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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Transcript: Interview with Josh Stieber

To listen to this discussion, go here.

: My guest today on Salon Radio is Josh Stieber, who is a former soldier in the United States Army, who was deployed in Iraq during the war, in the same company as the one depicted in the Wikileaks video that was released this week, showing an Apache helicopter attack on a variety of Iraqis including a Reuters cameraman, and we're here to discuss that video and related issues. Josh thanks very much for...for joining me.

JS: Sure, thanks for having me on.

GG:Now before I ask you about the video itself, I just want to ask you to describe your background in the Army. How long were you in the Army? How long were you deployed in Iraq? What were your rank and duties?

JS: I was in the Army for not quite three years. It was in the infantry, and I left the Army with the rank of Specialist and actually ended up getting out as a conscientious objector.

GG: And you were deployed in Iraq the entire three years?

JS: No, I was there from February of 2007, to April of 2008.

GG: So that includes the time that this incident on the Wikileaks video took place?

JS: Correct, yeah, that's, this would have been in July so a few months after I'd been there.

GG: Ok. Now, the video, as you probably know, produced a lot of debate over the past week. And one of the debates that it triggered was between those who said that was depicted on the video was so horrifying, because it was just such an aberration, so unusual, such a departure from what the United States Military typically does and how it behaves.

And then others, like me, that actually the opposite was true, that there was nothing really unusual about what was depicted on this video other than the fact, that for once we were actually seeing what these wars actually entail and what they look like and that this is essentially a fairly, um, adequate and accurate depiction of what war is and what we do when we invade other countries and occupy them, especially ones with a heavy civilian population.

What's your view of that debate? Where do you come down on that?

JS: I mean, I definitely feel the latter position and that's why I'm choosing to try and make my voice heard about this, because, yeah, just the almost hysterical language that is being used to describe this video, is, you know, this is a horrible atrocity and one of its kind, just, yeah, does not add up.

And I guess one comparison that I would use is that maybe its being framed like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you were going to compare to a movie, when I feel its more like the Saw movies, where a character wakes up with a machine strapped to them and in order to make it out alive, they have to do something horrible to another person, so there's definitely that aspect of it. But its, yeah, its the nature of the machine, rather than, you know, the helicopter pilots just waking up one morning and like, alright, we're going to go out and kill some random people.

GG: Now, did you actually know any of the individuals involved in the incident depicted on the video?

JS: Yeah, I mean, I would have been on the mission that day and, I guess, something that goes to show how if it is, you know, a common thing, is that I had declined a couple of days earlier to follow a command that I didn't feel right in following so, so I was not allowed to go on this mission, or else I would have been in that video.

And then if you just look at the discussion coming up, like, on military.com, and other websites with a lot of military people on it, like they're defending it saying, you know, this is how things work, and how there are people make a big deal about it, this is what things look like, so I think even from people in the military, and people who argue that, you know, war is an effective way of solving things, even in the situation that they're saying, this is what things look like and don't criticize us for doing our jobs.

GG: Now the individuals who are in the video who you did know -- and even the ones that you didn't, in terms of the behavior that was depicted on the video -- were those individuals in any way unusual in terms of being particularly belligerent or sadistic or violent? Or is the behavior and even the conversations that we're seeing and hearing on the videos fairly much the norm as far as your experience is concerned?

JS: Well the people in the video that I know are the people actually on the ground, and the primary position of the video, was from the helicopter. But the radio conversation was between...I knew several of the voices on there, mostly the ones, you know, granting permission after the helicopters, you know, ask for permission to fire, so yeah, the troops on the ground are the ones that I'm familiar with.

But, yeah, I mean, even going, well I guess based on how some of these conversations have gone, saying, that, you know, the conversation that the helicopter pilot and gunner were having was unusually callous or cold-hearted like, I just thought back to my basic training. And how compared with the things that we heard on a day to day basis of how we were supposed to talk and how we were supposed to act, and like the mindsets that we were supposed to have, like, compared to what's...what's in the video, like, even compared to basic training, is not even that extreme.

GG: Now, you had mentioned that there was a mission that you had objected to, you also mentioned a little bit earlier, which I didn't know until we started talking that you were able to raise conscientious objector status. Can you talk a little bit about what it is that you motivated you to join the military and did your views change over time as a result of the things that you saw in Iraq?

JS: Yeah, I mean, I enlisted with a very limited and selective understanding of things. And, I guess, the way I would describe that I saw things when I enlisted was that, there are problems in the world, or there's people that embody evil and if I can be a part of a team of surgeons to go in and cut out, you know, those cancers, then the rest of the world can get along and everything will turn out alright.

And then, I think this video epitomizes that, that's not how things work, that, yeah, even if some people in that video or in a certain situation, pose a threat, that simply eliminating them, does not end all of your problems and does not make anything better and often it creates more problems. And, fighting violence in the name of violence or using fear to combat fear, just eventually when I saw these things going on, like is shown in this video, it didn't add up.

And I realized that the nature of this war is creating more people in the mindset and giving them justification and, you know, each side feels like its justified in doing what they're doing and the more things go on, like again, is show in this video, the more each side is going to feel justified and things aren't going to get solved or get changed.

GG: Now, one of the questions that people are like going to add if they hear you saying what you're saying about what's depicted in this video being a fairly common occurrence, is what your basis is for that. I mean, have you -- did you participate in, or witness or hear about lots of other incidents that were similar to the one that we all saw on the Wikileaks video?

JS: Yeah, I mean, again, I think there's a lot of things to point to to say that this is a very common occurrence and I was part of similar situations, and I guess the one thing that's kind of startling about, I guess just how sensationalized this one video is, is that, pretty much word for word. It's already been documented in the book The Good Soldiers, that didn't make any kind of national headlines when it was written about, so its more the image of it that people are uncomfortable with, but the actual content has already been released and nationally published, and there are--

GG: You mean, in the book by David Finkel, you're talking about?

JS: Correct, yeah.

GG: Alright.

JS: Yeah, so that book is about -- it talks about this very -- again, almost word for word -- what the video is about, and yeah, its about the unit that I was with, that again is shown in this video.

GG: Now, one of the things that made this -- and you know, it could just be that this is a case of a picture being a worth a thousand words, or a video being worth even more that, actually seeing it dramatized, prevents you from turning away from it in a way that words on a page may not do.

But, one of the things, I think, that made this video have such an impact for so many people, wasn't necessarily the first part of the incident, where the Apache shot at the group that included the photographer because a lot of people felt like there was ambiguity. What happened there, in terms of whether it was justifiable or reasonable to mistake a camera for a weapon or an RPG, or whether there really was an RPG being carried by one of the individuals.

But it was really the second incident that I think caused the greatest impact where the Apache fired on what was clearly, what were clearly unarmed men, rescuing an unarmed wounded man, crawling in a pile of his own blood on the ground. And one of the things that was so striking about that, was that the military concluded that the soldiers, even in that instance, did nothing wrong, that they acted in perfect accordance with military procedure.

Is that, too, your understanding of what standard procedure and policy would call for, for shooting even on unarmed individuals in a situation like that?

JS: I mean, that's obviously the most troubling part of the video, and yeah, I think it is very telling of the military's position on that, that isn't seen as any wrongdoing. And, yeah, as far as official guidelines or rules, like, our rules of engagement were constantly changing and no one really took those seriously just because of how arbitrary they were and could change from one day to the next.

And it pretty much became a quest for survival, you know, people pretty quickly lost the idealism that brought us there, and we were fighting to make it home alive. And so, yeah, I mean, there was a lot of controversy within the ranks of you know, how much is too much, but it was definitely a prevalent position to say, that even going above and beyond just responding to somebody with a weapon, but of responding to people who were potential threats even without weapons -- some people would claim that was justifiable for, again, this whole of making it home alive.

And I think we should be slow to judge somebody in that situation. Obviously, I ended up feeling like I couldn't participate in that, just because... but I feel like that is the nature of things and you put people in that situation where they are so fearful and where they are just wanting to make it out alive, and that is going to naturally lead to things like what was um, seen with the van.

GG: One of the things that surprised me about the last week, was just how many people were so insistent that this is not something we do typically, that this was some kind of an extremely rare thing, there were even people who said that, those who pointed out that this is a common occurrence were expressing hostility to the troops or hating the United States.

What do you think accounts for the obviously mistaken belief that incidents like this are extremely rare? Is it just people's unfamiliarity with what war is? Is it a desire to avoid accepting what it is that our country really does when we go to war? Do you have any insight on why people are so eager to believe that this is something that is such an uncommon occurrence?

JS: Yeah, I mean, I would have to think that people who would be quick to that reaction are probably more focusing on the reputation of something and are saying that this is something that could make the military look bad. But, again, I think that if you go to military.com, and just see the response of soldiers and from seeing the responses on my friend's Facebooks and connecting, with the soldiers I deployed with.

We know we've come out with different opinions but we still have mutual respect for each other, that the soldiers that have been in a situation like that are the ones who are saying, that we were justified in everything that happened in this video. And that if anybody's wrong in this situation, it's those people criticizing us, again for doing our job.

GG: Now, last question-- I would hope that whatever position somebody has about this video, the benefit and value of what this video entails in terms of how it was released and the debate that it has sparked could be appreciated.

What lessons do you hope are drawn from this video and for people who, you know, maybe for the first time are really coming to terms with the kinds of things that happen when we go to war? What do you hope this video can achieve?

JS: Yeah, I'd say there are two main lessons and the first one is that: this is the nature of war and I think there's a lot of different things, you know, in any society I guess, that we don't want to think about, or we don't really want to talk about, whether, its you know how our meat gets processed, or just the dirty aspects of society, but this video brings to the forefront the dirty work of what goes on in war.

So I think, if people are shocked by what they're seeing, then we should be a lot slower to say this is the answer and, especially if our stated goals are to bring freedom and democracy and to help the people of Iraq that, you know, you watch this video and if you're shocked by it, then, yeah, the means to that end seem extremely counterproductive, and so hopefully this video's bringing up kind of that gap in logic, like in asking that question, is this really how we're accomplishing these noble goals that we claim we are?

And then I guess, too, again speaking as a veteran, that, thinking about the nature of how the dialogue is turned back or has almost been turned into, for some people that, you know, look at how horrible these soldiers are and they're cold, heartless murderers. And, only pinning it all on the soldiers, but realizing that probably most people put in that situation would act similarly, and I guess we should redirect our judgment and our anger towards those soldiers and look at this system that is saying, this is what you need to do and this is how we want to accomplish our goals.

And that means, helping the soldiers that we put in that situation heal when they get back, because that again, is the situation and those are events that they're going through. Which, you know, goes all the more to say why, I guess why we need to think about what does support the troops mean. It doesn't mean, you know, don't criticize them. It means acknowledging this is what war looks like and if you want it, then you need to be out there really supporting the troops and helping them to heal. And hopefully, working for other ways to solve problems than through going about in this way.

GG: Well, I think you have a lot of really important things to say and I'm sure there's different pressures in speaking out in the way that you're doing, and I really appreciate the fact that you're doing it and that you've taken the time to talk me about it today. And I think it was very illuminating. Thanks so much.

JS: Sure, thanks for having me.

GG: My pleasure, bye.

JS: Bye.

[End Interview]