Unfriendly Fire: Why Did a U.S. Soldier Kill His Fellow Troops in Iraq?

Unfriendly Fire: Why Did a U.S. Soldier Kill His Fellow Troops in Iraq?

The initial U.S. military statement on the killings Monday at Camp Liberty in Baghdad was predictably terse. “Five Coalition forces members were killed in a shooting at Camp Liberty in Baghdad today at approximately 2 p.m.,” the statement read. “The names of the deceased are being withheld pending next-of-kin notification and release by the Department of Defense. The incident is under investigation and more information will be released when it becomes available.” At first, the Associated Press, citing unnamed Pentagon officials, reported that the shooter was a U.S. soldier who may have been his own final victim in a murder-suicide rampage. But a late report said that the shooter was in military custody.

In the coming days and weeks, undoubtedly, a chilling tale will trickle out of the Pentagon and Camp Liberty as more details are revealed. But sadly this latest tragedy is unlikely to shock anyone familiar with recent years of statistics showing a steady rise in violent crimes within the U.S. military. Soldiers and Marines who frequently venture onto the streets of Iraq have a derisive term for fellow service members and military contractors who never leave the confines of military installations — known as Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. Those who stay “in the wire” are often referred to with snickers as Fobbits, a play on Hobbits from Lord of the Rings. Still, anyone living at a U.S. military installation full-time has good reason to fear more than incoming rockets or mortars.

A 2007 FBI report on gang activity in the U.S. military found that members of nearly every major street gang were present in the ranks of the U.S. armed forces. Service members associated with Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, The 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha , Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, Vice Lords and various white supremacist groups were documented serving at U.S. military installations at home and abroad. The report said the Army had the highest count of gang members in its ranks, partly because it is the largest branch and partly because of relatively lax recruitment requirements.

Sexual assault cases in the military have risen significantly in recent years as well. A Pentagon report released earlier this year said 165 cases of sexual assault were reported among troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008, up 26% from the year before. The overall incident rate was up 8% among U.S. service members serving worldwide, with 2,923 cases of sexual assault reported. U.S. military officials have stressed that some of the rise in the figures may be attributable to an increase in the reporting of incidents but acknowledged that the trend was troubling in any case.

Suicides in the U.S. military are at record levels and rising too. Pentagon data show that in 2008 military suicides rose for the fourth year in a row to reach nearly a 30-year high at 128. The actual number is almost certainly greater, since more than a dozen cases presumed to be suicides were still under formal investigation when the report was released in January.

Murders in which fellow soldiers kill one another while on duty have been rare, despite an apparent increase in violent activity within the ranks of the military. The last such case to gain widespread attention came in 2003, when Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar attacked fellow soldiers in Kuwait as his unit prepared to join the Iraq invasion. Akbar was sentenced to death. The case marked the only one of its kind to occur since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, until now.