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By LTC Clark Adams
Early in our endeavor in Iraq, and more frequently as our troop strength in Afghanistan increased, we heard emotional reports of civilians being killed by American forces during operations. These reports usually included tearful relatives and possibly a bullet-riddled car in the background.
An element universally missing from these tragic accounts was the perspective of the young American who was on the other end of the rifle. Occasionally a senior officer, acting as an Army spokesperson, would provide a sterile recounting of the Army’s understanding of the chain of events, but very rarely have we heard from the men on the ground. This void in the coverage is unfortunate, because it denies the world a full understanding of the circumstances and provides fertile ground for unfounded criticism of our strategies, our tactics, and our soldiers.
Courtesy of LTC Clark Adams
This deficit in full disclosure compels me to share my personal experience with this ugly issue. I hope that, by recounting the circumstances and thoughts of the men directly involved in the accidental killing of three Iraqi men, I can provide a more complete comprehension of how an American soldier comes to shoot a civilian. While each story is distinct and I cannot profess to have a full understanding of every civilian shooting event, I think the events that led to this incident in 2005 are reasonably representative of the ambiguous and frantic nature of the moments that lead to an unintended killing.
On Oct. 11, 2005, I was a reconnaissance company commander in Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad. It was mid-evening as I stood in my command post, reviewing patrol reports, when the radio came alive with “Phantom Main this is Green 1. Contact, Out!” The transmission was barely intelligible over the staccato roar of machine guns. One of my platoon-sized patrols was in a fight. I immediately ordered another platoon to prepare to move out in support and yelled for my first sergeant. I continued to monitor the situation by portable radio as I donned my gear and moved to the relief platoon’s staging point. As we were loading the gun-trucks, the patrol leader in contact reported his situation: “Sporadic gunfire from Swordhouse (an Iraqi outpost). One sedan engaged and halted after the occupants fired at us while charging the patrol. No U.S. casualties. No further contact, Over.”
I breathed a sigh of relief that my boys were all right and hoped that they had killed a known bad guy.
By the time I arrived at the scene with the reinforcing platoon — about 15 minutes later — all shooting had stopped, but things were clearly wrong. The patrol leader seemed agitated and confused as he explained the situation to me: “Sir, we were coming in [from patrolling] and, as we crossed onto the highway, we heard gunfire. When I looked down the road, a car was accelerating towards us and there were muzzle flashes coming from it. The gunners opened up and engaged until the vehicle stopped. I called ‘Cease fire’ and we moved in to clear the car … but we can’t find any guns. I know they were shooting!”
I walked over to the car and looked inside for any sign of weapons or shell casings. Inside of the car was a disturbing example of the brutal effectiveness of modern weaponry. Three men were very dead, two in the front seat and one in the back. The man in the back had clearly tried to duck onto the floorboards for cover but this gesture proved futile. There was no evidence of weapons.
I ordered a detailed search of the car and its path toward the patrol in hopes that the weapon had been tossed from the car.
One of the patrol’s gunners told me that he thought that the Iraqis had also shot at the car while it was charging them. As my men searched the area, I went to talk to the Iraqi commander.
When I entered Swordhouse, I found that the officer in charge was a lieutenant colonel and that he was upset that my men “didn’t try to get the sniper.” I was confused and asked him to explain. He informed me that, as my patrol entered the area, someone began shooting south, across the highway, at the Swordhouse. His men returned fire but my patrol never maneuvered against the insurgent gunman. I explained that my men were unaware of the gunman but had engaged the car.
I asked him if any of his men had seen gunfire from the car during the gunfight. After consulting with his men, the Iraqi reported that they had not. The car had been traveling toward my patrol on the highway when it stopped about 500 yards short (a common practice to allow U.S. combat vehicles to merge). At this point, the fire on the Swordhouse began. Because drive-by shootings and rocketing were common (occurring near daily), the Iraqi machine-gunners engaged the car with several short bursts before realizing that the stopped car was not the source of the gunfire.
Suddenly it was clear to me: The Iraqis had engaged the car, prompting the driver to accelerate, fleeing the machine-gun fire. My men heard the gunfire, saw the car accelerating toward them, and saw the flashes as Iraqi tracer rounds burst when they struck the car. Through night-vision goggles the tracer flaring would have resembled muzzle flashes. With seconds before the car reached them, my men were forced to make a life-or-death decision. All of the information available told them that they were under attack and they responded as they were trained.
I returned to the platoon and explained the missing pieces to the patrol leader. For a few seconds I saw grief wash over his face and fear of the coming consequences begin to dawn before he pushed it off, using his responsibilities in the present as a distraction. “Sir, what do you want me to do?”
Over the next 48 hours I briefed the battalion commander, we took statements, and the first sergeant had the chaplain come down to talk with the men individually. The commander appointed an investigating officer who, over the next week, came to the same understanding of the evening’s events as I: The confusion resulting from the attack on Swordhouse created a situation that the members of my patrol misinterpreted as an attack on them. The patrol’s response, while tragic, was appropriate and in accordance with the rules of engagement.
No disciplinary action was recommended or taken. On their own accord, my men located the families of the victims, apologized, and delivered the Army’s condolence payments. All of the men in that patrol soldiered on for another seven months, patrolling and fighting daily, but some had great difficulty coming to terms with the events of that evening.
This recounting is not intended as a “war story.” I hope it presents a different perspective on this type of incident. The American soldier who is involved in such a shooting is often lost within the imposing figure wearing body armor, a rifle and dark shades. He is, in reality, a young man, often thrust into chaotic and terrifying circumstances, who is trying his best to do his job, defend his buddies, and get home alive. I hope that now, when you see a reporter interviewing a crying family on television, you will remember that there may be a matching soldier crying somewhere also.
Lieutenant Colonel Clark Adams is an active duty Infantry officer and an operations research analyst. He has served in and led heavy and light Infantry units, both stateside and overseas. His deployments include KFOR, OIF, and OEF. LTC Adams holds a BA in Criminal Justice from Norwich University and a MS in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University. He is currently assigned as the Senior Military Analyst, Studies and Analysis Directorate, US Army TRADOC Analysis Center, White Sands Missile Range, NM.