Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Convergence of Untoward Circumstances

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Early in our endeavor in Iraq, and more frequently as our troop strength in Afghanistan increased, we heard emotional reports of civilians being killed by American forces during operations. These reports usually included tearful relatives and possibly a bullet-riddled car in the background. An element universally missing from these tragic accounts was the perspective of the young American who was on the other end of the rifle. Occasionally a senior officer, acting as an Army spokesperson, would provide a sterile recounting of the Army's understanding of the chain of events, but very rarely have we heard from the men on the ground. This void in the coverage is unfortunate because it denies the world a full understanding of the circumstances and provides fertile ground for unfounded criticism of our strategies, our tactics, and our Soldiers.

This deficit in full disclosure compels me to share my personal experience with this ugly issue. I hope that, by recounting the circumstances and thoughts of the men directly involved in the accidental killing of three Iraqi men, I can provide a more complete comprehension of how an American Soldier comes to shoot a civilian.

While each story is unique and I cannot profess to have a full understanding of every civilian shooting event, I think that events that led to this incident in 2005 are reasonably representative of the ambiguous and frantic nature of the moments that lead to an unintended killing.

In late 2005, I was a reconnaissance company Commander in Abu Ghraib, Iraq (just West of Baghdad). It was mid evening as I stood in my command post, reviewing patrol reports, when the radio came alive with “Phantom Main this is Green 1. Contact, Out!” The transmission was barely intelligible over the stattaco roar of machine guns. One of my platoon sized patrols was in a fight. I immediately ordered another platoon to prepare to move out in support and yelled for my First Sergeant. I continued to monitor the situation by portable radio as I donned my gear and moved to the relief platoon’s staging point. As we were loading the gun-trucks the patrol leader in contact reported his situation: “…Sporatic gunfire from Swordhouse [an Iraqi outpost]. One sedan engaged and halted after the occupants fired at us while charging the patrol. No US casualties. No further contact, Over.”

I breathed a sigh of relief that my boys were alright and hoped that they had killed a known bad guy.

By about fifteen minutes later, when I arrived at the scene with the reinforcing platoon, all shooting had stopped but things were clearly wrong. The patrol leader seemed agitated and confused as he explained the situation to me. “Sir, we were coming in [from patrolling] and, as we crossed onto the highway, we heard gunfire. When I looked down the road, a car was accelerating towards us and there were muzzle flashes coming from it. The gunners opened up and engaged until the vehicle stopped. I called ‘Cease fire’ and we moved in to clear the car…..but we can’t find any guns. I know they were shooting!”

I walked over to the car and looked inside for any sign of weapons or shell casings. Inside of the car was a disturbing example of the brutal effectiveness of modern weaponry. Three men were very dead; two in the front seat and one in the back. The man in the back had clearly tried to duck onto the floorboards for cover but this gesture proved futile. There was no evidence of weapons. I ordered a detailed search of the car and its path toward the patrol in hopes that the weapon had been tossed from the car.

One of the patrol’s gunners told me that he thought that the Iraqis had also shot at the car while it was charging them. As my men searched the area, I went to talk to the Iraqi Commander. When I entered Swordhouse, I found that the officer in charge was a Lieutenant Colonel and that he was upset that my men “didn’t try to get the sniper.” I was confused and asked him to explain. He informed me that as my patrol entered the area someone began shooting south, across the highway, at the Swordhouse. His men returned fire but my patrol never maneuvered against the insurgent gunman. I explained that my men were unaware of the gunman but had engaged the car. I asked him if any of his men had seen gunfire from the car during the gunfight. After consulting with his men, the Iraqi reported that they had not. The car had been traveling toward my patrol on the highway when it stopped about 500 yards short [a common practice to allow US combat vehicles to merge]. At this point, the fire on the Swordhouse began. Because drive-by shootings and rocketing were common (occurring near daily) the Iraqi machine gunners engaged the car with several short bursts before realizing that the stopped car was not the source of the gunfire.

Suddenly it was clear to me. The Iraqis had engaged the car, prompting the driver to accelerate, fleeing the machine gun fire. My men heard the gunfire, saw the car accelerating toward them, and saw the flashes as Iraqi tracer rounds burst when they struck the car. Through night vision goggles the tracer flaring would have resembled muzzle flashes. With seconds before the car reached them, my men were forced to make a life or death decision. All of the information available told them that they were under attack and they responded as they were trained.

I returned to the platoon and explained the missing pieces to the patrol leader. For a few seconds I saw grief wash over his face and fear of the coming consequences begin to dawn before he pushed it off, using his responsibilities in the present as a distraction. “Sir, what do you want me to do?”

Over the next 48 hours I briefed the Battalion Commander, we took statements, and the First Sergeant had the Chaplain come down to talk with the men individually. The Commander appointed an investigating officer who, over the next week, came to the same understanding of the evening as me: The confusion resulting from the attack on Swordhouse created a situation which my patrol misinterpreted as an attack on them. The patrols response, while tragic, was appropriate and in accordance with the rules of engagement.

No disciplinary action was recommended or taken. On their own accord, my men located the families of the victims, apologized, and delivered the Army’s condolence payments. All of the men in that patrol soldiered on for another seven months, patrolling and fighting daily but some had great difficulty coming to terms with the events of that evening.

This recounting is not intended as a “war story”. I hope that it presents a different perspective on this type of incident. The American Soldier who is involved in such a shooting is often lost within the imposing figure wearing body armor, a rifle, and dark shades. He is, in reality, a young man, often thrust into chaotic and terrifying circumstances, who is trying his best to do his job, defend his buddies, and get home alive. I hope that now, when you are faced with a reporter interviewing a crying family on television, you will remember that there may be a matching Soldier crying somewhere also.

Clark C. Adams II

Major, US Army

CGSC Student


  1. Excellent write-up from the side that so few, outside those of us fighting, get to see.

  2. Awesome post! I think you definitely need to move forward and write a book. Not just for yourself and your children, but for every soldier who needs to be understood, a civilian population that wants to understand, and future generations that need to remmeber.

  3. A touching and sobering piece, well-written, and a story I'd like to see you tell. I'm the managing editor of Stars and Stripes, and this blog would make a great opinion page piece as a guest columnist. I don't see a way to contact you on here, but feel free to contact me if you're interested. Work email is grindstaffr@stripes.osd.mil.

  4. I'm biased as a retired US Army NCO, I know in my heart that the American Soldier isn't a heartless killer even when defending themselves. I truly wish those who second guess and question the motives or actions of our service members deployed to combat zones would read this blog and take a good look into their own souls and biases before judging the acts taken in the heat of combat.

  5. Thanks for all you do, C. Make sure those young guys know to keep making the right decision and keep staying alive. Be well, and best to the family. CC

  6. I thank you, and your men, for everything you have done, and continue to do on a daily basis. Finally, people like myself can get "the other side" of the story, and not just the continued lambasting of our military by a media with special interests...

  7. This is the side of the story that the liberal U.S. media doesn't portray. You and your men did the right thing. There will be innocent casualties in war. There is no way getting around that. Anyone who disagrees with this or condemns our troops around the globe needs to shut the hell up and stand behind our servicemen and women.

  8. Unable to give you a heart. so have a reply to push up your post. ........................................

  9. 教育的目的,不在應該思考什麼,而是教吾人怎樣思考......................................................

  10. 來問個安,誰不支持這個部落格,我咬他........................................

  11. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」.................................................................

  12. 當一個人內心能容納兩樣相互衝突的東西,這個人便開始變得有價值了。............................................................

  13. Never put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you will not have a leg to stand on.............................................................

  14. 傻氣的人喜歡給心 雖然每次都被笑了卻得到了別人的心..................................................................