FORT BENNING, GA—In what has been dubbed "the most serious military scandal yet," the U.S. Army revealed Monday that several of its cadets may have been involved in a "killing" incident while serving in the Persian Gulf in 1991.
"If the allegations are true, this is an outrage," recently appointed Defense Secretary William Cohen said in a hastily arranged press conference. "This type of reckless, barbaric behavior will not be tolerated among the men and women serving in our armed forces."
Cohen has ordered a full investigation into this and any other rumored cases of Army-related killing.
The incident allegedly took place Feb. 25, 1991, just outside Baghdad, Iraq, and may have involved as many as seven soldiers in the 115th Light Infantry Company and 484th Armored Division, both of which are stationed at Fort Benning.
According to eyewitness reports, at approximately 7 a.m., the cadets came within several dozen yards of a smaller group of Iraqi cadets. Without announcing their presence, the cadets proceeded to "kill" the Iraqis, using their rifles to place bullets in their heads or chest cavities.
Even when several of the Iraqis expressed an unwillingness to submit to the killing, the cadets refused to desist. Instead, they employed potentially hazardous grenades and napalm-tipped anti-personnel missiles to create explosions which also proved effective in killing.
The incident ended only after the Iraqis, afraid they would all be "killed," attempted to resist by using their own rifles, prompting the cadets to drive a 40-ton M-1 Abrams main battle tank into the area. The tank was then maneuvered directly onto the Iraqis, killing them all.
The incident, which involved army-issue equipment and may have had tacit approval from the cadets' commanding officers, is believed by some to have been only a small part of a complex, large-scale effort to subdue and humiliate Iraqi military cadets.
"There is reason to believe that the orders to fatally haze the Iraqis may have come from much higher up," Georgetown University professor and military expert Nathan Gregory said. "Not only was this behavior condoned by the cadets' commanding officers, it was almost encouraged."
"Killing is one of the most extreme and brutal forms of hazing," said Barbara Jacobs of the New York-based Citizens' Alliance watchdog group. "In addition to causing severe physical damage, from which many people never recover, the psychological effects are incalculable."
"What went on in the Persian Gulf was outrageous and morally reprehensible," added Jacobs. "It was even worse than Tailhook."
The scandal has shaken the Pentagon into action. A hotline has been set up to allow victims of "killing" to bypass the normal military bureaucracy and report incidents directly. The system has already been inundated with calls from such diverse locations as Japan, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and various Central American countries.
Pentagon officials are also organizing killing-sensitivity training seminars for soldiers who are stationed in close proximity to foreign troops. Instructors from within the ranks will counsel soldiers on appropriate conduct, raise enlisted men's awareness of behavior that constitutes killing, and educate soldiers on non-killing solutions to high-stress situations.
"These soldiers have got to know that there are alternatives," said Pentagon spokesperson Richard Pappas.
Representatives of Colt Repeating Arms, the manufacturer of the guns in question, and the Chrysler Corporation, which produces the M-1 tank, were also quick to condemn what they called "gross irresponsibility" in the misuse of their products.
"We want America to know that the Colt Armalite A-15 7.62mm Assault Carbine has always been an instrument of peaceful relations among men," said Brent Carman, a PR executive at Colt. "They do not kill people. Only people can do that."
Despite strong words of condemnation from top Pentagon officials, many other military personnel defended the soldiers' actions.
"Sometimes, when those tracers are going off overhead, and your platoon is pinned down by enemy fire, it can seem to a young recruit that killing is the only way out," said Sgt. Dick Tunney. "I served in Vietnam, and I understand the strain these kids are under."
Tunney stressed that he himself never killed any Vietnamese, just "pushed them hard."
"Obviously a problem exists," Brigadier General Kurt Stonebender said. "But you can't ignore the fact that, despite the number of reported cases of killing, none of the claims came from people who had actually been killed themselves. I'd like to hear from some of the actual victims before moving too far forward with this."