I first interviewed Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey for the Sacramento Bee, May 16, 2003. The tall, hard-core Marine who served his country for over 12 years once trained infantry soldiers at boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. He was a recruiter in Waynesville, North Carolina, before he began that fateful march—"the evil journey"—toward Baghdad in 2003.
When I talked with him a year and a half ago, he was open, direct, willing to answer any kind of question. But it was painful for the homeboy from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to recall the horrific events which changed his life forever. In the Sacramento Bee interview, "I Killed Innocent People For My government," Massey not only expressed remorse for killing innocent civilians, he called attention to the systematic war crimes of American commanders, for whom Iraqi life is cheap. He talked freely about the illegal use of cluster bombs, the effects of depleted uranium, the pattern of checkpoint massacres. In short, he blew the whistle on the Marine Corps to which he was devoted, with full knowledge that, like all truthtellers in war, he would eventually face virulent attacks.
Many of the episodes—the experiences that turned Massey not only against the war, but against the misogynist and racist culture of Marine life—are now recounted in full in his forthcoming book, "Cowboys From Hell." It’s an autobiography the Marine Corps does not want published.
Cowboys From Hell is a kind of Pentagon Papers of the Marines. In his confessions we see Massey’s platoon gun down a man with his hands up. Demonstrators are shot. An unarmed driver in a Mercedes is shot dead at a checkpoint. Two occupants of a Toyota are wrongly killed. Wounded by American bombing, a small child dies in the arms of one of Massey’s buddies. When Marines fire 50-caliber rounds into a tractor, a sixty-year-old man loses his livelihood. In one definitive episode,when three occupants of a car are massacred at a checkpoint, a survivor on the ground looks up at Massey and says: "Why did you kill my brother? He did nothing wrong."
With co-author Natasha Saulnier, who helped corroborate Massey’s story, Massey also describes the kind of anti-Arab hatred that drives the military conduct of the war. In one episode, the 5th Marines ransack the Rasheed military compound. Office windows are smashed, cabinets overturned. Massey remembers a picture of a penis going into Saddam Hussein’s mouth. The 5th Marines spray paint vaginas on the walls next to racist graffiti—"Fuck you Hajjis." Anti-Arab racism is ubiquitous.
Here is a story that destroys the myth of American virtue, the ideological cocoon in which some journalists are still embedded.
Harris Makes False Claims Against Massey
On November 5, 2005—a year and a half after Massey made his revelations public—the St. Louis Post Dispatch published a front-page attack on the outspoken Marine. Ron Harris, a pro-war, embedded correspondent, questioned Massey’s claims about civilian carnage. He challenged Massey’s personal motives, the veracity of his story, and called him a liar. Subsequently, Harris launched a campaign against Massey in the mainstream media. Jingoistic papers, like the New York Post, quickly published the Harris attack. The Sacramento Bee also buckled under pressure. According to editorial page editor David Holwerk, the Bee should “have done more to check on Massey’s charges.” Before its disclaimer, the editors never consulted with me, the author of the original article. And according to Jimmy Massey, the Bee never even discussed the issues raised by Harris with Massey himself. In an editorial a week after the Bee's mea culpa (fraught with ambiguity) the paper called for a continuation of the occupation.
I welcome an opportunity to respond to the Harris charges. I stand by my interviews with the man who, at great expense to himself, speaks truth to power. Massey’s story is corroborated, and it is authentic. He is one of the most cogent, decent persons I have interviewed in 20 years of journalism. In contrast, his detractor is a jingoist whose own dispatches from Iraq are full of inaccuracies, omissions, fawning praise for commanders who made huge mistakes of judgment and who sent Marines to their death on the basis of fraud. On April 14, 2003, in a final dispatch from his first tour (he mistakenly believed it would be his last), Harris proclaimed an end to the war two weeks before Bush made a fool of himself proclaiming mission accomplished from the USS Abraham Lincoln. Like Judith Miller, who promoted fantasies of weapons of mass destruction in the New York Times, Harris “got it wrong.” Unlike Massey and independent journalists, Harris never saw the resistance coming because he relied completely on the self-serving claims of the officers with whom he was embedded. Journalists who announced victory in April 2003 were oblivious to the seething discontent and the reckless killing of innocent Iraqis that caused it.
There are two key reasons why Massey deserves our trust and why Harris deserves our derision.
1. Contrary to Harris, Massey’s claims about civilian casualties are corroborated on tape by his own platoon members.
On CNN, Ron Harris claimed that “nobody checked Massey's story.” “Nobody ever interviewed the Marines.”
Harris and CNN are wrong. A Danish journalist and an independent journalist in the U.S., Massey’s own publisher and co-author were all involved in gathering testimony. Here are some of the recorded remarks of platoon members regarding the killing of innocent civilians:
One platoon member from Camp Pendleton, California, states, “Civilians get in the way. Yes, there were civilian casualties, women and children as well....We didn’t check them up to see if they had weapons. Yes, that was at the checkpoint where all the stuff happened.”
Regarding shooting of women and children, another said, “We were all pissed off. Nobody was doing it on purpose.”
The St. Louis Post Dispatch still refuses to publish Massey’s point-by-point answer to Harris.
2. The Harris claims against Massey contradict the official, early statements from the Marine Corps itself.
For a long time, the Marine Corps tried to ignore—or rather it tried to bury—the Massey story. Massey’s platoon members were told to avoid making comments. The Marine Corps confiscated Massey’s address book and cut off communication with his comrades. When Massey hired his own military lawyer, raising the possibility of an open, on-the-record investigation of checkpoint killings, the Corps backed down. While Massey was ostracized, he was never subject to a court martial. Even after he confronted his lieutenant about atrocities in the field, the Corps never filed charges. Lying about commanders in war time is a serious offense, the kind of offense no military system overlooks. Make no mistake. If the Marine Corps had evidence that Massey lied, he would probably be in prison today. Instead, he got an honorable discharge, and the Corps provided temporary medical attention for PTSD, posttraumatic stress disorder.
When he returned home to Waynesville, North Carolina, Massey kept talking. He is too patriotic to remain silent in the face of great wrongs against innocent people, including wrongs against troops who are trapped in atrocity-producing situations. But even as Massey spoke out in early 2004, the Marine Corps avoided any open confrontation over the facts.
In researching my article, my early attempts to reach the Marines were stonewalled. However, on February 4, 2004, three months before I published my interview in the Sacramento Bee, Major Dan Schmidt, Massey’s former Commanding Officer, wrote in the North Carolina Mountaineer: “There is no profit for anyone in discrediting his story in any way.” By the end of the year, after Massey spoke on French radio, the BBC, at hearings in Canada, and Democracy Now, his story began to seep into the mainstream media. The Marine Corps was forced to respond. In December, 2004, MSNBC interviewed Major Douglas Powell about Massey. Powell stated directly: “We’re not saying he’s lying. But his perception of what the situation was in relation to the rules of engagement, and what was justified, is different than ours.”
In 2004, the Marines acknowledged at minimum that Massey was not lying. Suddenly in November 2005, Harris called him a liar.
What changed? It was only after the publication of Massey’s riveting autobiography in France—and the pending threat of publication in the U.S.—that Harris launched his attack on Massey. Character assassination of a Marine of conscience is, in effect, part of a movement to silence the witnesses to war. The Harris pro-military campaign comes at a time when more and more veterans are returning home with reports about the incompetence of commanders (who are unable to explain why the biggest military system in human history is crippled by a disorganized, spontaneous resistance). Returning soldiers are speaking out about the ongoing violations of the Geneva Conventions, about their own sense of betrayal at risking and taking life on the basis of fraud. Two soldiers—Aidan Delgado, who witnessed war crimes at Abu Ghraib, and Camilo Mejia, who served 9 months in jail for refusing to participate in the occupation—are also preparing books for publication. By sowing distrust, Harris is fomenting a media backlash against soldiers who break the code of silence.
Jimmy never expected to be welcomed by the American press, the same press that promoted fantasies about nonexistent weapons, that proclaimed mission accomplished in defiance of reality. A soldier who speaks truth to power is not without honor, save in his own country.
One wonders why Jimmy ever came forward at all. He was a successful Marine. He invested twelve years of his life in service to his country. The pay was good. He could have come home a hero in the local press in North Carolina.
When I asked Massey a year ago why he gave up the rewards of silence, he gave a simple answer: Only the truth can heal. And he later wrote:
“When I am on my death bed and I have to face God with all the sins I committed throughout my life, when I come to the sin of killing innocent people in Iraq, I know I will only be able to meet my Maker if I tell the truth now.”
Jimmy is one of the most soulful human beings to survive the injustice and mendacity of war.
Perhaps it is time for all of us—including Harris and other embedded journalists who got it wrong—to ask forgiveness, too.
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