Creating people's geographies
Where’s the outrage?
U.S. troops have been accused of committing atrocities in Iraq. Americans should care.
By William Neikirk
Tribune senior correspondent
27 Aug 2006 Chicago Tribune
Abeer Qassim al-Janabi is not a household name, though perhaps she should be. The 14-year-old girl was repeatedly raped, then shot to death in her home March 12. Her body was set on fire. Her mother, father and sister also were murdered.
It happened in Iraq, in the village of Mahmoudiya near Baghdad, in the so-called Triangle of Death, the most stressful, violent place in a stressful, violent country. The alleged perpetrators: American troops.
Before the incident, the soldiers allegedly downed whiskey, played cards and hit golf balls. Afterward, they dined on grilled chicken wings.
A similar act of violence here in the U.S. would have triggered overpowering outrage, non-stop TV coverage and a grave concern about our military. It might even have surpassed the wall-to-wall coverage that the arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey murder has received.
Yet no great public outcry has arisen over one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war. People say the incident is appalling and inexcusable in one breath then in the next shrug it off as just another unfortunate example of what war can do to young soldiers.
For all its horror, the murder of al-Janabi and her family has not become another My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. forces mowed down as many as 500 people in March 1968 and turned many Americans against the war.
Instead, the murders are another horror piled on top of a series of horrors, including the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last year and the torture at Abu Ghraib prison.
Together, the brutalities have contributed to a desensitizing of the American public to atrocities in Iraq. As repugnant as they are, we have learned to write them off as part of the tragedy of this war.
“Almost surely, [the crimes] will be treated as another byproduct of the war,” said Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University professor and a military expert. “I doubt that even the opponents of the war will make much of it as they do not want to be seen as anti-soldier.
“That the anti-war movement portrays itself as pro-soldier,” Moskos added, “is the big difference from the anti-war movement of Vietnam.”
Bill Taylor, an Army colonel in Vietnam and now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a few more atrocities like the one in Mahmoudiya could change the pro-military attitude.
“You add this one to Haditha, and then you have a spate of these, look out,” he said.
Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist and author who has studied Vietnam War atrocities, said American military leaders know that “every atrocity strengthens the enemy and potentially disables the troops who were involved.”
Why such atrocities occur is unclear. But experts point to the lowering of recruiting standards to fill spots in an all-volunteer army and the use of troops to police in an extremely dangerous atmosphere.
“We live in a country that has a voluntary military but which more than 95 percent of our citizens have elected not to serve,” said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.
“If the mainstream of our society refuses to serve, it shouldn’t be surprising that you get soldiers who are not qualified to serve,” he added.
The Bush administration has brushed off the rape-murder case as an aberration, saying the majority of our troops would never do such a thing. Legislators have shied away from questions, reluctant to criticize troops.
When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam veteran and a critic of the Iraq war, said U.S. troops “killed innocent civilians in cold blood” in Haditha, one of the Marines under investigation in the attack sued him for libel.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), a retired Marine Corps colonel, even apologized to the Marines for appearing to suggest troops had lied and covered up the Haditha incident.
Mike Steele, a professor of literature at Pacific University in Oregon and a former anti-war activist during the Vietnam War, said some people are in denial. “Who wants to believe that the nice kid next door could do something like this?” he said. “It’s difficult.”
Among those charged with the rape and murder of al-Janabi is Steven Green, an Army private who has since been discharged for a personality disorder. He denies wrongdoing, but before the incident he told a Washington Post reporter, “Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like, `All right, let’s go get some pizza.'”
At a Baghdad hearing, a member of the same unit, Pfc. Justin Cross, said constant attacks in the Triangle of Death had put the soldiers under incredible stress. “You’re just walking a death walk,” he said. “It drives you nuts. You feel like every step you might get blown up.”
The deaths of two soldiers before the slayings in Mahmoudiya “pretty much crushed the platoon,” Cross said. To deal with the stress and the toll on their unit, he said, they turned to whiskey and painkillers.