It sounds unthinkable, but there are times, according to the rules of war, when it's morally acceptable to shoot a child.
A 12-year-old can, of course, fire an AK-47, but the more gut-wrenching decisions revolve around ambiguous situations. Could a child with a cell phone be a lookout for insurgents or send a detonation signal to an IED bomb?
These were the types of scenarios our soldiers had to face in Iraq. Countless soldiers have returned haunted by civilians they killed because the civilians panicked and ran through a checkpoint or reached for something too quickly.
Last month, military investigators began a process to charge Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Barbera with two counts of murder in the 2007 fatal shooting of two deaf, unarmed Iraqi youths. It is an incident Carl Prine, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, says still haunts the soldiers of Barbera's unit.
"Every man I talked to had the Purple Heart," Prine tells NPR's Arun Rath. "These are not the kind of guys who are wishy-washy soldiers ... and yet they were all scarred by this one event that had happened and they never quite recovered from it."
The Confusion Of War
It was a few years ago when Prine, who served in Iraq himself, began hearing stories from members of Charlie Troop, part of the 82nd Airborne, one of the most decorated units in Army history. Prine wrote a series of stories about the investigation into the shootings for the Tribune-Review.
In March of 2007, a small team led by then-Staff Sgt. Barbera was on a reconnaissance mission outside the village of Asada, in rural Iraq. The night before, the soldiers set themselves up in a palm grove overlooking what they believed to be an insurgent safe house.
The following day, two boys were driving cattle toward the unseen soldiers. Prine says most of the soldiers took their fingers off the trigger when they saw that the boys weren't a threat, but that's when Barbera stood up and allegedly fired on the boys, killing them both.
"They didn't know at the time ... the boys were both deaf and dumb," he says. "They could not speak and could not hear. So they never heard the shots that killed them."
According to the soldiers, Prine says, Barbera was panicked and ran to a deeper part of the palm grove. While they were there, a third boy approached with what appeared to be a satchel. He reached for something and Barbera ordered his men to fire, and they did, killing the third boy.
It turned out the boy, a cousin of one of the other two boys, was bringing them their lunch. He was also deaf, Prine says.
Though insurgents have been known to use children, Prine says it is still unclear what led Barbera to fire on these boys.
"There doesn't seem to be any confusion among the witnesses that turned him in," he says. "Whether he had some confusion or not remains the question."
No Immediate Punishment
Though the incident haunted the men of Barbera's troop, no action was taken against Barbera himself. Prine actually went to Iraq to meet the families of the slain boys. He was shocked to discover he was not the first American to come asking questions.
The villagers told him that American Army investigators had also investigated the story, supposedly even reporting it to senior officials. Prine says the commanding generals have total discretion over whether or not to prosecute, and in the case of the Iraqi boys who were killed, those generals did nothing.
"These generals determined that [Barbera] had committed murder," Prine says, "but instead of sending him to a court-martial, they decided they would give him what is called a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand."
Prine says this is below non-judicial punishment and slightly above a counseling statement, but this was never going to go into Barbera's permanent record. Though he admitted to shooting the two boys, Barbera wasn't charged with murder at that time.
Not only that, Barbera was promoted to Sgt. 1st Class and assigned to his own platoon. The military, Prine says, paid the families of the boys some money, asked a lot of questions about the incident, and then the report of Barbera's actions in Iraq all but disappeared.
A Soldier Accused
It wasn't until November of this year that military investigators began the process of officially charging Barbera.
Prine says he has no idea why it took the military so long to act, though he has heard a lot of theories, everything from unit pride to lack of evidence — and also concerns about potential damage to senior officers involved in the unit.
"I think more likely what happened, the American military's judiciary was not at the same place it was then that it is now," Prine says.
Prine says they now devote a lot of resources to the many cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, but that wasn't so in 2007 through 2010 when there were fewer resources to go around.
Prine believes, however, that there are still many similar cases that go unheard.
"Hundreds," he says.