retribution against several members of the Corps staff."
Steele wrote a lengthy rebuttal, implying that Chiarelli had long wanted to destroy his career because of their personal and doctrinal differences. Steele enumerated the intelligence that shaped his decision-making, and argued that his interpretation of the rules of engagement was unimpeachable. The three men in the boat, he wrote, were fleeing a known Al Qaeda haven, and Komar-Abdullah's death was the "result of an individual soldier's judgment call" and could not have resulted from "purported confusion over R.O.E.," because it occurred outside the limited purview of Objective Murray. It made more sense, he said, to blame "the state of mind of the individual soldier." Moreover, Steele said, if he had wanted soldiers to kill detainees, why did Girouard and his men hide their actions? Could he rightfully be blamed for deliberate criminal behavior? And if these soldiers' failures were a reflection of his command culture, then what about the many Rakkasans who, as even Maffey had pointed out, "demonstrated restraint in the application of force?"
One could make the case that Operation Iron Triangle displayed more discipline than recklessness. During the three-day mission, hundreds of Iraqis were detained without incident, and when soldiers were presented with morally confusing situations, or the opportunity to do something that seemed unlawful, many of them either refused to kill or prevented others from acting wrongly. Quantifying the level of discipline in a unit as large as a brigade is not easy, but, according to Army data, the number of Rakkasan escalation-of-force incidents in 2006 was below the median for brigades in Iraq.
After Maffey's investigation, a lengthy inquiry into the brigade's command culture resulted in a delicately worded assessment. Its findings, dated August 23, 2006, noted that Steele "continually told soldiers they must be prepared to use deadly force without hesitation, within the boundaries of the law." And though it was "clearly possible that some soldiers, especially young, inexperienced ones, could misinterpret the message," Steele's leadership had not "encouraged illegal, wanton, or superfluous killing."
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Root, one of Steele's former battalion commanders, told me, "There are people that are extreme loyalists to Michael Steele: he did no wrong. 'Yes, he had this bravado around him, but that was to lead soldiers.' And they love him. They would follow him in combat again, and have really limited their careers by continuing to be loyal to Michael Steele. Then you have people who say, 'He doesn't get it. He's dumb. He doesn't appreciate the change, and he is just focussed on killing.' And then you are going to have the person who says, 'He's a smart guy, he really does get it, he believes in core principles, but I don't necessarily agree with him.' That's me. So I am not a Michael Steele lover. I think that in his mind, and in his experience, from losing soldiers in combat before, as I have done, too, he thought that he was doing the best thing that he could for the entire Brigade Combat Team. And no doubt he thought he was making the best decisions at the time for his soldiers. His soldiers, to him, were everything. He did not want soldiers to ever pause and not rely on their training and get killed because they had doubt in their mind about who was bad and who was good. He could not live with that."
Steele will most likely retire as a colonel. (Chiarelli refused to rescind the reprimand.) But he is still serving. He has returned to Georgia, and is stationed at Fort McPherson, where he advises other units on training. He keeps in touch with the wounded veterans of his brigade; he takes them hunting, and helps insure that they get proper medical treatment. During his deployment in Iraq, Steele saw eighteen of his soldiers killed in action-the same number as in Somalia. The brigades that preceded and replaced the Rakkasans each lost more than twice as many men. Soldiers close to Steele say that he is deeply attached to that statistic. While in Iraq, he had appropriated millions of dollars' worth of metal left in an Army warehouse, and on some nights he joined his welders, who used it to "up-armor" Humvees. On the final day of Steele's command, nearly three thousand Rakkasans waited in the rain to shake his hand.
Earlier this year, Steele travelled to Savannah and gave a speech to the Georgia Farm Bureau about the Army. Rattling off the names of infantrymen he did not bring back, he flushed. "I want to tell you about Lieutenant Dennis Zilinski, and I wish Dennis was here today," Steele said. "Dennis is an all-American kid. He is from New Jersey." Zilinski, he said, was a committed student who had attended West Point. One day, Zilinski, who led his college swim team, went to a meet; as he approached the swimming facility, he noticed a group of parents ahead of him. "Being a good cadet, gentleman that he was, he jogged out in front of them and opened the door," Steele said. "And as they filed past, one of those dads made a little quip. He said, 'You better open that door for me. My tax dollars are paying for your education.' This comment by this dad drove him-it compelled Dennis to redouble his efforts. He worked harder, he worked longer, and when he got to the unit, and other lieutenants were doing something else, Dennis was studying to make sure he was worthy of the responsibility to lead those young men in combat."
Steele's voice gathered force. "On 19 November, 2005, as I was working in my tactical operations center in Bayji, Iraq, there was an explosion four miles away on what we had named Smugglers Road," he said. "I wish Dennis were here today to tell you what it means to wear this uniform. What it means to defend our nation, to defend our borders, to defend our families, to defend our values, to defend our way of life. Words would come out of that young man's mouth, like 'duty,' 'honor,' 'country.' On that day, 19 November, 2005, Dennis, Staff Sergeant Karolasz, Specialist Hinton, and Corporal Blair, who were in the truck-they were all killed when their truck hit a buried explosive device." Steele's sentences became clipped, each one louder and more forceful than the last. "Now, here is a young man. He is intellectually gifted. He is an N.C.A.A. athlete. He is charismatic beyond belief. He has got his whole career in front of him. He is engaged to be married. He is truly a future leader of this nation-" Steele's voice dropped to a whisper. "And he is gone," he said. "He is gone."