Monday, July 25, 2005

U.S. Building Hatred as Civilian Killings Increase

Today's Los Angeles Times has an article about the growing dislike and even hatred Iraqis feel toward Americans because of U.S. soldiers' willingness to shoot first and ask questions later -- if they ask questions at all.

The latest victims of our trigger-happy military are Majeed Farraji, a brigadier-general who heads the Iraqi police's major crimes unit, and two unarmed Iraqis whom Farraji was giving a ride to work. Farraji and one of the hitchhikers were injured; the other one was killed. Farraji and his passengers were shot at by a U.S. military convoy who drove out from an underpass just as the brigadier-general had pulled up at the police headquarters and was getting out of his car. The post-shooting guesswork is that the Americans assumed the car's occupants were insurgents staging an attack on police headquarters; but no one really knows why the soldiers fired, because they sped off as soon as they had finished firing, without stopping or getting out of their vehicle to see what happened.

"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.

U.S. officials have repeatedly declined requests to disclose the number of civilians killed in such incidents. Police in Baghdad say they have received reports that U.S. forces killed 33 unarmed civilians and injured 45 in the capital between May 1 and July 12 — an average of nearly one fatality every two days. This does not include incidents that occurred elsewhere in the country or were not reported to the police.

The continued shooting of civilians is fueling a growing dislike of the United States and undermining efforts to convince the public that American soldiers are here to help. The victims have included doctors, journalists, a professor — the kind of people the U.S. is counting on to help build an open and democratic society.

"Of course the shootings will increase support for the opposition," said Farraji, 49, who was named a police general with U.S. approval. "The hatred of the Americans has increased. I myself hate them."

The U.S. military's response is that the pervasiveness of suicide bombings and other attacks on Americans has made them wary of all civilians.

Among the biggest threats U.S. forces face are suicide attacks. Soldiers are exposed as they stand watch at checkpoints or ride on patrol in the turrets of their Humvees. The willingness of the assailants to die makes the attacks difficult to guard against. By their nature, the bombings erode the troops' trust of the public; every civilian becomes suspect.

U.S. military officials say the troops must protect themselves by shooting the driver of any suspicious vehicle before it reaches them.

Even worse, the military has told the tens of thousands of American civilian contractors who work in Iraq on projects for the U.S. occupation forces that they should feel free to use deadly force to protect themselves in any situation they find threatening.

There's no reason to doubt the truth of American soldiers' arguments that suicide bombers usually look just like civilians, and that they can't trust civilians because any civilian they see could be an insurgent. But that situation works both ways. Ordinary Iraqis going about their daily routines cannot trust the good intentions of American soldiers either, when they are risking being shot by military convoys every time they leave their homes. And the bottom line is, it's their country. They have a right to be there; Americans do not. Even more to the point, it was the U.S. invasion that led to the insurgency. And it's the continuing U.S. presence in Iraq that is growing and nourishing the insurgency. Naturally when American soldiers are getting blown up by suicide bombers, their response is to do whatever they have to do to protect themselves. But it's the fact they're there to begin with that's causing the suicide bombings. And recklessly killing any civilian who looks at them the wrong way is only going to increase the hatred and resentment that fuels the suicide bombings.

There's also the point that Riverbend over at Baghdad Burning has made a number of times. The Americans justify the killing and wounding of innocent civilians by using the "war, combat, stress" argument. One very blatant example was the shooting of an unarmed Iraqi in a mosque during the seige of Fallujah last November. The Iraqi, assumed by the military to be an insurgent, appeared to be dead. One of the Marines who took the mosque screamed that he was faking being dead, and shot him. Another Marine nearby said, "Well, he's dead now."

When this incident occurred, it caused outrage both in the U.S. and in Iraq. But the argument made by the soldier's supporters was that he was in the middle of a combat zone where he could get killed any minute. He was under enormous stress. He wasn't himself. You can't second-guess the decisions of a soldier in a life-or-death war situation.

The twin essences of war are chaos and killing, so the very idea of placing inflexible constraints on the act of killing is at odds with the fundamental nature of warfare. Managing this cognitive dissonance while trying to stay alive takes tremendous skill. Professional militaries, like the U.S. Marine Corps, do this well because of their discipline and training. But the very existential nature of combat tilts the moral plane under these young riflemen's boots. In a place where you are fighting for your very survival, like the streets of Fallujah, any action that keeps you alive is a good one. And any misstep could get you or your buddies killed.

Well, that's certainly a compelling argument -- except that Iraqis are living in that same war zone and they didn't volunteer to be there. They didn't have a choice. It's pretty stressful living with stressed-out American soldiers who are likely to go ballistic at any time and shoot up carloads of innocent people. So would Iraqi civilians be justified in shooting and killing the Americans because living in the existential nature of combat has tilted their moral plane; and since they are struggling for their very survival against suicide bombers and combat-fatigued American soldiers who can't distinguish between civilians and insurgents, any action that keeps them alive or saves the lives of their buddies and loved ones is a good action?

Somehow I don't think that argument would play too well in Kansas, or in the White House or the Pentagon. So why in the hell should American soldiers in a war zone be allowed to use the combat fatigue argument or the "danger is everywhere" argument to get away with murder, when Iraqis -- whose nerves are just as frazzled as the Americans' -- cannot?

No comments: