Saturday, May 27, 2006

Victims of War

America’s war in Iraq has reached another gruesome milestone with the allegation that US Marines murdered 24 civilians, including women and children, in Haditha last November. Both Time Magazine and the New York Times report the incident. The Washington Post reports witness accounts.

That civilians were killed by Marines is not disputed nor is the fact that the incident was not part of a firefight after a Marine was killed by a roadside bomb as originally reported. Still in question is the nature of the Marines’ actions: either a rampage of revenge or an unfortunate episode of civilian casualties as the Marines overreacted in a difficult combat environment. The NYT article seems more definite that the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service will conclude that the civilian deaths were murder. Either way, it’s a gruesome story.

Regardless of the formal verdict, the incident reveals a disturbing facet of war, namely, that our humanity is a thin veneer all too easily breached. Anger, frustration and grief can combine with lethal firepower to perpetrate atrocities. That’s why military has a chain of command, to ensure that the men and women who wield this massive force are restrained within the laws of war. Usually it works but the system does break down with some regularity. My Lai and Wounded Knee are perhaps the most infamous American atrocities. Less well known are the massacres at No Gun Ri in the Korean War and the Civil War’s Fort Pillow Massacre. Although not a massacre, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is another example where command and control failed with disastrous results.

All this is the military’s version of Shit Happens. Killing another person requires a soldier to dehumanize the enemy. The problem is that once the enemy is no longer a fellow human entitled to life, it becomes very difficult for soldiers to maintain their own humanity in the fear, confusion and rage of combat. Even without massacres or other incidents, the simple fact that a soldier looks down a rifle barrel at another human and pulls the trigger will haunt him, and these days her, for the rest of their lives. No matter how justified the war may be, killing becomes part of the soldier’s psyche. A just war offers the soldier some balance for killing but the justification does not change the fact.

Haditha became a blind, murderous rage that swept away 24 Iraqis who had the misfortune to be in the way. The Marines lost it. Whether their actions are or are not murder is for investigators and courts to determine. What I can say now is that their actions were wrong. The Marines and their lawyers may offer explanations about intent and circumstances but killing civilians is wrong. Period. Not only the individual Marines are at fault. The Marine chain of command failed. America failed, too. We put those Marines in Haditha and it is our responsibility to ensure that they act within the rules of war. Apart from any questions about the legitimacy of any American military presence in Iraq, the actions of these Marines demonstrate the weakness of command and control. In war, that weakness is lethal.

And that’s the problem with Iraq. There was no good reason for this war. It was based on a lie. Now the only reason American forces remain in Iraq is that no good options exist for withdrawal. Our troops are stuck in Iraq without a real mission (and no, “staying the course” is not a real mission; it’s simply the default option because no one can think of anything better). Just as in Vietnam, soldiers and Marines find it difficult to take repeated casualties in the same areas day after day, tour after tour. The result is death and injury inflicted in the nearest available “representative” of the enemy. In the urban battlefields of Iraq, those representatives are often civilians.

Even if the investigation exonerates the Marines involved in the Haditha massacre, innocent women and children are dead by their hand. No matter how hardened they may be, they will bear that burden forever.

More victims of an unnecessary war.


For a depressingly long list of massacres, look here.

Back to Reality in Iraq

Chris Albritton's been in Iraq (with a few breaks) pretty much since the American invasion in 2003. His work is largely from the street but reported in the context of Iraqi politics, culture and history. That's why his assessment of American prospects in Iraq is so right on.

...Now, after two elections and one referendum, the Iraqi people have elected a government that has become more sectarian, not less; more divided and divisive.... That’s democracy in Iraq. Modernity lost.

Look, I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the American course of action should be exactly. Stay? Leave? It’s a bit of a trick question because the military component of the American presence has been, well, almost the entirety of the American presence, and this has long not been a military problem. Of course U.S. troops should go as soon as possible. But what’s really needed is an army of police trainers, technicians and people who can get the economy back on its feet and power flowing again, from America and from around the region. You want to see the forces of secularism advance in Iraq? Put al-Alousi [a secular Sunni]in charge of the electricity ministry and then spare no expense to get the lights back on for more than four hours a day in Baghdad — and then let him take the credit. Put secularists in charge of the anti-corruption watchdog Committee for Public Integrity and give it some real bite. Rid plum posts like the Finance Ministry of discredited retreads like Bayan Jabr and put real economists in place so they can boost employment in the south. That would be a good start.

If the Iraqis are unwilling to take steps that de-emphasize local, tribal and sectarian loyalties in their politics — and fast — well, maybe the U.S. should just pack up and leave. These days, al-Alousi is a lonely swallow indeed.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Back from my conference and catching up on the news. The conference was the National Association of Local Government Auditors. Not a particularly exciting organization until you realize that virtually all of its members report on government performance, not just financial statements. I’ve been a performance auditor my entire career; it’s a fine way to promote accountability and effective government without suffering the slings and arrows of electoral politics. I strongly believe that all public funds should be used effectively for the public good. Government auditors, when they are good (and I would argue that the local government auditors who make up this organization are among the best) help citizens and elected understand how their tax dollars are used. Transparent government. We need lots more of it.

Check out the member links to see what this group does. I particularly recommend the Maricopa County Arizona Accoutability Report.