Blowing the whistle in a war zone

Investigating wrongdoing is even harder in the battlefield

July 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

In this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, alongside Caitlin Jenner’s dazzling new appearance, is the story of how my former 1st Sgt. John Hatley was found guilty of executing four bound and blindfolded prisoners during my first deployment in Iraq.

Hatley’s 2007 trial drew national attention because he was the highest-ranking service member at the time to be found guilty of premeditated murder. His investigation, arrest and conviction came to define military service for me. In the wake of the accusations, a kind of tribal mentality — “herd mentality” isn’t dynamic enough a phrase — connected many of the soldiers with whom I served. They came out strong in their defense of a leader who can best be described as a cross between legendary college football coach Bear Bryant and the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” He’s huge, affable, violent, driven, competent and absolutely sure of himself.

The bulk of the Vanity Fair article is about Jesse Cunningham, the soldier who blew the whistle and exposed Hatley’s crimes. Judging from the numerous reactions to the article by his former colleagues on Facebook, Cunningham remains a pariah. Even many of those willing to admit that what Hatley did was wrong still refuse to give Cunningham much credit for his role in bringing our disgraced first sergeant to justice. The contempt that government whistleblowers face is frustrating in any context, but in a war zone, it’s mortally dangerous. The challenges whistleblowers face in the military are indicative of the larger problems that all government whistleblowers face; the stakes are just higher. 

Reporting assault

The Vanity Fair article explains that there are “no mechanisms in place” to take a whistleblower out of harm’s away and protect him or her during an investigation. That’s why it’s generally assumed that war crimes are more common that we’ll ever really know. And while there are protections in place for people reporting sexual assault, “war crimes are different,” the article states, because there aren’t mechanisms to protect whistleblowers from the armed and allegedly dangerous people being implicated:

The United States takes a serious hit every time one is reported. It seems that the leadership would rather not know about them than have to deal with every one that takes place. The consequence, however unintentional, is that soldiers who report war crimes are put in harm’s way. Had Cunningham come forward in Baghdad, he would have been exposed to a battlefield where there were a hundred ways to die. 

A whistleblower has limited options on the battlefield. There’s a process for conveying grievances to the inspector general (IG), but the procedure is far from perfect. As Time magazine explained:

Even when IGs find that 1) a complainant blew the whistle through a protected channel for disclosure, 2) that the complainant was the subject of an adverse personnel action and 3) that the manager taking that action knew of the complainant’s whistleblowing, those IGs sometimes still do not substantiate claims of whistleblower reprisal.

War zones are messy places. Conducting an investigation in combat is like performing open-heart surgery while the patient’s running a marathon. Crime scenes can’t be taped off; personnel might have more pressing issues than immediate compliance (such as survival).

Add to that the intense emotions that war brings out — the heightened adrenaline, the deeply embedded sense of loyalty — and the difficulties of protecting whistleblowers from retaliation become staggering.

Conducting an investigation in combat is like performing open heart surgery while the patient is running a marathon.

Despite the Vanity Fair article’s claim that “immediate protections are offered to accusers,” retaliation against reporting sexual harassment remains a problem in the military. A 118-page report released this year by Human Rights Watch (HRW) states:

Both male and female military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense. Retaliation against survivors ranges from threats, vandalism and harassment to poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action, including discharge, and even criminal charges.

Accusers are still facing retaliation, and the mechanisms in place to protect them need to be strengthened.

The HRW study says that 62 percent of people reporting sexual assault experience retaliation. It’s easy to imagine that those who were assaulted in a combat zone were exposed to conditions that make reporting the incident even more difficult.

There’s a widespread belief in the military that troops on the ground are only as good as the men who lead them and that a bad commander can taint his whole brigade. But in this regard, the commander in chief himself hasn’t inspired much confidence when it comes to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation. President Barack Obama has prosecuted eight people under the 1917 Espionage Act — more than double the number charged under all his predecessors combined. Leakers and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and former CIA operative Jeffery Sterling are held criminally accountable for releasing information on government malfeasance to the American people. Chelsea Manning is serving 35 years in a military prison.

What’s more, the Obama administration has applied its heavy hand inconsistently, with insiders close to the president receiving lighter sentences than outsiders more vulnerable to retaliation. Disgraced Gen. David Petraeus got off with a misdemeanor instead of a felony charge for passing classified information; John Brennan obstructed a Senate inquiry, leaked information about a classified infiltration operation and spied on the Senate but remains the director of the CIA. Obama has failed to set a standard for military leadership to aspire to. Protecting whistleblowers should start with him.

I don’t consider myself a whistleblower, though some articles I wrote for The New Republic about my experiences in Iraq in 2007 are briefly mentioned in the Vanity Fair article. My intentions in writing those pieces weren’t to rectify an issue or bring a problem to light but to tell stories about the war as I experienced it, having sensed a stark existential divide separating the troops from the crowds of Americans waving at them from the parade sidelines.

Regardless of my motives, the ire of the conservative blogosphere fell on me, and the attention paid seemed to raise the hackles of the Army. I was put on extra duty, working 20-hour days in the summer heat of central Iraq, and eventually I was hospitalized with typhoid. I was escorted by noncommissioned officers wherever I went. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone. My rifle was taken away — in a war zone, as much a symbolic act of castration as an actual threat to your life. And it was Hatley who gave me a pen instead.

I wasn’t a whistleblower, but I needed protection. The focus eventually shifted off me as soon as Hatley’s murder investigations began.

Things really change in the military only from the top down or with pressure from the outside. Creating a culture in which whistleblowers and leakers don’t have to fear for their safety begins in the White House and the Pentagon. Battlefields are a kind of controlled chaos, but that chaos doesn’t have to translate into violence for people whose voices could, if heard, improve the institutions for which they’re already risking their lives. 

Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer living in Portland, Maine. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Bookforum and The Baffler, among other places. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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