It wasn't just Fallujah. And it is possible to get a first-person American perspective. Joshua Key spent six and a half months in Iraq as part of the 43rd Combat Engineer Company of the Second Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, starting in late April 2003. He spent two tours in Ramadi, as well as assignments to Fallujah, al-Habbaniyah/Khaldia, and al-Qa'im (on the border with Syria). Only two weeks were spent in the safety of a green zone (al-Asad) near Baghdad. After being sent home on leave, he decided not to come back. As he told his brother: "It's not the war you think it is. Innocent people are dying over there. I'm not going back." His experience is preserved in the book, The Deserter's Tale.
The difference between his two assignments in Ramadi is particularly instructive. The first began April 28, 2003, the same day of the Fallujah massacre. His company of 120 men was sent in to relieve the 82nd Airborne Division and to take control of the city of 300,000. Key wondered how such a small group could defend themselves and expected to be slaughtered. Key writes:
"However, on entering Ramadi, we were greeted with waves and cheers, Children racing up to our vehicles shouted for food and water. . . our first month in Ramadi was the quietest and easiest of my time in Iraq. During our first tour of duty in Ramadi, we were not subjected to rocket or mortar attacks, nobody launched grenades at us, and almost nobody took shots at us as we moved about the city. Nobody in my platoon was injured or killed." This was April 28 to late May 2003. Key recounts seeing Iraqis using grenades -- to fish the Euphrates river. Contrast this with his second tour of Ramadi, which began just two weeks after the first (with the intervening fortnight spent in Fallujah):
"Now that we were back for our second tour of duty in the city, few people were smiling at us, and a number made no effort to mask their hatred of us. One day, when a butcher in the market caught me looking at him, he raised his knife and held the sharp edge close to his own throat as I walked by. . . Ramadi had changed for the worse. It was no longer a quiet place. It had become the war zone I had first anticipated when arriving in Iraq, with one exception -- the enemy was never visible."
Note that this wasn't just the appearance of guerrilla fighters on the scene: it was a change in the mood of the civilian populace of the city. What happened during the first month in Ramadi, and in the two week period in Fallujah before returning to Ramadi, to account for this change?
Key writes about the night raids on Iraqi homes during his first assignment in Ramadi:
"During that first month in Ramadi, we usually raided at least one home, and as many as four, each night. The houses we raided were ordinary one or two story homes in residential areas."
The raids were conducted to find "contraband, caches of weapons, and signs of terrorists or terrorist activity." After blowing the door of the house open with explosives (during which the raiders hid around the corner to avoid becoming "fried meat"), the raids featured several common themes: roughing up the occupants, vandalism, theft, and kidnappings with indefinite detention under unknown conditions (but Abu Ghraib provides some context).
Vandalism: "The more obvious it became that we would find no weapons or contraband, the more we kicked the stuffing out of the house. We knocked over dressers, sliced into mattresses with knives. . . we turned over everything we could and broke furniture at random, searching. . . With all our ransacking, we never found anything other than the ordinary goods that ordinary people keep in their houses."
Theft: "When we found money, jewelry, or knives, we helped ourselves to them and to anything else that caught our fancy. . . Who was going to stop us? We were the army of the United States of America, and we would do whatever we pleased..."
Kidnapping: "The Iraqi brothers were taken away to an American facility for interrogation. I don't know what it was called and I don't know where it was. All I know is that we sent away every man -- pretty well every male over five feet tall -- that we found in our house raids, and I never saw any of them return to the neighborhoods we patrolled regularly."
Key also spent time assigned to traffic control checkpoints at a number of locations, including Fallujah (between his two Ramadi assignments during the first half of June). He describes specific incidents and names their participants. Beatings were sometimes given to Iraqi civilians who complained, made disrespectful comments, or otherwise did something American soldiers disliked:
"In my countless days at traffic control points, I never once saw an Iraqi civilian threaten or harm an American soldier. . . Every day or two I saw American troops beating the daylights out of Iraqi civilians. In our own platoon, all we had to do was look at our highest ranking sergeant to see that it was okay to kick and punch Iraqis whenever we felt the urge. . . We were encouraged to beat up on the enemy; given the absence of any clearly understood enemy, we picked fights with civilians who were powerless to resist. We knew that we would not have to account for our actions. Because we were fearful, sleep-deprived, jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and testosterone, and because our officers constantly reminded us that all Iraqis were (potentially) our enemies, civilians included, it was tempting to steal, no big deal to punch, and easy to kill."
Key describes an incident driving to a traffic control point in Fallujah in the first half of June, between the two Ramadi assignments:
"Unfortunately, the violence meted out by American troops was not limited to kicking and punching. One day in our first week in Fallujah, my entire platoon -- three squads consisting of a total of about 20 men -- was stationed at a traffic control point. Lieutenant Joyce was the highest ranking officer with us that day. While the other two squads monitored approaching cars, I was busy with my squad mates searching vehicles and cars. . . a hail of gunfire came from M-16 rifles, M-249s, and .50 caliber machine-guns. . . coming from the first and second squads in my platoon. . . all firing at a white car. . . that had two people inside. . . that had driven too close to the checkpoint, about ten feet past the line where it was supposed to stop. . . Inside the car, one man was dead. His head was attached to his neck by only a few threads of flesh and blood was spattered all over him and the car. . . I saw a boy in the front seat. He looked like he was about ten years old. A medic pulled him out. One of the boy's arms was nearly severed, but he was alive. The boy was conscious, and he was looking at his father. . . I spent ten minutes searching the vehicle and patting down the dead man. There were no weapons inside it. There was nothing unusual in the car, except all the blood that we had made run. . . As far as I can tell, he was killed simply because he hadn't known where to stop his car."
In August 2003, Key's company was transferred to the al-Habbaniyah/Khaldia area:
"...by this time tensions in Iraq had escalated so much that we were under regular attack from fighters we could never see. As a group of soldiers, if we stopped in any one place and stayed for more than ten minutes, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades would start raining on us..."
Key describes the standard response:
"We did what we always did in such circumstances, blasting away with our machine-guns at the area where we imagined our enemies were hiding. We didn't stop to ask ourselves if any civilians were in the area; on orders from our commanders, we just lit up the area with machine-gun fire. As always, we had no real idea where our true enemies were, or if we hit anybody with our return fire."
Later, on border duty in al-Qa'im:
"We took mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades almost every day. . . as before, we could never see who was behind the attacks, but our men would shoot in what they hoped was the direction of the enemy. . . We often responded to mortar fire by raiding a house -- any house -- that seemed to be near the source of the attack..."
Key describes the apprehension of a solitary, unarmed, middle-aged man wearing a plain white robe, who did nothing more than walk down the road in the area of enemy fire after the attack:
"Specialist Barrigan, another squad mate, and I jumped out of the vehicle, grabbed the man, pulled him inside, and zip-cuffed him. Barrigan grabbed a billy-club and started whacking the man on the head. When the man fell to his knees Barrigan continued to beat him in the ribs. When the man was dazed and motionless, Barrigan halted the beating. . . We returned to the border, dragged the man out of the vehicle, and brought him into an interrogation room. . . an English speaking Iraqi who worked at the border came into the room and spoke with Sergeant Padilla..."
It transpired that the detainee they had grabbed and beaten worked at the border and had just finished his shift and was walking home when they grabbed him. "He received no explanation or apology" but was released and sent on his way.
In his epilogue, Key writes:
"I believe some people will say that Americans faced a nasty, unconventional war in Iraq, and that we had no choice but to take the war to our enemy in unconventional ways. My feeling is that we lacked the information, the skills, and the experience to find our true enemies in Iraq. . . They were on the run and gone while we were still diving for cover against flying shrapnel. We fought back by lashing out at civilians. . . it seemed the only way we could fight back, but it was wrong.
"I am responsible for the things I did. . . But the situation was made worse because we had tacit approval from our commanders to shoot first and ask questions later. If a soldier beat up or shot somebody, all he had to say -- if he said anything at all -- was that he felt threatened. As a result, our behavior was completely unchecked.
"In Iraq, I did not witness the equivalent of the American massacre of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the hamlet of My Lai in 1968. . . Instead, I saw a steady stream of abuse and individual killing -- a beating here, a shot there. Collectively, however, these incidents add up.
"Some people will say that the terrible things I have described were exceptions to the rule. This might be comforting but it would also be naïve to think so. Because I saw fundamental violations of basic human rights every day or two for six and a half months in Iraq, and since I never saw a single soldier or officer criticized or disciplined for carrying out such violations, I tend to hear the opposite. . . that what I saw was only the tip of the iceberg."