In the murky world of modern warfare, I'm far from the only one who wonders if any of my bullets ever took out a civilian.
I was driving home late one night when my brother called, slurring drunk. He wanted to know if I had ever killed anyone.
The question didn’t surprise me. In the decade since returning from Iraq, I’ve found that it’s the one thing family, friends, girlfriends, bosses and colleagues want to know most, though few of them pose the question directly.
My mom was the first. A landlord once asked me while signing a lease for a garage apartment in Berkeley. It’s not an easy question to answer. It seems that some people want you to say yes, but most are relieved to hear you say no. I told that landlord it was none of his business. I told my mother no. As for my brother, I could be honest with him. And the truth is, I’m not sure.
I have one memory in mind, a ten-second reel of Samarra: storefront dioramas flashing by, an angry crowd, a single shot down an alleyway, and the blank, accusing look on the face of an Iraqi man standing on the sidewalk. While my memory of the fifteen-month deployment has grown vague, blurred, and lower resolution, that street sequence has resisted all fading, preserved by the possibility that I killed a bystander.
It’s like a mental kidney stone. It isn’t always painful, but there is no way to pass it from mind without knowing what happened, which is impossible. It’s not that the record is lost; there was no record to begin with. Estimates of the total number of Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2011 vary by the hundreds of thousands. Something like half a million civilians died and countless more were maimed, crippled, burned, or driven from their wits during the meaningless spectacle of American intervention over there. In all but exceptional cases the fatal agency, like the true number of the dead, remains indeterminate.
“A soldier who isn’t sure whether or not a particular action killed someone is caught in limbo,” says Lieutenant Colonel Peter Kilner, a philosophy professor at West Point who studies the ethical and psychological ramifications of killing in war. “It doesn’t feel right to accept responsibility for something that may not have even happened, yet it feels wrong not to accept responsibility.”
That analysis nails it, at least in my experience. Wanting to know more about this specific moral limbo, I sent an email query to the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop. I was surprised by how many participants responded, and how quickly.
* * *
Nebojsa Zlatanovic, the son of Serbian immigrants, is a New Jersey native who enlisted after 9/11. He was a 23-year-old paratrooper when his unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, seized the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
On a mild night in April 2003, under a moon full enough to make night-vision goggles unnecessary, Zlatanovic and some other soldiers were manning a checkpoint on a four-lane highway south of the city. He had gone to get some water from the trucks parked a ways off when an orange-and-white taxicab blew through the checkpoint, ignoring commands to stop. Zlatanovic wheeled around with his rifle up. As the taxicab sped by, Zlatanovic thought he heard a single shot. He fired, aiming at where the driver’s head would have been. Glass shattered and the taxicab veered off onto a side street and disappeared. The next day, an orange-and-white taxicab was found abandoned halfway across town, with a single bullet hole through the center of the driver-side headrest. They never found out whose car it was.
Today Zlatanovic is a lawyer who does pro bono work for veteran causes. He wears thick glasses and sideburns and favors black clothing. He admits the driver he shot at in Kirkuk might have been a noncombatant. “For all I know, he was some poor schmuck trying to work the night shift.” But Zlatanovic says he would change nothing about his actions. “Based on the stimuli I was getting, it was a drive-by shooting. I fired back. It’s what I was trained to do. He should have stopped. Other people stopped at the checkpoint.”
I consider Zlatanovic fortunate. Not all the veterans I spoke to have been able to maintain such healthy certainty against the persistent erosion of regret.
* * *
In 2006, Derek McGee was a marine sergeant in Fallujah. “Of all the times we got shot at, which happened all the time, we never saw the enemy,” he says. “It was really frustrating. An urban environment echoes. We never knew which way to shoot back. You might get a glimpse of a robe going behind a building after an RPG.”
McGee is 39 today. He has watery blue eyes, a crooked nose, and thin, buzzed hair. He fidgets with a stainless steel nicotine vaporizer while I take notes.
If a veteran remembers a specific date, it’s often because a comrade died that day. McGee tells me that on August 16, 2006, he was in the courtyard of an abandoned house that his squad was using for a patrol base. Around one in the afternoon, another foot patrol was on its way back to the base when rifle fire hit them from the south. That was a distraction. As the squad reacted, getting down behind cover, a sniper started shooting at them from the north. Now they were pinned down.
“We jump on the vehicle to go to where the squad is pinned down,” McGee says. “I get out. I’m facing the south, looking for targets. We had PID drilled into us.” “PID” is short for “positive identification.” When troops arrived in Iraq they received a small, laminated rules of engagement card that read:
“On order, enemy military and paramilitary forces are declared hostile and may be attacked subject to the following instructions: Positive identification (PID) is required prior to engagement. PID is a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target.”
That lawyerly tautology provided little guidance, and to my recollection, PID was paraphrased as, “Anyone who points a weapon in your direction, kill him.”
That day in Fallujah, McGee had no PID. “I’m facing south. The sniper’s in the north. I turn, I’m looking for a target. These guys are pinned down. There’s a body in the street: Captain McKenna, our platoon commander. I’m looking for a target and I can’t find one, so I’m not shooting. One of these guys pinned down is yelling at me to shoot. ‘Where?’ ‘Just fucking shoot!’”
McGee was holding a belt-fed light machinegun, and he started dumping suppressive fire onto the surrounding rooftops. The other marines joined in, following the direction of his fire, failing to understand that he was choosing targets at random. One of them had an automatic grenade launcher and clusters of explosions blossomed on the walls and roofs of the residential neighborhood, balconies and parapets blowing apart in chunks of mud brick and concrete. McGee burned through some four hundred rounds before the shooting died down.
Iraq veteran Derek McGee tells Narratively about that fateful day in Fallujah.
“The chances are slim that I hit anyone,” he says, “but the possibility bothers me.”
Yet McGee says he’s not bothered by the time he actually ordered his squad to kill an innocent civilian. In that incident, McGee was in an observation post watching a route where insurgents were known to emplace bombs, and had specific orders to engage anyone who appeared in the road with a shovel. The Iraqi man they ended up killing turned out only to have been cleaning his gutters. “The shoot was bad,” says McGee, but he takes solace in the fact that he was executing a lawful order and knows in his own heart that he had no malicious intent.
The same could be said of his actions the day Captain McKenna died, but there’s something especially insoluble about uncertainty. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to the extreme environment of war. If you went on a date with someone and got drunk and vomited, you would eventually get over the shame. But suppose you blacked out and woke up with no memory of the prior night. You might go on wondering what you said and did for the rest of your life.
* * *
Dan Murphy was in the same unit as McGee: 1st Battalion, 25th Marines. At 31, Murphy looks the part of a Marine Corps veteran, with meaty shoulders and a thick, brown beard. When the conversation shifts from his job in corporate investigations and his girlfriend at Yale Law to what happened in Fallujah, an eerie transformation takes place in his otherwise friendly eyes. They flatten. Harden.
Murphy was a Marine Corps rifleman deployed to one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq in one of the most violent years of the war, yet he only got the chance to pull the trigger two or three times in response to the enemy’s shadowy, strike-and-fade attacks.
“I couldn’t say on any one of them whether I hit anything or not,” he says. “One in particular bothers me.”
On a burning hot afternoon in June 2006, Murphy was in a Humvee passing an Iraqi Army post when he heard gunfire. The marines didn’t know if the Iraqi soldiers were taking fire or if they were the ones shooting. There was a two-story concrete house close to the road – “Like every other shitty house in Fallujah,” he says – and some slight movement on the upper deck snagged Murphy’s attention. “I saw a curtain opening, or a sliding door. I remember thinking it was a kitchen doorway. I told my squad leader in the truck with me, ‘I see a muzzle flash.’ And we open up. And eventually the whole platoon opens up.”
They strafed the house with gunfire. The walls smoked with concrete dust and all the windows blew out. When the marines ceased fire, all was still. The unit moved on, “pumped,” McGee says, at their first taste of battle.
Dan Murphy on the battlefield day he’ll never forget.
Over the course of Murphy’s deployment the situation in Fallujah deteriorated; ultimately, thirteen men in his battalion died in combat. That is what weighs on him when he thinks back on the war. But underneath it is a lingering unease about the blind trajectory of his own bullets, in particular that “muzzle flash” he shot at in that kitchen doorway. “To this day I wonder what I saw, if I saw anything, if I hit anybody,” Murphy says. After a long pause he says, “I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to be in combat.”
* * *
Jeff Johnson sure did. He joined the Marine Corps in 1993, at the age of eighteen. He was “terribly disappointed” to have missed the Persian Gulf War, but ended up doing two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan before retiring in 2013. Today he’s a 41-year-old recent graduate of the University of Texas, lean and tanned, with engraved memorial bracelets on his tattooed arms. People don’t ask him right away if he has killed. “You know they want to, but it takes them time to work up to it,” he says. Despite his three combat deployments, the answer turns on one fleeting moment of one day in Najaf, Iraq.
Some of the worst fighting of the Iraq War touched off when Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, ordered the arrest of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who commanded a vast militia called the Mahdi Army. Hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis died in the resulting unrest, which convulsed southern Iraq in the spring and summer of 2004. With the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit closing in on him in Najaf, Al-Sadr took refuge in the fabulously opulent, thousand-year-old Imam Ali Mosque, where Shia Muslims believe Adam and Noah are buried.
Then 29 years old, Johnson was the door gunner on a Huey helicopter, manning a minigun, a six-barreled rotary weapon that by some feat of engineering can fire up to a hundred bullets per second. When the Huey swung around the glittering dome of the gilded mosque, a rocket grenade skimmed past the tail rotor, a narrow miss. Johnson spotted the shooter ducking behind a dirt berm and opened fire with the minigun. The shooter simply disappeared. Was he blown to pieces? Or did he slip away into the gullied terrain?
As a young marine, Johnson ached for the prestige of a confirmed kill, something that always eluded him. But over time, his illusions about the war have evaporated. “I’ve tried so many times to make it right in my head, but it’s just not,” he says. As for that enemy militiaman with the rocket-grenade launcher, “I’m invading his country. So who’s the bad guy?” Confounding all his efforts to sort right from wrong, he will never know what happened to the man.
* * *
During the most chaotic days of the Iraq war, Samarra was a “denied area,” a “no-go zone,” under the black flag of the jihadist militants who develop in American war zones the way drug-resistant microbes develop in hospitals. In October 2004, the U.S. Army assaulted the biblical city with five thousand troops, and established an operating base in a ruined police building not far from the old town. At the time, I was a low-ranking enlisted man in an Army Reserve unit tasked with bringing supplies to the exhausted infantrymen holed up in the police station, recuperating from the battle. As we drove into town in a lumbering convoy of military dump trucks rattling with homemade armor, we passed an ancient spiral minaret that looked like the Tower of Babel from Sunday school picture books. Plastic bottles, shredded tarps, and broken shopping carts littered the denuded yard around it. We turned south and the streets narrowed to a crowded market that smelled of burnt trash and meat roasting over charcoal.
The convoy slowed and came to a stop at a sun-beaten traffic circle of dead grass, trash, and whitewashed curbs. I heard gunfire, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, or how far away it was. I couldn’t see what was happening at the front of the convoy. We had no radio in the cab of the truck, just a satellite map. I knew from talking to the infantrymen at the police station that they were still getting hit daily. A dozen civilians had died in a car bomb a day or two before. Through the passenger window on my side of the truck, I saw people crowded on the sidewalk, all men. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing there. They were all looking at us. None of them were armed that I could see, but they were obviously agitated. Was it only the traffic? When three of them approached us, I fired a single warning shot over their heads. The bullet went into an alley that darkened and curved out of view, a shadow gallery of slack tarpaulins and electrical wires hanging down over what may have been market stalls. I noticed there were people back there. One of the men I had been trying to warn came to a stop on the sidewalk and glared at me, showing his empty hands at his sides. We were only about twenty feet apart. He had a mustache, a long shirt, and sandals. There was no mistaking the look on his face. It said: You just shot into a crowd of people, idiot.
My driver, a kid I knew from basic training, said nothing. He took his foot off the brake and the truck wheezed forward. The convoy picked up speed, and that obscure Samarra alley receded from view, though never from memory.
Like Murphy, I acknowledge that in the moment, I had some measure of desire to actually use the weapon I had been holding so long, to be in combat after prolonged training for combat, and I regret harboring that motivation, even if I didn’t hit anyone. And at the time, I reasonably believed that I did not. If I had, people would have been yelling, raising hell, running up to the convoy to show us their blood-stained hands and demand payment in accordance with the Islamic law of diyah. Soldiers fired warning shots all the time – especially the Iraqi Army troops, who would unload whole clips in the air. Nevertheless, like Zlatanovic, McGee, Murphy, and Johnson, I soon found that a possibility, even a slight possibility, can be as difficult to forget as a fact.
A few years ago, I read a W. Somerset Maugham play; the epigraph was an Arabic parable titled “Appointment in Samarra.” In Maugham’s version of the parable, a Baghdad merchant sends his servant to the market to buy provisions. When the servant returns, he’s pale and trembling, and tells the merchant he was jostled in the crowd by the Angel of Death, who made a threatening gesture. The servant begs the merchant for his fastest horse and goes galloping off to Samarra, northwest of Baghdad, where Death will not find him. The merchant goes down to the market in Baghdad and says to Death, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant, when you saw him this morning?” And Death says, “That was not a threatening gesture. It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight – in Samarra.”
I looked up from that page in amazement. It was uncanny to stumble on an ancient parable about the nature of Death set in the very Iraqi town where I could have been Death’s agent. Faith in coincidences can rise above mere superstition. Some arguments can never be settled except by a coin toss. I therefore chose to believe in the idea of Death offered in the parable: a force moving around us and through us, always one step ahead, inscrutable. It does me no good to say that the Iraq War was wrong, but I was acting under orders with a scrap of laminated law in my pocket. It is a partial consolation, however, to say that if I did shoot someone in Samarra, it was the merchant’s servant.