How men commit war crimes - Lara Marlowe's review of Black Hearts from Irish Times, 11 September 2010.

How men commit war crimes

REPORTAGE: LARA MARLOWE reviews Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death , By Jim Frederick, Macmillan, 439pp, £12.99

SGT KENITH CASICA stands out in Jim Frederick’s saga of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. The cheerful Filipino wants to go to college and obtain US citizenship after the war. He’s the only soldier who learns a little Arabic and attempts to get on with the locals.

Many of the survivors of the terrible 2005-6 deployment told Frederick that Casica was the nicest guy they ever met. That didn’t stop them calling Casica a Hadji Hugger or Hadji Fucker. Hajji , the word for a Muslim who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, is used by US soldiers as a derogatory term for Iraqis.

Casica’s killing, on December 10th, 2005, seems to symbolise the defeat of the United States’ good intentions, and is the turning point of the book. An Iraqi man wearing track-suit bottoms and a white shirt approaches a checkpoint on a road south of Baghdad. Casica greets him in Arabic. The man pulls a 9mm pistol from his waistband and fells the soldier with a shot to the neck, then shoots another soldier in the head before the checkpoint’s machine-gunner “blows his head into a pink cloud”.

The Americans dump the Iraqi killer’s body on a rubbish heap, to be eaten by dogs. Some of them kick the corpse. Private Steven Green, who already has a reputation for being racist and mentally unstable, pulls several teeth from the dead Iraqi’s mouth and slips them into his pocket.

In the epigram in Frederick’s book, Norman Mailer called life “a gladiator’s arena for the soul”, an apt description of the Iraq war. This is a gripping but horrifying read, told with detachment; proof yet again that war is hell.

The battalion is stationed in the worst part of Iraq, in the worst two years of the war, forbidden from taking off their body armour and helmets for days at a time, undermanned and constantly berated by Lt Col Tom Kunk, a tyrranical commander who blames them for the casualties they suffer. Kunk dispatches the men on dangerous and futile missions to clear roads so riddled with improvised explosive devices that they are virtually minefields.

Casualties are high and each explosion worse than the last. Bodies are blown into the sky, scattered in pieces. Arms and legs come off in the hand when soldiers attempt to pull their comrades from burning Humvees. Soldiers are “dirty, haggard, exhausted, pale, and dead-eyed”. They tear up on routine missions and cry into their food. At the same time they grow increasingly cruel and desensitised, beating up “Hadjis” for sport, circulating videos of gore and carnage set to rock music. Drink and drug use are common.

Eleven days after Casica’s death Pvt Green told an army psychiatrist from the “combat stress team” that his only interest in life was killing Iraqis. The psychiatrist recommends follow-up, but her warning is ignored. “If we just killed everybody in Iraq, we could go home,” Green is often heard to say.

On the morning of March 12th, 2006, Specialist James Barker is manning a checkpoint with Green, Spc Paul Cortez and Pvt Jesse Spielman. “We’ve all killed Hadjis,” Barker blurts out. “But I’ve been here twice and I still never fucked one of these bitches.” He has noticed an attractive teenage girl at a house a few hundred metres from their position. As the four men play cards and drink Iraqi whiskey the idea takes hold. They decide to kill the whole family, so there will be no witnesses.

Green wants to do the killing. He herds Qassim al-Janabi, the father, Fakrhiah, the mother, and little Hadeel into the bedroom while Cortez and Barker gang-rape 14-year-old Abeer. He shoots Fakrhiah first, as she tries to escape. Her husband goes wild, so Green shoots him once in the head and twice in the chest. Then he shoots the little girl in the back of the head.

After killing her family, Green is the last to rape Abeer. He puts a pillow over her face and shoots her in the head. The men douse her body with kerosene from a lamp and set fire to her. A neighbour finds bodies in blood-soaked clothing, blown-out brains, Abeer’s charred head and torso, still burning above her spread, spindly legs.

The massacre of the al-Janabi family is initially attributed to insurgents. When Green throws a puppy off the roof of a checkpoint eight days after the quadruple murder the army concludes that he suffers from “antisocial personality disorder” and discharges him. In the meantime he had confessed to Sgt Tony Yribe, claiming he committed the rape and murders alone.

Yribe keeps silent until the checkpoint known as Alamo is attacked by insurgents in June. One soldier is killed on the spot. Two others are captured, eviscerated and beheaded. “It drives me crazy that all the good men die and the shitbag murderers like Green are home eating hamburgers,” Yribe remarks to another soldier, Justin Watt, who becomes the whistle-blower on one of the worst atrocities committed by US troops in Iraq.

A military court sentenced Cortez to 100 years, Barker and Spielman to 90 years each. All will be eligible for parole after a decade. Because Green had been discharged and returned to the US he was arrested by the FBI and tried by a jury, which sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences, without hope of parole.

Green spoke publicly of his crime only once, when he was sentenced. “I know that if I live one more year or 50 more years that they will be years that Fakhriah, Qassim, Abeer and Hadeel won’t have,” he said. “And even though I did not learn their names until long after their deaths, they are never far from my mind . . . I know that I have done evil, and I fear that the wrath of the Lord will come upon me on.”

Without in any way justifying them, Frederick’s book makes you understand how men commit war crimes. It is a reminder of all that preceded President Barack Obama’s August 31st declaration of the end of the US combat mission. The Iraq war is not completely over, but it has already cost $750 billion and extinguished the lives of more than 4,400 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Seventy-two per cent of Americans now say it was not worth the cost in blood and treasure.

The real culprits – George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – are certain to go unpunished.

Lara Marlowe is the Irish Times Washington correspondent. She covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq and returned there repeatedly for the newspaper until 2008