Miguel Terrazas was a private first class, a marksman and a decorated war hero. His dad, who comes to visit his grave every morning, called his son "Mikey."
The Fort Bliss military cemetery in El Paso lies at the foot of the Franklin Mountains. It is shortly after 6 a.m. The mountains are a soft blue in the early, flat light of dawn. The tombstones throw long shadows on the raked soil. A blue metallic pickup truck drives through the main gate and stops. A heavy-set man climbs down from the driver's seat.
Martin Terrazas wears baggy pants and dusty boots. He trudges over to grave J 2145, kneels and lays his hand on the tombstone.
"Hi, son. How are you?" he asks, speaking softly, his eyes closed.
"Your brothers told me to say 'hi,' Mikey. They're okay, don't worry about them. Your aunt, too. She says she misses you. Apart from that, she works a lot. You know what she's like."
He strokes the tombstone. There is a small hollow in the ground for beer. "Mikey, my son, your brother's coming on Sunday. He'll bring along a Corona for you, or maybe donuts if you want that instead. How does that sound?"
Tombstone J 2145 is 62 centimeters tall. Chiseled into the gray stone are the date of birth of Private First Class Miguel Terrazas, Dec. 10, 1984, and the date of his death, Nov. 19, 2005 -- the day a bomb exploded on a dusty street in Iraq. The bomb cost Miguel Terrazas his life, and his death cost 24 Iraqi civilians their lives. All in all, it was a normal morning in Iraq.
A Watershed Moment
But that date, Nov. 19, 2005, caused shockwaves in the United States and triggered a political crisis that continues to divide the nation to this day. Three Marines are on trial for murder in a California military court, and four others are accused of dereliction of duty, lying under oath and obstruction of justice. But there is more to this trial than that. It also touches on the entire fiasco of the Iraq war, the Americans' overestimation of their own strength and Arab hatred.
Verdicts in the trial at Camp Pendleton, where Terrazas was stationed, are expected in the coming weeks. The trial itself is being conducted like a military campaign, with hundreds of prosecutors and defense attorneys, including civilian lawyers, cross-examinations, expert witness testimony and mountains of photographs. It is as if America wanted to prove to itself that what happens in the Iraq war is still governed by laws, and that this war can still be won. The Americans probably lost the real battle long ago -- the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Indeed, they probably lost it on that Saturday morning in Haditha, Nov. 19, 2005. A US convoy of four Humvees was on patrol that morning on a street on the outskirts of the city. It was shortly after 7 a.m. Miguel Terrazas was driving the fourth vehicle.
Haditha is a small, unattractive and featureless city in central Iraq. Altogether, there were 12 Marines in the four Humvees, under the command of a non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Frank Wuterich, a man with a reputation for being calm and cool. He is athletic, sports a light moustache and has a crumpled-looking face. He resembles the actor Matt Damon. At home, Wuterich has a wife, a daughter and an electric guitar.
The US soldiers were wearing camouflage uniforms, non-reflecting steel helmets, bulletproof vests and motorcycle goggles. Each soldier was carrying the standard-issue weapons: an M15 assault rifle and a nine-millimeter pistol. Some carried concussion grenades and hand grenades.
The convoy turned left off of River Road onto a bumpy street, Shari Sifani or Chestnut Street, as the Americans had renamed it. The street is lined with a smattering of houses, many of them made of bare yellow Haklania stone, which is quarried in the area. This is a pretty good neighborhood by Iraqi standards, but an atavistic nightmare to American eyes. There are no movie theaters, no supermarkets, and there is nothing colorful, pleasant-looking or consumable about the place. The soldiers call the areas outside their bases and Baghdad's Green Zone "Injun Country." The whole town, the whole country in fact is Injun Country.
A World Constantly under Fire
Haditha is in Anbar Province, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Baghdad. The city is spread along the banks of the Euphrates River for about seven or eight kilometers (four or five miles). Two insurgent groups, one consisting of former Baathists and the other allegedly affiliated with al-Qaida, control Haditha, along with several splinter groups.
In late 2003, half a year after the American invasion, when there was still a trace of cautious optimism in the country, some entrepreneurial Haditha citizens even opened up Internet cafes. The cafes have long since shut their doors, their managers intimidated by insurgents, who feared that someone could tip off the Americans by e-mail. Mobile phones don't work and the landline network is also out of commission. By autumn 2005, there was an evening curfew.
Haditha, like the rest of Iraq, was a world constantly under fire. In 2003 and 2004, when the insurgency was just beginning to develop, the cities west of Baghdad -- Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit, Haditha, Karbala -- formed the center of terrorism in Iraq. The region was home to the so-called rat line. Freshly recruited terrorists from Jordan and Syria, known as "rats," could get the supplies and equipment they needed here -- cars, falsified documents, money and weapons.
The Rat Line
The convoy had almost made it home. It was only 10 minutes from the unit's camp, a commandeered two-story, former school administration building, now heavily fortified with sandbags, MG nests and NATO wire. The officers slept two to a room, while the lower-ranking men in the unit were quartered in 10 or 12-bed rooms. When they were off-duty, the men would wash their socks, listen to their iPods and write letters. The plumbing had been broken for some time, and human waste was collected in oil drums. "Shit burning," or incinerating the contents of the drums, was a favored form of punishment.
The men called it "Camp Sparta."
Miguel joined the Marines in the fall of 2003. The US Marines, about 175,000 strong, are an independent division of the armed forces today. Marines tend to take a low-tech approach to fighting. They consider themselves Spartans -- fast, courageous and tough. Marines complete the most difficult training in the US armed forces. They shave every day, even in combat zones, and a Marine will never abandon a fellow soldier. "Semper Fidelis," or "Always Faithful," is their motto.
Marines consider themselves brothers, even if they do not share the same mothers. Mikey Terrazas believed in the Marines' way of life.
In the 1950s, Miguel's grandfather Jorge emigrated from Mexico to El Paso, where he bought a fast-food restaurant called Ben's Tacos and created his own hot sauce that eventually made the place legendary. His son Martin, Miguel's father, took over the restaurant, worked in construction and drove trucks for a living. The Terrazas always believed that they had ended up on the right side of the border. In Mexico, says Martin Terrazas, you'll always be dirt-poor, but you can give your kids a future here in America.
Mikey, he says, joined the Marines out of conviction and because he wanted to fight for his country.
The Marines had been in Anbar Province since March 2004. Nine Marine battalions, or about 9,000 men, were stationed there under the command of Lieutenant General James Conway. The situation was difficult.
There is a dam and power plant on Lake Qadisiyah, north of Haditha. The third battalion, a group of about 800, which included Miguel Terrazas's "Kilo Company," was assigned to guard the area surrounding the dam. The 200 men of Kilo Company were responsible for securing and guarding the city of Haditha. It was the fall of 2005, and it was already Terrazas' third tour of duty in Iraq, which made him a veteran of sorts.
The company's orders were to maintain a presence and keep order. They drove on patrols, set up checkpoints and occasionally conducted raids. They would usually find flyers and weapons, arrest a few people, interrogate them and release them. It all seemed pretty pointless. The letters Mikey wrote home offered a picture of the situation in Haditha at the time: constant attacks, a dogged, deadly game of cat-and-mouse, in which the Marines were often the hunted. The modus operandi of insurgents of all stripes was to attack and then merge into the civilian population of Iraqis, who all looked alike to the Marines.
'You Can't Understand the Iraqis'
Miguel, a good-natured man, wrote that he would have liked to break through some of the mutual mistrust -- if only he could have talked to the Iraqis. But they didn't speak English, of course.
"You just can't understand the Iraqis," he wrote.
Most of his fellow soldiers were less forgiving. To them, the Iraqis were nothing but crazy, stubborn Arabs who should have been overjoyed to be liberated. And those ridiculous traditions. There was a rule written on the blackboard at Camp Sparta: Be nice and be friendly. But seriously, the Marines thought, be friendly? Respect their tradition, their culture? All the fuss about their women, the constant fiddling with codes of honor, and those ankle-length nightshirts the men wear -- women's clothing, really. It would all be so ridiculous, they thought, if it weren't so dangerous.
Miguel Terrazas wanted to be a good Marine. And he had a knack for cheering up his fellow soldiers when morale was poor.
The bomb exploded under the fourth Humvee in the convoy. Private First Class James Crossan, 20, from North Bend, Washington, was in the seat next to Terrazas. Salvador Guzman, a 19-year-old, sat in the rear of the vehicle, which was open to the back. Guzman was one of the more sensitive, nervous members of the company. It was his first time in a combat zone. He had originally been assigned to drive the vehicle that morning, but he asked Terrazas to take over for him. Miguel told him: No problem, Sal.
The bomb-makers use mobile phones, the remotes for toy cars or garage door openers as detonators. If a bomb doesn't go off, they simply re-solder the wire that may have come loose and reuse the bomb. The Improvised Explosive Device, or IED, is the emblematic weapon of this war.
On the morning of Nov. 19, the IED consisted of an empty propane gas bottle. The head had been unscrewed and the bottle filled with TNT, and then hidden under sand or dust. The men who set off the IED were probably nearby. Perhaps the insurgents had observed the convoy on its way out and calculated that the Americans would return. This is typical of ambushes in Iraq, where the return trip is often the most dangerous.
The explosion broke windowpanes nearby. Dishes fell out of cabinets and light bulbs burst. At the explosion site, the force of the bomb was directed against the floor plate of the Humvee, which is in the front of the vehicle.
The combustion process lasted only fractions of a second. A huge, white-hot flame shot up and the Humvee was thrown into the air, its upper half blown off. Rocks and gravel came crashing down on nearby roofs, and then a cloud of dust.
There was a burning smell and the sound of moaning. It was approx. 7:15 a.m.
According to estimates by the British medical journal The Lancet, more than 600,000 Iraqis have died violent deaths between March 20, 2003 and June 2006. During the course of the day on Nov. 19, 2005, between 64 and 96 Iraqi civilians (depending on which source you go by) were killed, as well as nine US soldiers.
The explosion catapulted the occupants from the vehicle. Guzman, who was sitting in back, was literally swept across the road, breaking his foot and suffering abrasions. Crossan, the man sitting in the passenger seat, was pushed through the door into a hail of debris, breaking several bones and suffering internal injuries.
Miguel Terrazas was ripped in two. His legs remained in the vehicle, under the steering wheel. His upper body was thrown into the air with the top of the Humvee and landed on the side of the road. It's unlikely that he suffered more than a momentary, blinding pain before death.
The rest of the convoy followed the standard procedure for situations like this. The three remaining Humvees drove back. Frank Wuterich, the sergeant in command, shouted out his orders to overcome the temporary deafness that follows an explosion. "Dismount, secure attack site. Where are Guz, Cross, T.C.? Get Crossan out from under that wreckage! Orderly Whitt: Administer first aid, radio for backup." The orderly obeyed, and someone radioed in the code word for an attack: "Viper Chestnut."
Perhaps Viper Chestnut was only the beginning? Perhaps they would all die that morning?
At some point they discovered what was left of Miguel Terrazas. He was their brother, even if he was from a different mother.
"Dear Aunt!" Those were the words with which Miguel Terrazas began the last letter he wrote home, on Sept. 29, 2005. He wrote on thin paper and his small handwriting was tilted to the side, almost as if the letters were about to fall over. "I have to admit that I don't like it here much. But sometimes I think that if we weren't here fighting, all those terrorists would come to us in the States. But then I have the feeling that there are other reasons for this war. Maybe we're here because Bush wants the oil. Or because he wants to impress his daddy."
Contradictions, Wherever One Looks
There is a wealth of evidence and testimony for what happened in Haditha in the hours that followed, and yet there are contradictions wherever one looks. Some of the parties involved -- witnesses, victims, perpetrators -- feared for their lives. Memories become distorted and are filtered and twisted into defensive statements. The witnesses at Camp Pendleton may be under oath, but they could be lying nonetheless.
The Marines would later testify that they came under fire immediately after the explosion. This is conceivable, but unlikely. Hiding and shooting at individual soldiers is not the typical pattern of attack in this type of area, especially not in broad daylight. Even if that had been the case, the Marines would have eventually found and captured or killed the sniper or snipers. But the most damning piece of evidence is that none of the 11 Marines was hit by a single bullet on that entire morning.
It is more likely that the attackers took advantage of the confusion to escape.
The Marines scattered around the three Humvees. Some were crouching and others were standing upright. There was no enemy in sight. It was silent.
A car approached the group from the opposite direction. It was a white, four-door Opel, a private taxi with five men inside. Three of them, students, were very young: Mohammed Battal Ahmed, 21, Wajdi Ayada Abd, 20 and Akram Hamid Falyeh, 19. The fourth passenger was Khalid Ayada Abd, an employee at a refinery in southern Iraq and the brother of one of the students, vacationing in his hometown of Haditha.
The driver's name was Ahmed Muslah. He was 30 and soon to be married. The men were on their way to Baghdad, where the students planned to register for the next semester at the technical university in Amadiya. Khalid was accompanying his younger brother.
They were driving eastward into the morning sun, and the driver was probably momentarily blinded by the glare. By the time they had registered the scene unfolding in front of them, it was too late. What they saw signaled imminent danger: a wrecked Humvee, clouds of smoke, soldiers with drawn weapons. Normally they would have turned around immediately. But the soldiers motioned for them to stop. Anyone who attempted to continue driving at that point would come under fire. Those are the rules in Injun Country.
The Iraqis stopped. The Marines approached, signaling to the driver to turn off the engine. The Iraqis got out of the car. Up until this point, the various pieces of testimony coincide. The men and the vehicle had to be searched for weapons and explosives. When no weapons were found, it was clear that the five men posed no immediate danger. They were told to sit down with their hands behind their heads.
At some point the five men were shot.
The "Rules of Engagement" permit any Marine to kill without warning in the event of danger. This is especially applicable when it comes to so-called MAMs, or Military Age Males. Who were these five men? Were they scouts who had been sent to investigate how successful the attack had been?
The Marines must have known how unlikely this was. Only one man, not five, would have been needed to survey the scene. He would have hidden first or would have come from the River Road, on a motorcycle.
Did the five men try to run away? That was the way the accused Marines described it. Possible, but also unlikely. Most of all, it is unlikely that all five Iraqis would have pursued the same suicidal impulse. Besides, the Marines could have shot the Iraqis in the legs to prevent them from running away. However one paints the scenario, the key issue is that the men were unarmed.
A Massacre for Mikey?
Afterwards, says one eyewitness, a neighbor named Aws Fahmi, one of the Marines urinated on the dead men. This statement would be confirmed later on during the trial at Camp Pendleton. Urinating on a dead man after killing him? Did Mikey's death somehow change everything, render everything else pointless and meaningless? Was it necessary to conduct a massacre for Mikey?
Reinforcements arrived about 10 minutes later, with Lieutenant William Kallop in command. Kallop is from New York, the son of wealthy parents. It was his first tour of duty, and some believed he was lacking in confidence and not up to the job. He had a habit of stuttering slightly when agitated. But as the highest-ranking officer at the site, Kallop was in command.
Wuterich told Kallop about the explosion and the alleged gunfire. "We should take a look at the houses on the left side of the road, Sir," said Wuterich. Kallop nodded. A combat patrol was formed, consisting of three men under Wuterich's command. All were in their early to mid-20s, naïve, terrified and furious.
The first house they stormed belonged to a 78-year-old man named Abdul-Hamid Hassan Ali. His left leg had been amputated, he was wheelchair-bound and he wore thick glasses. Abd al-Hamid was still wearing his pajamas that morning when he rolled his wheelchair to the door and opened it. He was shot immediately. His wife, Khamisa Thama Ali, 66, probably hurried to the door. Her body was found later next to that of her husband. She too had been shot.
Abdul-Hamid's three sons, Jahid, Rashid and Walid, between 28 and 43 years of age, were shot. Walid's wife Asma was shot, and her four-year-old son Abdullah was shot in the chest while lying in bed. At least one hand grenade was tossed into the house. Haba Abdullah, 25, another daughter-in-law, managed to grab one of the children, a five-month-old girl named Asia, and escape through the back door. Two other children, Iman, 10, and Abdul Rahman, 8, were found later, injured and traumatized, but alive.
There were no weapons in the house, nor was there any sign of resistance. But seven people were already dead.
The second house, to the left of the first, belonged to a man named Younis Salim Rasif, 43, a customs agent who worked two-week rotating shifts on the Jordanian border. He happened to be home at the time. When he failed to open the door, the Marines broke it open.
In addition to Younis Salim Rasif, the occupants of the house included his wife Aida, who was recuperating in bed from an appendix operation, her sister Hoda, who was visiting the family to help out, and six children.
Only one of the people in this second house survived: a girl named Safa, who was about 12 at the time. Shortly after the attack, she was taken to relatives in Baghdad, where she was interviewed by telephone. "They killed my father, my mother and my Aunt Huda," she said. "They killed my sister Nuur, who was 14 and wanted to become a dentist. They killed my sister Saba. She was 10. They killed my brother Mohammed, who was eight and had had a birthday in January. He was a good soccer player. He loved the American helicopters. They shot my sister Seina. I used to braid her hair. She was only five. They shot my sister Aisha, who was three."
The third house was on the opposite side of the road. It belonged to Jamal Ayd Ahmed, a 37-year-old car dealer who was married, with three sons and two daughters. His father lived next door. According to the testimony of the neighbor, Aws Fahmi Hussein, the Marines took the women and children to the house next door and locked them in. Then they returned to the husbands and fathers to execute them. When Aws Fahmi Hussein tried to intervene, he was shot in the stomach, but survived. Four people died in the third house.
Including Miguel Terrazas and the occupants of the taxi, 25 people died between 7 and 10 a.m. on Sifani Street in Haditha.
The incident was handled routinely. The troop leader reported to the company leader, who reported to the battalion commander. Then the information was passed on to the press office. That was where a mistake was made.
In the press release, the incident was not only downplayed, but it was also portrayed incorrectly. This report ended up on the desk of Tim McGirk, the Time magazine correspondent in Baghdad.
Uncovering the Truth
Coincidentally, McGirk also received a video that an Iraqi from Haditha that had been shot on the day of the massacre and the day after. The video included shots of the crime scenes and the dead, interviews and scenes from the morgue. McGirk made some inquiries and began researching the story from Baghdad because journalists were barred from traveling to Haditha. Other journalists picked up the story and it soon became unstoppable.
Haditha became a symbol in the United States. Those who were pro-Bush insisted that the charges were all false. Those opposed to Bush and the war saw Haditha as the Iraqi equivalent of the infamous My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) launched an investigation into the incident. On March 16, 2006, three NCIS agents, heavily guarded, traveled to Haditha. Charges were filed on Dec. 21, 2006.
Camp Pendleton is north of San Diego along Interstate 5. The camp is a fenced-in military city, all of its entrances guarded. Recruits are cut to shape on its hilly grounds, which also include supermarkets, a mountain bike trail and a court building. The reporters sit in a building next door and can watch the trial of the Marines, which includes murder charges, on monitors. Laptops are allowed but recording devices are not.
Lieutenant Kallop was sworn in as a witness on a Tuesday afternoon in May 2007. Charges could also have been filed against Kallop, but he is presumably more important as a witness. He has brown hair and a soft face.
The prosecutor is a major.
"Lieutenant Kallop, a combat patrol was sent out when you arrived. Why?"
"We were looking for insurgents, Sir, who could have been hiding, possibly behind the houses or in the houses."
"Were any suspects taken into custody?"
"When you entered the houses later on, after the combat patrol, what did you see there?"
"I saw bodies in the houses, Sir."
"I don't know, Sir."
"Were there women and children?"
"Were you shocked?"
"It was a surprising view, Sir."
"You were not alone. Private First Class Salinas was with you. What did you say to him?"
"I think I said: 'What the crap happened here?'"
"Were those your words?"
"No, Sir, I believe I said, verbatim: 'What the fuck happened here?'"
"Was anyone still alive?"
"We found a boy, Sir, about 10 years old, who was still alive."
"He was underneath or next to his mother, Sir. He was injured, in the back, I believe. It's hard to say. There was smoke everywhere and blood all over the place, Sir."
"Did you try to remove the boy from the house so that he could be given medical treatment?"
"He didn't want to, Sir. He jumped up and screamed. He ran away from us. He ra-ran from one corner of the room to the next. So we left him there. It was his decision."
"Did you, as an officer, ask Sergeant Wuterich what had happened in the house?"
"Didn't you ask him: Sergeant, if there are so many bodies here, where are the weapons? Where are the people you detained?"
"Did you ask him why children had been killed?"
"That's a lot of questions that weren't asked, don't you think?"
"I wasn't interested in the details, Sir."
'Did this Seem Strange to You?'
Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz was called to the witness stand the next day. Dela Cruz was originally charged with five counts of murder and lying under oath. The charges were dropped on April 2, 2007, when the military prosecutors made a deal with him: his full testimony in exchange for dropping the charges.
Dela Cruz is a short, bow-legged man with protruding ears.
"Sergeant, how did the shots at the occupants of the taxi come about?"
"The five men were sitting on the ground Sir. Hands behind their heads."
"Were weapons found?"
"Somehow I got confused. Suddenly Sharrat and Wuterich were shooting at the men. And when I saw the first man lying on the ground, I started shooting, too. I gave him about five or six shots. Just the one guy. And then the others."
"Why did you do this?"
"I, uh, I knew they were already dead, but I wanted to make sure."
"Did Sergeant Wuterich speak to you about this incident?"
"What did he say?"
"He said that if anyone asked, I should say that the men were trying to run away. And that we shot them while they were running away."
"Did this seem strange to you?"
Martin Terrazas learned of the death of his son on Nov. 20, 2005, at around noon. Two special agents, both young and serious-looking, were standing at the door. One had close-cropped, light blonde hair. He was the one who spoke. The other one got him a glass of water from the kitchen. Terrazas doesn't remember much else about the visit. Your son was a hero, the one with the crew cut said.
Martin Terrazas visits grave J 2145 every morning. He will be opening a new taco restaurant soon. He spends time with his kids and he recently bought two parrots, Paul and Paula.
Why are these Iraqis fighting democracy? he asks. He doesn't understand these people. Okay, it's their country, but we were there to liberate them! The whole thing is so confusing. What was the sense of Mikey's death, especially now that this trial is taking place?
And what if it was a massacre?
No, he says, he doesn't believe there was a massacre. His sadness is like slowly leaking gas.
The families of the victims received $2,500 for each person killed. A boy appears at the end of the video that depicts the scene of the crime shortly after the incident. He is a member of Ayd Ahmed's family. He was filmed in his parents' house. The camera zooms in on his face, tears streaming down his cheeks. He points to one of the bodies lying on the floor, wrapped in a colorful blanket. The boy cries out, his voice hoarse and rasping: "That was my father you killed! That's my father! He wanted to sell cars? That's my father there on the floor! God will punish you! My father!"
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan