Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Reminders Of Folly

There are two stories that have recently emerged from the siege of Fallujah that, while disturbing in their details, are emblematic of a larger theme worth considering. They should serve as cautionary tales to those that argue in favor of democratization through the use of military power.

The first story is of the videotaped shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi prisoner inside a mosque during the military campaign against insurgents in that city. The
video shows the prisoner lying on his back in a relatively unthreatening posture. The details of the incident are still being determined, and it is unclear whether the marine who did the shooting perceived a threat to justify his actions.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of the shooting will pale in comparison to the impact of the images. The damage has been done. Iraq and the larger Muslim world will see photographic evidence of a marine standing over a wounded Iraqi and firing point blank into his head - killing him. What is perhaps the most problematic aspect of this incident is that it occurred in a mosque. The setting provides for a religious aspect that will only serve the interests of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk who seek to portray us as a crusading Judeo/Christian faction with the intent of desecrating Muslim lands and killing or converting the disciples of Mohammed. This will not help to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis or moderates in the Muslim community, despite the accuracy of Bin Laden's propaganda - and that is an understatement.

second story (courtesy of Digby) comes from 33 year old Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, whose hometown is Fallujah. Hussein sent his parents and brother away in anticipation of the U.S. crackdown, but stayed behind himself in order to capture a first hand photographic account of the impending events. His recollection of events is chilling:

"Destruction was everywhere. I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come and help them. Even the civilians who stayed in Fallujah were too afraid to go out," he said.

"There was no medicine, water, no electricity nor food for days"...

"U.S. soldiers began to open fire on the houses, so I decided that it was very dangerous to stay in my house," he said.

Hussein said he panicked, seizing on a plan to escape across the Euphrates River, which flows on the western side of the city

"I wasn't really thinking," he said. "Suddenly, I just had to get out. I didn't think there was any other choice."

In the rush, Hussein left behind his camera lens and a satellite telephone for transmitting his images. His lens, marked with the distinctive AP logo, was discovered two days later by U.S. Marines next to a dead man's body in a house in Jolan.

AP colleagues in the Baghdad bureau, who by then had not heard from Hussein in 48 hours, became even more worried.

Hussein moved from house to house dodging gunfire and reached the river.

"I decided to swim...but I changed my mind after seeing U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river."

He watched horrified as a family of five was shot dead as they tried to cross. Then, he "helped bury a man by the river bank, with my own hands."

"I kept walking along the river for two hours and I could still see some U.S. snipers ready to shoot anyone who might swim. I quit the idea of crossing the river and walked for about five hours through orchards." [emphasis added]
Again, stories such as these will travel far and wide in Iraq, and the larger Muslim world, severely hampering our efforts at spreading democracy and undermining our credibility in the region where our image is in such dire need of repair.

For the purposes of this discussion, it matters little whether or not the marine who shot the unarmed prisoner was reacting to a perceived threat, for I am not seeking to demonize the marine in question, or to claim that the U.S. military is particularly brutal, corrupt or immoral. Nor am I suggesting that the military acted improperly in cutting off escape routes from Fallujah, including the river crossing. For the record, I have close friends and family members who serve our country in that capacity, and they are selfless and decent people - model citizens.

There are two forces at play which are inevitable to any military campaign. On the one hand, war, in particular guerilla warfare and counterinsurgencies, brutalize the soldiers involved, in addition to the civilian population who find themselves caught in the crossfire. This has always been the case, and always will be. Combat, killing, death, and the attendant horrors of war take a psychological toll on those involved, and as a result atrocities and war crimes follow. There are entire floors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center dedicated to the treatment of soldiers who have severe psychiatric illnesses resulting from their combat experience. And those are just the most extreme examples, and the ones detected by the system. Consider for a moment that the marine accused in the shooting was wounded himself just days before, and had seen a colleague killed in action. There is no doubt that the stresses of war impacted his judgment and perceptions.

Despite the historical revisionism by some, and the partisan hackery of others, John Kerry was right when he identified the countless atrocities committed by U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. To claim that Vietnam, and the soldiers involved, were somehow exempt from history's mandate, and the realities of psychology, is absurd at best, and extremely dangerous at worst, as the evidence suggests. History forgotten is history repeated.

Secondly, when fighting a counterinsurgency, or any war, some military tactics must be employed that will undoubtedly result in civilian casualties - and a large number of them. I do not believe that the military personnel involved deliberately targeted that family that the journalist Hussein saw being cut down crossing the Euphrates, knowing that they were civilians. That is not the point. Sealing the escape routes from the insurgent stronghold was a strategic imperative, and probably a necessary one. However, the imprecise nature of warfare is conducive to mistaken identities - especially in urban and guerilla warfare in which the combatants deliberately use civilian areas as cover.

Given that war leads to the commission of atrocities against innocents and prisoners of war, and that military tactics will always result in large numbers of unintended civilian casualties, how wise is it to think that democracy can be spread at the end of a barrel, or that hearts and minds could be won in such a context? This is folly, but one that will be repeated unless the lessons of history are applied.

Whether the torture, murder, rape and sodomy that occurred at Abu Ghraib was the result of policy emanating from the upper reaches of the Pentagon's leadership, or a widespread reaction to the conditions of war on the part of our service men and women involved is inconsequential to the impact those events had on the Iraqi people. Similarly, the prisoner killed in the mosque, and the civilians killed in plain view, will not be considered in the context of past military campaigns, or military exigencies. They will simply lead to a rejection of our presence in the region, further suspicion of our motives, doubt over the religious implications of our efforts, and further tarnishing of our image. Nation building and democracy formation under these circumstances is next to impossible.

In closing I point to a quote appearing in the
January 2000 edition of Foreign Affairs (courtesy of Belgravia Dispatch):

The president must remember that the military is a special instrument. It is lethal, and it is meant to be. It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society. Military force is best used to support clear political goals, whether limited, such as expelling Saddam from Kuwait, or comprehensive, such as demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan and Germany during World War II. It is one thing to have a limited political goal and to fight decisively for it; it is quite another to apply military force incrementally, hoping to find a political solution somewhere along the way.
The speaker of those words is our new Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. Let's hope she remembers them.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?