"You want to shoot them"

Convinced that kids were spying on them, sick of seeing buddies blown apart, the Marines accused of the Haditha massacre cracked.

Published June 8, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

A few days before the apparent massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, last November, the Marine Corps unit linked to the incident became convinced that a small boy was spying on them on behalf of the insurgents.

Lance Cpl. James Crossan, a member of the now-infamous Kilo Company, said that his squad caught the boy trailing their foot patrol in Haditha. "We would watch him go through the patrol counting us," Crossan recalled. "We thought, 'What the fuck?'"

According to Crossan, the Marines moved the boy to a house away from the line of sight. But later that day, a roadside bomb blasted another Marine squad from the same platoon while it was on patrol at that precise spot. "That was right where we found the kid counting the patrol," Crossan said in a phone interview from his home in North Bend, Wash.

The 21-year-old Crossan, who was on his second tour of service in Iraq, was badly wounded in Haditha a few days later when the Humvee he was riding in was blown up by another roadside bomb. The driver of the Humvee, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, was killed. This Nov. 19 bombing triggered a house-to-house search in Haditha, which Iraqis say led to the widely reported rampage that allegedly killed the two dozen civilians, including children.

Without either a completed investigation by the military or a congressional hearing, many of the details of that terrible day at Haditha remain elusive. But Newsweek, in its cover story this week on Haditha, states, "The videotaped eyewitness accounts ... are horrifying, hard to believe in their sordidness and brutality." Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, who was not involved in the incident but photographed the carnage and helped move the bodies, told the Los Angeles Times that the victims "ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood."

Crossan, the only other Marine who was in Haditha that day to talk to the press, was unconscious during the alleged atrocities. But he said that the reaction to his injuries (which included a broken back and broken pelvis) and the death of Terrazas, a solf-spoken soldier known as "T.J," added to the anger of a Marine unit already frustrated at the way that the insurgents blended in with the civilian population. "We were tired of it," said Crossan.

Interviews with Crossan and another Marine who earlier served in the same platoon (3rd platoon, Kilo Company), as well as with military experts and psychologists, help provide some of the context for the reputed events at Haditha. The portrait that emerges is of an exhausted and overextended unit that participated in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Iraq war. The unit had fought at Nasiriyah during the initial invasion of Iraq, and in late 2004 engaged in 10 days of house-to-house combat during the battle for control of Fallujah. And last year -- in the months before the civilian deaths in Haditha -- at least 20 Marines were killed in ambushes and bombings in the town.

None of this, of course, can possibly justify what apparently occurred at Haditha or exonerate any Marine who participated in the barbarities. "The description of the event is called murder," said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-area think tank. "If, due to the stress of the situation, the Marines lost fire discipline and killed people, it is murder or, at least, manslaughter. At the same time, we need to understand why it happened and how it happened."

Dr. Paul Ragan, a former Navy psychiatrist now a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, suspects that the "ambiguity of mission and ambiguity of enemy" played a role at Haditha. He stressed that there is only so far you can push combat troops. "There is a concern that the psychological resources, no matter how well trained, are stretched too thin," Ragan said. "There is a reality here. These are not superheroes or X-men. These are real people on their third tour" of duty in Iraq.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military in 2003 and 2004, made an analogous point when he told Salon, "What we have right now is a very stressed ground force."

Cpl. Korey Kaufman, now discharged from the Marines, served two combat tours with Kilo Company until he was wounded at Fallujah. Interviewed last week in his hometown of Ashland, Ohio, Kaufman said that he knows several of the Marines from the unit who are under investigation for their conduct in Haditha. "They were good Marines," he said.

Kaufman, who is now a police officer in Ashland, recalled the frustrations that came with knowing that civilians had planted -- or, at least, knew about -- roadside bombs that could kill your buddies. "I've done a lot of foot patrols in these villages," said the 30-year-old Kaufman. "You know they [civilians] are bad, you just can't prove it."

Kaufman went on to say, "You get to the point where you are sick of seeing our guys get killed. When you see these people die -- when you get showered with their flesh and blood -- it does something to you."

At Nasiriyah, Kaufman recalled exchanging gunfire with a man who slipped into a house and hid among his family. Kaufman said it was hard to hold his fire when the Marines kicked in the door and found the insurgent there, black-clad and sweating, huddling with his family for safety. "You get the adrenaline going, you kick in a door and you want to shoot them. My team leader wanted to take him out," Kaufman said. "I told him, 'Don't do it.'"

During the battle for Fallujah, the military spent weeks warning civilians to leave the city -- and then gave Marines clear, deadly rules of engagement. "Our ROEs were kill anything that moves," said Crossan, who fought alongside Kaufman during the battle. "We went for 10 days of straight-on fighting. Most of it was at close quarters."

In places like Fallujah in 2004 and Haditha last year, American armed forces in Iraq face ambiguous situations that confound the rules of engagement and blur the distinction between ordinary Iraqis and the insurgents.

At Fallujah, Kaufman described how Marines had to make excruciating, split-second decisions about how to handle Iraqi civilians who would not leave their homes. "We would kick in doors and there would be a 90-year-old man standing there," Kaufman recounted. "He is saying, 'This is my house. I'm not leaving my house.'" In that frenzied situation, Kaufman realized that he could have shot the old man. But as he put it, "I just couldn't do it. You get to a point where you get tired of the killing."

As prominent Republicans such as John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talk of holding congressional hearings into what happened at Haditha, the underlying question becomes -- like the furor over Abu Ghraib -- how far up the chain of command responsibility rests.

Clearly, the responsibility for burnt-out Marines serving two and even three tours of duty in Iraq does not stop with Kilo Company. "There is no question in my mind that lapses like Haditha can be traced to a lack of understanding of the nature of this war at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House," declared David R. Segal, the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, in an e-mail. "The trickle down from this is a failure to recognize the wear and tear on our troops of repeated deployments."

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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