Saturday, March 05, 2005

Civilian deaths in Iraq: hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil

Yesterday was an embarrassing day that I'm sure many people in the United States military wish did not happen. For several weeks, terorrists have been holding hostage the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. Yesterday, when they decided to release her, US troops opened fire on the car carrying her to the airport, injuring her and killing Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence officer who had just negotiated her release and was accompanying her to the airport. According to Ms. Sgrena, one reason she is even alive to talk about the incident is that, in a selfless act of bravery, Nicola Calipari leaned over her to shield her: he took a bullet for her, and lost his own life in the process.

On the surface, one could easily dismiss this tragedy being caused the actions of a single trigger-happy soldier. In actuality, however, this seems more like the latest case in a disturbingly endemic trend of unnecessary civilian deaths in Iraq.

Last week, Time magazine ran an article called From AWOL to Exile, an article about American military deserters seeking refugee status in Canada. One paragraph in this article bears a remarkable parallel to yesterday's incident:

The incident that eventually spurred Anderson to seek House's counsel took place just before he earned his Purple Heart. While trying to quell a disturbance outside a police station one night, his unit came under heavy attack. Anderson says he saw a car that appeared to be emitting sparks drive into the middle of the melee. Instructed to start shooting, Anderson held his fire--and the car turned out to be carrying only a startled family. Afterward, Anderson claims, his sergeants told him, "'Next time, you open fire, just in case.' Basically they have a standard procedure that if you're fired upon, you fire at everybody that's around." Without commenting on specific rules of engagement, a Pentagon spokesman vehemently rejected Anderson's description of the rules.

Some Iraqi bloggers have reported similar incidents. Back in November, hnk's and Najma's brother-in-law's father was accidentally shot in Mosul by US troops. Hnk wrote a fairly detailed description to the incident:

when Aya's grandfather was killed, he with one of his neighbors were coming back home walking because at that time there were a lot of fire shooting in the area and the americans closed the roads leading to their house. The place in which he got shot in was an opened area and there were no shelters to protect them from fire, there was a shop near by, the shop owner asked them to enter his place till the fire stop but he refused probably because he was worried about his family, he continue to walk, infront of him about 100 m away there was an american stryker, it was in his way home . the American soldiers who were in that stryker shot him in his thight, the bullet cause a severe bleeding, and he fall on the ground , his neighbor and the shop owner tried to take him to the shop but the american soldier shot them, this happen every time they try to bring him to a save place to stop the bleeding , when the fire calm down they took him to a save place and put a bandage over the wound which was bleeding, but they couldn't find a car to take him to the hospital at the proper time, and he died in the way to the hospital from the bleeding. In the hospital they told his family that the bullet has cut the "femoral artery"..

Even after hnk wrote this, some people in her comments section were blaming her brother-in-law's father for being shot, saying it was his fault for walking toward the Stryker armored vehicle, and thinking that a terrorist must have shot him, since it was impossible for a trained soldier to shoot an unarmed man.

In December, my friend Najma wrote a post about another incident, where a Stryker armored vehicle was driving in front of a school bus in Mosul when a roadside bomb went off:

We reached school, the first thing I saw was a classmate crying, I hurried asking what happened and she told me "I saw him dying there! We couldn't do anything" I just didn't know what to ask more and hurried to the class, about 3 other girls were crying and the number was increasing, appearantly, a girl saw a man putting a bomb at the side of the road and before being able to do anything, a stryker passed, nothing happened, a bus full of secondary school students passed and the bomb exploded, the American soldiers got frightened and started shooting randomly everywhere.. The students in the bus lied on the ground, one of them shouted for the others to say al-shahada, he got a bullet and died, a teacher got a bullet too but she didn't die..

All of these incidents seem to point towards an endemic problem of soldiers in Iraq not adequately verifying their target before pulling the trigger. But, here in the United States, the attitude towards civilian deaths seems too much like the three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, and say no evil. American soldiers are well-trained professionals, and God forbid they would ever make a mistake.

The American public's attitude towards civilian deaths in IraqPosted by Hello

But, professionals do make mistakes: as any liability lawyer will tell you, doctors make mistakes, dentists make mistakes, even the Ph.D. scientists working at big drug companies make mistakes (Vioxx, etc.). If all these top professionals make mistakes, why can we not allow ourselves to admit that soldiers make mistakes too?

Here in the United States, many people take up the sport of hunting, and many hunters will tell you a story about how they had their finger wrapped around the trigger of their rifle ready to score themselves a deer only to see another hunter walking out of a bush. The extra time that hunter took to make sure what he was shooting at was actually a deer meant the difference between life and death for another hunter.

One problem with American soldiers (and the soldiers in most countries) is they do not get much training or practice in urban warfare, and especially urban policing. Police tend to be well trained in handling urban fire-fight situations, with a lot of focus on identifying hostile targets before shooting at them. However, in a soldier's mentality, friends are those wearing the same uniform they are, and foes are everyone else. A well-trained soldier (by American training standards) is an efficient killing machine - a characteristic that makes them well-suited as a soldier, but ill-suited for urban police work.

Another key problem is that the time for a soldier to adequately verify their target, to ensure the person they are about to shoot is hostile, can mean the difference between life and death for himself. The only surefire way to stop a suicide bomber is to shoot and kill him before he gets close enough to take you to the afterlife with him. However, choosing to shoot prematurely puts the life of innocent civilians at risk. That Iraqi civilian driving his car may not dress the same as an American soldier, and may not look quite the same, but he probably has a wife and children who love him and depend on him, just as much as the soldier's wife and children depend on the soldier.

There is a term for a soldier who risks his own life to protect others: bravery. There is another term to describe a soldier who risks others' lives to protect his own: cowardice. Taking the time to verify a target before shooting is a brave and honorable act. Not taking that time and shooting haphazardly at anyone in the area is an act of disrepute and cowardice. Don't get me wrong, American soldiers are known for their bravery. But, if their orders are to shoot before adequately verifying the target they are shooting at, the soldiers may be brave, but the system they work for is cowardly. Let's fix the system.

Unnecessary civilian deaths in Iraq have been dismissed by the media here for far too long. It is time to do something about it. The best way to prevent mistakes is through effective training. American troops in Iraq need better training in urban combat and urban policing - particularly in target verification - and need to be encouraged to use the training and take the time to verify a target before shooting at it. This may increase the risk to American troops a bit, but better training can mitigate this risk. And, if this increased vigilence causes a significant reduction in the number of innocent Iraqis being killed in the street, and a resulting improvement in relations with the local Iraqi community, maybe it's worth it.