Retired Army Sgt. Dillard Johnson's new Iraq war memoir has angered other veterans. He says the criticism is mostly unfair.
Yesterday I wrote about Dillard Johnson's new book "Carnivore," published by the News Corporation's HarperCollins and heavily promoted by News Corporation outlets like the New York Post and Fox News.
The promotional effort around the book has carried a hard-to-believe, almost impossible claim: that Johnson had 2,746 "confirmed" enemy kills over the course of two tours in Iraq. His first tour came during the 2003 invasion and the second for roughly 12 months starting in February 2005. The claimed kills, which first surfaced in NewsCorp's New York Post on Monday ("With 2,746 confirmed kills, Sgt. 1st Class Dillard Johnson is the deadliest American soldier on record — and maybe the most humble"), was then repeated on a number of Fox News programs this week and mirrored around the Internet.
Similar claims are made in HarperCollins' publicity for the book ("He is recognized by the Pentagon to have accounted for more than 2,000 enemy killed in action," says the book jacket; "Credited with more than 2,600 enemy KIA, he is perhaps the most lethal ground soldier in U.S. history," says both the book jacket and a blurb the publisher supplied to Amazon; the book cover calls him "One of the deadliest American soldiers of all time.")
Mr. Johnson says there's one problem: It isn't true.
He says the book doesn't contain that claim, that he never claimed to have killed 2,746 enemy fighters in Iraq, and that he didn't kill that many people in Iraq. He says a combination of innocent mistakes by others and a desire by HarperCollins and his co-author to promote the book have led to the impression he's making claims that he hasn't made. He says a personal and informal total of likely enemy fighters killed during engagements in the Iraq invasion has been attributed to him, when in fact the total includes shooting from the Bradley he commanded as well as shots fired from Bradleys around him and commanded by others – his wingmen.
"Am I one of the deadliest American soldiers of all time? Probably not," says Johnson. "Do I think I did a lot of damage with my vehicle and stuff, with me being decisive? Yeah, absolutely."
These and other claims have drawn angry denunciations from a large number of soldiers who served with him in Iraq, who say he played an important role in their effort but did not come close to what's been written about him in the press.
Johnson says he agrees, and says the attribution of so many dead to him personally traces back to a 2004 Pentagon history of the invasion, On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was interviewed for the book and says it's been wildly misinterpreted, especially since the chapter he features in was excerpted by Soldier of Fortune magazine, with editorial changes made by someone there that exaggerated his personal role in the fighting.
His assertion of 121 "confirmed" sniper kills made in his book has also drawn howls of derision. Johnson is not trained as a sniper and was not equipped with a sniper rifle. He says his personal tally of 121 enemy killed during his second tour is correct, but that "I didn’t use a sniper rifle, I am not a sniper. Nowhere in the book does it say that I’m a sniper. It’s in the jacket, again, but I didn’t write that." He told me that all these kills were with M4 and M14 rifles.
He told Fox New's Laura Ingraham on the O'Reilly Factor – the evening after an appearance on Fox & Friends that morning that infuriated many veterans, and prompted angry emails from some former comrades – that the 121 kills involved "the M14 and my M4 personal rifle and some 203 ones." A 203 is a single shot grenade launcher and attributing specific deaths to a grenade launched over distance is both difficult and definitely not a form of "sniping."
Johnson explains that the choice of "sniper" in the book was for ease of understanding for the general civilian public. "When you look inside the cover and see the talk about the 121 confirmed sniper kills [that's because] most civilians don’t know what a designated marksman is," he says. He said his platoon didn't have many trained marskmen and that since he was a naturally good shot, he took on those kinds of duties to protect himself and his men.
Some of Johnson's stories have shifted over time.
He told Ms. Ingraham this week that the long shot, which he says in that interview was 821 yards, "was sort of a sniper battle from a rooftop and I got this guy. It took me 15 shots. He was a better shot than me. I just had better equipment and he was missing all around me and I basically just got lucky." But here's what Stars and Stripes reported him as saying about the incident on Dec. 20, 2005:
“I used my laser rangefinder to give me the distance to the enemy location, it was 852 meters exactly, a long shot,” Johnson said then, according to a 2nd Brigade Combat Team press release carried by the newspaper. He reported there were two insurgents there and that they were firing towards his rooftop position. “I engaged one enemy shooter with my own rifle. My first round fell short but it must have scared him because he stood up to run away. The next round I fired, hit him and he went down,” Johnson said.
On his O'Reilly appearance, Johnson corrected his host when she attributed 2,746 kills in Iraq to him personally. He says he wished he'd done that in the earlier Fox & Friends interview but that he was only on for about three minutes, and as it was his first television appearance, he was a little flustered.
"I was trying to get that in on Fox & Friends, but didn’t have time. Did on O’Reilly with Laura Ingraham," he tells me. He told Ingraham:
"As far as the kills go ... I’m not really proud of those numbers being out there, it was part of the battle damage assessment that we did. My gunner actually did, you know, most of those or over half of those in the vehicle there and I was just present on the vehicle ... which I was the commander of."
Soldiers in general don't like to keep body counts, and while they may be proud of killing enemies in engagements, keeping their buddies safe, and accomplishing their missions, bragging about kill numbers is generally seen as uncouth, if not a downright creepy. Johnson agrees with that, and says there's no intent to brag about killing. Rather, he says, he kept track of enemy dead by counting rifles on the battlefield after engagements (on the reasoning that "one rifle equals one man") as a way to keep senior officers as informed as possible about the course of the war.
Johnson was kind enough to speak to me for about two hours last night. I'm currently sifting through my long notes of my conversation with him, and will revisit the story after I read his book myself this evening.