‘I wanted to kill people’

We already know what the war in Iraq is doing to the American psyche but what about the thousands of young men and women we send into harm’s way with the weapons and ability to take human lives? The case of Private Steven D. Green may tell that story best.

Writes Andrew Tihlgman in Sunday’s Washington Post:

Over a mess-tent dinner of turkey cutlets, the bony-faced 21-year-old private from West Texas looked right at me as he talked about killing Iraqis with casual indifference. It was February, and we were at his small patrol base about 20 miles south of Baghdad. "The truth is, it wasn’t all I thought it was cracked up to be. I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ "

He shrugged.

"I shot a guy who wouldn’t stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing," he went on. "Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like ‘All right, let’s go get some pizza.’ "

At the time, the soldier’s matter-of-fact manner struck me chiefly as a rare example of honesty. I was on a nine-month assignment as an embedded reporter in Iraq, spending much of my time with grunts like him — mostly young (and immature) small-town kids who sign up for a job as killers, lured by some gut-level desire for excitement and adventure. This was not the first group I had run into that was full of young men who shared a dark sense of humor and were clearly desensitized to death. I thought this soldier was just one of the exceptions who wasn’t afraid to say what he really thought, a frank and reflective kid, a sort of Holden Caulfield in a war zone.

But the private was Steven D. Green.

The next time I saw him, in a front-page newspaper photograph five months later, he was standing outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina, where he had pled not guilty to charges of premeditated rape and murder. The brutal killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah that he was accused of had taken place just three weeks after we talked.

When I met Green, I knew nothing about his background — his troubled youth and family life, his apparent problems with drugs and alcohol, his petty criminal record. I just saw and heard a blunt-talking kid. Now that I know the charges against Green, his words take on an utterly different context for me. But when I met him then, his comments didn’t seem nearly as chilling as they do now.