NEW YORK – All wars produce civilian casualties. Many Americans, used to the `clean’ video-game images of their recent conflicts, have forgotten this fact when they repeat such mindless slogans as `stay the course’ and `get the job done.’
Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, of the 1st Marine Regiment was patrolling the Iraqi town of Haditha when a roadside bomb killed one of its members. Kilo’s men claim they `lost it.’ They allegedly burst into the nearest house and gunned down 24 men, women and children cowering inside.
If the massacre indeed occurred, then add Haditha to those other shameful place names that have become hallmarks of the US war in Iraq and its so-called `war on terror:’ Guantanamo, Bagram, Fallujah, and Abu Ghraib.
The US military first tried to dismiss the Haditha killing as an accident of war, then sought to cover it up, as has been routinely done with other civilian killings in Iraq. The Pentagon still refuses to reveal the total number of Iraqis civilian casualties.
But many Americans and members of the US Congress were outraged by Haditha and are demanding the Marines involved and superior officers face prosecution.
The US military responded by forcing troops in Iraq to attend `sensitivity sessions’ about `core American values’ – ie lectures that it’s bad to murder women and children. Any soldiers who need such instruction belong in jail, not the armed forces. This is military bureaucratic stupidity at its worst.
If Kilo Company’s men did murder 24 civilians, they must face trial for murder, and their superior officers for covering up the crime.
But the soldier’s punishment should be mitigated by the fact they were sent into a dirty guerilla war fought in the middle of a largely hostile civilian population in which such atrocities are inevitable.
Iraq, and the growing conflict in Afghanistan, are typical of the 20th Century’s colonial guerilla wars. Faced with frequent bombs, sniping, mines, ambushes and treachery by supposed local `allies,’ even the best-trained occupation armies soon became brutalized, sadistic, cynical, then demoralized.
I have witnessed this same pattern in every guerilla war I covered, observed, or in which I participated: Algeria, Vietnam, Kashmir, Angola, Namibia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kurdistan, South Africa, Kosovo, Palestine.
Villages that sheltered rebels were destroyed, hostages shot. Civilians quickly became identified with the enemy and considered fair game for increasingly trigger-happy troops.
Murderous reprisals occur in all guerilla wars. Any army sent into a dirty guerilla war like Iraq or Afghanistan will slaughter civilians and become corrupted.
Particularly so when it is a professional army drawn from the lowest rank of American society, high school dropouts, and the unemployable. The culture of mass reprisals, easy killing, brutality, and torture risks seeping back into the higher military command structure, and then into the domestic security forces.
A poll this month showed the shocking results that 75% of US troops in Iraq actually believe that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were behind the 9/11 attacks.
It seems just, but also unfair, to prosecute the men of Kilo company when other US forces have killed at least 38,000 Iraqi civilians (some estimates say 100,000), wrecked much of what once was one of the Arab World’s most advanced country, and hold over 20,000 political prisoners – more than Saddam Hussein did.
The simple answer is that the US Army and Marines should never have been sent to wage a neo-colonial war of pacification in Iraq – or Afghanistan. The longer US forces stay there, the more they will become brutalized, undisciplined, and hated.
US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are trying to avoid killing civilians. But bombing and shelling, the primary cause of civilian deaths, are too often used to intimidate villages and tribes, or punish enemy ambushes. The destruction of much of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a resistance stronghold, was a brutal example.
The rule: bomb or shoot or shell first, check later. Dead civilians are labeled `killed suspected Taliban militants’ or `suspected Iraqi terrorists.’ In western thinking, killing civilians from the air hardly counts. Detonating roadside bombs is `terrorism;’ dropping them from the air is `counter-terrorism.’
During the 1991 First Iraq War, the US bombs and missiles destroyed much of Iraq’s water purification and sewage system. Post-war sanctions prevented Iraq from importing equipment to repair these sanitary facilities or even chlorine to purify water. Contaminated water was the primary cause of the death of over 500,000 Iraqi civilians, the majority children, between 1991 and 2003. If this cruel act does not fit the definition of war crimes I do not know what does.
The real blame for Haditha, of course, belongs to the Bush Administration for plunging the US into an unnecessary war in Iraq, and with Pentagon brass for covering up civilian killings and failing to prosecute those responsible. And with those senior Washington officials who spit on the Geneva Conventions and laws of war and telegraphed their contempt right down the military chain of command.