Updated: Oct 4, 2021
On March 31, 2004, four guards from the private security company Blackwater USA made the fatal mistake of entering a part of Fallujah, Iraq controlled by fighters resisting the US-led occupation.
The contractors were brutally tortured and murdered, their bodies doused in gasoline and set on fire before being dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge. That same day five US Marines were killed not far from the city by a roadside bomb.
Photos of the charred bodies of the four Blackwater guards outraged Americans, and military commanders geared up for an all-out assault to “pacify” Fallujah. However, General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, argued against such an offensive, presciently predicting “that a large-scale operation would send the wrong message, unnecessarily endanger civilians, and ultimately fail to achieve the primary objective” of capturing or killing the militants who killed the private contractors.
Once Operation Vigilant Resolve, also known as the First Battle of Fallujah, began on April 4, however, Mattis’ concerns were overridden by the military mandate to get the job done as quickly and with as little loss of American life as possible. Four days into the offensive, women, children and elderly residents were allowed to leave the besieged city, but males over the age of 14 were not. Families faced the horrific choice of splitting up or staying together to face the fury of the invading Marines.
It was some fury. According to witnesses and survivors of the assault, Marines indiscriminately killed men, women, children, the elderly and disabled alike. Civilians waving white flags of surrender were cut down by snipers, who also targeted ambulances carrying the wounded and dying to the few functioning clinics not destroyed by US bombs.
“I see people carrying a white flag and yelling at us, saying, ‘We are here, just try to save us,’ but we could not save them because whenever we opened the ambulance door, the Americans would shoot at us,” Dr. Salam Ismael, head of Iraq’s young doctors association, told American investigative reporter Aaron Glantz, who covered the battle as an unembedded journalist. “We tried to carry food or water; the snipers shoot the containers of food.”
Another unembedded American reporter, Dahr Jamail, said he “personally witnessed women, children, elderly people and ambulances being targeted by US snipers under Mattis’ command.” In his book, Beyond the Green Zone, Jamail described “witnessing of an endless stream of women and children who had been shot by the US soldiers,” including “an 18-year-old girl [who] had been shot through the neck, … her younger brother, a small child of 10 with a gunshot wound in his head from a Marine sniper” and “another small child… also shot by a sniper [with] his grandmother, … shot as she was attempting to carry children from their home… She lay on a bed dying, still clutching a bloodied white surrender flag.”
Jamail reported US troops also shot and killed civilians during what was supposedly a cease-fire. So many civilians were killed that a local soccer stadium was converted into a makeshift graveyard.
Many victims were left to rot in the streets where they were killed because Marine snipers would shoot relatives or others who tried to retrieve the bodies. “When you see a child, 5 years old with no head, what [can you] say?” Dr. Ismael asked Glantz at the time. “When you see a child with no brain, just opened cavity, what [can you] say? Or when you see a mother just hold her child, still an infant, with no head and the shells all over her body?”
Around 600 civilians were killed during Operation Vigilant Resolve. Incredibly, when confronted with this grisly statistic, top Mattis deputy Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said “the fact that there are 600 goes back to the fact that the Marines are very good at what they do.”
Gabor Rona, an international law professor at Columbia University in New York, said there is no doubt Mattis is responsible for US war crimes committed in Fallujah. “There have been credible reports that US troops under the command of Gen. Mattis did target civilians, conducted indiscriminate attacks and also conducted attacks against military objectives that caused disproportionate casualties to civilians during military operations in Fallujah,” Rona told Glantz.
“All of these are war crimes. Applying the doctrine of command responsibility, Gen. Mattis would be responsible for these misdeeds, these war crimes of troops under his command if he… either knew, should’ve known or did nothing to prevent or punish this behavior.”
It was during the battle for Fallujah that Mattis earned his nickname, “Mad Dog.”
Operation Vigilant Resolve failed to “pacify” Fallujah, or to capture or kill those responsible for killing the four Blackwater guards, and a few months later Mattis found himself involved in the planning — but not the execution; he had been promoted to a stateside command by then — of Operation Phantom Fury, an even bloodier Second Battle of Fallujah in which the Red Cross said as many as 800 civilians were killed.
US troops used white phosphorus, a horrific incendiary weapon banned for use against civilians that ignites on contact with air and burns at nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, scorching flesh straight through to the bone, and depleted uranium munitions linked to an exponential surge in cancers, still births and birth defects.
Before Mattis left Iraq, he personally authorized an air strike on a wedding party near the Syrian border. The May 19, 2004 attack killed 42 civilians, including 13 children.
Survivor Haleema Shihab said US warplanes targeted the civilians “one by one” and recounted how she was forced to leave two of her dead sons behind, one of them decapitated by shrapnel. “I fell into the mud and an American soldier came and kicked me,” Shihab told the Guardian. “I pretended to be dead so he wouldn’t kill me. My youngest child was alive next to me.” Mattis refused to accept that the victims were civilians, but days later a video emerged of the wedding festivities just before the deadly strike.
On November 19, 2005, Marines responding to the roadside bombing death of a popular lance corporal went on a cold-blooded rampage, massacring 24 men, women and children in Haditha.
Ordered to “shoot first and ask questions later,” Marines went house to house and executed terrified civilians, often at point-blank range. Victims ranged in age from 1 to 76. It was the worst mass slaughter of civilians by US troops in Iraq, and clearly a war crime under domestic and international law, yet Mattis defended and dismissed charges against three of the perpetrators. Largely due to Mattis’ influence, not a single Marine who participated in the heinous atrocity was jailed.
“Mattis’ role in whitewashing, if in fact that’s what he did, would be a war crime under international law, and analogous to what we prosecuted and executed Yamashita for,” Rona said, referring to Japanese general Yamashita Tomoyuki, the "Tiger of Malaya", who was executed for commanding troops who committed atrocities against civilians and allied prisoners of war during World War II.
Haditha wasn’t the only case in which Mattis cleared troops who committed atrocities, he also granted clemency to three Marines convicted of conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and kidnapping for the execution of a disabled civilian in Hamdania. The Marines shot 52-year-old Hashim Ibrahim Awad four times in the head while his hands and feet were bound. They then planted a weapon on the innocent man in a failed bid to cover their crime.
Mattis, who once gleefully confessed he found it “a hell of a lot of fun” to shoot other human beings, became America’s next secretary of defense. He got a free pass on Fallujah, Haditha and Hamdania during his Senate confirmation hearing.