Josh Stieber was deployed to Iraq in February 2007 as part of the "surge" overseen by George W. Bush. An enthusiastic supporter of the war when he enlisted, Stieber served with Bravo Company 2-16, the same unit now depicted in the chilling video released last week by WikiLeaks.org, which shows American troops massacre 12 Iraqi civilians from an Apache helicopter, including two Reuters employees, photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. Also killed was Saleh Mutashar, the father of two young children who were themselves injured on the scene, when their father attempted to pick up the wounded Saeed to take him to the hospital, only to get shot by U.S. troops.
Josh Stieber was not on the mission over Baghdad that day. By then he had already begun questioning the actions he was being asked to carry out in Iraq; he had refused an order from his commanding officers a few days earlier -- "a command that I didn't feel right in following," as he told Glenn Greenwald on Friday -- and he was kept behind. Otherwise, he said, "I would have been in that video."
AlterNet's Liliana Segura spoke with Stieber over the phone on Sunday night about his reaction to the video, the response from the Pentagon, and why the Iraq Veterans Against the War member has devoted himself to speaking out.
Liliana Segura: Today, on ABC's "This Week," Jake Tapper asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the Wikileaks video, asking if the release of that video damages the image of the U.S. in the world. And Gates basically said, it's "clearly not helpful" but "by the same token … it should not have any lasting consequences." How would you respond to this?
Josh Stieber: Yeah, I looked at the interview, and it seemed a little strange that he would say some of those things. I guess I agree that militarily speaking -- which is far different from saying morally speaking -- I don't think what was shown in the video is anything out of the ordinary and I think Gates reaffirmed that. There are a lot of troubling implications with that. But I would definitely disagree that the video will have no effect on America's image. Even some of the comments that I'm receiving as a former soldier from people internationally have been pretty harsh and, you know, I'm one of the few who have chosen to say 'this is wrong and I'm not going to be a part of it anymore,' and if I'm hearing that, then I can only imagine some of the things that are being said to people who haven't come to that conclusion.
LS: One of the really jarring things about watching the video is not only the fact that these are images that the average American is really insulated from -- but what WikiLeaks did, that I thought was very effective, was intersperse quotes from corporate media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times that create a narrative in which these soldiers were going out of their way to preserve civilian life -- and then the footage that follows clearly disproves what was being written in the media. It certainly doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the media and the way it covers these wars.
JS: Yeah, one very interesting aspect that I think is very telling is that this particular story and stories like it are not new. If you look at David Finkel's book, The Good Soldiers, that was about the unit I was with and about the unit on the ground in this video. Pretty much word for word, this event is described in this book -- but there was no huge outrage about the event [when it was] described in words. And then there are other examples like the Winter Soldier testimonies; soldiers have been saying this and trying to tell people what's been going on and for one reason or another people haven't been listening. But now that it's right in front of them and they can watch it visually, the conversation is changing. I guess the reason why this video is such a big thing is that it's a visual that we haven't been receiving.
LS: Did you read Collateral Damage, by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian? It's about the question of Rules of Engagement at checkpoints in Iraq. They interviewed many veterans who describe the way in which the Rules of Engagement, in theory, look good on paper but once you're in that situation all bets are off, and the result has been a lot of dead civilians. I wonder how you compare what we see in this video to, for instance, civilians getting killed at checkpoints.
JS: I'm not quite as familiar with checkpoints, but I can definitely say that other policies and practices that we had contributed to civilians being killed. I think that this video and other reports that are similar should be pointing us to a larger conversation, that if the Secretary of Defense or someone that high up is trying to defend this, it should be pointing out pretty clearly the gap in logic that if we're over there claiming to be spreading freedom and democracy. Even if top military advisers are saying the actions in this video are justified in terms of military procedure, that's not even beginning to ask the question: Is this an effective or even logical way to try to help another country and spread these values that we claim that we're doing it in the name of?
LS: For me one of the irritating things about people discussing the Rules of Engagement in the wake of this video is that it seems like such a bankrupt conversation in a way because, how much do "Rules of Engagement" really mean when the sort of original engagement of this war, the invasion, was so clearly illegal. Are any of these deaths justified in an illegal war of aggression? It obviates the more important questions that you're talking about.
So, to back up a little bit, for you having served in this unit, what was your initial reaction to the video?
JS: My initial reaction was one of shock, to recognize exactly what this video was. And there's a difference between shock and surprise. When I watched the video -- and when the average American watches the video -- there is definitely a shock factor, but I don't think there should really be a surprise factor. This is what war looks like. This is nothing really out of the ordinary. The surprise and the outrage that there's been … have been detracting from a conversation that we can have, where we can take this video and say, 'Look I think this is telling of the contradictions about why we are there.' But it seems like a lot of the discussion has been about, 'Look at these few soldiers, look how horrible they are, we should just punish them.' If we only look at that, then we're missing this larger conversation. And if we take all our wrath and judgment out on them, then, yeah, they might get punished, but the larger system in general that created them -- they were following what we're trained with on a day to day basis -- then that larger system is going to continue to do the exact same thing.
LS: Right. It's sort of like the reaction to Abu Ghraib, where the underlings were disciplined but the torture program and those who designed it had nothing happen to them.
You mentioned the Winter Soldier hearings; one of the things that was very powerful was the way in which veterans spoke about the ways in which the military trained them to dehumanize Iraqis. That seems pretty clearly at play in the video; there's this casual disregard for the lives of even the two children who were injured in the van. When it comes to training and the way soldiers perceive Iraqis, are all Iraqis just viewed as a potential threat?
JS: Yeah, I mean, that's been an interesting thing to think over these last few days. The reality of the situation is that a lot of times when attacks [on U.S. troops] happen it's from a faceless enemy. A roadside bomb goes off and you don't see who set that bomb, or a sniper hits one of your friends and you don't know where the shot came from. There's this invisible enemy and it puts people on edge that any second, without knowing it, something can happen. So yeah, that kind of paranoia and that kind of fear that that situation creates combined with the military training, is a huge thing.
I've been thinking about it a lot since watching the video … Obviously the way the people in the helicopter were talking was very callous, but compared to things that I was being taught in basic training, from training videos that we had to watch, to cadences that we sang, the language in the helicopter was relatively mild. I've been thinking even more about our culture in general; going back to high school, I remember learning about the atomic bomb. It was never talked about as being morally wrong but that was a much larger example of people saying 'Yeah, innocent civilians are going to die … but so be it if it helps us accomplish our end goal.' So a lot of aspects of our society even outside the military justify the same mindset that are shown in the video.
LS: I wanted to ask you about your own time in Iraq, why you enlisted and why you got out.
JS: I enlisted right out of high school. I grew up in the D.C. area; after 9/11 I went and saw the big hole in the Pentagon and asked myself you know, what can I do to make sure something like this doesn't happen again, and how can I keep the people that I care about safe? And from everybody I trusted, the answer was you know, if you want to protect the people that you care about, then the best way to do that is through direct, forceful military action. I bought into that rhetoric and never questioned that or the concept that we were going overseas to spread freedom and democracy. I bought right into that and never really questioned it.
So that's what led to me enlisting. But seeing the big contradiction that I think this video shows -- we say that we have all these noble goals but if you look at the way we're trying to achieve them, it not only looks morally wrong, but seems not to even doesn't even make sense -- that got me asking a lot of questions just about my beliefs as a person. And my religious beliefs -- I grew up very religiously. When I went back and reexamined a central figure of my religion that everyone was pointing me to, Jesus, the way he lived and acted was completely the opposite of how I was acting.
A big wake-up call for me was one night, I was sitting with a friend of mine that I had gone to church with before we deployed. We were guarding a prisoner together, and my friend started saying some threatening things about what he wanted to do to this prisoner that we had. And I'd been rethinking all these values that I claimed, so my first thought was an American value: I asked him 'What about the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty? This man that you want to do harm to hasn't been proven guilty.' And, kind of echoing the racism that we're trained with in the military, my friend said, 'This guy is Iraqi; there's no way he's completely innocent. Surely he's contributed to the problem in some way.' And then I kind of thought through all this the religious stuff that I'd heard growing up and I said, 'What about the stuff that we heard in church like loving your enemy and blessed are the peacemakers and don't return evil with evil, and turn the other cheek?' And my friend said to me, 'I think Jesus would have turned the other cheek once or twice but he wouldn't have let anyone punk him around.'
And as I thought about the [Jesus] lived and died, not getting punked around was not his highest priority. But here I was -- I wouldn't have said it as bluntly, but how I was living my life wasn't that different from what my friend was saying. So I realized there was a huge gap between what I said I believed and how I was acting. So I started slowly making changes and eventually became a conscientious objector.
LS: When was that?
JS: I didn't even know [conscientious objector status] existed until after I got back from my deployment, so when I got back I knew that one way or another I wasn't going to keep doing what I was doing. Again, the simple idea of "doing unto others" -- I knew that I wouldn't want somebody to do to me me what I had done to other people for the last 14 months in Iraq. So I knew one way or another I wasn't going to do it anymore so I learned what conscientious objection actually was and I applied for that, I believe it was in June of 2008. That was a 10-month process. I got released in April 2009. From there, I wanted to not only say that war was the wrong answer but wanted to try to say well, what are some right answers, what are some alternatives we can point to/ So I went on a six-month walking and biking trip across the country to try to answer some of those questions and interact with as many questions and as many groups as I could.
LS: What has been the reaction you've gotten -- you've been doing this kind of activism and speaking out for a while -- but in particular, what kind of reaction have you gotten about your willingness to speak out about the WikiLeaks video?
JS: That's been one of the really interesting aspects of it. I've been very dedicated to trying to find alternatives to violence for the past year or so. But me publicly saying that what happened in this video is normal and that, rather than taking an air of self righteousness against the soldiers involved we should be examining the system that brought them to this point -- I got to the point where I faced a lot of risks in saying 'I'm not gonna do this anymore' but I'm not going to sit here and judge people for not making the same decision I did -- so even with all that, I've been getting a lot of comments on my blog saying that I'm a baby killer, white trash or whatever, for enlisting in the military to begin with. And I just think it's so counterproductive. For the people writing those things, if their goal is to prevent things like this from happening and you have soldiers who maybe realize that what's going on is wrong, but aren't sure if they can do anything about it or how to go about it. if they see somebody like me being met with such judgment, they are not going to be inclined at all to want to change what they're doing or to reach out to the people who are saying that war is not the right answer.