ENCOUNTERING STEVEN GREEN
"I came over here because I wanted to kill people."
" I came over here
because I wanted
to kill people."
Over a mess-tent dinner of turkey cutlets, the bony-faced 21-year-old private from West Texas looked right at me as he talked about killing Iraqis with casual indifference. It was February, and we were at his small patrol base about 20 miles south of Baghdad. "The truth is, it wasn't all I thought it was cracked up to be. I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it, and I was like, 'All right, whatever.' "
"I shot a guy who wouldn't stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing," he went on. "Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it's like 'All right, let's go get some pizza.' "
At the time, the soldier's matter-of-fact manner struck me chiefly as a rare example of honesty. I was on a nine-month assignment as an embedded reporter in Iraq, spending much of my time with grunts like him -- mostly young (and immature) small-town kids who sign up for a job as killers, lured by some gut-level desire for excitement and adventure. This was not the first group I had run into that was full of young men who shared a dark sense of humor and were clearly desensitized to death. I thought this soldier was just one of the exceptions who wasn't afraid to say what he really thought, a frank and reflective kid, a sort of Holden Caulfield in a war zone.
But the private was Steven D. Green.
The next time I saw him, in a front-page newspaper photograph five months later, he was standing outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina, where he had pled not guilty to charges of premeditated rape and murder. The brutal killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah that he was accused of had taken place just three weeks after we talked.
When I met Green, I knew nothing about his background -- his troubled youth and family life, his apparent problems with drugs and alcohol, his petty criminal record. I just saw and heard a blunt-talking kid. Now that I know the charges against Green, his words take on an utterly different context for me. But when I met him then, his comments didn't seem nearly as chilling as they do now.
Maybe, in part, that's because we were talking in Mahmudiyah. If there's one place where a soldier might succumb to what the military calls "combat stress," it's this town where Green's unit was posted on the edge of the so-called Triangle of Death, for the last three years a bloody center of the Sunni-led insurgency. Mahmudiyah is a deadly patch of earth that inspires such fear, foreboding and uneasiness that my most prominent memory of the three weeks I spent there was the unrelenting knot it caused in my stomach.
I was nervous even before I arrived. Although Mahmudiyah is only a 15-minute drive from the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, I was taken there by helicopter. Military officials didn't want to risk my riding in a truck that might be hit by a roadside bomb. I'd chosen to go to Mahmudiyah because I wanted to be on the front lines of the war and among the troops fighting it.