NO SHOCK HERE
During the past few weeks the media has reported on several incidents of violence involving U.S. military personnel and Iraqi civilians. As more and more stories surface, the public is left to wonder whether the U.S. military is out of control. Whether leadership is doing its job in preventing such incidences and is the training of personnel sufficient for the stresses and situations they face on a daily basis in a time of war. Many are already comparing the actions of a military minority to the incidents documented in civilian villages during the Vietnam War. Still others are using these incidences to support the idea that this war has gone sour (isn't all war sour?) and it's time to withdraw from Iraq and let the citizens of that country stabilize and support their own government.
Here is a recent sampling of reports coming out of Iraq:
---Seven Marines and one Navy corpsman have been charged with murder in the April shooting death of a 52-year-old unarmed Iraqi civilian in Hamandiya. The men are also being charged with conspiracy in that it is believed they tampered with the crime scene by placing a weapon next to the dead man's body and then reported back that the man had been killed in a fire fight and the soldiers believed him to be an insurgent.
---Twenty four Iraqi civilians were killed back in November 2005 in the town of Haditha and it is now suspected that they were murdered by U.S. military personnel without provocation. Although no formal charges have been brought, there is an investigation currently underway that aims to prove whether or not these unarmed civilians were murdered, whether or not a coverup was created not only by soldiers directly involved in the incident, but by senior officials who found out about the deaths and assisted in its being swept under the rug. Due to the sheer number of deaths involved in this single incident, this is the report that began the landslide of reporting the suspected wrongdoings by soldiers in Iraq.
---Three more soldiers are suspected of murdering three Iraqi detainees in May in the Southern Salahiddin Province. It's alleged that the three soldiers released the three detainees to set up an escape scenario and thereby support the soldiers' reasons for killing the men. There are also allegations from a fellow soldier that he was threatened by the three men suspected of the murders that if he went to authorities and said anything to implicate them they would kill him. This incident is also currently under investigation.
This is just a smattering of incidents. It seems like there is a new story everyday involving allegations of deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of the U.S. military. In fact, earlier this month, Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "Violence against civilians had become a 'daily phenomenon' by many troops in the American-led coalition who 'do not respect the Iraqi people.'
And this comes from a man who is dependent on the U.S. military and the American government to continue to assist him in stabilizing the new Iraqi government and provide what security they can while the country is in transition. Harsh words, indeed.
While there is no doubt that these incidents are tragedies. The death of anyone caught in the crossfires of war is pointless. I think it is also appropriate that if any of these soldiers are found guilty of a crime they should be punished. That, to me, seems obvious. But two other questions immediately occur to me as well: 1. Why is everyone so shocked that it's happening? and 2. What about the men at the top of the personnel ladder whose responsibility it is to train these soldiers and then report criminal incidents involving soldiers when they happen? What is their culpability in all of this?
The first question comes from my gut. When I first heard about the killings in Haditha and I heard the voices of condemnation and shock I thought, "Well, what's the big surprise? These men have been trained to kill and that's what they've done." Now, I know that not all soldiers kill civilians. In fact, the majority don't and they pull that trigger as a last resort. We are talking about a small percentage of people involved here. But why wouldn't some of these men, who have been trained to kill, who didn't know about machine guns and tanks before enlisting, kill people who also happen to look like the "insurgents." Afterall, we are asking our military to engage in guerilla warfare on a battlefield located anywhere in Iraq. In that split second decision moment, it's hard to distinguish between an "insurgent" and a "civilian." Although many would point out that these particular victims have been unarmed when killed and that's a pretty sure sign of a civilian.
However, put yourself in these young people's shoes. They're carrying guns, often for the first times in their lives, patrolling the streets on a constant lookout for anyone who might try and murder them at the next corner. Any car passing by could be armed with an explosive device. Any person pausing next to a military vehicle could be concealing a bomb underneath his/her clothing. These men and women are afraid for their lives every second of the day and the stress of that is bound to cause bad decisions, even moments of insanity and unexplained aggression, in at least a few if not a great number of soldiers.
Yet I do not excuse these individual acts of violence. Yes, they are in a war. Yes, they have to make tough decisions. No, I wouldn't trade places with any of them for one billion dollars. But I also hold those people in a position of power and leadership responsible, too. It is their job to work daily to insure that these things don't happen. It is their job to train all that sit below them on how to read the signs of extreme stress and what to do when they suspect someone may need to be relieved from duty for a while.
Because the majority of U.S. soldiers aren't going around and killing innocent civilians, it's obvious that things can be done to prevent what has happened in Haditha and Hamandiya. And when our leaders don't prevent these things from happening and when they try to cover them up to save their own skin, or even that of a fellow soldier, they deserve to be prosecuted as well.
And yet, in the theatre of war isn't everyday filled with aggression, violence, stress and insanity? It's a bit of a quandary. The whole which came first ... For me, there's only one solution. These incidents of violence will not end until the U.S. military gets the hell out of there.