"I became angry and mean"

A U.S. soldier confesses to the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, and gets life in prison.

Published November 17, 2006 10:44PM (EST)

On Thursday, Spc. James Barker was sentenced to life in prison for the gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Iraqi Abier Kassim Hamzah Rashid al Janabi and the murder of her parents and younger sister. The gruesome crime prompted an outcry in Iraq earlier this year; U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged that the incident injured the "Iraqi people as a whole." The Washington Post notes that Barker's 90-year sentence is "by far the longest sentence for a U.S. soldier in connection with the death of an Iraqi civilian since the war began in 2003."

The attack is especially chilling because of its premeditation; on the stand, the 23-year-old Barker, who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his fellow soldiers to avoid the death penalty, said he and former Pvt. Steven Green and Sgt. Paul Cortez drank whiskey and played cards while they plotted the rape and murder. According to Barker, the three soldiers took turns raping the victim, and then Green shot her and her family; the soldiers apparently set the girl's body on fire to conceal the assault. Barker framed his actions as a response to the unrelenting violence in Iraq: "To live there, to survive there, I became angry and mean," he said. "I loved my friends, my fellow soldiers and my leaders, but I began to hate everyone else in Iraq." He further told the judge he "hated Iraqis," but added, "I want the people of Iraq to know that I did not go there to do the terrible things that I did."

Barker's description of his own vengeful mind-set illuminates the hopelessness and failure of the Iraq debacle in particular and the dehumanization and civilian casualties that tend to accompany war in general. Absolutely nothing could possibly excuse the brutalizing of a teenager and her family, and yet certain American soldiers saw the violation and murder of a civilian family as a reasonable outlet in their situation. While Americans at home continue to hear about the advancing march of freedom in Iraq and that U.S. troops will stand down when the Iraqis stand up, the general mood in Iraq is very obviously not one of optimism and cooperation.

The military judge in Baker's case sentenced him to be "confined for the length of [his] natural life," though he'll be eligible for parole in 20 years. The sentence is subject to review by a higher military authorities and could end up being reduced. Green, Cortez and two other soldiers charged in the case, Pvt. Jesse Spielman and Pvt. Bryan Howard, await trial.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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