The story of Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones of Hanford, Calif., recounted Monday in the Los Angeles Times, explains better than anything how the country has reached the moment of truth in Iraq, when a soldier’s and a nation’s worst fear is finally borne home.
It is the moment when the idealism that people bring to each war, even the most misbegotten, is shattered and we discover that we — at least some of the best and brightest that are our surrogates — have become them, when our guns turn on the most innocent victims of war, the children.
Briones was a member of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, a unit now under investigation for murdering some 25 innocent Iraqis, including children, in retaliation for the death of a Marine from a roadside bomb in Haditha last November, and then covering up the massacre. Briones is not under investigation, apparently, having been ordered to bag the bodies and record the scene of the massacre with his little digital camera and then having cooperated with investigators who, much, much later, came calling after Time magazine broke the story.
Kilo Company’s grim story and Briones’ personal journey reflect the full breadth of the ruin brought by George Bush’s greatest folly, from the loss of moral high ground in world affairs to the devastation of people we went to war to succor and to tens of thousands of families of soldiers who entered the war one person and came out quite another or else did not return at all. They explain why the war protest movement this time roils out not from college campuses but from military families and from the military itself.
Briones, the first Kilo Company Marine to tell his story, came upon the mutilated body of his best buddy, T.J. Terrazas of El Paso, Texas, in the cab of his humvee, which was destroyed by a roadside bomb hidden in a propane canister a few yards from their camp. He pulled a poncho over his friend, murmured a short prayer and helped free two other wounded Marines from the machine. Then he retreated to a dark corner of the camp to hide his rage and grief from younger soldiers. But he was summoned to nearby houses late in the day to bag the bodies of men, women and children who were slain by Marines retaliating for the bombing.
The official Marine account was that 15 or so Iraqi civilians and eight insurgents died from the bomb or from a gun battle. But Time’s later story, pieced together from eyewitnesses, including a child who survived the slaughter, was that four hours after the bomb went off Marines went into homes near the scene and shot everyone and then gunned down five men in a taxi.
Back home after his third tour of duty in Iraq (he was wounded in an earlier tour), Briones said when he got to the scene to mark and bag the bodies, an officer saw his camera and told him he was a combat photographer and to take pictures. He photographed about 15 bodies before the camera battery died.
The moment that haunts him, he said, is picking up the body of a tiny girl who was shot in the head.
“I held her out like this,” he said with his arms extended, “but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs.”
His mother says that Ryan called her many times from Iraq about the nightmares he had about the girl. “Mom,” he’d say, “I can’t clean my boots. I can’t clean my boots. I see her.”
Thirty-six hours after returning home to Hanford in April, Briones got drunk, stole a pickup truck, crashed it into a house and ran away. His mother penned a long letter to local authorities seeking leniency for her son, who she said got no decompression and no help before coming home. She wrote, “He saw the killings and knew who sent the word out to do the killings, he had to clean up the bodies of children who were sleeping in their beds and he saw his best friend die in front of his eyes.”
Some 717 Marines have died in Iraq, mostly in that province, and thousands more have been injured, mostly at the hands of men they cannot see. The killings at Haditha were committed by weary Marines on their third stint in Iraq.
Haditha is only the worst of these atrocities, which come to light with growing frequency in Iraq and Afghanistan and which trouble still further America’s low estate in those countries and the world and bedevil the sleep of soldiers and veterans. Monday, the innocent wreck of a military convoy turned Kabul, the first seat of American liberation, into a moiling mob of protesters against the United States.
It is becoming harder and harder to see the merits of the administration’s last justification for the occupation of the countries, to protect them from instability and violence. Bush lost the natives of those countries, the world, the American people and, increasingly, his last redoubt, the military. What is left?