by Gavan P. Gray
March 31, 2003
"The soldier, be he friend or foe, is charged with the protection of the weak and the unarmed. It's his very existence for being."
-- General Douglas MacArthur
"It's a sign of the nervousness here..." begins BBC correspondent David Willis as he goes on to justify American troops firing on a car carrying three civilians. Why did the US troops rip this vehicle apart with gunfire, murdering its three unarmed passengers? What provoked this immediate barrage rather than a more cautious approach where the occupants might have been first questioned before being executed?
Their run-down, rusty vehicle had back-fired near the marines position.
So now it's evident that a loud noise is enough to warrant your death at Coalition hands. This doesn't bode well for the future of the Western troops in this region in an era where perceived threats, real or imaginary, are justification for military reprisal. In Afghanistan three tribesmen where targeted and killed by a missile strike because one of them was tall enough to possibly be bin Laden. With such diligence to accuracy perhaps all Iraqi men should remove their moustaches to prevent their assassination when mistaken for Saddam Hussein himself.
The coalition troops seem to approach war much more optimistically, some might say naively, than their opponents. Not that Iraqi soldiers do not value their own lives but it would seem they have a firmer grip on the on the fact that they are facing not just the behemoth of Western military technology but the spectre of their own death. The Americans and British on the other hand have in recent times been largely safeguarded from direct violence by their cutting edge hardware and uncontested air-superiority. When they do go into combat it has been backed by heavily armoured vehicles facing enemies who have already had their spirits weakened by the bombs of a foe they haven't yet seen.
Every day for the past week I've found myself confronted with images of fresh-faced young American and British troops. Men who I would not fully accept, at face value, as being mature enough to baby-sit my children. Some of them, including those who have already died, are too young to buy their first beer. Not yet fully legal adults but nonetheless they're running loose with heavy weapons, armoured vehicles and the belief that they're the greatest specimens of humanity the world has to offer. This cock-sure attitude is weakening though with what, in the first days of war, sounded like confident bravado now being replaced by caution and evident fear.
"I just want to go home," one US marine admitted to the BBC's Andrew North.
In the last week it has become abundantly clear that they are facing a threat they had neither expected nor trained for, namely that of guerrilla warfare. Suicide bombers, non-uniformed troops, enemy fighters using both the white flag and the civilian populace for cover. These tactics have been practically inevitable in the face of the massive superiority of Coalition forces on the open battlefield. After the massacre of their men during the first Gulf War the Iraqi military leaders have had plenty of time to plan for alternate tactics. What is hard to believe is that the American leadership seemed sure this conflict would follow an identical pattern to the last and this failure to pre-empt their opponents will be paid for with the lives of their troops and those of Iraqi civilians.
The greater tragedy perhaps is the number of innocent Iraqis, like the three unfortunate souls whose only crime was to ride in a decrepit car, who will suffer wholly unjustifiable deaths at the hands of Coalition troops whose fear and nervousness leads them to shoot first and ask questions later.
This is already a policy on the larger scale of the conflict; artillery and airborne attacks have targeted buildings from which sniper fire was detected with no investigation into the status of other potential occupants. Last Saturday on CNN a purported Ba'ath party headquarters in Basra was gleefully shown being demolished by a massive blast that we were guaranteed killed all two hundred occupants. Nobody stopped to question just how the identity of all two hundred of these occupants had been accurately ascertained in the centre of a city under siege, nor whether women and children had been among their number.
These possible civilian deaths have until recently been kept largely at a distance. Now however the Coalition soldiers are beginning to face similar threats to those encountered by the Western troops in Vietnam. They claim that the Iraqi militia are disguising themselves as civilians but they have yet to openly question whether any of the people facing them are in fact civilians who have simply taken up arms in anger. The increasing difficulty of differentiating between civilian and militia means their enemy can fade into the populace at will, heightening both the Coalition troops frustration in their ability to target their foes and a misplaced anger at, and fear of, the civilian population they hide among.
This week a lone Iraqi officer used his booby-trapped car to kill four American troops. Despite the level of apprehension this is has created among the Western troops it is likely to get only get worse. It won't be too long I fear until an old woman or a child hurls a grenade at or otherwise attacks a Coalition target. After this the stage will be set for complete distrust and a vicious cycle of Coalition attacks prompting civilian reprisals that lead to further incidents of Coalition troops firing on innocent Iraqis.
Should grenade attacks begin how long before a woman or child is shot for throwing a stone or an egg? This type of tragedy is only likely to intensify as troops move into Baghdad and Basra's city centres. Fighting among the cramped confines of an urban zone, with entire communities trapped between the warring parties, the direct consequences of the civilian deaths will be unavoidable for the soldiers as much as the victims. Just as it did during the Vietnam war the trauma of these incidents is likely to stay with those involved for far longer than the conflict itself will.
"There is the guilt all soldiers feel for having broken the taboo against killing, a guilt as old as war itself. Add to this the soldier's sense of shame for having fought in actions that resulted, indirectly or directly, in the deaths of civilians. Then pile on top of that an attitude of social opprobrium, an attitude that made the fighting man feel personally morally responsible for the war, and you get your proverbial walking time bomb."
- author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo
Hopefully the Iraqi conflict will be spared the extremes of the Vietnam war and there will be no comparable atrocities but no matter the circumstances good men are always free to stand up for their principles. Just as US soldiers Hugh Thompson and Larry Colburn intervened in an attempt to halt the My Lai massacre, the troops of the Coalition will hopefully follow their conscience and try to uphold the spirit of General MacArthur's words that preceded this commentary.
The truth though is that war degrades and dehumanizes all its participants whether they were raised in Iraq or America, be they Muslim or Christian. The animal instincts for survival gradually replace higher notions of morality. Inevitably the longer the Coalition troops remain in an unwelcoming Iraq the more desensitised to violence they will become, the more capable and likely of carrying out acts of violence against the civilians they are supposed to be there to protect. We can only hope that they are given the chance to return home before they undergo experiences that will haunt them, and those close to them, for the rest of their lives.
(Update: Just after writing the above I came across a report by Mark Franchetti for The Times of London from Nasiriya, where on Sunday March 30th US troops opened fire on a convoy of 15 civilian vehicles attempting to flee the assault on the city. All of the vehicles where repeatedly sprayed with machine gun fire killing at least twelve men, women and children. One of the Marines was obviously distressed at the carnage he and his comrades had caused but Mr. Franchetti saw others react differently:
"Martin's distress was in contrast to the bitter satisfaction of some of his fellow marines as they surveyed the scene. "The Iraqis are sick people and we are the chemotherapy," said Corporal Ryan Dupre. "I am starting to hate this country. Wait till I get hold of a friggin' Iraqi. No, I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him."
When I said that war dehumanises people I had thought, naively, that it would take longer than a week to do so. Either I was wrong or these people were not all that all compassionate to begin with. Neither of these possibilities leaves me with any hope that the situation in Iraq will become better before it becomes much, much worse.)
Gavan Gray is a teacher currently living in Osaka, Japan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org