Tuesday, April 10, 2007

When You've Been on the Murder Mile, Only Takes One Itchy Trigger

I'm sure that many of you recall the ordeal of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena who was captured by insurgents in Iraq. She was eventually released pursuant to negotiations between Italian government officials and her captors, only to endure a tragic episode at a US military checkpoint as she was making her way to the airport (immediately post-release) for a trip back to Italy. Her car was shot-up by the team manning the checkpoint, and one of those traveling with her was killed as he jumped on top of Sgrena in a selfless act of heroism.

While Sgrena, and others, have alleged that she was actually a target of the US government intending to make an example out of her, the US Army cleared the soldiers involved of any wrongdoing. I tend to side with the US Army on that one. If the Army had orders to kill Sgrena, there likely would not have been any survivors left after the smoke cleared. A .50 caliber machine gun targeting an unarmored car can make sure of that in relatively short order.

The Italian government, however, has moved ahead with judicial proceedings (in absentia) against one of the US soldiers involved in the incident, Spc. Mario Lozano. Here is Lozano's version, as well as some background of the shooting:

"You have a warning line, you have a danger line, and you have a kill line," said Lozano, speaking out for the first time about the March 4, 2005, "friendly fire" incident in which he shot from a Humvee machine-gun turret at the vehicle, hitting an Italian war correspondent and killing an Italian intelligence officer.

The nightmare resumes for Lozano, of New York's Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment, next week - when he'll be tried in absentia by Italian officials on charges of murder.

"Anyone inside 100 meters is already in the danger zone . . . and you gotta take them out," Lozano told The Post from his brother's Chelsea apartment.

"If you hesitate, you come home in a box - and I didn't want to come home in a box. I did what any soldier would do in my position."

The resulting machine-gun burst hit Giuliana Sgrena, who had just been released by kidnappers, in the shoulder and killed Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, who had negotiated her release. The vehicle was racing to catch a plane home to Italy at Baghdad Airport, Lozano said.

Calipari, who had thrown himself atop Sgrena in the back seat, was lauded as a national hero. Thousands attended his funeral. And the Italian government decided to take the unusual step of charging Lozano with "political murder."

Lozano - who was cleared by an internal U.S. Army investigation - insisted that he did everything by the book. He flashed his turret's "300 million-watt" light at the car, which makes "every Iraqi slam on the brakes." Then he fired rounds into the ground and, finally, shots into the vehicle's engine.

Lozano said he had no choice: Like all grunts, he knew all too well what a car bomb could do. Two days before, "two good soldiers died on the road in the same way," he said.

Here's the thing: putting myself in Lozano's shoes, there's a good chance I would have done the exact same thing. It is an unworkable standard to demand that our soldiers manning check points in Iraq show restraint in the face of oncoming vehicles traveling at high speeds that show no sign of let-up after initial warnings.

When confronted with these scenarios, decisions must be made in mere seconds, on the fly, and in an unthinkably tense and frightening environment. With little time to process information, and faced with the all-too-real threat of imminent death for all in the soldier's unit, it becomes a question of them, or the passengers in the car. Let me tell you, if my finger is on the trigger (or thumbs in the instance of a .50 cal IIRC), I would opt for the occupants of the car just about every time.

I wouldn't do so without remorse, but that's war. And that's human nature. To expect our soldiers - aware of the numerous attacks from Vehicle Borne Explosive Devices (VBEDS) at such checkpoints - to behave any other way is as unrealistic as it is dangerous for them. Our soldiers deserve the benefit of the doubt in such matters.

These inescapable tragedies are yet one more argument against the casual use of military force - almost whimsical in the case of the Iraq invasion. Rather than thrust our soldiers into settings in which they are forced to make the right decision in a split second, with lives on the line, then blaming them for failing to achieve perfection, we would be better off saving them for all but the most exigent circumstances. Such a policy of circumspection would be better for them, as well as those unlucky enough to find themselves in the war zone.

The reality of war is not as neat and tidy, nor the moral decisions as easy and unambiguous, as Hollywood, the pundit class hagiographers and assorted historians might lead us to believe. You won't find those that want to extend the maelstrom of death, destruction and personal anguish to Iran describing the truth of what will come. Always in the selling of war is the soldier and the battlefield depicted in an exalted light with flowers candies and spontaneous celebrations amongst the locals for the invaders.

In reality our soldiers are left to deal with the ugly real-world version of lose-lose decisions, dead children, the mangled corpses of women and the enduring pain of knowing that he or she may be responsible for the death of innocents. Lozano is no different.

Lozano said he realizes that his chances of becoming a cop, like his younger brother, Emiliano, who is with the 41st Precinct, are over. His marriage has broken up. He's on medication that helps him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The political situation is such in Italy - and the actions of the fallen Nicola Calipari so compelling - that Lozano is facing a popular groundswell that he has little chance of turning back. Sadly, in addition to his personal torment, he may have to add a murder conviction to his resume.

But then, it's no laughing party.

<< Home

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