Monday night retired Marine, Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano, appeared on CNN hawking his new book, "Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy". You might recall that Lt. Pantano had been accused by the Marines of murdering two Iraqis on April 15, 2004. In 2005, the Marines dropped all murder charges against Lt. Pantano. At the time when the charges were dropped, the Marines said in a statement that the "best interests of 2nd Lt. Pantano and the government have been served by this process."
The reason Lt. Pantano had been charged with murder is because he had shot and killed two Iraqis that he had detained. After killing them, he hung a sign above their heads that read "NO BETTER FRIEND, NO WORSE ENEMY". He also emptied his clip, reloaded, and emptied his second clip into the bodies of the Iraqis. All told, he had expended 60 rounds into the Iraqis’ bodies:
The two Iraqis were killed during an April 2004 search outside a suspected terrorist hideout in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Pantano contended he shot them in self-defense after the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him.
Prosecutors alleged Pantano intended to make an example of the men by shooting them 60 times and hanging a sign over their bodies — “No better friend, no worse enemy,” a Marine slogan. While citing self-defense as his motive, Pantano did not deny hanging the sign or shooting the men repeatedly.
An article in New York magazine shed further light on the incident:
At the scene, Pantano divided his platoon of 40 Marines. He sent a dozen to raid the house. The remainder dispersed, guarding his flanks. As Marines approached the target, a white sedan backed out and drove away. Pantano radioed that he’d take down the car. Pantano, 32, had with him a Navy medic, George Gobles, 21, whom everyone called Doc, and his new radio operator, Sergeant Daniel Coburn, 27.
Pantano yelled for the car to stop. When it didn’t, two warning shots were fired. The occupants, a man in his thirties or forties and another about 18, both wearing “man dresses,” as the Marines called them, finally stopped and raised their hands. They were unarmed.
Pantano received word from the Marines who’d taken the house. They’d found a modest cache of arms and also some significant items, including stakes used to aim mortars.
Pantano, who earlier had the Iraqis put in plastic handcuffs, now had Doc Gobles cut the cuffs off, which he did with his trauma shears. Then Gobles marched the two prisoners to their vehicle, placed one in the open door of the front seat, the other in the open door of the rear seat. Pantano motioned to the prisoners to search the car. He ordered Gobles to post security at the front of the car; Sergeant Coburn at the rear. Both men turned their backs on Pantano and the Iraqis.
A short time later, the shots started. Gobles and Coburn spun around. Pantano, ten feet from the Iraqis, emptied his M-16’s magazine, reloaded, emptied another. Later, Coburn recalled wondering “when the lieutenant was going to stop, because it was obvious that they were dead.” Photos, souvenirs taken by a Marine, would show one Iraqi nearly embracing the backseat of the car. The other lolled on his side, his head on the floorboard.
Coburn seemed distraught. He grabbed Gobles. “What the hell just happened?”
“Don’t worry,” Gobles said to settle him. “The blood is not on your hands.”
The facts of the incident were not in dispute. What was in dispute was whether Lt. Pantano intended to kill the Iraqis or whether he felt that he was about to be attacked and responded in self-defense. The charges were dismissed by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, on the advice of the investigating officer, Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn:
The 16-page report from Lt. Col. Mark E. Winn labels as "extremely suspect" the prosecution’s chief witness, Sgt. Daniel L. Coburn, whom Lt. Pantano had removed as a squad leader weeks before the April 15, 2004, shooting.
"The government was not able to produce credible evidence or testimony that the killings were premeditated," Col. Winn wrote in his report, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by The Washington Times.
The Marines gave Lt. Pantano the benefit of the doubt because they could not determine his state of mind at the time of the shootings in the absence of a credible witness.
In the interview with New York magazine, Lt. Pantano however left no doubt as to why he used so much firepower:
There was another reason for all the firepower, which he says he decided while shooting. “I believed that by firing the number of rounds that I did, I was sending a message.” In case anyone missed the point, Pantano scrawled something on a piece of cardboard, which he wedged against the windshield. NO BETTER FRIEND, NO WORST ENEMY, it said. He meant the Marines. It was General Mattis’s motto.
His statements to the magazine appear to make clear what Lt. Pantano’s state of mind was at the time of the incident. I am not quite sure how "sending a message" is consistent with self-defense. Last night on CNN, Lt. Pantano struggled to explain the 60 rounds, the reloading of his weapon during the killings, and the hanging of the sign:
ROBERTS: Your situation, April of 2004 you were investigating a house. There were a couple of Iraqis who trying to escape in a car. You stopped the car, you had them in custody, they ended up dead. How?
PANTANO: Well, that’s right. And in fact, in a moment in time they attacked me, and they made a move to attack me, and I shot them dead.
ROBERTS: So you claimed self-defense, the Marine Corps eventually agreed with you. The question that I have about that incident, though, is you emptied two clips into these two Iraqis.
PANTANO: That’s right.
ROBERTS: One clip, reloaded, emptied the second clip.
PANTANO: That’s right.
ROBERTS: And then you put a sign on their car that said, America’s — your best friend or your worst enemy.
PANTANO: Right, no better friend, no worse enemy.
ROBERTS: No better friend, no worse enemy. Why did you go those extra steps? Were you trying to defend yourself or trying to make a point?
PANTANO: Well, I think that, you know, in the course of the investigation and ultimately in my exoneration, it was made very clear that I was defending myself.
You know, the decision to weigh in on the amount of force that was required, you know, these were things — listen, in everyday life we have opportunities and examples to look at use of force. We have rap stars that have been shot nine times and go on to make billion dollars selling albums.
So to try and suggest that there’s an appropriate amount of force, how much should be, and what that — you know, when to throttle that on and off. I think the truth is it comes back to the on scene commander.
In that case I was applying the amount of force I felt was required to do the job. In this case the job was end the threat.
ROBERTS: And why the sign?
PANTANO: Well, again, the sign was part of — part of my internal reaction to what was going on with the violence. Bear in mind, we had been taking casualties significantly.
And part of this was even messaging to my own men of, we are here to be no better friend. And they can all speak to, and in fact in the testimony, spoke to all of the efforts that we made in terms of purchasing candy or soccer balls or rebuilding schools.
But when the time comes, when the enemy attacks you, you will be no worse enemy.
So it’s almost the same kind of messaging on some level and it’s internal messaging, but it’s the same kind of messaging like looking at Zarqawi’s face on TV that your network broadcasts. [Emphasis added me.]
So, Lt. Pantano has been exonerated by the Marines for "sending a message" to the Iraqis. What is that message? The message is that we will kill you at any hint of real or perceived provocation. And after we have killed you, we will taunt you. We will assume you are the enemy. The burden is on you to prove otherwise. And you better take care in proving your innocence because we may have to kill you if we feel threatened in the slightest way.
In an irony in last night’s interview, John Roberts lamented:
ROBERTS: Talk of alleged war crimes by U.S. soldiers in Iraq makes headlines. But when a Marine is cleared, well that seems to get less attention.
In 2004, after two Iraqis were killed outside a suspected terrorist hideout, Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano said he shot them in self-defense. He said the men disobeyed his instructions and made a menacing move toward him.
Prosecutors allege Pantano intended to make an example of the men by shooting them 60 times, and then hanging a sign over their bodies. A year later the charges were dropped and the Marine decided to tell his story.
Today Pantano’s book hit the stands. It’s called "Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy." I spoke with Pantano earlier. [Emphasis added by me.]
Roberts is right. I had read the story when Lt. Pantano had been accused by the Marines. I had missed the news of his exoneration by the Marines. I hope the Iraqis missed the news too. I think his exoneration is more damaging to the United States than the initial accusations against him. Now that Lt. Pantano has released a book and as he continues his book tour, I am quite certain the fact that he was exonerated will make more headlines.
What are the bounds of acceptable behavior by US soldiers in Iraq? If "sending a message" is acceptable, then how exactly are we winning hearts and minds in Iraq? It seems that with every new revelation of atrocities in Iraq, and every new revelation of exoneration or slaps on the wrist, the bounds of acceptability are being pushed out further. As what is acceptable in Iraq widens more and more atrocities will occur. Is this any way to win hearts and minds? Is this any way to run a counter-insurgency? The killings of Iraqis for the flimsiest of reasons will make for "No Worse Friend, No Worse Enemy".