by Ross Caputi
After the resistance movement in Fallujah successfully repelled the first U.S. led siege of their city in April of 2004, Fallujah became a symbol of heroism and resistance to Iraqis. In the United States Fallujah was made into a symbol of terrorism. The U.S. mainstream media described Fallujah as a “hotbed of anti-Americanism” and an “insurgent stronghold”, and gave little mention of the 300,000 civilians that lived there. In November of 2004, the U.S. launched a massive siege on Fallujah that killed anywhere between 800 and 6,000 civilians, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and left much of the city in ruins. From that point on Fallujah became a symbol to much of the world of cruelty, devastation, and occupation.
The suffering inflicted on Fallujah did not end in 2004. Life for the people who chose to return to their city never improved. The U.S. imposed security measures and curfews that made living a normal life in Fallujah impossible. Residents already had to struggle to make ends meet in their dilapidated city, but the constant security check-points, ID card scans, and arrests only made life harder. Food and Medicine were scarce, and they remain scarce to this day. Worst of all, since 2004 there has been a dramatic increase in birth defects, infant mortality, mental retardation, and cancers of all sorts in Fallujah. The birth defects are truly horrifying. Babies have been born with six fingers on each hand, scaly skin, missing limbs, two heads, and there has been one case of a child born with a single eye in the center of his forehead. Experts blame chemical weapons used by the U.S. during the 2004 sieges, like white phosphorous and possibly depleted uranium. The few studies that have been done suggest that there is “genetic damage” within the population, and the evidence suggests ionizing radiation exposure as the cause. This has led some to say that the health crisis in Fallujah is worse than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs. So many children in Fallujah are now being born horribly deformed or mentally retarded that many women are afraid to try to have families.
The U.S. occupation has had horrible effects on the Iraqi population, but Fallujah has suffered more than any other Iraqi city. Fallujah is to the Occupation of Iraq, what My Lai was to the Vietnam War, and what Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to World War II.
My name is Ross Caputi and I am a witness and an accomplice to the atrocities that were committed in Fallujah, Iraq during the 2nd assault on Fallujah in November of 2004, also known as Operation Phantom Fury. My unit was called 1st Battalion 8th Marines Alpha Company and at the that time I found myself in Headquarters Platoon acting as the Company Commander’s radio operator. It is difficult for me to admit what we did to the people of Fallujah, but the hardest part is explaining to you how we just could not see the harm that we were doing. Although blessed with the gift of sight, we just could not see things as they really were. Only now, six years too late, can I see the truth. I want to set the record straight about what really happened in Fallujah, but the truth will not be easy for everyone to accept. Please, if only for a moment, put aside all ideologies, philosophical commitments, and nationalist allegiances and try to look at what I am about to tell you with the objectivity that God would have, taking one life to be equal to another and taking the nationality of the victims and aggressors to be irrelevant.
My unit got called into Camp Fallujah a couple of weeks before the 2nd assault. I was a buck private at the time and had recently been demoted for a number of charges from underage drinking to theft to general conduct unbecoming of a Marine. I was even moved out of my old infantry platoon because I just was not listening to anyone in charge of me, and they made me the Company Commander’s radio operator instead.
Most of the guys in my unit were just out of high school like myself, and we knew practically nothing about Fallujah. We heard a lot of rumors that Fallujah was the most dangerous city in Iraq, but beside its reputation we knew nothing about it or the people that lived there. About a week before the siege began, our command told us that we were going to liberate Fallujah from the terrorists who had taken control of the city. They also told us that all of the civilians had left, even though they knew that thousands of people remained. They told us that our mission was to sweep the city and kill all the terrorists who chose to stay behind and fight. They also told us that we should expect 50% casualties, that this would be the biggest battle since Hue City Vietnam. They told us that this operation would break the back of the Iraqi insurgency and would bring freedom and democracy to Iraq. They told us that we were doing this for Iraqis and for the people of Fallujah.
Personally, I never believed any of these lies. I did not believe the stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq either, nor did I believe that America’s freedom was at stake, and I stopped believing long before I got to Fallujah that we were helping Iraqis. In fact, everything that I had seen in Iraq up until that point told me that we were actually hurting Iraqis, and deep down inside I felt that Iraqis had a right to defend themselves against us. However, I think that everyone else in my unit really believed what my command told them, despite the fact that everything that they were seeing with their own eyes was exactly the opposite. I think that they believed those lies, because believing them was easier, psychologically, than it was to ask ourselves hard questions, and because those lies validated everything that we were doing. It must have been much easier for them to dismiss the Iraqi resistance as “terrorists” than to ask themselves what they would have done if a foreign army was occupying their country and was assaulting their city. It must have been much easier to see things as they wanted to see them and to see themselves as liberators, as the good-guys. I did not want to be part of Operation Phantom Fury, but I was not willing to stick my neck out and say that I thought it was wrong. I was not willing to risk my benefits, or my paycheck, and to be perfectly honest I wanted a combat action ribbon so that I could go home and brag about it.
Maybe everyone else in my unit believed that we were fighting against pure evil, and maybe they really believed that we were liberating Fallujah. Maybe there is a psychological explanation for why they just could not see how badly we were hurting the Iraqis, and maybe they went into Fallujah with good intentions. All that I can say with certainty is that my participation in Fallujah was for me and for me only.
I believe that it was November 8th when my unit loaded up into trucks and drove from our base to the outskirts of Fallujah. We drove a few kilometers along a road that cut through the desert towards the city. I remember riding past groups of women and children who I could see were fleeing for their safety, and I remember wondering how they would survive in the desert. Where would they go? How would they get water? I saw them and I saw their suffering, everyone could, but we could not see that we were the cause of their suffering. Perhaps it was just too painful of a realization for many of us to make, because we saw ourselves as the liberators, the good guys, and to admit that we were hurting innocent people would have contradicted everything that we claimed to stand for. I can only speculate about what the motives were for the people who dreamed up that mission and decided to make the people of Fallujah flee into the desert. Was it also too painful for the decision makers to admit to themselves that we were hurting innocent people? Or were they so evil that they just did not care who we were hurting? What ever their reasons for doing it were, the fact of the matter is that our entire command was aware that we had forced the majority of the city’s population, about 200,000 people, into refugee status, but nobody took responsibility for their well being, as international law required of us. [i]
We drove to the outskirts of the city and positioned ourselves on a hilltop where we watched the bombing campaign come to a climax. At that point it was nighttime and all that could be seen of Fallujah was the flashes of our bombs and a thick cloud of smoke pouring out of the city. At a certain point I saw us drop white phosphorous from the sky. The white phosphorous drifted slowly downward in glowing white balls that eventually disappeared into the smoke that was billowing out of the city. I could not see if the white phosphorous actually landed on the city or in the desert at the city’s periphery. However, with the lack of visibility there was no way to know that we were not dropping it on civilians. It was impossible for us to discriminate targets, as international law required of us.[ii]
One day later my unit was inserted into the center of the city. We quickly seized a building that we called “the mayor’s complex”, and the captain and I and a few others went to the roof so that we could get a good radio signal. We started to take sniper fire and we had to take cover behind a retaining wall on the edge of the roof. Suddenly a group of civilians appeared in the street below us with white flags. We lifted our heads over the wall to shout at them to go hide, and as soon as we did sniper fire started to crack over out heads. Everyone around me immediately jumped to the conclusion that this group of civilians had played a trick on us, that they were working with the insurgents to draw us out from behind our cover. There was absolutely no reason to think that they were working with the sniper, who was hundreds of meters away. I am telling you this to illustrate that we did not view the civilians in Fallujah with compassion. We viewed them with suspicion. We saw no clear distinction between a civilian and what we considered to be a terrorist. [iii]
A day later we began sweeping through the city one house at a time. In the houses that I entered I saw family photos hanging up on the walls. I saw dressers full of clothes, refrigerators full of food, and I saw Marines looting everything that appeared valuable out of their homes. I could see that families had been living in those homes just a short while ago, and I knew that they were the same families that I saw walking in the desert, but that did not stop me from joining in the looting[iv] too. We stole from their homes, and we convinced ourselves that it did not matter. We were perfectly aware that we told them to leave because we were coming through their city guns blazing, but we could not see that we had in fact ruined their lives. Of course not, we were the good guys, we were doing this for them.
Most of the time I was perfectly safe with the officers, and there was no fighting within my immediate vicinity. I was in this weird pocket of safety, but everything around me was destroyed, and just a block away I could hear gunfire and rockets and people shouting and screaming. At a certain point it came over the radio that a civilian had been killed. It was just one transmission and that was it. There was no follow up, and I do not know of any effort to identify him or contact his family. I found out latter from the guys that were there that an old man was standing on the side of the road with prayer beads in his hands. Someone shouted “He’s got something in his hands!” and then someone shot him. I know the person who shot him, and I am told that right after he did it he shouted “One shot one kill!”, which was a Marine Corps marksmanship slogan. I know this person well and he is not out to hurt people for the sake of hurting people. He actually thought that he was doing his job. He celebrated it because he thought that that was what Marines were supposed to do. He could not see what he did as murder.
At another point in the city one of my friends from my unit came running up to me with a huge smile on his face saying “Caputi, Caputi, I finally shot someone!”. He was so happy and so proud of himself, but you need to know this kid like I knew him to know that there is more to this story. He is the sweetest kid you could ever meet. There is not a mean or cruel bone in his body. He really thought that he did a good thing.
The looting continued for several days and my command was perfectly aware of what was happening. At this point we knew that there were still civilians in the city, but we began using a tactic called “reconnaissance by fire” anyway, which is when you fire into an area or building to see if people are there. If you hear silence after your firing, then everything is clear. If you hear otherwise, if you hear screaming or moaning, then there are either combatants or civilians there. This tactic is always indiscriminate, which would make it illegal, and our command was very aware that we were using it[v].
We continued to sweep further into the city and we met very impressive resistance, but we always responded with superior firepower. If we suspected that there was a resistance fighter in a house, we would fire tank rounds into it or we would radio in for bulldozers to flatten the house on top of him.[vi]
I watched as the carnage changed the people around me and a violent hysteria developed in my unit. At a certain point during the assault I had to carry the radio up to a rooftop, and there were two guys that I knew sitting up there with their rifles aimed out into the street. They turned and looked at me, and one of them said “Hey Caputi, did you kill anyone yet? I only got one kill, but this guy next to me got nine.”
Later, a friend of mine came up to me and told me about how his team leader had been cutting up the dead body of a resistance fighter looking for the adrenal gland[vii], and how he tried to drag another dead body in front of an AAV for it to be run over. People were bragging about posing for pictures with the dead bodies of resistance fighters, and about the things that they had stolen out of houses or found in the pockets of the dead.
One day I was up on a rooftop with the radio, and I saw a unit to our right flank bulldozing an entire neighborhood. They were moving fast, and I know they were not checking inside the houses to see if civilians were inside. On one of the last days of the assault, we came across a house with two resistance fighters and a young boy bunkered inside. The boy was about ten years old. I do not know if any attempts were made to negotiate or to try to get that boy out of that house in some way and save his life. All I know is that we fired grenades into that house until it collapsed, killing all three of them inside[viii].
Everything that was happening around me was complete madness, and I do not think that anyone else could see it but me. I was in a really unique position where I was far enough away from all the violence so that it did not get in my head like it did to everyone else’s, yet I was close enough to see what was actually happening. However, there was still much that I could not see. I saw the people that we had forced out into the desert, I saw their destroyed homes, and their dead bodies, but I did not see what any of that had to do with me. I still could not see myself as being complicit in this. I kept telling myself that I did not want to be here, that I was obligated by contract to do this, that I was just doing what I had to do to get back to my family, but none of that was true. Everyday that I decided to follow orders, I made a choice,andI chose to follow orders because it was in my own best interest.
I do not know how to explain the absurdity of our mission in Fallujah, or in all of Iraq for that matter. We occupied a country in order to free it, we assaulted a city in order to save it, and we justified it all by claiming that we were doing this for a people who we considered to be the enemy. We told ourselves that we were liberating the civilians of Fallujah, even though we knew that civilians were being hurt, displaced, and even killed. We justified all of this to ourselves by asserting that collateral damage was a fact of war, and that we were doing this for them, for their freedom and democracy. We justified our actions to ourselves so well that we could not understand why the people of Fallujah were not thanking us. After all, we were risking our lives for them. It seemed like with every civilian that we killed we asserted more strongly and believed with more conviction than before that we were doing this for them.
When we went back home we were welcomed back as heroes. Our friends and families threw big parties for us, and one guy’s hometown threw a parade in his honor. Some guy started interviewing us for a book he was writing called “Fallujah with Honor”, and a documentary filmmaker started following us around to make a documentary about us. Most of the guys involved have not been able to think about Fallujah outside of that context ever since. They cannot see our actions as being anything other than heroic, and they cannot think of our friends that died as having died for anything but a noble cause. What really blows my mind about all of this is how easily decent and normal people can be driven to commit atrocities, and how they can even see their actions as being virtuous.
Thank God I got caught stealing and drinking and doing all the things that I was doing when they kicked me out of my old platoon. If they had not, then I would have been the guy kicking in doors in Fallujah and I might have even been the guy mutilating dead bodies. I really think you could take any group of people in the world, and if you told them all the same lies that we were told and you told them that half of them were not going to make it back in one piece, nine out of ten of them would commit all the same atrocities that we committed in Fallujah. It very easily could have been me, I am no better than any of the people I just mentioned; in fact I am probably worse. The guys that did all awful things that I just told you about might have believed the lies that they were told, and they might have gone into Fallujah with noble intentions. But I never believed the lies. I knew better. I knew we were in Fallujah for all the wrong reasons, I knew we were hurting people, but I followed orders anyways. And I did it because I wanted free college, and a combat action ribbon.
The customary international law rules I am citing here are handily summarized in the International Committee of the Red Cross Summary of International Law. These are the most important rules incorporated in key treaties such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Hague Conventions and Regulations, and the UN Charter. I am listing them here, though, as they are listed in the ICRC Summary for ease of reference.
[i] This point refers to Rule 1; “The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.”
Rule 2: “Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.”
Rule 129 A: “Parties to an international armed conflict may not deport or forcibly transfer the civilian population of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.”
Rule 131: “In case of displacement, all possible measures must be taken in order that the civilians concerned are received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition and that members of the same family are not separated.”
Rule 133: “The property rights of displaced persons must be respected.”
[ii] The use of white phosphorus against civilians was banned in the 1980 'Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects' (entered into force in December 1983 and annexed to the Geneva Conventions 1949).
[iii] Rule 5: “Civilians are persons who are not members of the armed forces. The civilian population comprises all persons who are civilians.”
Rule 6: “Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”
Rule 15: “In the conduct of military operations, constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”
Rule 16: “Each party to the conflict must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.”
[iv] Rule 50: “The destruction or seizure of the property of an adversary is prohibited unless required by imperative military necessity.”
Rule 519(c): “Private property must be respected an may not be confiscated except where destruction or seizure of such property is required by imperative military necessity.”
Rule 52: “Pillage is prohibited.”
[v] Rule 70: “The use of means and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is prohibited;” see also Rules 15 and 16, above.
Rule 17: “Each party to the conflict must take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of warfare with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”
Rule 19: “Each party to the conflict must do everything feasible to cancel or suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is not a military objective or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
[vi] Rule 7: “The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilian objectives and military objectives. Attacks may only be directed against military objectives. Attacks must not be directed against civilian objects.”
[vii] Rule 113: “Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited.”
Rule 115: “The dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained.”
Rule 116: “With a view to the identification of the dead, each party to the conflict must record all available information prior to disposal and mark the location of the graves.”
[viii] Rule 135: “Children affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection.”