December 13, 2004
Last week, Staff Sergeant Johnny Horne Jr. pleaded guilty to murder, for killing a badly wounded Iraqi civilian in Baghdad last August 18th, during the fighting against Shia Arab gunmen loyal to Muqtada al Sadr. Horne was busted to private, and sentenced to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. If he had gone ahead with the court martial, he could have received a death sentence if convicted.
The dead civilian was a garbage collector, who was shot by nearby American troops who, during a night operations, thought roadside bombs were being unloaded from the garbage truck. Sergeant Horne admitted he shot the man, but said he did in order to put the severely wounded Iraqi out of his misery. There have been other incidents like this, and nearly all resulted in no charges, or acquittal at court martial. Even the brass realize that convictions like this are bad for the morale of combat troops. Sort of like convicting a cop for shooting a civilian during an exchange of gunfire with a criminal. But SSGT Horne disobeyed orders. The policy is to treat wounded gunmen, and civilians, if at all possible. This is good PR, and a source of intel if the wounded guy was an enemy shooter. Its also the right thing to do. While the guy Horne killed was a badly wounded civilian, mercy killings are forbidden. The U.S. has more medical facilities in Iraq than it needs for the troops, and regularly treats civilians who are injured, especially those hurt during American combat operations.
But such put him out of his misery killings do happen, and the troops involved usually get, at most, a chewing out. It appears that SSGT Horne crossed the line, and the army felt this one could not be regarded as another unfortunate consequence of war.
The general court martial was to be conducted by seven officers and senior NCOs. The older sergeants are included to make sure that there is no misunderstanding about what happened. In the heat of combat, troops will often do things they dont want to talk about after the war. How often have we heard combat veterans say they, dont want to talk about it, when asked about their wartime experiences. Some of this comes from the terrifying memories of narrowly escaping death, or seeing friends killed or mutilated. But some comes from incidents similar to sergeant Hornes. There have also been many incidents where enemy troops trying to surrender were killed instead, or civilians shot because they got in the way, or the troops did not know women and children were in the line of fire. These are painful memories for most of the troops involved, and experienced officers know that they can only punish those who cross a vague line of excusable behavior. Whenever there is an incident where the evidence indicates that the soldier could have acted otherwise, and particularly if civilians are involved, as victims and witnesses, then a court martial becomes very possible. This appears to be the situation sergeant Horne found himself in.
A court martial will try hard to find any extenuating circumstances. Thus a court martial panel for a case like this would include combat veterans. Only someone who has been in combat can fully understand how chaotic things can get when you are under fire. But no matter how great the pressure or danger, there is still the risk of crossing the line. Apparently sergeant Horne did, and realized it before his court martial began.