PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. We’re talking to Josh Stieber. He was a member of the Army company in Baghdad that day that everyone has now seen—and we’ll play a few more seconds of it, just so you—give you some context what we’re talking about. This is the video where Apache helicopters attacks a group of Iraqis on the ground. Josh was a member of that company, not there that day. But now we’re talking about how Josh came from joining the Army to, a couple of years later, applying for conscientious objector status. Thanks for joining us again, Josh.
STIEBER: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So let’s just pick up the story where we left off. So you’re more or less finished boot camp. What comes next?
STIEBER: A couple of more months of training with the company that I eventually deployed with.
JAY: And in terms of this arc of how you get from joining to conscientious objector status, what took place before you go to Iraq? Is there another kind of moment there for you?
STIEBER: I guess another big moment in training that really started making me ask questions—and again I found a good excuse not to ask too many, but what initially disturbed me was our leaders would take us into a room one at a time, take the new soldiers, and they would ask us a series of questions leading up to this big question, that if somebody were to pull a weapon in a marketplace full of completely unarmed civilians and there’s only one person with a weapon, would you return fire towards that person? And not only did you have to say yes, but in this exercise if you even hesitated in your answer, then you get yelled at for not being a good soldier and not prepared to do what it took to keep your fellow soldiers safe.
JAY: So when they asked you, what did you say? And did you hesitate?
STIEBER: I hesitated, and after a second or two of hesitation they really ripped into me.
JAY: Saying what?
STIEBER: Again, that I needed to be prepared to fire, you know, whenever I was told and that I had to keep it—you know, always be aware of these threats, and that any hesitation could potentially mean the lives of the other soldiers.
JAY: So the idea of killing women and children is an actual part of the training, that you have to kind of internalize that this is acceptable in the right circumstances.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, it’s not specifically said, you know, we’re going to go out today and kill women and children, but if it should happen in the process of doing what we’re supposed to—.
JAY: But when you put that together with what you told us in the first segment of the interview, that one of the marching chants was, you know, killing women and spraying children with bullets, it seems to be something they know you’re going to get into these situations with civilians, and so part of the training is that accepting the killing of civilians is part of your job.
STIEBER: Yeah. Again, it’s all very psychological. And I’d even take that beyond just military training and say there’s aspects of our society, going back and looking at my history class when I learned about the atomic bombings or bombings in other wars that either intentionally targeted civilians or there were a lot of civilian casualties in the process, just that same mindset that, you know, this was unfortunate and we don’t intentionally do this most of the time, but if it should so happen that it happens as we’re accomplishing our greater goals, then so be it.
JAY: Yeah, sure, and you get nothing more than how indigenous people were treated here, native American Indians. Like, part of history is, you know, the slaughter is part of the building of the society, its westward expansion and all. And in terms of how you saw going to Iraq, is it part of that same kind of tradition that the insertion of these American values is simply good for the world?
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, you hear it all the time, freedom and democracy and how horrible their systems are, and, yeah, there’s a lot of things from that angle.
JAY: So you leave that interview, just being screamed at for not being a good enough soldier for wanting to accept the killing of civilians quickly enough. How long before you go from there to Iraq? And what’s happening in terms of your own thinking? Like, my understanding of boot camp is one of the prime objectives of boot camp is to get you to stop thinking for yourself; you need to accept this is the way the world is and do what you’re told. You’re already starting to think for yourself here in ways you hadn’t before.
STIEBER: Right. I mean, I would have these concerns, but I would always have a good excuse, whether it was, you know, as I saw things in basic training, saying, yeah, the ends justify the means, that even if I don’t like this particular thing, you know, in the long run we’re doing all this great stuff, or with this other training I was saying things like, you know, maybe this is an extreme example, or surely something like that is never going to happen, and just anything kind of to take you out of personal responsibility to act on that, to say that I know this is wrong and I’m going to do something about it. Instead my natural reaction at the time was just to find an excuse for why I didn’t need to act on it.
JAY: So tell us. So you get to Iraq. And how long before you see action? And talk about the first action.
STIEBER: It was probably a couple of months before we saw action. And kind of the process of how I remember things in Iraq is that one of the first big milestones is that we moved from the larger base that we were living in, first to one building in the middle of a district, and then into an even more remote area in the poor industrial part of town. And as we were moving in to the poor industrial part of town, in to this factory, the whole district came out and held a large peaceful protest and were actually waving signs and flags and banners and telling us peacefully but very explicitly that they don’t want us in their neighborhood.
JAY: This was a neighborhood protest—get out of our neighborhood.
JAY: And how did that affect you? And what was the response?
STIEBER: All these things slowly started to trouble me more and more and just kind of changed how I was seeing things.
JAY: ‘Cause you were supposed to be there, you know, to stop sectarian violence, and people wanted you there, supposedly.
STIEBER: Yeah, exactly.
JAY: So it was a little surprising for you to see the protest.
STIEBER: Yeah. I mean, here I was thinking that I was doing all this great stuff for their country, and, well, if we’re really helping them out so much, why are they asking us to leave?
JAY: So did you just discuss this with some of the other guys in the company? Were you able to talk about this stuff?
STIEBER: A little bit. I mean, people didn’t really want to think about it a whole lot. And as time went on, people were more open to talk about it. And I’d say, later on, down the road, the majority of people I knew said that what we were doing there was at the very least a waste of time, if not morally wrong, and some people even went as far as to say that if roles were reversed, that they themselves would be insurgents.
JAY: So when do you see your first action that involves shooting?
STIEBER: I don’t remember a specific date, probably a couple of weeks or maybe a month before this video took place in July.
JAY: And, again, this is that video of the Apache shooting the [inaudible]
STIEBER: Right, the WikiLeaks video. And most of our contact was from IEDs or the roadside bombs or from snipers.
JAY: So are you ever in a—so what starts to lead you towards saying this is wrong? What’s your experiences?
STIEBER: One thing that really troubled me that I was thinking about, on a practical level and a moral level, was this policy that we started practicing that when a roadside bomb would go off—since that started happening pretty frequently, some of our leaders, from a somewhat high level, started saying that every time a bomb went off, anybody standing in that area was open game to fire upon, with the logic that, you know, if we can essentially out-terrorize the locals and make them more afraid of us than of the people planting the bombs, then they’re not going to plant the bombs, even if they weren’t directly involved in the process.
JAY: So the order came down that when a bomb goes off, you’re there, you look around, you can shoot anybody in sight standing around there.
JAY: And that could be men, women, or children.
JAY: So were you in a situation where you and your guys fired at men, women, and children after a bombing run?
STIEBER: Yeah, I was in that situation, and I specifically was told to fire. And there was one night when that happened and a bomb went off, and our truck pulled ahead a few feet, and the trucks in front of us kicked up a lot of dust, and the last thing I had seen before the dust went up were children running in the street. And my leaders were yelling at me to fire my weapon, and I said, "No. The last thing I saw were children running around. I’m not going to do that." And that didn’t go over so well. And that was not long before this video happened. And that’s the reason why I wasn’t on the mission that day is because when I started refusing orders like that and saying, look, not only is it morally wrong to just open fire for the reasons that were being given, it practically doesn’t make sense that—yeah, you might scare a few people, but it’s probably going to do a lot more to motivate people who might have had neutral feelings towards us to now be justified in becoming our enemies, and I wouldn’t blame them if they did.
JAY: So you’re standing there, there’s dust all around, you knew there were kids. You didn’t fire, but other guys did.
STIEBER: In that situation, yeah.
JAY: And kids were killed.
STIEBER: I don’t know specifically on that.
JAY: People were killed.
STIEBER: Yeah, yeah, at various times people were killed. And, you know, other soldiers refused to fire, too, and some people I know would shoot their weapons—and I did this a couple times before I just straight up said, you know, I’m not going to do this anymore—but some people, we would fire our weapons at an open field, you know, to not get our leaders mad at us, but to also make sure that we weren’t hitting anything.
JAY: So this is just a couple of weeks before the Apache shooting video.
JAY: So just keep going. So you’re there for 14 months. So there’s a lot of instances where this happens.
STIEBER: Right. So I was seeing these things go on. I made that decision that I wasn’t going to fire my weapon. My leader got really upset at me, and I firmly defended myself.
JAY: Now, you wouldn’t fire your weapons in those situations, or you wouldn’t fire your weapons, period?
STIEBER: At the time I was in that situation, and that was primarily the times when I would be commanded to fire my weapon. At the time I still had it in my head that, you know, if there were a more justifiable situation, then I would, but I didn’t find that situation justifiable. So when I said that and would make my arguments to my leaders, it didn’t go over so well, so they took me off the gun that I was on, off the gun on top of the Humvee, and my job switched to that I was following around our platoon leader and officer and relaying the radio back and forth with them. And so I still had a weapon, but my primary job was to be on the radio. And that started to—the things I saw with that started to influence me, too.
JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what you heard on the radio and how that moves you towards wanting out.
JAY: Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Josh Stieber on The Real News Network.
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