U.S. Sniper Program in Crosshairs

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If there is only one story you can make time for today, this one gets my vote. It is by Mark Benjamin, a former colleague of mine and crackerjack investigative reporter at Salon, and Christopher Weaver. Called “Killing by the Numbers,” it tells the tale of a group of snipers who killed an unarmed Iraqi vegetable farmer named Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi last year.

Three snipers with exemplary military records from the 1st Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division’s 501st Regiment were charged in Khudair’s killing. They were tried by the military judicial system in Iraq beginning in 2007. But the most important question raised by his death remains unanswered. Why would these elite American soldiers kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood? The answer: pressure from their commanding officers to pump up a statistic straight out of America’s last long war against an intractable insurgency.

A review of thousands of pages of documents from the legal proceedings obtained by Salon shows that in the months prior to Khudair’s death, the young snipers, already frustrated by guerrilla tactics, were pressed to their physical limits and pushed by officers to stretch the bounds of the laws of war in order to increase the enemy body count. When the United States wallowed in Vietnam’s counterinsurgency quagmire decades ago, the same pressure placed on soldiers resulted in some of the worst atrocities of that war. A paratrooper who remembered the insidious influence of body counts in Vietnam warned Salon in 2005 that the practice could also ensnare good soldiers in Iraq. “The problem is that in Iraq, we are in a guerrilla war,” said Dennis Stout. “How do you keep score? How do you prove you are winning?”