America’s Death Squads

by , January 11, 2005

Six months in jail – for a wanton murder. That’s fair, now isn’t it? It is if the victim is Iraqi, and the murderers are four American soldiers – that’s what a military court recently decided, and it’s a verdict that tells us everything we need to know about the “liberation” of Iraq.

Jan. 3, 2004 – Two young Iraqis, Zaydun al-Samarrai and Marwan Hassoun, were transporting bathroom fixtures in their truck when it broke down and their trip back home was delayed. As they stood by the side of the road at 10:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the American-imposed curfew in Samarra, an American patrol chanced upon them – and that’s when the trouble started.

They had already been stopped and searched at a checkpoint manned by Iraqi police, but the Americans made them get out of the truck, searched the cargo, and looked at their identity papers. Marwan remembers that one soldier merrily chirped at them in Arabic, as friendly as could be, and said they were free to go. But when they got back in their truck, the Americans had a sudden change of heart: the two of them were ordered out, handcuffed, and pushed into one of four Bradley fighting vehicles that made up the patrol.

Nineteen-year-old Zaydun was terrified, and whispered to Marwan: “What’s happening?”

Zaydun Al-Samarrai, murdered by US soldiers in Iraq.

He would soon find out.

The Bradley stopped at a bridge that spans the Tigris, a bridge that also regulates the flow of river water and is known as the Tharthar dam. Zaydun and Marwan were shoved out onto the walkway. The water roared below as the soldiers uncuffed them and ordered them to jump.

“Why? Why?”

Marwan’s plaintive cry fell on the deadened ears of his captors, who grinned and laughed. Even as he cried out against the unreason of a world gone mad, in which the “liberated” are tortured by their “liberators,” his anguish was drowned out by their glee as they forced him into the river at gunpoint.

But not before he saw them push Zaydun – who couldn’t swim – over the edge as he clung to his tormentors, begging. But the Americans weren’t having any of it:

“Shut up! Shut the f*ck up!”

Marwan tried to save his young cousin, but Zaydun slipped away from his grip in the strong current. Marwan recounts:

“He was shouting ‘Marwan, save me,’ and I yelled back ‘Try to swim, try to swim,’ but he went under again and that was it. I could hear them [the soldiers] laughing. They were behaving like they were watching a comedy on stage.”

A generation weaned on American television, thug “music,” and video games that glamorize sadism goes to war: we shouldn’t be surprised or even shocked that they see it as a form of entertainment.

Marwan grasped at clumps of weeds and managed to get to shore, while Zaydun was swept downriver: his body was recovered a few days later.

US Army Sgt.1st Class Tracy E. Perkins, one of Al-Samarrai’s murderers, just given six months by a military court and a reduction in pay.

This murder would have gone undetected and unknown to all but the victims’ immediate family, but for a blogger named Zeyad, an Iraqi who had attracted much attention and respect in the “blogosphere,” especially among the pro-war types, who constantly cited Zeyad’s support for the occupation and his consistently “pro-American” outlook. Zaydun, you see, was Zeyad’s cousin.

This remarkable post on Zeyad’s “Healing Iraq” Web site, including an open letter from the family addressed to Bush and a passel of world leaders, caused a storm of controversy in the “blogosphere.” A crunching, cracking noise, like the sound made by those Bradley fighting vehicles as they crushed the cousins’ truck beneath heavy treads, was nearly audible as neocon ideology ran smack into the ugly reality of the occupation. These bitter words of Zeyad’s stung our laptop bombardiers where it hurts:

“This was done in the name of your country by soldiers of your national army. This was not an accident or a mistake, this was deliberate action. I do not know the exact details of the event or what Zaydun and his cousin were accused of, that is all irrelevant because even a criminal would not deserve such treatment. This is not just about Zaydun, this is about Iraq, the same could happen to anyone, even to me. But I will keep my opinion out of it for the moment as no words can describe my frustration. …

“The family met an American official to ask him for an investigation, he yelled at them and started to lecture them about the discipline of American GI’s, in the end he promised them nothing. Zaydun’s body is yet to be found and the family is broken. Zaydun is a relative of mine so I volunteered to translate the letter and expose this thuggish behaviour to an audience as wide as possible, it shouldn’t go unreported. The letter has already been sent to various Iraqi papers and to offices of Arab media in Baghdad. I will stay on top of this in the next few days so I would like to ask my readers to help me and write to their Senators, to the western media, and to anyone that can do something about it. I also need people to translate it to other languages. That is of course if you care about Iraq and Iraqis.”

With a swiftness that is a tribute to the liberating power of technology, the American military authorities reversed their previous indifference to the family’s protest and announced that an investigation was underway. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit declared that this proved how noble the Americans are and vowed to follow up on the story. If you go look at the readers’ comments appended to Zeyad’s post, however, you can see the real spirit of the neocon “bloggers” and their brainless war-bots expressed in the anger, zealous denial, and flat-out hatred directed at Zeyad for dissing his “liberators.” It is positively vomit-inducing.

But no less so than the farcical investigation and military trial. Zeyad wrote in his blog months after the incident:

“At last, the four soldiers that forced my late cousin into the Tigris at Samarra have been ‘REPRIMANDED’. They still insist that no one had died even though Zaydun’s DEAD body had been retrieved from the river. Also makes me wonder, if no one died, why did they offer a handsome sum of money to the family in return for their silence? And why did the mentioned Commander (the one who was also ‘reprimanded’) impede the investigation and LIE to the Army investigators? The stench of cover up is overwhelming. This won’t go unpunished.”

Won’t it?

It took six months, but eventually Sgt. 1st Class Tracy E. Perkins, 33; 1st Lt. Jack M. Saville, 24; and Sgt. Reggie Martinez, 24, were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Zaydun. Spc. Terry Bowman, 21, was charged with simple assault for pushing Marwan into the river. Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman, Maj. Robert Gwinner, and Capt. Matthew Cunningham – the commanding officers responsible – were dealt with under Article 15 of the military legal code, which permits secret disciplinary proceedings. Sassaman later admitted ordering his soldiers to lie about the incident.

Charges against Bowman and Martinez were dropped in mid-September, and now we see that Perkins is getting a slap on the wrist – six months and a one-grade reduction in rank to staff sergeant. Saville, suspected of giving the order that led to Zaydun’s death, is scheduled to go on trial shortly.

What’s interesting is the very successful defense mounted by the lawyers for the accused, who deny a death ever took place. As the Rocky Mountain News reported when the charges were dropped against Bowman and Martinez:

“Army investigators testified that they never saw [the victim] Hassoun’s body and had no evidence confirming that a body existed, except for the account of Hassoun’s cousin and a videotape of a body during funeral preparations by Hassoun’s family.

“Other members of the platoon testified they saw two men standing on the riverbank and believed both men were safely out of the water. The soldiers’ testimony coupled with the lack of a body prompted the hearing officer, Capt. Robert Ayers, to recommend that manslaughter charges be dropped….”

Perkins’ lawyer continued in this vein: the family, he averred, was quite possibly lying. Zaydun could be running around somewhere, waiting to collect his share of the compensation money. Testimony was heard attesting to the “fact” that the Iraqis often reported false deaths to “get the troops in trouble.”

Denial is the preferred tactic of the War Party and this administration. As the rationale for this war crumbled, they denied ever knowing the truth about those fabled “weapons of mass destruction.” As the reality that we’re losing this war begins to sink in, even among those who previously predicted that the Iraqis would hail us in the streets, this administration and the hardline hawks deny everything. We aren’t looking at “the good news from Iraq,” they aver, and the Wall Street Journal even employs someone to maintain this hallucination full-time. So why shouldn’t lawyers defending American war criminals uphold a similar denialist stance? And the parallels between what happened in that courtroom and what is happening in the court of public opinion do not end there.

The defense made the same argument that our neocon advocates of torture and defenders of death squads have been making here on the home front:

“Defense attorney Capt. Josh Norris said the hostilities in Iraq require soldiers to find effective nonlethal ways to deter crime and establish respect. ‘Did these guys cross over the line? Did they know the left and right limits? This war is in this gray area most of the time,’ Norris said. ‘Was it [the river incident] a good idea? Maybe not … but was it a crime, considering all the circumstances?'”

We have to show them who’s boss. We have to put them in their place. We have to “win” the war against the insurgency – even if we have to torture half the adult Iraqi males in the Sunni Triangle (using “non-lethal” means at all times, of course). Is torture great bodily harm leading directly to organ failure – or is it making a 19-year-old kid who can’t swim jump into a raging torrent?

Let’s argue about it. How many torturers can dance atop a Bradley? Let the debate begin. Any further proof of America’s moral degeneracy is superfluous.

What gets me about this case is that Zaydun’s is a solidly middle-class pro-American family. Zeyad, a doctor, is not merely intelligent: he is that rare breed, the thoroughly pro-American Iraqi, whose zeal for the alleged liberation of his people led him to take photos of what were billed as anti-terrorist demonstrations that were later reproduced by the U.S. occupation authority and handed out by American soldiers.

The murder of Zaydun, and the subsequent cover-up, is, for this reason, the ultimate betrayal. The whole sorry “investigation” and legal farce that ensued is a metaphor for the invasion and subsequent occupation. Launched as a noble crusade to export “freedom” and “democracy,” the “liberation” of Iraq is a fraud – a hideous war crime clothed in the pristine robes of an exalted “idealism.”

The occupation of Iraq must end: it is time to look for the exits. The alternative is to continue this monstrous betrayal of everything America stands for, and spread the seeds of a moral corruption that will one day come back to haunt us. As Alberto Gonzales – the rationalizer and enabler of systematized torture as a “tactic” in the “war on terrorism” – assumes the office of attorney general in this war-maddened administration, the U.S. is considering running “death squads” in Iraq similar to those deployed in Central America during the 1980s. The whitewash of Zaydun’s murder is emblematic of our descent into barbarism. That is one of the lessons of this case.

Justice, freedom, democracy – all the highfalutin’ notions that animate spindle-shouldered policy wonks as they explicate the administration line (either because they’re on the payroll, or gratis) – are just so much noise spilling into the ether. And that – for Zeyad and all those Iraqis (and others) who take U.S. government propaganda at face value – is the bitterest lesson of them all.

“They aren’t for peace,” wrote a prominent “scholar” at the Cato Institute recently, “they’re for the other side.” This neocon hysteric was referring to Antiwar.com, among others, but Zaydun’s martyrdom and the ongoing cover-up ought to make it clear to any decent person which “side” to be on in Iraq – and that is Zaydun’s side, his family’s side, and, yes, Zeyad’s side, the militantly secular and pro-American blogger who brought America’s shame to light.

As America’s death squads are unleashed on Iraq, I know which side I’m on. Do you?

Read more by Justin Raimondo