Road to Perdition
Was the Army as much to blame for the Mahmudiyah killings as its perpetrators?
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Last Thursday, Midland native Steven Dale Green—who was convicted of raping and killing a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her family—was spared the death penalty when a jury deadlocked over the appropriate punishment for the ex-soldier. (As a result, he will automatically receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole when he is formally sentenced in September.) The crime, which inspired the controversial Brian De Palma film “Redacted,” was one of the worst atrocities committed by American soldiers during the Iraq war. One prosecutor characterized the incident “as an utter lapse of humanity.” So why could a jury not agree that Green should be put to death?
The evidence of Green’s guilt was overwhelming—so much so that the defense never argued otherwise. Instead, his attorneys presented a damning picture of the Army’s failures when it came to the twenty-year-old soldier, who had repeatedly spoken of his desire to kill civilians after witnessing the murders of two of his commanding officers.
Green should probably never have been allowed to enlist in the Army in the first place. A high-school dropout, he had several misdemeanor convictions (including one for possession of drug paraphernalia), and had served four days in jail on an alcohol-possession charge only a month before he enlisted. Yet the Army granted him a “moral waiver” that disregarded his criminal background. According to a 2007 New York Times article, the Army has used a staggering number of waivers to keep up flagging recruitment numbers during the war:
The number of waivers granted to Army recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown about 65 percent in the last three years, increasing to 8,129 in 2006 from 4,918 in 2003, Department of Defense records show…The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide. The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.
While soldiers with criminal histories made up only 11.7 percent of the Army recruits in 2006, the spike in waivers raises concerns about whether the military is making too many exceptions to try to meet its recruitment demands in a time of war. Most felons, for example, are not permitted to carry firearms, and many criminals have at some point exhibited serious lapses in discipline and judgment, traits that are far from ideal on the battlefield.
Green enlisted in February of 2005, at the height of the insurgency, when soldiers were suffering heavy casualties from roadside bombings. That October, he was deployed to a particularly violent, lawless region south of Baghdad nicknamed the “Triangle of Death” (not to be confused with the Sunni Triangle, northwest of Baghdad). According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, which delved into Green’s case in a remarkable three-part series, “Anatomy of an Atrocity,” many of the soldiers Green patrolled with believed that they were facing certain death:
You feel like every step, you might get blown up,” one of Green’s comrades, Private First Class Justin Watt, later said. “You’re just walking a death walk.” …In the six months ending in March 2006, 38 soldiers were killed in Green’s First Battalion, including five in his 30-man platoon. “I was going to get a memorial tattoo on my arms of all the guys who were killed, but there was not enough room for it,” Watt later said.
On December 10, 2005, Green witnessed the murders of his squad leader, Staff Sergeant Travis Nelson, and his team leader, Sergeant Kenith Casica. As Green looked on, an Iraqi informant walked up to the checkpoint they were manning, shook Casica’s hand, then shot Casica in the throat and Nelson in the head. Green flung Casica’s body onto the hood of a Humvee and lay on top of him as Casica’s body went limp during a panicked ride back to the base. At Casica’s memorial service, Green said he “was one of the few people I know who genuinely cared about the future of Iraq and Iraqi people…He was probably the kindest man in Bravo Company, and one of the best men I’ve ever known.”
The murders left Green and his fellow soldiers deeply demoralized. Still, they were required to keep a grueling schedule on the front lines. They slept three to four hours at a time. On orders from their platoon commander, tours of the remote checkpoint that they were manning were tripled in length—from seven days to 21 days.
Green sought help from an Army Combat Stress Team in Iraq on December 21, 2005, telling a counselor that he wanted to avenge the deaths of fallen soldiers by killing Iraqi civilians. Green was subsequently diagnosed as a “homicidal threat.” According to an Associated Press investigation, “The treatment was several small doses of Seroquel—a drug to regulate his mood—and a directive to get some sleep, according to medical records.” The following day, Green was returned to combat duty.
In fact, there were many other red flags. In the months leading up to the murders, Green talked about killing civilians as often as once a day. According to the Courier-Journal: “Army officers—from noncommissioned officers to top commanders—ignored daily tirades in which Green said he hated all Iraqis and wanted to kill them. Green’s threats were so widely known that his colonel—with seven thousand men under his command—once sought out Green to personally remind him that civilians were off limits.”
Yet despite the fact that an Army stress counselor had deemed his unit “mission incapable” and in need of “rest away from combat,” Green was sent on an extended tour of the checkpoint with no supervising officers.
The crime he committed was savage. On March 11, 2006, he and three other soldiers from his unit went to the home of fourteen-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, located a few hundred yards from the checkpoint, while another soldier stayed behind as a lookout. Green herded Abeer’s mother, father, and five-year-old sister into a bedroom, where he gunned them down with an AK-47. Meanwhile, two soldiers took turns raping Abeer. Green then raped the girl, shot her point-blank in the head, doused her body with kerosene, and set her body on fire. The crime was initially believed to be the work of insurgents. Green’s role only came to light—after he received an honorable discharge for mental health reasons—when a fellow soldier reported what he knew about the murders.
A federal jury in Paducah, Kentucky, near Fort Campbell, from which Green had originally been deployed with the 101st Airborne Division, heard his case. (He was tried in a civilian court because he was discharged from the Army before his arrest.) The jury heard ample evidence about his harrowing childhood, but it was combat stress that remained the focus of the trial’s punishment phase. Defense attorney Scott Wendelsdorf reminded jurors that Green had sought help months before the crime, and would not have been able to commit the murders had the Army removed this “broken warrior” from the front lines. “The United States of America,” Wendelsdorf said, “failed Steven Green.”