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04.22.09

Serving Under the Army's Most Ruthless Soldier

When Scott Beauchamp first described misconduct by American soldiers in Baghdad, the political right accused him of lying. Last week, one of the soldiers who denounced him became the highest-ranking service member to be found guilty of murder in the Iraq war. Beauchamp’s wife, Elspeth Reeve, reports from his trial.

In the spring of 2007, four blindfolded and zip-cuffed men stood in a line along a shallow and dirty canal in southwest Baghdad. Earlier that day, American soldiers had found them inside a house alongside a cache of weapons. Standard operating procedure required that the prisoners be taken to a detention facility, but then-First Sergeant John E. Hatley, the top NCO of Alpha Company 1-18 Infantry Regiment, told the soldiers who captured the men that instead they would “take care” of them. The prisoners were brought to the canal, shot in the back of the head, and dumped into the water.

“I mean, it's not like bodies were littering the streets or anything, but we'd pick up a lot of them and took them to the IP station, before they decided to start killing us more, instead of each other.”

Last week, Hatley was convicted of premeditated murder, based solely on the testimony of his soldiers, who wept at his conviction. He became the highest-ranking service member to be found guilty of premeditated murder in the Iraq war—a fact that earned his trial national attention. But the case was of particular interest to me because my husband had served under him in Alpha 1-18 (which has since been reflagged as part of the 172nd Infantry Brigade).

My husband, Scott Beauchamp, had also brought attention to the unit in the summer of 2007, when he wrote an essay in The New Republic describing how the stress of the war zone led soldiers to do things they wouldn't do in civilian life: running over dogs with Bradleys, goofing around with a skull fragment they'd found near some buildings, and making fun of a disfigured lady in a mess hall. Compared to the crime Hatley and two others are now known to have committed only a few months earlier, Scott’s essay seems almost quaint, but at the time of its publication, it provoked enormous controversy. Horror and fury came from all over the right wing, which accused Scott of lying. (Only one fact in Scott’s piece—the location of one of the incidents he described—was ever proven incorrect and it was discovered because Scott himself admitted to misremembering it. Nevertheless, the editors at The New Republic retracted when they became frustrated in trying to contact Scott, which was difficult in light of the fact that his superiors in Iraq had punished him with 20-hour work shifts.)

Hatley was, to say the least, an imposing figure who had no tolerance for soldiers embarrassing the unit. When the controversy over Scott’s piece erupted, Hatley personally weighed in, emailing a blogger to say “My soldiers conduct [sic] is consistently honorable. This soldier has other underlining [sic] issues which I'm sure will come out in the course of the investigation.” So when I heard rumors in early 2008 that the same first sergeant, who had insisted when denouncing my husband that his soldiers’ conduct was “consistently honorable,” was being investigated for murder, I was naturally intrigued. When charges were pressed and a trial date was set for this month, I booked a ticket for Vilseck, Germany, where he would be tried.

In Vilseck, the yard near the courthouse had the feel of a summer barbecue or reunion because many of the witnesses had served under Hatley in Iraq and most were not allowed to watch the proceedings. It was sunny and warm, and they hung out in the waiting room and outside, smoking infinite cigarettes, and in the courtroom we could sometimes hear them laughing.

Many of these witnesses still revered Hatley. In the post's food court, Michael Leahy, a soldier who had been convicted a few weeks earlier for the same crime, said that testifying would be the hardest thing he'd ever done. When he took the stand, he called Hatley the “one of the greatest men I ever met.” Later, in Burger King, retired Command Sergeant Major Israr Choudhri, a character witness for the defense, said he wanted me to know that Hatley walked among giants and would have died for his soldiers. He walked away, and later approached me again to tell me about the gruesome death of one of his soldiers. A junior NCO later explained why Choudhri and others did this: “They're trying to make you understand why they're there supporting a man who is guilty under the law. I understand he is guilty under the law. But I understand why they were there.”

The soldiers were uncomfortable with having events that happened “down range” (slang for “in Iraq”) being dredged up and examined in civilian life. At the time of the murders, they had served in Baghdad’s West Rashid district, a particularly violent area where Sunni and Shia were battling for control over mixed neighborhoods. They passed over grisly details as if they were no big deal. Leahy testified that he transported a dead detainee to an Iraqi police station and just put him on “the pile of dead bodies.” When I asked a sergeant about the bodies, he dismissed them. “The term 'pile of dead bodies' brings to mind Dachau or something. … I mean, it's not like bodies were littering the streets or anything, but we'd pick up a lot of them and took them to the IP station, before they decided to start killing us more, instead of each other.” When I asked if the police station smelled, he laughed, “It smelled like all of Iraq smelled.”

“Civilians are such a pain. They don't get anything…” the junior NCO complained. “It's like, nobody wanted to cause the horrible situation that we're all talking about, but it was there and it was a reality and we had to find a way to deal with it... And then [civilians] start in on the situation itself and how the situation shouldn't be allowed to exist and how we should have been doing something to change the situation. It's so easy to say when you're behind a desk typing away on a keyboard—go out there and try to change the world and you'll probably end up bitter and suicidal.”

The defense had two arguments: that Hatley was a good soldier and that the government never found any bodies, bullet casings, or families missing the victims. The defense asked prosecution witnesses if they actually checked the bodies to see if they were dead, and how they could possibly be sure they were dead and not unconscious, and had they heard that you can survive a bullet wound to the head? At one point he got carried away with himself, and asked a witness if he had actually seen a bullet go into a detainee. The soldier responded, “I don't think anyone can see a bullet, sir.”

All the witnesses were allowed to watch the closing arguments, and it was standing room only in the courthouse. The defense reiterated its main points: The bodies were never found in the canal and that there was conflicting testimony over details like times and dates. The prosecution pointed out that the detainees were not walking around Iraq with holes in their heads, and, as first sergeant, Hatley had been responsible for the soldiers who'd already been convicted. After the trial, the section sergeant wrote to me that during closing arguments, “I could also feel my face flushing, and I looked around the room and saw that I wasn't the only one. I remembered meeting then-1SG Hatley… he was a stickler about meeting every new soldier in the company… [I] thought about how when I first met him I never thought I'd be standing where I was on 15 April '09. ”

The verdict was read without drama, Hatley remained calm, and we filed out of the courtroom silently. I leaned against the courthouse and watched the 30 or so soldiers light up their cigarettes in the dark and cluster together without talking. We stood around for an hour or so, and at some point Hatley came out and greeted each of his supporters. His wife's shoes were obviously killing her, as she stood alone shifting her weight from one leg to another, occasionally illuminated by headlights.

Hatley read an unsworn statement to the jury at his sentencing hearing. Hatley expressed little guilt or remorse about what happened, but that he had “loved and defended soldiers for half my life,” that his soldiers were like his sons, and that there was nothing he wouldn't do to protect them, and that he'd had his “honor and courage questioned by so many who'd never had theirs tested.” He ended his statement by yelling the units' names. ”Vanguards! Wolfpack!” And the galley responded, “Hooah!” He got life with the possibility of parole.

After the trial, the junior NCO warned me, “When you try to explain a war to a bunch of people who have never seen anything close to a war, first you're going to horrify a bunch of people who haven't seen a war because war is horrifying, and second you're going to piss off a whole bunch of people who have been to war, because you haven't and you're going to get it wrong. Basically what I'm saying is you're completely screwed.”

Elspeth Reeve is a writer living in New York. She has written for Time, New York, and The New Republic.