Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Why should it be controversial to oppose war crimes by American forces?

The simple answer, of course, is that war brings out basic us-vs.-them feelings. But then Our Side also has laws of war and rules of engagement (ROE). Why shouldn't violating those be seen as a bad thing as well as a crime?

What brings this question up is two incidents of American forces killing civilians in what at best was a questionable action in one case and involved what sure looks like straight-up murder in another. The latter case is described in U.S. admits killing Afghan women in botched February raid by Kevin Baron and Dianna Cahn Stars and Stripes 04/06/10. As of this report, the Pentagon is still admitting only that the killing were done by "international forces", or ISAF (International Security Assistance Force; also known as "I Saw Americans Fighting"). ABC News in NATO to Look Again Into Deaths of Afghan Civilians by Luis Martinez, Aleem Agha and Nick Schifrin 04/05/10 reports:

On Feb. 12, U.S. Special Operations Forces and Afghan troops raided a compound in Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan, that resulted in the deaths of two armed Afghan men. NATO said its forces had also discovered the bodies of three women in the compound who were said to have been bound and gagged.

NATO Admits Role in Deaths of Five Civilians In Botched Raid
Despite protests from surviving family members, NATO officials had maintained for weeks that the women had been killed by the insurgents. But NATO reversed itself this weekend after acknowledging that its investigation had determined that all five deaths had resulted from NATO fire. ...

Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother were shot during the February 12 nighttime raid when U.S. and Afghan special operations forces stormed their home outside Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.

For weeks senior NATO officials denied the family's story and were critical of the Times of London reporter who printed their claims, and implied in an interview with ABC News that the women had been killed by their own family. "Two of the women had lacerations on their throats," a senior NATO official said in mid- March. "And one had a wound consistent with a defensive wound on her hand."

When ABC News actually talked to the family members on the scene, they got a very different story than even the Pentagon's current ones about the extent to which American forces tried to cover up evidence on the scene. One big reason incidents like this need to be conscientiously investigated rather than covered is to make sure the actual facts around such incidents are investigated and thoroughly vetted whenever possible. Because even our generals themselves are saying explicitly that the number of civilian casualties is hurting the NATO forces' ability to achieve our war aims by increasing sympathy for the rebels and thereby endangering American soldiers. See Gen. McChrystal: We've Shot 'An Amazing Number Of People' Who Were Not Threats TPM Muckraker 04/02/10.

Gleen Greenwald discusses this incident and our press corps' sloppy initial handling of it in How Americans are propagandized about Afghanistan Salon 04/05/10.

The Wikileaks site this week published a video taken by the US military of an incident in Iraq where journalists and civilians were shot by US forces with no clear military justification (Collateral Murder 04/05/10):

WikiLeaks has released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad -- including two Reuters news staff.

Reuters has been trying to obtain the video through the Freedom of Information Act, without success since the time of the attack. The video, shot from an Apache helicopter gun-site, clearly shows the unprovoked slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers. Two young children involved in the rescue were also seriously wounded.
Wikileaks reports that they "obtained this video as well as supporting documents from a number of military whistleblowers." But the Pentagon is saying that, gosh darn it, they just can't locate their own original copy!

This is how the Pentagon built its own "credibility gap" in the Vietnam War, and how its invented its own whole new credibility gap over the last 10 years.

I want to be stress that it's by no means certain that the soldiers in the Iraq incident broke the laws of war or their rules of engagement. Pat Lang in "War is Cruelty" - WT Sherman Sic Semper Tyrannis 04/07/10 explains why that is so; he's mostly discussing the incident itself, not the current reporting or the Pentagon's handling of the public controversy. He does address the latter in his concluding paragraphs, in which he also makes it clear that such consequences of war should be taken very seriously and not dismissed as meaningless "collateral damage":

Cover Up? No. A local inquiry would undoubtedly decide that this was an accident, stupid, but an accident. Since this would not be legally actionable, that would be the end of it. The Army does not think it has an obligation to inform the public when its people "screw up."

Step back and look at this from the perspective of the whole war. The decision to invade Iraq and to introduce a heavily armed and very capable modern fighting force to an urban combat environment led directly to that moment in Baghdad when two men, probably in their mid-twenties, decided to kill a group of unfortunates on the street below. The conditions of the war made this sort of thing inevitable.

In a very real sense the Bush Administration itself killed these people. [my emphasis]
Lang's view would imply that the headline on the Wikileaks article, "Collateral Murder", is misleading, since "murder" implies an illegal killing. A killing can be horrible, even unnecessary and wrong and avoidable without necessarily specifically violating the law in such a situation.

But the American public needs to know how a war like this looks. There will always be a certain number of people who will cheer mindlessly for war and killing and treat it like nothing more serious than a football game. But it's not a healthy tendency and it reinforces the dangerous adventurism that has caused so many problems for US foreign policy in the post-Second World War era. We the public need to know about the real war, not the one the Pentagon press offices want to believe is going on.

I've blogged a lot about a disturbing trend in Pentagon thinking in which American public opinion is seen as a legitimate target of military information management, even the most important aspect of fighting a war. The result in practice has been to reinforce the same tendencies of secrecy, concealment and cover-up that wrecked their public credibility in the Vietnam War. I don't know if there's any good comparison of the relative extent of the credibility damage in the Vietnam era compared to the last decade. It's masked in part by the collapse in the quality of mainstream media reporting, which today is far, far more compliant with military manipulation than during the Vietnam War.

Not that they were the aggressive critics the stab-in-the-back partisans of the history of the Vietnam War would have us believe. But the currently-played documentary about the Pentagon Papers case during the Vietnam War, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009), gives an illustration of different it was when major news organizations were willing to practice actual journalism on their own in relation to an ongoing war.

And, oh yeah, Congress could investigate this stuff two. I mean, if they took a notion to behave like an independent Branch of government or something.

Other coverage and commentary on the Iraq incident include:

John Nichols, Video of U.S. Attack That Killed Journalists Demands Inquiry The Nation 04/05/10

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Video shows U.S. attack that killed Reuters staffers in Iraq 04/05/10

Marcy Wheeler, Is DOD "Losing" Videos of Its Special Ops Missions? Emptywheel 04/07/10 and “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” Emptywheel 04/0510

Ali Gharib, Weekly Standard: Apologia for Killing Journalists LobeLog Foreign Policy 04/06/10

Amazingly, some professional "liberals" postured as taking umbrage at criticism of these incidents. Oliver Willis posted Our Troops Are The Good Guys, Some “Liberals” Hate That 04/06/10. He singled out Greenwald in particular:

The second group without a clue are liberals who buy into the caricature of America’s soldiers as bloodthirsty savages who kill for the heck of it. Glenn Greenwald is in this camp. Greenwald insists that things like killing of Iraqi civilians in the Wikileaks video and Abu Ghraib are just standard operating procedure for American soldiers, and not aberrations from the norm. ...

I didn’t and don’t support the Iraq War, but the vast majority of our men and women in the U.S. military are good people who do the right thing. I understand the nature of news, and it will never change, but “Soldier Does Right Thing, Follows Orders And Respects Lives Of Others” will never be a headline. When things like this and Abu Ghraib pop up the reason they are news is because they are deviations from the norm, not as Greenwald and others claim like Fox News caricatures of liberals, the standard posture of the military. [emphasis in original]
This a downright sleazy characterization of what Greenwald says in the post to which Willis links. Willis may be positioning himself for an, "I used to be a Democrat, but..." conversion experience.

If criticizing possible (or in the case of the Afghanistan incident, almost certain) violations of the laws of war and the US rules of engagement is tantamount to "the caricature of America’s soldiers as bloodthirsty savages who kill for the heck of it" - and that is the plain meaning of Willis' post - what is that actually saying? At best, it's saying that citizens should never ever criticize American soldiers who violate the laws of war and the US rules of engagement. And if criticizing or even pointing out such instances puts someone in the position of "the vast majority of our men and women in the U.S. military are good people who do the right thing" - again the plain meaning of his post - doesn't that assume on the face of it the "the vast majority of our men and women in the U.S. military are" something other than "good people who do the right thing"? Because if Willis actually thinks that "the vast majority of our men and women in the U.S. military are good people who do the right thing", how in the world would someone committing war crimes that violate the honor of the military and endanger the lives of other American troops and kill people unnecessarily possibly be an insult to any other servicepeople?

As far as I'm concerned, all Willis is doing in that post in that post is defending the murder of civilians. A quick comparison of Pat Lang's post with Oliver Willis makes that pretty painfully apparent. It's the Iraq incident that Willis specifically references; notice how Lang can look at the facts as judge that the soldiers may have acted within the law and even correctly from their viewpoint, and still understand that the incident is problematic. And even that the particular circumstances of that war produce what Robert Jay Lifton calls atrocity-producing situations.

Oddly, I saw a reference somewhere to Matthew Yglesias taking a similar position Willis on this. But Yglesias' post Massacre and Coverup in Iraq 04/06/10 seems if anything to quick to assume that the soldiers in the Iraq incident weren't conforming to the ROE; it doesn't have any of the nonsense about how criticizing this incident is making out all our soldiers to be "bloodthirsty savages who kill for the heck of it".

But it's true that there are more paying opportunities for writers in the conservative wingnut-welfare shops than on the liberal side. So, good luck to Oliver Willis with his applications.

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