Sunday, October 21, 2007
To Kill a Child
SPOILER WARNING! Don't read this if you want to read John Crawford's "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell."
When a line of Humvees headed for the Tallil Air Force Base, which surrounds the ancient city of Ur in Iraq, specialist John Crawford made a mistake.
Three little boys, probably 8 or 9 years old, stood knee-deep in some crops as the military convoy passed. Before Crawford could offer a polite wave, he made out the telltale, triangle-shaped sight post of an AK-47 in one of the boy’s hands. The boy pointed the gun at the commander’s vehicle.
“Fuck!” Crawford yelled, according to his nonfiction account of his service in Iraq, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. “He’s got a fucking AK!”
The Humvee skidded to a stop. While two of Crawford’s squad-mates struggled to get their guns ready, Crawford slipped out of the doorless vehicle, propped his Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) against the hood, put the boy in his sights and pulled the trigger. The gun fires about 850 rounds a minute.
Crawford discovered later that the boy’s gun lacked a trigger, buttstock and bolt—it was the damaged weapon of an insurgent who soldiers had killed the day prior.
“The kid couldn’t have shot spitballs through it even if he had wanted to,” Crawford wrote.
The military refers to these mistakes as collateral damage. War experts and Iraq War critics describe this as “losing the war of hearts and minds.” In some cases, such snafus are considered a violation of an article in the Geneva Conventions, which demands that the occupying power protect “persons taking no active part in the hostilities.” Therefore, in some cases such activity is legally a war crime.
But according to a July 2007 article on civilian deaths by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, the product of interviews with 50 soldiers, marines and sailors that faced combat in Iraq, holding troops accountable to the brutal mistakes of war is nearly impossible, mainly because noncombatants are killed quite often.
In many cases a soldier or marine will forgo the rules of engagement and shoot down the perceived enemy, rather than wait to confirm whether said enemy is real or imagined. The fear of death trumps the fear of court-martial.
“Since the number of troops tried for killing civilians is so scant, interviewees said, they would risk court-martial over the possibility of injury or death,” the article reads.
Those who end up killing innocent civilians in Iraq will not face a judge and jury, but are often destined to experience a personal journey of reflection, depression, anxiety, shame and guilt.
For Crawford, that journey began with the promise of college tuition.
Crawford grew up in a small town in Florida and spent his young days playing war in the swamps behind his house. After high school, he served in the 101st Army Airborne Division, one of the most tactically sophisticated and mobile air assault outfits in the world, for three years. Then he joined the Florida National Guard, which he thought was a “joke of an organization,” to pay for his education at Florida State University.
At 24, two-credits shy from graduation, lounging on a cruise ship during his honeymoon, Crawford received a notice from his father that the National Guard had called him up to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Promised a three-to-six month run, Crawford ended up staying for 18 months. As he neared his redeployment, he became jaded and hateful.
“You know I’d kill every man, woman, and child in Baghdad if it got me home twenty minutes earlier,” he told a member of his squad during a patrol a few months before heading back to the United States, presumably in jest.
Crawford shot down the child with his SAW early in his deployment, but he did not begin to think about it until after he left Iraq.
“It wasn’t until I got back that truth engulfed me like a storm cloud,” he wrote. He suggested that, for the rest of his life, he has little intention of being honest with his readers, perhaps even with himself.
“This is a true story. You can tell because it makes your stomach turn,” he wrote. “I am home now, and I will never again write a true story.”
Photo: John Crawford, by Christian Parenti