Josh Stieber, conscientious objector and former U.S. Army Specialist, discusses the explicit direct order from Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (featured in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers) to open fire on any Iraqis in the vicinity of an IED attack, the “magic 8-ball” type randomness to daily patrols in 2007 Baghdad, soldiers who resisted or refused orders that imperiled civilians and where veterans and active duty soldiers can find support groups.
MP3 here. (18:52) Transcript below.
Josh Stieber is a former U.S. Army Specialist deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He was in Bravo Company 2-16 (although not on patrol) at the time it was involved in the Apache helicopter attack depicted on the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks.
Transcript – Scott Horton interviews Josh Stieber, August 16, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. Thanks for listening. I’m Scott Horton, and my next guest on the show today is Josh Stieber. He’s a former U.S. Army specialist deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2008. He was in Bravo Company 2-16, although not on patrol at the time that that company was involved in the Apache helicopter attack depicted on the video released by WikiLeaks. Welcome back to the show, Joshua; how are you?
Josh Stieber: I’m good. Thanks for having me back on.
Horton: I’m sorry, I’m not sure why I added the “ua” on the end there. Is it just – it’s just Josh, right?
Horton: My mistake. Anyway, so, I’ve been reading this book The Good Soldiers by –
Horton: – David Finkel from the Washington Post. And this is really a hell of a thing. It’s all about the 2-16, your brigade – is that what it is? I’m not sure the difference between companies and brigades and all these things. I’m not a veteran.
Stieber: It’s actually a battalion.
Horton: A battalion, right, right.
Stieber: Yeah, roughly about 800 people.
Horton: Mhmm. And so this book is the story of Lt. Col. Kauzlarich – is that how you say it?
Horton: Kauzlarich, okay. And you guys, his guys. And a year and a half or so that you guys spent surging into eastern Baghdad there. And again it was you guys’ company that was involved in the so-called “Collateral Murder” video put out by WikiLeaks, the Apache assault.
And so, anyway, I think I kinda want to talk to you about, you know, generally what it was like there and maybe what it’s like to be back and some of that kind of thing, but there’s a couple of specific points that I wanted to try to nail down before I talk with David Finkel so I can ask him about them.
And so the first thing is, is do you know, or have you heard, you know, from inside your battalion there, whether Finkel actually got his hands on the video of that Apache assault, or whether it was just shown to him? It’s pretty clear reading the book that it was at least shown to him, but apparently there’s some question as to whether he has the video or not. Do you have any insight into that?
Stieber: Yeah, as far as the book, it’s pretty clear that he’s quoting from the actual tape, but as to whether or not he has possession of the video, I have no idea.
Horton: Okay, and yeah, I mean, I had no reason to believe that you would necessarily, but I figured I’d go ahead and ask you about it, because, you know, it is part of this.
And then the second thing is that a fellow veteran of yours from the same battalion has said that you guys had a standard operating procedure, SOP, that said – and I guess this is a reaction to some EFP attacks on y’all’s Humvees and stuff that killed some guys – that from now on if a roadside bomb goes off, IED goes off, everyone who survives the attack get out and fire in all directions at anybody who happens to be nearby – that this wasn’t just the kind of thing that soldiers might resort to under the worst frustration fighting against ghosts setting off remote-control land mines, but that this was actually an order from above. Is that correct? Can you, you know, verify that?
Stieber: Yeah, it was an order that came from Kauzlarich himself, and it had the philosophy that, you know, as Finkel does describe in the book, that we were under pretty constant threat, and what he leaves out is the response to that threat. But the philosophy was that if each time one of these roadside bombs went off where you don’t know who set it, and you don’t know how it got there, and you’re just left with, you know, injured soldiers or dead soldiers, then people don’t know how to respond, so the way we were told to respond was to open fire on anyone in the area, with the philosophy that that would intimidate them, to be proactive in stopping people from making these bombs, because some of our leaders thought that was the only way to counteract the attacks that were going on.
Horton: Wow, so, I mean how many times did that ac – I mean, that order stood from what point to what point?
Stieber: From my experiences, after it was issued, probably, probably not too long before that video came out, which would have been July of 2007, was a fairly indefinite thing, and a lot of it depended on the lower ranking leaders. Some of them were more encouraging of the policy than others. But straight from Kauzlarich’s mouth, it was definitely permitted, and he said it to my platoon of about 30 people. And beyond that, I’m not sure who else he would have repeated it to and how broadly the policy was in use, but –
Horton: So, to be specific here now, Josh, you’re not saying that you heard from your sergeant that that’s what he said. You’re saying he told you this to your face.
Stieber: Right. Yeah. Myself and a couple of other former platoon members have all verified this, that, yeah, one of the first times that this bomb went off, we came back to the base and he said that. And then two of my friends – I wasn’t in the actual meeting, but two of my friends, you know, have publicly stated or talked about a meeting that I wasn’t part of where he brought together our platoon and again repeated that order.
Horton: Did you survive EFP attacks?
Stieber: I was in convoys where we got hit, but I was never directly in a truck that got hit by one.
Horton: It’s just amazing to me. It’s – well I don’t know the right word for it, but it’s just something else to read the stories of you guys going out there and playing the “IED lottery,” as I’ve heard it termed before. It just almost seems like you’re sent out there just to get land-mined sometimes, like they’re, you know – it seems strange. It never seemed like any of the missions had any real purpose or something. Maybe at some point, okay, set up a fire base here or a COP there, but most of the time it seems like it was just going out to pick a fight, or to get one picked with y’all.
Stieber: Yeah, I mean a lot of times that is what seemed to be the motivation. We had a joke that people sending the missions were shaking up a Magic 8-Ball to determine what we would do that day, because so much of it just seemed random and arbitrary, and in a lot of our opinions the stuff we were doing was creating more hatred against us, and yeah, picking fights, and finding more enemies, and actually the only thing that seemed to change that, and the only thing that seemed to prove worthwhile, was actually sitting down and negotiating with and talking with people we knew had at one time or another attacked us.
Horton: Well now, back to the 360-degree rotational fire order here – were there any other – well, first of all, well two questions I guess. First of all, how many times did this actually happen? I guess I read your buddy Ethan saying that, well, he would just fire up toward the rooftops rather than down, you know, at street level where he could, you know, hit innocent people or whatever in order to obey the order and yet not really carry it out, and I just wonder how many times did this really happen where guys would get bombed and then just dismount and wax everybody on the street? Did this happen over and over again?
Stieber: I would say, from what I witnessed, maybe five to ten times. And yeah, there were some guys who fired to intentionally miss. There were some guys who refused to do it. I at one point refused to, you know, take part in that and said that not only was it morally wrong, but it’s strategically stupid, seems to be creating more enemies, and then if there are actual more threats in the area, then that policy of just opening fire, you can’t even hear where a threat’s coming from. So on multiple levels it seemed like a mistake, and I lost my position as a gunner for arguing with that position, and that’s why I wasn’t on the mission in the “Collateral Murder” video, but, you know, there were a mix of responses to how guys dealt with it.
Horton: Well, that’s very interesting. On the most very basic on-the-street tactical level, “I can’t hear who’s shooting at me if I’m ordered to fire in all directions for no reason.”
All right, hold it right there, everybody. It’s Josh Stieber from the U.S. Army – thankfully no longer.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton. I’m talking with Josh Stieber about his time in Iraq, part of the 2-16 as featured in David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers. That interview is coming up later in the show. And we’re talking about war crimes.
Josh, help me understand here, man. You know, believe me, I can imagine, only barely, but I can imagine the frustration of having IEDs and land mines going off and nobody there to shoot at, and I can – I think it’s just a mathematical formula. If you put enough troops in somebody’s country to get blown up by land mines, there are going to be times when the soldiers dismount and fire their rifles at anybody who happens to be nearby because they’re that mad at seeing their best friend blown up. It’s understandable. That’s war. That’s what happens.
You’re telling me this was a standard operating procedure passed down to you by the lieutenant colonel. And so anything more that you can tell me about that, I want to know, and I want on the record here.
But, secondly, I’m also curious as to whether there were any other direct orders from Lt. Col. Kauzlarich about, you know, basically permitting the killing of civilians, or mandating the killing of civilians like this, 360-degree rotational fire in this case.
Stieber: I would say that was the primary one. We actually didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with Kauzlarich. My platoon, or my company was out at a small factory apart from the main base where Kauzlarich spent most of his time, so only occasionally would we see him. But he definitely made it a point to pass along that order, and, yeah, kind of got into the reasoning behind it. And a lot of people accepted that reasoning, but there seemed to be a lot of flaws in it, and a number of us to varying degrees resisted that command also.
Horton: Were you at the COP that was in the factory across the street from the other factory that they started to make the COP but then it got bombed?
Horton: You know, there’s a thing that happens to, well, those of us who don’t go to the war and sit back here and read about it all the time, where, you know, even when we’re reading about, you know, this many soldiers were killed today by a land mine, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s still, you know, I hate to say, but it’s, you know – to a degree they’re still words on a page. You know what I mean?
And, I mean this book is that, too, but then again this book is, you know, something that the guy, you know, was embedded with you guys for more than a year and really wrote how all the – you know, the stories of all these different guys who died. Not everybody, I don’t guess, but quite a few of the guys who died, and all about, you know, who you guys are, what the attacks are like, and all these things in a way it’s so vivid and really brings home the idea about, you know, how you guys are just our next-door neighbors over there.
And especially when all throughout the book as well, Josh, is “I’m fighting for my country,” “I’m fighting for freedom,” “I always want to be a solider not to kill people but to defend my country, because I love America.” And that’s what all the soldiers say is stuff like that, these abstractions that are so abstract. They’ve got really nothing to do with the actual fight y’all are in, but they’re all based on the theory that you trust the rest of us to make sure that you don’t go to war unless it’s the right thing, that we don’t send you on a mission unless it’s worth dying for. Is that basically the understanding that you guys are operating under over there?
Stieber: Yes. And it works both ways, and that’s the common way that war seems to get spread is that, yeah, the people who live it out are expecting that they are not going to get deployed unless it’s a just cause, and they’re not going to really question that cause, but then so many of the people who are cheering for us aren’t really taking into consideration the human aspect of what’s going on, and so I think that that is the positive aspect of what David Finkel wrote about it, is putting that human face on it.
And I think that, you know, if you look back through the last decade and the support that this war had, that, you know, as much as people want to criticize – and I think there is definitely a lot of room for criticism – as much as people want to criticize specific things that soldiers did which should be examined. But we need to look at the broader society too and see that after, you know, 9/11 and everything, so many people were clamoring for vengeance, and when you start campaigns with incredible shock and awe it should be pretty evident that that kind of thing is going to happen.
And so hopefully through looking at this on a personal level, from soldiers, from civilians, both here and in Iraq and Afghanistan, then this can be a huge learning experience, if we look at the full picture.
Horton: Well said. Yeah, you know, I started the show out earlier actually with all the coverage of – or actually the TV ads for veteran support groups, TV ads for the VA now hiring, “Boy we sure need doctors and nurses over at the VA all the time,” and you know this is really part of our society from now on – is returning veterans, hundreds of thousands of guys who’ve been fighting through the war there.
And you know I was just reading last night the transcript of your buddy Ethan McCord’s interview with Cindy Sheehan where he talked about – and maybe I want to go back and look in the book and see if he was the guy, because he used the exact phrase; there’s one guy in the book, in the Finkel book, who talks always about the “slide show” in his head, and your buddy Ethan used that same phrase talking about the pictures of this, you know, madness that he lived through over there, you know, in his mind, all day, all night, this kind of thing he can’t get rid of, and I guess some people are more affected by that than others. I wonder how you’re doing?
Stieber: I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a lot of people really step up and be supportive of me, and when I got back from Iraq, or even before that when I knew that I was being a hypocrite by what I was doing on a regular basis and what I said my beliefs were, and you know, that I had to change how I was living, so I became a conscientious objector, and I really have been trying to run about and promote other ways of solving problems. But, yeah, unfortunately so many guys get back and really don’t know how to sort out that contradiction between what we say we believe and what we’re expected to do, and I think that there are times when people are unable to vent their frustration, to give themselves room to, you know, say that maybe we made a mistake, and that’s when people bottle things up, and a lot of times that leads to a lot of traumatic results.
Horton: Well, you know what? Let’s go ahead then and leave this interview on the subject of veterans’ care and that kind of thing. If you’d like to talk about any organizations that you’re a part of, how any soldiers listening can go about trying to follow your path and gaining conscientious objector status and opting out of this war. [music] Aw jeez, real quick, just name a couple of websites. I’m sorry, my clock’s wrong here.
Stieber: All right, the Center on Conscience and War helped me with my CO application, and then there’s also veterans groups like Veterans for Peace.
Horton: All right, thanks, Josh, thanks a lot.
Stieber: Thank you.
Horton: That’s Josh Stieber.