This piece is a cross-post from something Sara Grey and I published on Just Security several days ago (see here). Working on atrocities can be corrosive of one’s respect for humanity, so honoring incidents of moral courage is a healthy antidote. I remember one example of a junior soldier refusing his drunk (and armed) superior officer access to a warehouse of women at Čelebići prison camp in Bosnia for fear that the women would be raped, but this is an especially striking story of moral courage, too. Note that deliberately, we have never said anything about our perception of the guilt or innocence of the four Blackwater guards tried in Washington D.C., even though we collectively sat through the whole trial. I am grateful to Matt Murphy and Adam Frost for their kind emails to me since we originally posted this.
In a recent discussion of newly released memos on torture in the War on Terror, David Cole has surmised that “had anyone had the temerity to say no, the program almost certainty would have halted.” Likewise, in an excellent two-part blog (here and here) a decade after the Abu Ghraib scandal, David Luban cited Hannah Arendt’s observation that “most people will comply but some people will not,” before lauding those who never lost their moral bearings in America’s decent into systematized torture.
Some time has passed since four Blackwater guards were convicted last October of killing numerous unarmed civilians at Nisour Square, Baghdad. Understandably, the trial and verdict attracted a great deal of media attention, but something very important, paralleling the concerns that preoccupy Luban and Cole, has gone entirely unnoticed in the aftermath. Some people within that Blackwater unit said “no,” and maintained that position in the face of tremendous opposition.
Based on public perception, one might be tempted to think that nothing noble happened amongst the group of Blackwater guards at Nisour Square that afternoon. That impression is wrong. On the contrary, three members of Blackwater’s Raven 23 team who deployed that day displayed tremendous moral courage during and after the massacre. Without them, the death toll would likely be higher and there would almost certainly have been no trial or convictions. For this reason, we must remember, honor and celebrate their moral courage and humanity.
When Raven 23 set out from the Green Zone on September 16, 2007, Mark Mealy, Matthew Murphy, and Adam Frost were in the first two of four armored vehicles. According to their own testimony at trial, they watched in horror as their mission quickly transformed into what Murphy later called “the most horribly botched thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Matthew Murphy, now a policeman in Boston, was a rifleman in the Marines for two years before joining Blackwater in Iraq. During the trial, he testified that he heard gunfire from his teammates, then looked over his left shoulder to see one of them firing grenades at a white Kia, before others also turned their machine guns on civilians in a traffic jam. On the stand, Murphy bravely contradicted his teammates who said that they regretted nothing, by testifying that he saw no incoming gunfire and perceived no threat.
After the ordeal subsided, the Blackwater convoy left Nisour Square to the North against the flow of traffic, in what prosecutors described as like trying to enter a football stadium at the end of a game while the crowd is pouring out to the parking lot. During this obstructed exit, Murphy signaled to some children to get down, out of fear for what his teammates might do. It’s hard to say in hindsight what might have happened if he hadn’t done this, but given how events unfolded that day, there are strong chances Murphy prevented more unnecessary casualties.
Later, two cars blocked the convoy’s path, so Murphy directed the cars to turn around. When one of his teammates, Paul Slough, opened fire on the vehicles anyway, Murphy yelled, “Cease fucking fire!” As a result of his intervention, the injured driver was able to drive away, unlike so many others that afternoon. Needless to say, those legal advisers Luban and Cole have discussed were not in a war zone, surrounded by armed colleagues who had demonstrated the capacity to shoot people who posed no threat to them.
Murphy was not alone. Mark Mealy joined Blackwater after ten years in the Army, six of which were in active service. After retiring from the Army, he joined the National Guard with hopes of completing post-secondary education, but when his National Guard unit deployed to Iraq in 2003, his plans changed. After his Guard deployment, he worked for several private contractors in Iraq, eventually took a position with Blackwater, and in a stroke of exceptionally poor fortune, found himself in one of the firm’s armored vehicles in Nisour Square during that terrible fifteen minutes.
When the chips were down, Mealy was also on the right side of Arendt’s divide. After returning to base, he convened a meeting in his room, where he and the others we mention here confronted their teammates, saying they’d seen people “murdered out there.” Predictably, this did not go down well. The team leader barked that they needed to find a new line of work if they had a problem with what had happened. After that, the defendants gave Murphy, Frost, and Mealy the “stink eye,” and one later told Frost, now a policeman in Phoenix, that things might get rough for him around the base.
Undeterred, these three men jointly approached their commander, Chuck Pearson, complaining of “excessive use of force” and “reckless conduct.” At trial, Pearson testified that in all his years in the armed forces, he’d never seen a group of soldiers so disturbed by their own unit’s actions: the three men seemed to be in shock and Frost was crying. Revealing this emotion at trial was also an act of bravery for a soldier, but in this very human reaction, we also find something to cherish and honor.
Several days after these men met with their superior, Blackwater ordered all members of this team to report to the US Embassy in Iraq to provide confidential statements about what transpired at Nisour Square. When these statements were subsequently leaked to the public, Adam Frost began a diary to memorialize events as they really took place. In one entry he wrote:
As of now, 5 days after the event, it seems that the [State Department] and [Blackwater] are locked into their stories and the real story will forever stay shrouded from the public … .”
That this premonition did not come to pass is largely the result of these few men; Murphy, Frost, Mealy, and others who bravely provided essential testimony in the landmark trial in Washington, DC. They also paid a price for doing so. In its rousing closing statement, the prosecution told the jury that Murphy, Frost, and Mealy “were called rats and they were looked down upon by the contractor community. And they nonetheless did it. Why? Because they were courageous enough and strong enough to know that that was wrong. That was slaughter.”
None of these men worked for Blackwater again. Murphy signed another contract with the company soon after the harrowing incident, and then went on leave. While away, he got a phone call from his employer telling him that, because of the incident, he was “suspended indefinitely.” Frost also went on leave and was fired a week later. As for Mealy, he simply told the jury that he was done with Blackwater’s Raven 23 Unit.
All of this, of course, suggests that these men deserve recognition alongside the other moral heroes David Luban rightly praises. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.” In the face of these sorts of pressures in warfare, many would play down their conscientious reactions and say nothing, especially given the dangers they themselves faced. Murphy, Frost, and Mealy “went forward” with their consciences and emerged from this horrendous saga as unsung heroes deserving of our praise and respect.
In reading David Cole’s new reports, it’s hard not to feel like the American leadership in the War on Terror has, on these crucial issues at least, had far less moral courage or humanity in far easier personal circumstances. Perhaps that makes them all the more blameworthy.