Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Monday, July 25, 2005

When The Troops Do Bad Things

Bill Calley was, by anyone's estimation, a good kid, caught up in a war with no rules, no parameters and no way out. When he and his Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division, committed the My Lai massacres in South Vietnam's Quang Ngai province in 1968, they were simply caught up in what author Chris Hedges has called "the seductiveness of violence."

Quite familiar with these atrocities and others that helped solidify opposition to the war, many anti-war Americans reviled the GIs of the Vietnam era as "baby killers" and worse. Today's generation, whether pro- or antiwar, has "support the troops" as its overriding mantra. But it seems clear that all the support in the world will do little to mask a disturbing fact: Americans are doing bad things in Iraq, and it is not helping win hearts and minds.

Take for example, this incident, reported by the Los Angeles Times: U.S. soldiers killed one passenger and wounded another who stepped out of a car in front of a major police installation in Baghdad. The men were just hitchhikers. Reports the Times' Richard C. Paddock:
This kind of shooting is far from rare in Baghdad, but the driver of the car was no ordinary casualty. He was Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Majeed Farraji, chief of the major crimes unit. His passengers were unarmed hitchhikers whom he was dropping off on his way to work.

"The reason they shot us is just because the Americans are reckless," the general said from his hospital bed hours after the July 6 shooting, his head wrapped in a white bandage. "Nobody punishes them or blames them."

Angered by the growing number of unarmed civilians killed by American troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government criticized the shootings and called on U.S. troops to exercise greater care. (Read the entire article.)
Paddock also reports that the scores of private contractors hired by the U.S. to augment military operations are heavily armed, and many have aggressive attitudes about the threat of suicide attackers who don't identify themselves before they explode:
One contractor who works for the U.S. government and saw a colleague killed in a suicide bombing said it was better to shoot an innocent person than to risk being killed.

"I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried by six," said the contractor, who insisted that he not be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Understandable, even for anyone who's never had to face such a predicament. But is that attitude universal among the soldiers of other occupying nations? Paddock quotes one diplomat, whom he does not identify, as saying this is not the case:
According to one European diplomat, the American military's emphasis on protecting its troops has made U.S. soldiers more likely to kill and injure civilians than are other members of the coalition, such as the British, who are stationed in southern Iraq.

"The U.S. has force protection as their No. 1 priority," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because his remarks did not have his government's prior approval.

"The British have it as a priority, but not by any stretch the absolute priority. I think that makes the U.S. soldiers more jumpy."
Paddock also writes:
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the transitional National Assembly, said he personally knew three people, including Salah Jmor, who had been shot and killed by U.S. troops during traffic incidents. Of the other two, one was an athlete, the other a doctor who had been called to her hospital to handle an emergency.

"I understand American soldiers are nervous. It's very dangerous," said Othman, who was a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council that helped run Iraq after the invasion. "But the killings are undermining support for the U.S. government. It has helped people who call themselves the opposition. It has helped terrorism."
Survivors of civilians killed by U.S. troops can request compensation, But the procedure, reports freelance journalist Judith Coburn, is Byzantine, to say the least:
The military also has a compensation program for victims injured or killed by American soldiers under the Foreign Claims Act. The bar for qualifying for this program is absurdly high -- the victim must know and be able to prove which specific military unit injured or killed her or his relative, have a claim form filled out by that unit admitting its responsibility, have two witnesses and produce copies of medical reports, not to mention being willing in the first place to approach the very forces who inflicted the suffering. Compensation is apparently approved for only 50% of those who get up the nerve to file for it. (Read the entire article in Mother Jones magazine.)
This is a long article, and Mother Jones is not considered the most objective source. But Coburn, who covered Vietnam, has done extensive reporting. And she is not altogether supercritical. In fact, she notes numerous instances if quality journalism. (The links are hers.)
The Associated Press, under New York editor Richard Pyle (AP'S longtime Saigon Bureau Chief during the Vietnam War), was the first and only news organization to ask its reporters in Iraq to try to count the civilian dead soon after the invasion. On June 11, 2003, AP reported that 3,240 Iraqis civilians had been killed up to that moment in the war, based on a survey of 60 of Iraq's largest hospitals. AP reporters, especially Niko Price, have stayed on the civilian casualty story, continuing to monitor civilian casualties regularly, reporting soaring casualties in hard fought battles like one for Hillah or the siege of Fallujah last November where approximately 600 civilians reportedly died.

AP broke the story of the CPA suppression of the Health Ministry's count of civilian deaths, reported the huge increase in car bombs after the handover of sovereignty and -- alone in the mainstream American media -- included Iraqi casualty figures as well as American ones in their "anniversary" pieces about "the cost of the war." The New York Times -- especially reporter Sabrina Tavernise -- has recently stepped up coverage of civilian casualties. One ingenious survey effort for the Times, written by Norimitsu Onishi with reporting by the paper's Iraqi staff (unnamed, perhaps for their safety) reported that in one week -- October 11-17, 2004 -- 208 Iraqis died, including policemen, civilians, journalists, politicians and soldiers. (It did not include deaths in Kurdish areas).The story pulled together sources from hospitals, the Iraqi and American military, news sources and reporting by Iraqi reporters for the Times.

Doubtless, Coburn will be castigated by those who believe the latest version of the support-the-war-or-else slogan: Our Troops, Right or Wrong. But let us make an important distinction here: Troops in battle react to conditions that they helped make, not because they wanted to but because politicians ordered them too.

There is no such thing as a "clean war." To get a clear read on the popular support for any war, it is the responsibility of the media to show us its dirty side -- including misdeeds by our troops -- regardless of whether the administration wants us to see it or not. This is the only way we can judge for ourselves whether it's all worth it.

6 Comments:

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