Michael "Sonny" Trimble stands in the middle of an Iraqi desert, inches from the razor-sharp blade of an 80,000-pound track-hoe. His nose practically grazes the earth as Wade Ricard, the machine operator, scrapes away the sun-roasted dirt with the touch of a microsurgeon, centimeter by centimeter. The pair has been digging for a week and has not yet detected any change in the soil color: the subtle sign that bodies are near.
It is August 2004 and Trimble, a bony, balding raconteur with sage-green eyes, has embarked upon the most ambitious job of his life: leading the Iraq Mass Graves Investigation Team in its effort to prove Saddam Hussein committed genocide.
For miles the maple-brown desert of Ninawa Province unfurls around Trimble's team, but the ring of U.S. soldiers circling the dig site is a grim reminder that the war rages not far away. Trimble, a St. Louis forensic archaeologist with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, is growing impatient. "I was looking at my watch five times an hour," he recalls. "It's like being in a cab in New York City: The meter is running. Every day we stay out there costs a lot of money and we have a greater chance of getting hurt."
Trimble sports a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt under his army uniform and a navy-blue cap the sun will eventually fade to the color of the cloudless Iraqi sky. "We didn't have a thermometer, but I'm telling you, it was more than 125 degrees at least 130 degrees," he says. "It was so hot you could feel your brain boiling in your cranium."
For three tedious hours, Trimble and Ricard sift through the hard-packed soil before at last the first sign of massacre appears. It is an oddly gray shard of fabric stained, perhaps, by fluid from a decomposed body. Trimble clears away some dirt and flinches at the next discovery: a patch of purple and yellow silk.
"I'd never seen anything like that coming out of the ground," he says with a tone of wonderment. "You expect people with not a lot of resources to be wearing pretty plain clothes: monochrome, darker clothes. And yet here's all these bright colors, like the person had dressed up for somebody's wedding, or some very important family event."
Stunned, Trimble stares at the shred of material. Then he recalls the radiantly dressed Iraqis he saw in old history-book photographs he perused while preparing for the trip. This, he realizes, is a Kurd, another victim of the scorched-earth attack Saddam unleashed against this ethnic group two decades ago. "They're very proud of their traditional clothing," he says. "It's all hand-sewn, and they favor patterns with flowers and bright colors, and raw silk. It's very beautiful, very beautiful."
Sonny Trimble arrived in Iraq for the first time in July 2004, seven months after a St. Louis mechanic named Samir pulled Saddam Hussein from his spider hole. Trimble reported to the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO), a rotating battalion of American lawyers and law enforcement agents, newly formed to assist the Iraqi High Tribunal with prosecuting Hussein.
"The RCLO's first office was this tiny shotgun room, and you had about twenty guys sharing four or five computers and one phone," Trimble says with a laugh.
Trimble got to work studying satellite imagery and the database of potential mass-grave sites compiled by a U.S. Marines battalion in 2003. He was anxious to leave the Green Zone for the killing fields, but his superiors had no date-certain plan for the dig. "That bothered me," he says. "But I came to learn very quickly that's the way Iraq is. Somebody makes a promise to do this or that, and it doesn't happen. It's hard to plan. It's Iraq."
In early August Trimble and three colleagues finally boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and flew north over the Fertile Crescent. Trimble grew excited seeing the verdant, blooming horizon of the Tigris and Euphrates river valley, which turned a bleak brown as the chopper reached the desert outside Mosul.
The helicopter touched down at a forward-operating base known as Camp Jaguar. It would be the Mass Graves Team's quarters for the next three months. Home to one of Iraq's largest ammunition storage sites, Jaguar was nothing more than an endless line of bomb-filled bunkers.
"It was like Fort Apache," Trimble remembers. "We've got all these rough-tough junkyard-dog security guys, and every one of them is dipping snuff. They were all just high as a kite. It was just disgusting."
A base camp and forensic laboratory were supposed to be set up for Trimble's team at Jaguar. He expected to find his fifteen pallets of equipment sent over from Scott Air Force Base. He looked around. Nothing.
"I've never had a worse feeling in my life," he says. "It was cataclysmic disaster."
Trimble made up the beds and prepared the best he could for his team's arrival six days later. The dig commenced soon thereafter. Several days in, Trimble was already mentally drained. He worried people on the team weren't drinking enough water, that they might fall ill and leave him short-handed. And he fretted that the team wouldn't find a single body after all.
And then that square of silk turned up. Trimble told Wade Ricard to make some parallel passes with the track-hoe to see how wide the grave might be. "People, they don't all fall flat," he explains. "They fall at angles. It's horrible. So you come down [with the track-hoe] and see a foot and realize you can't go deeper. So you come across, and then you see a head. And you stop. All the rest is taken off with hand tools. Over the next day or two, you're really in the belly of the beast."
Trimble called over the team, each member carrying shovels, buckets and brushes. Carefully, they cleared away layer after layer of sand. A tangle of bodies began to surface. The dead lay on their sides, stacked on top of one another.
"It's not like you see them instantly," says Matt Vennemeyer, a team member from St. Louis. "The work is very slow, very steady."
The victims looked to be decomposed skeletons cloaked in rainbows of crumpled fabric. One woman was fully clothed in a flowing dress of yellow and purple. Next to her a little girl wearing eleven layers of clothing appeared, not far from a toddler in a beaded necklace. Mingling with the skeletons were large sacks stuffed with tea kettles, sewing kits, ointments mundane objects a mother cannot live without.
Everything had to be mapped, sketched and photographed exactly as found in the grave. Trimble's team then placed each person's head, hands and feet in separate bags before putting them in body bags.
Recalls Jack McDonald, a United States Navy lawyer who observed the Ninawa excavation: "Sonny would tell the army guys putting the bodies in the trucks every day: 'Treat these people well.'"
Trimble also made certain that a case file was assembled for each victim as much out of respect for the dead, he says, as for forensic purposes.
The dig well on its way, Trimble began scouting for other tombs. "It took about two or three days for my eyes to get used to the dirt, and then I realized the ground didn't look right over here," he says. Trimble summoned Ricard and the pair painstakingly set to work, displacing dirt for two entire days.
"Most people who go into archaeology have this idea in their minds that they'll love it because they've seen National Geographic or watched the Discovery Channel, where all they show is a guy brushing the skull on some object that suddenly comes shining up at him," says Trimble. "It's never like that. It's mostly hundreds of hours of tedium where you're digging with hand tools and you don't find anything."
Trimble and Ricard descended eleven feet below the Ninawa desert floor, and there they discovered the fringe of a second mass grave. "No one," Trimble whispers, "was supposed to find these guys ever."
One hundred feet away in the first trench, more women and children, their dark hair fastened in French braids, turned up every day. Some of the Kurdish matrons clutched fluffy white blankets that hid the shattered remains of babies. Says Trimble: "When you put a gun against somebody's head and pull the trigger, the bullet goes in first, but a quick second later all the gases and force associated with the bullet blow out whatever is on the other end of the skull. The babies' skulls are tissue-thin to begin with. They haven't developed yet. So the skulls are there, but in many, many pieces."
As team leader, Trimble split his time between the trenches, both about the size of a backyard swimming pool. One day, midway through the excavation, he walked into the pit teeming with women and children. He saw a small girl lying face-down, holding a red-and-white-striped ball. "I just stopped and stared at that kid," he recounts. "You think of all the kids you played ball with when you were younger. You think: 'I had a ball like that.' I thought of my daughter. It was very unlike me. I can put up with almost anything. I have a high threshold for smell, pain, bad things.
"I just turned around and walked away. I wasn't going to be sick, I wasn't crying, I was upset inside but not visibly breaking down. I turned to the [archaeology] director, and I asked her, 'Would [you] please remove that person?' She said: 'But why? We're not ready yet.' I said: 'If you want me to come down into that grave, you have to get rid of that kid. I cannot see that kid with that ball.'"
Sonny Trimble has long been regarded in the discipline as a hustler, a big-picture thinker, a master of persuasion and something of a cowboy. The kind of guy who could probably pull off mass exhumations in the heat of battle and not get his own people killed doing it.
Trimble began to acquire his rebellious rep almost twenty years ago, back when he suggested that the Corps of Engineers establish a curation division. Superiors told the newly minted Ph.D. from the University of Missouri that his idea was crazy, not at all practical. Who, they said, would want to keep track of millions of old bones, clay pots and weapons relics dating back centuries in some cases? Trimble dismissed their skepticism and proceeded to photograph unkempt archaeological collections across the nation. He called it his "Shame of the Smithsonian" project and published the photos in scientific journals.
"Most archaeologists love to go to the field, but they don't want to deal with curation," says Teresita Majewski, an Arizona archaeologist and Trimble's ex-wife. "His work really opened a lot of people's eyes. And he wasn't tremendously popular for it."
"Nobody would believe me, but I really wasn't trying to make my own little kingdom," Trimble insists with a smile. "I just saw this huge national job, and it intrigued me."
Trimble's persistence eventually won over the Corps, and he became head of the agency's curatorial "Center of Expertise" in St. Louis. His staff organized the artifacts belonging to numerous government agencies. They also created archives for the African Burial Ground, a Lower Manhattan cemetery of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Africans, and Kennewick Man, a controversial 9,200-year-old skeleton discovered in Washington State.
Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, remembers the media-saturated day in 1998 when Trimble delivered the Kennewick Man's bones to their new home at the Burke. "There's a newspaper picture of Sonny and Chris [Pulliam] carrying a Rubbermaid container with Kennewick Man in it toward the building," she says with a chuckle. "Sonny has this little smirk on his face, which I'll never forget. It was like, 'Isn't this fun?'"
Says Majewski: "He wants to be in the middle of things, wherever that is."
Friends say Trimble has always been adventuresome, likely owing to a childhood divided between suburban Virginia and Ethiopia. The son of a U.S. Public Health Service worker, Trimble saw more of the world by age ten than most people do in a lifetime. He still has the 1962 diary his mother made him keep during a family voyage by freighter ship throughout Asia.
Trimble is best known, though, as a scholar of military history. He collects model airplanes and can describe M-16 and AK-47 bullet trajectories with startling detail. His bedtime reading includes International Affairs magazine. An array of armed forces patches decorates his bulletin board. Above all, Trimble swears by the British Special Air Services motto: "Who dares wins."
When he learned of the Iraq Mass Graves endeavor in the spring of 2004, Trimble didn't think twice about going after the job. His Corps superiors in Washington, D.C., were not pleased. As deputy federal preservation officer Paul Rubenstein puts it: "My first thought was: 'What the hell is Trimble thinking now?'"
"There are not many times in archaeology," notes Trimble, "where there are risks or stakes involved. You go to North Dakota and dig, and it's like, OK, this is great. You go to a conference and somebody will call you an idiot or a jerk. But that's about it. How many opportunities will you have to do a job in archaeology that has national policy importance?"
Trimble won over the Corps again.
Now the world is about to see the grisly evidence compiled and analyzed by Trimble's team as Saddam Hussein goes on trial for his life, a second time. The Iraqi High Tribunal on October 16 is expected to issue a verdict in the first case, which unfolded during a year-long trial marked by histrionic outbursts from Hussein. Facing death by hanging if convicted, he defended himself against charges of crimes against humanity for the 1982 executions of 148 Shiite men and boys in Dujail.
The two-year, American-led investigative effort included a handful of St. Louisans: Jim Kister, a Chesterfield radiographer; Matt Vennemeyer, a former death investigator with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office; and Corps of Engineers employees Jim Barnes, Kelly Bertoglio and Natalie Drew.
St. Louis FBI agents Tom Noble and Todd Mayberry worked in tandem with the RCLO both of them roaming Iraq to interview witnesses, interrogate former Ba'ath Party leaders and sift through millions of former regime documents in the hunt for evidence.
"It was astounding," says Noble, describing the disorganized documentation. "One minute you might be looking at an execution order for 142 people, and the document below it might be an order for 1,000 rolls of toilet paper."
Adds Mayberry: "There are countless crimes you could try Saddam and his henchmen for if you wanted to. Unfortunately, we had to look at the paperwork and decide, 'Well, this guy only killed 150 people.' That doesn't rise to our level. It's a hard call to make, but when you compare 150 to the Anfal campaign that's a scale of killing that our generation hasn't seen."
Anfal, a government-sponsored slaughter that unfolded over eight months in 1988, is the focus of the latest trial. Hussein faces charges of genocide for the murder of at least 50,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Prosecutors say some were killed with chemical weapons or burned alive during wholesale destruction of Kurdish villages. Others were rounded up in buses, driven hundreds of miles from their homes in the northernmost reaches of Iraq. They were warehoused in detention centers for months before being marched into the desert and executed.
According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Iraqi High Tribunal must show Saddam wanted to kill every last Kurd because of their ethnicity not just the separatists who disagreed with him politically.
"Genocide is mass murder with the specific intent of targeting people because of their very existence, their identity," explains Dinah Shelton, a George Washington University law professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. "It's very hard to prove."
Sonny Trimble has no doubt he brought back from Iraq's ravaged soils the victims of cold-blooded genocide. "One man's opinion," he adds quietly.
Every morning during the Ninawa excavation, Trimble rose before sunrise and sipped a cup of weak, army-issued coffee. He perused the latest situation reports along with the soldiers who guarded the team, and plotted the day's new meandering route out to the graves, 25 miles from Camp Jaguar.
The area around Mosul, 50 miles northeast, was fairly stable at the time, but Trimble learned quickly that being in Iraq always poses danger. One day a truck carting supplies to the graves hit a land mine and exploded. On another occasion, two soldiers driving away from the mass grave site rolled over a roadside bomb.
"It was very bad. They were wounded very badly," says Trimble. "They didn't lose their lives, but they will never fight again."
By fall 2004 the situation reports warned of more and more improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploding on the main supply road heading north toward Mosul. Trimble woke up one late-October day and read that an IED blew up just nine miles from the graves.
"We were done that was it," he says. "There's no point getting killed while you're digging up dead people."
It was a good time to leave. The investigators in both trenches had recently discovered layers of corpses with waxy flesh, the smell of death still clinging to their bones. Trimble knew they could not excavate the Kurdish bodies without causing a biohazard. He had no refrigerated trucks, nor enough workers to bag the dead before maggots hatched.
"We're talking about hundreds of people," Trimble recalls. "I'd be standing there on the phone [with RCLO lawyers] in the middle of rotting flesh all my people are in the middle of it the smell is beyond measure, and there's so many flies you can't even see through them."
The team had already exhumed 123 decomposed women and children from the first pit, and 64 men from the second. But the RCLO had promised Kurdistan officials that Trimble would remove every person discovered, the archaeologist says. The lawyers insisted his team haul away the fresh corpses.
Instead Trimble and Wade Ricard "dressed the site" by refilling the graves slowly with dirt. It was sunny, still not a cloud in the sky. It reminded Trimble of Montana. Soon the spitty rains of fall would begin.
Trimble's Humvee zipped through the boulevards of Baghdad one late fall afternoon in 2004, driving over medians and sideswiping cars. He rode in the middle of a convoy en route to Sadr City, the Shiite slum led by the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr. "It was balls to the wall," he says. The sound of gunfire sliced the air.
"I wanted to see Iraq's national archives," Trimble explains. "They had this crazy-genius Irish guy from the Hague who put them together, and I wanted to meet him. But this place is surrounded by bad guys, and nobody tells me until we're in the truck that [civilian U.S. government employees] won't go on this trip. All the agencies feel it's too dangerous that you can get killed. I'm going, 'Well, why didn't anybody say anything to me?' That would have been nice to know."
Trimble swore off further "sightseeing."
He returned to St. Louis for the holidays but was back in Iraq in January 2005. It wasn't long before his next spine-chilling episode. He and Paul Rubenstein, the team's then-deputy, retrieved a colleague from the Baghdad airport one evening and unexpectedly got back on the road after dark.
"We got lost in a place where you don't get lost," remembers Rubenstein. "We found ourselves face-to-face with some Iraqis holding AK-47s, and we were, of course, unarmed." Trimble had gotten out of the car to ask for directions before everyone realized the men had guns. "We got him back in, and we slowly backed away, and nothing happened."
In April 2005 the team took a chopper to the middle of a desert in the Muthanna Province, ready to begin a new excavation on an area Trimble thought might contain six or seven graves. This time, the group lived in trailers on an adjacent site built for them, complete with a laundry facility and a cafeteria. Sixty private-security guards protected the miniature city around the clock.
Trimble and Ricard positioned the track-hoe over a site that appeared promising from the satellite photos they'd seen. Suddenly Trimble felt like something might go wrong.
"Archaeology is like a battle," he explains. "You plan for months, and when you get out there, your first two or three months, your first two or three days sometimes your first two or three hours things start falling apart."
With a mere ten sweeps of the track-hoe, however, the two men exposed a small, shallow grave a classic bathtub burial, as Trimble calls it. He saw clavicles, chins, teeth and clumps of black hair. He could hardly contain himself. "It was never more perfect."
It took only 20 more days for the Mass Graves team to pull 114 Kurds including 8 women clutching dead babies from the Muthanna tomb. Trimble, meanwhile, conducted his usual ground survey of the area and pinpointed more corpse-filled pits than he expected. "If Spielberg was going to make a movie about genocide in Iraq," he says, "here's his opening scene."
Trimble was amazed to find ten mass graves. "It didn't look right. It looked like something out of a movie: too overdone, too many people, too many dead people, too many graves, too big a sweep. If you saw that you'd just go: 'Nah, half of this is fake.'"
But it wasn't fake. Saddam Hussein's death squads, in fact, carried out their slaughter in a single evening during the Anfal offensive, says Trimble, drawing a map to explain. "Everybody was brought down here in buses from Kurdistan, maybe 600 kilometers. The buses lined up here, and all night long they'd take people out, line them up, while the other buses would idle."
Trimble looks up and imitates the sound of machine-gun fire and says, "They got here about three or four in the morning. [The killers] left about five. All night long, one shooting after another. We know that because one twelve-year-old kid survived. They shot him in the shoulder and buried him, and he crawled out after they left. He was wandering around the desert the next day, and a Bedouin found him. He took the kid in, raised him as his son, and then sent him back up to Kurdistan eight or nine years later to find the rest of his family."
The landfill in Sadr City might be the most squalid place on earth.
"It's a place out of Hell," says Trimble. "All the militias operate in Sadr City they shoot people on the street and throw them in the dump."
It was April of this year when Trimble visited the landfill, passing rows of dingy mud huts and weaving through throngs of idle Shiites. When the convoy arrived, they saw a scattering of Iraqi snipers positioned on rooftops.
Recalls Trimble: "The major who was with us said, 'Don't worry about them. They won't shoot at us during the day.'"
Next Trimble noticed a hundred maybe hundreds of lounging, mangy dogs, staring up at him from the bottom of the dump. "I'll never forget that scene. These dogs had been chewing on those bodies all night."
Several hours later a feeling of dread overtook him. Trimble said it was time to leave. The getaway appeared to go off without a hitch, but the next day he learned that two soldiers in the convoy died returning from the mission.
"They were great guys," he says. "I worked with them for three hours one afternoon, and at the end of the day, they're dead. You sit there and think, 'Well, if I hadn't gone up there, they wouldn't have had to go out, and if they didn't have to go out, they wouldn't be dead. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot."
In late May Trimble's team flew southwest of Baghdad, over some of the most dangerous terrain in Iraq, to Karbala Province. With plenty of Anfal-related evidence assembled, the RCLO wanted the investigators to find some of the 100,000 Shiites killed during the Intifada, the 1991 rebellion against Hussein.
The prospective burial site rested atop the large escarpment of a canyon. It was the biggest Trimble had ever laid eyes on. For five days, he and three colleagues scoured the two-square-mile swath of scrub desert. Then the men noticed something unusual. "There was a spoil pile here and here," he says, pointing to a photograph. "And there was a little vegetation in the middle, which means that ground had been disturbed. These three things together that's the signature of a mass grave."
In a corner of the pit, the team would find 29 men bound, blindfolded and gagged, with frayed scraps of headdresses and cotton socks. Some wore heavy coats and sweaters; others, pajamas and slippers. The brass buttons of one man's navy blazer were glinting. To the Shiites' right lay 80 spent shells from Kalishnikov rifles. It was a scene the Mass Graves Team had encountered before.
But on that day the echo of death was even more terrifying. As Trimble lifted the first body, the dead man's bones cascaded "chock-chock-chock-chock-chock" to the center of his tunic. "I've never seen more people shot up in my life."
Forensic archaeologists are like detectives, piecing together a mystery. The skeletal remains they extricate contain clues about the victims and their executioners.
Much of the Mass Graves team's year is spent in a laboratory inside M.A.S.H. -like tents behind a white picket fence on Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport. The victims' journey there begins in a tent known as "Intake," where workers strip away the clothing and unpack their belongings. There are ointments and cutlery, watches and sandals, beaded and metal jewelry. There are Disney-themed T-shirts and shoes. There are rattles and pacifiers.
"The [killers] came into town, told everybody to pack up their stuff, and said: 'We're going to resettle you down south. You're going to have a better life.' So all these women were carrying these bags this big," says Trimble.
The Kurds who wore extra clothing like the little girl dressed in eleven layers at Ninawa probably thought they could carry more that way. As for the Shiites in pajamas, their assassins may have surprised them in the night, adds Trimble.
Investigators in the next tent, "Cultural Artifacts," dress wooden mannequins with each person's clothing and snap a photograph to re-create the victim's likeness for the court.
"It really brings these people to life," says RCLO lawyer Eric Blinderman. "You can see a woman shot while pregnant she's wearing an oversized dress with something underneath it to simulate the fetus."
"We went to the lab a couple weeks ago to give a press tour to Westerners and Arabs," Blinderman adds. "When we walked into the cultural-artifacts tent and saw the mannequins, multiple members of the Arabic media broke down."
The bones are wheeled on gurneys from "Intake" to "Anthropology," where scientists use them to determine the person's age and gender, and document each sign of trauma with the help of X-rays. Jim Kister, the Chesterfield radiographer, says he recites an Islamic death prayer at the start of every exam. "The English translation is basically: 'I believe in only one God and Mohammed is his prophet.'"
In the last tent, pathologists study the case file and settle on the victim's cause of death. They have concluded every Kurd and Shiite exhumed by the Mass Graves Team died of "homicide based upon the physical evidence of trauma, multiple clothing defects and circumstances of death."
Trimble drifts among the different tents while his employees complete their chilling tasks. Later he will condense their data into a several-hundred-page report for the court.
At Ninawa, the 123 Kurdish women and children were likely forced one by one into the sloped, four-foot-deep grave and shot in the head. They pitched forward into the mass of corpses.
The Muthanna trench was shallower, with bullet casings scattered throughout. The shooters may have looked into the eyes of their 114 victims and sprayed the Kurds with AK-47 bullets. The men, women and children flung their hands in front of their faces as if self-defense might spare them.
The most gruesome tale of all transpired at Karbala, where the Shiites were buried.
Like the other pits, it was wide as the ten-foot-blade of a front-end loader, whose teeth left an imprint on the desert floor under the bodies. The killers stood on the grave's lip, at the opposite end from the 29 victims. First they fired at some of the men's groin areas. They blasted others behind the knees. Then they swung their rifles left and right, hitting torsos and heads.
"Seeing that kind of trauma is almost more than you can bear," says Trimble. "We spent weeks weeks gluing skulls together just so we could document where the bullets hit them. We ran out of glue! We ran out. I've never had that happen to me before. An entire case of Duco Cement. One case usually lasts a year."
On a hazy, humid morning last month, Sonny Trimble enters Einstein Bros. Bagels in the Central West End. His gait is slow and slightly hunched. Crow's feet spread from his eyes to his hairline. The skin on his arms is hairless and glossy, like the precious minerals sold as souvenirs in natural-history museums.
Nicknamed "Sonny" as a kid, after then-Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, Trimble was a nimble, if small, youth. It's hard to imagine him working up more than his daily walk on a treadmill these days. Two years in Iraq have worn him down.
"Initially I think for my dad going to Iraq was like, 'Wow, what a neat place to be in my career,'" observes his daughter, 23-year-old Emily Trimble. "But to go back as many times as he has he's really put it before anything else in his life. I think these people have become very important to him."
Trimble is home on a two-month hiatus. Still, he talks every day to his deputy in Baghdad, and he'll stay up this night writing a contract for the team's next dig. He doesn't have nightmares, but he doesn't sleep easily. Over the next few days he begins conversations about Iraq with "I'm tired," "I'm tense," or "I'm stressed." He's not a religious man, but these days ends many of his e-mails with the word "Inshallah," meaning "God willing."
Trimble has his own view of the war. For one thing, he thinks Iraq might be a better place with 400,000 coalition troops on the ground instead of fewer than 150,000. He also believes speedy rotations and officers' leaves are sabotaging the mission. "Nobody trains the next person doing the job," he says. "The main reason our project is so successful I don't think it's because of my leadership. I think it's because I keep really good people there for a year and a half."
A registered Democrat, Trimble did not vote for President Bush. But he did support the March 2003 invasion. "I thought when we were going in for WMD and to get rid of a guy that was involved in genocide, [that] was an important thing. When you come to a point where you see the WMD aren't there, that requires a reassessment. But I don't know what that reassessment is. The policy experts and guys that are generals who have voiced their opinions have a lot wider view than I certainly had on the ground."
Watching the nation devolve into chaos, Trimble has come to learn that a healthy dose of fear keeps people alive there. "Anybody that says otherwise is a fool."
Since the invasion of Iraq, the United States government and its allies have shifted their focus from weapons of mass destruction to Hussein's alleged acts of genocide. Ironically, the second phase of the Anfal trial began this week, just as headlines described an increasingly precarious state of affairs in Darfur. Sudanese government militias there have slaughtered between 200,000 and 500,000 people in a long-running tribal war. The Bush administration has declared the Darfur killings genocide, but there does not appear to be a U.S.-backed plan for intervention on the table. To many, the scenario is an eerie reminder of George H. W. Bush's alliance with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War twenty years ago. While Hussein committed genocide, critics say, the elder Bush looked the other way to protect U.S. oil interests.
"Everybody knew Saddam was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch," observes Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Intervening on genocide is not a very potent argument unless there's a national interest attached to it."
Trimble will head back to Iraq later this month and is likely to take the witness stand at Hussein's trial sometime in October. Initially the forensic archaeologist didn't plan to testify. He thought his voluminous reports would tell the stories of genocide themselves. "Then I realized if I didn't testify, that would be like not coming out for the third act in a Shakespeare play," he says. "That's where it all gets wrapped up."
Notes RCLO attorney Blinderman: "Sonny's job is to give voice to these victims."
For all of the questions that Trimble's work has answered, some troubling ones linger. He wonders how many people took part in the shootings, whether they were right-handed or left-handed, if they took turns. He wonders what they were thinking when they pulled the trigger.
"The Sioux have a line only Native Americans could come up with this they say when somebody wants to get rid of somebody else, they want to rub them out. Rub them like out dust. That's the best I have come up with."