Note to readers: The post below was one I wrote not in anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, but an anniversary of the atrocities at Al-Mahmudiyah. I’ve since realized the post is more appropriate for publication at a significant anniversary of the invasion. The reason is simple: The atrocities at Mahmudiyah are as intrinsic and foreseeable an aspect of war as any that can be imagined. The designers of the war must never be allowed to escape that.
“Abeer” translates in Arabic to “the fragrance of flowers” and was the name given to the 14 year-old girl ruthlessly raped and murdered, along with her parents and six year-old sister, on March 12, 2006, near the town of Al-Mahmudiyah, Iraq. The murderers were a group of American soldiers, stationed at a nearby checkpoint in an especially brutal time after the American invasion three years previous.
Of the many honorable men and women I met serving as a civilian in the Army JAG Corps, the one I came to know the best was among the first and most involved prosecutors in the Al-Mahmudiyah massacre. It wasn’t enough that he endured a difficult and dangerous deployment as part of the 101st Airborne Division. He was also saddled with bringing, of all things, the weight of that crime home with him as he handled the case near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He did this while readjusting to stateside and family life as a husband and father. He’ll acknowledge that burden if it’s pointed out. But he will never, ever complain about it. First, because by God’s grace, his own family is intact and healthy, and he was able to hold them when he returned. Second, because seeking justice for Abeer and her family was an honor he accepted with humility and a deep sense of duty that I found typical in the Army JAG Corps. He sought justice for his Army and his country. But I suspect most of all he sought justice for for Abeer, and the details he came to know of her life and the unspeakable circumstances of her death.
The details are public, if you want them. I can tell you that nightmares are all you’re likely to get for mining them, and I say this as a trained absorber of such things.
The Army JAG Corps ignored several things I encouraged them to address while I served as a consultant. In a time where soldier suicides are spiking in particular, perhaps the most puzzling to me was refusing (to my knowledge and based on their responses to me at the time) to even look into proactive assistance for JAG prosecutors and defenders who must absorb, if not horrors like Mahmudiyah on a daily basis, then things like increasingly detailed and technologically advanced videos of children used in pornography or worse.
And then there is war, the ones we’ve been waging now on the backs of a volunteer military and its valiant but exhausted support bulwark for nearly 12 years. Among myriad other things, war requires the prosecution and defense of combatants accused of atrocities and horrors more regularly than many grasp.
I blame Mahmudiyah solely on the men who conceived and carried it out. They represent nothing but themselves; not the US Army, not the stress of combat (which the vast majority of soldiers endure without resorting to murder and rape) and not even the war itself. Regardless, the men and women who must address legally what military conflict inevitably produces must be cared for during that process. Of its many poisons, war vomits things like Mahmudiyah regularly. It did so at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, at My Lai,Quan Ngai, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It has done so in every war and under every flag unfurled since the beginning of combat.
The architects of the 2003 Iraq War, just as the drum-beaters for Vietnam, may argue with scholarly confidence that they were right, or with grave regret that they were wrong. But none may claim a lack of foreseeability for one single thing that occurred or will occur as a result of their decisions. No act, no matter how shocking, how damning, how soul-crushing and freakishly inhuman, is unforeseeable the moment war is engaged.
Similarly, the stress of sorting out, in courts of military justice, the details of anything war yields is also foreseeable and addressable. It’s not enough to own, no matter how deeply, what war really is. We must also support appropriately those who must seek justice in its wake.