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TRNN Replay: Josh Stieber, a member of the army company that came upon the Iraqis murdered by the US helicopter crew, discusses the Wikileaks video and army training that makes killing civilians acceptable
Josh Steiber Interview (Part 1 of 4)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Hi. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. A few weeks ago, some video of a shooting that took place in 2007 in Iraqï¿½Apache helicopter shooting a group of men on the ground. And here’s some of that footage. I’m sure most people have seen it already.
VIDEO, WIKILEAKS TRANSCRIPT: 01:09 Yeah roger. I just estimate there’s probably about twenty of them.
01:13 There’s one, yeah.
01:15 Oh yeah.
01:18 I don’t know if that’s a…
01:19 Hey Bushmaster element [ground forces control], copy on the one-six.
01:21 That’s a weapon.
01:23 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight [second Apache helicopter].
01:41 Yup. He’s got a weapon too.
01:43 Hotel Two-Six; Crazy Horse One-Eight. Have five to six individuals with AK47s [automatic rifles]. Request permission to engage [shoot].
02:43 You’re clear.
02:44 All right, firing.
02:47 Let me know when you’ve got them.
02:49 Lets shoot.
02:50 Light ’em all up.
02:52 Come on, fire!
02:57 Keep shoot’n, keep shootï¿½n.
02:59 keep shootï¿½n.
03:02 keep shootï¿½n.
03:05 Hotel Bushmaster Two-Six, Bushmaster Two-Six, we need to move, time now!
JAY: Now joining us to explain what we’re seeing and why this took place is Josh Stieber. He joined the armed forces in 2006, was in Iraq in 2007, and after 14 months applied for conscientious objector status, which he finally got. And here he is. Thanks for joining us, Josh.
JOSH STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So you grew up in Maryland.
STIEBER: Right. Not too far from here.
JAY: And so before we get into your story, just tell usï¿½let’s go back and look at some of the footage. And first of all, asï¿½we’re going to start playing the footage now. So, as we’re seeing it, tell us, first of all, how atypical is this? Or is this happening all the time, this kind of instance?
STIEBER: Incidents similar to this, I would say, are not altogether infrequent. I’m not as familiar with incidents with helicopters, because I was in an infantry unit, but that common mindset to shoot first and ask questions later is one that stems back as far as the very first days of training, and, yeah, that mindset and the things built on top of that throughout training have these results in combat.
JAY: Now, you’re in the company that was on the ground that day. You weren’t there yourself that day. But when the guys came home that day, was there something remarkable for them that they talked about it? Or was it kind of just another day out in Baghdad?
STIEBER: It was treated with a little more, you know, maybe, emotion than usual thatï¿½yeah, they came back and were talking about what had happened and that there wasï¿½what they said was an attack against them, and just, I guess, the number of people that were killed was maybe a little larger than usual. So a little bit more, but, you know, not something extremely irregular.
JAY: Was there any sense that the guys in the Apache helicopters had done anything wrong? Or this was par for the course?
STIEBER: The people in the video, you know, as you can see, weren’t actually on the scene as they saw what happened from the helicopter. So you just kind of trust what you’re told. If someone tells you, you know, this is what I saw and this is what I did, then you kind of take them at face value, ’cause there’s really no way to prove or to examine otherwise. So perspective from the helicopter, without this video or without other eyewitnesses, really couldn’t be verified.
JAY: Now, it’s hard to tell from the video whether there were actually weapons in the guys’ hands or not. Apparently they found some later. I mean, when you watch the video, can you see weapons in the hands of some of the guys on theï¿½people on the ground?
STIEBER: I can see things that look like weapons enough that, based on the training that I went through, I know I would have been commanded to fire if I was in a position where I observed that. And then, also, in the 40 minute Wikileaks version of the video, the full video, the soldiers actuallyï¿½you can hear them coming on the radio, saying they found weapons on the scene.
JAY: So let’s go back to you. I don’t know whether this incident or incidents like this helped to form who you were or who you became, but start from the beginning. Why did you join? And you told me off-camera you joined knowingï¿½hoping to be sent to Iraq. Why?
STIEBER: I grew up very religiously and very patriotic, in a selective sense that, you know, I only wanted to hear things that I wanted to hear and only things that I thought would make my country look better and make my beliefs look better, and I wasn’t very interested in understanding other perspectives. And the vision I had of my country was that, you know, we were going all throughout the world doing, you know, all this great stuff and helping people in need. And, you know, after 9/11 I was obviously affected by that and wanted to protect the people that I cared about, and, from everyone I trusted, was told that the military would be a good way to do that, and then was also told, you know, there’s this country Iraq that’s getting oppressed by this horrible dictator who’s also a threat to us, and if we can get rid of him, not only will we be keeping ourselves safe, but we’ll also be helping this other country in the process.
JAY: How interwoven were your beliefs in America and what America stands for and your religious beliefs?
STIEBER: They were pretty closely intertwined. I went to a religious high school. And one example is, in a government class that I was in at this religious high school, we read a book called The Faith of George W. Bush. And people like that were held up as, you know, theseï¿½these are people that are fighting for God’s will here on Earth. So religion was very interwoven with a sense of nationalism.
JAY: But by 2006, when you join, it’s already really clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Bush and Cheney had essentially lied to start a war. Like, that wasï¿½by 2006 that’s fairly acknowledged. Had that penetrated in to you, to your school?
STIEBER: There, and just theï¿½kind of the people I was listening to. And, again, I wasn’t making any kind of effort to really challenge my thinking. People were saying, you know, whoever it is, the media or other countries are out to make us look bad, and, you know, we did the right thing, and we’re doing the right thing. And I might have had a few doubts in my mind, but even I comforted the doubts by saying, you know, even if the reasons that we’re there weren’t completely justified, we’re there and we’re still in this position, since we’re there, that we can’t just pull out, and we need to help these people.
JAY: So even if there were no weapons and even if the argument for weapons wasn’t legitimate, it’s still good versus evil, and they’re evil and we’re good, and we’ve got to fight it?
STIEBER: Yeah. I bought into that lingo a lot.
JAY: So you go to Iraq. You join, you go through boot camp, and you’re sent to Iraq, and you’re still more or less the same mindset. Tell us a little bit about boot camp and the kind of training that takes place to prepare you for war. I mean, your religious training is supposed to be about love thy neighbor, and then you’re sent to war. So how do they get you ready for that?
STIEBER: Yeah, I guess that’s where I started to see, maybe, some of these contradictions, just by the kinds of things that we did on a regular basis in basic training, whether it was the cadences that we sang as we were marching around, some that even joked about killing women and children.
JAY: Like what?
STIEBER: One that stands out in my mind isï¿½it goes, “I went down to the market where all the women shop/I pulled out my machete and I begin to chop/I went down to the park where all the children play/I pulled out my machine gun and I begin to spray.”
JAY: That’s as you’re marching.
JAY: So this is, like, an authorized chant, you could say.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, the training, they focus on the physical aspect, or, you know, they say that’s the challenging part, but then they slip all these psychological things in along with it.
JAY: Well, that’s got to be shocking for you to hear that the first time.
STIEBER: Yeah. And so I started writing home to religious leaders at my church, saying what I’m being asked to do doesn’t really line up with, you know, all these religious beliefs I had. And I would get letters back with explanations that I needed to have more faith in God, or this is just how the military works.
JAY: They would write back and defend a chant like that, that it’s okay to go down where the kids are playing and start to spray? They would defend that?
STIEBER: They would either defend it or say that ends justify the means or say, you know, maybe you personally don’t say chants like that and just march silently, but you still go along with the whole system. And so I adopted that mindset that even if there were particular things that troubled me, which there definitely were, then you can calm that discomfort by saying, well, you know, even if I’m uncomfortable with these certain practices, in the long run we’re still getting rid of the bad guys, and we’re still keeping our country safe, and we’re still spreading freedom and democracy around the world, so you shouldn’t focus on the smaller things.
JAY: So at this point, to what extent do you start to question your faith? ‘Cause it’s all about faith, and faith is about not questioning. So once you start to question, it leads you to places you haven’t been before. So does thatï¿½and does it begin in boot camp?
STIEBER: Yeah, I would say that it definitely did. And kind of the more I saw the things that seemed like they were in contradiction, I would kind of have less and less faith in my faith and just start doing things lessï¿½thatï¿½I guess that idealism or that religious motivation started to fall away, and it became more about doing things to either fit in with the crowd or to take on this nationalism that, yeah, we’re still a good country, you know, even if I don’t like these particular things, and we’re still spreading freedom and democracy around the world.
JAY: Now, I’ve been told byï¿½I have never been in the military, but I’ve been told to get people ready to kill it’s quite an intense psychological process. Humans actually, apparently, don’t like killing each other. How did thatï¿½what was that for you, and what was the impact on you?
STIEBER: I would say it’s very calculated. It starts with bayonet training, even though bayonets haven’t been used in any war since, I believe, the Korean War. But, you know, they first start out by getting you used to stabbing a dummy with a bayonet, yelling “kill, kill, kill” as you do it. And if you can get comfortable with that, then it’s slightly more comfortable to shoot at a target from further away. And just the nature of the training, as the military’s gone on, as I’ve gone back and studied it, that has changed. Before, targets just used to be circles, and now the targets look like actual people. They just get you just to thinking in those dehumanizing terms that this is a target, and people that look like this are targets, rather than this is what a human looks like.
JAY: And to what extent was the actual politics of Iraq talked about, or what to make of Iraqis, what to think about Arabs? To be able to go and kill people, do they have to dehumanize all the people you’re about to meet?
STIEBER: The common mindset that I would say was coming towards Iraqis were, one, just kind of, you know, how they were referred to. They were always referred to “Hajis”, you know, similar to “Gooks” in Vietnam or other phrases and other words. So there was that mindset, combined with this mindset, that if you don’t do everything you’re trained to do and if you’re not being the best soldier that you can be, then these Iraqis, you know, at some point or another, are going to attack you, or, you know, if you’re in a combat situation and you’re not doing everything that you were taught, then you’re exposing yourself and your friends to being open to attack. So that was very much fear mongering, from that point of view.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about you as you get to Iraq and how that helps to shape you. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Josh Stieber on The Real News Network.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.