My turn: 'Collateral damage' a weak excuse in Iraq war

Posted: Friday, June 30, 2006

I n a June 17 news article, the New York Times raises many questions about the controversial death of 24 Iraqi civilians that occurred last November in Haditha. While Americans might want to avoid drawing conclusions before the investigations (and possibly trials) are complete, we might consider the merits of the rules of engagement being permitted under the banner of self defense.

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Soldiers moving through Iraqi streets in armored vehicles have been the target of insurgents using improvised explosive devices. These may be detonated by common radio signals from devices like cell phones or garage door openers. Spotters waiting to send the signal would have to be in sight of the improvised explosive device.

In Haditha, after such a bomb exploded and killed one of our soldiers, marines claimed that they suspected four young men in a nearby car were the spotters, and when the men jumped out and disobeyed orders to stop, the marines killed them. A house to house search of the urban neighborhood followed and 19 others, including 10 women and children, were killed.

According to the Times, the attorney representing the marines claims that they were entitled under their rules of engagement to use lethal force against those who they believed were responsible for detonating the improvised explosive device, and that blind fire in a home was permitted when the marines believed their lives were threatened.

The troubling words here are "suspected" and "believe." Is there a distinction between self defense and investigation that is being blurred? Are our soldiers operating with the same preemptive fear that the country used to justify attacking a weaker nation based on unsubstantiated suspicions and beliefs?

In an urban neighborhood the spotter who detonated the device could be anywhere, and at the sound of the explosion outside, innocent civilians in the surrounding area are likely to be as surprised and struck by fear as our soldiers were. What happened to the inalienable rights of these people to true justice if we permit searches of their homes in self defense? How many more children will die this way in Iraq, leaving our soldiers to forever live with the guilt at having prematurely pulled the trigger?

I don't question the rights of our soldiers to protect themselves. I do question the way this war is being fought as an occupation that places them in a situation where those who threaten their lives can't be easily distinguished from innocent civilians who live in the vicinity of a detonated improvised explosive device.

But I also believe the basis for the rules of engagement that demeans the human value of innocent people in Iraq begins in a military philosophy at the top. Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who directed the air campaign during the invasion in 2003, reported that commanders were required to obtain advance approval from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld if any planned airstrike was likely to result in the deaths of 30 more civilians. More than 50 such raids were proposed. All were approved by Rumsfeld.

"Collateral damage" is the common political rhetoric for killing civilians during a war. But it's nothing more than a weak excuse to avoid honest accountability, and it's too readily available to our foot soldiers because the die was cast at the start of the war. More mistakes are likely to happen, and among them will be some incidents that are wrongful responses to rage or fear, then wrongly hidden in a convenient dismissal called the rules of engagement.

And worse, there will be more civilians killed in planned attacks. As I write, the United States is engaging in a military offensive in Ramadi, a city of 400,000 people. Fallujah was a military offensive. The war itself was not an act of self defense.

If Haditha was not an accident, it is also not an isolated incident caused by a "few bad apples." The diseased fruit comes from the tree of our nation's leaders, empowered by our relative silence, to decide when America is licensed to kill children. When, and why, did we stop caring?

A World War II combat veteran, Gen. Omar Bradley said "Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked, and we who fail to prevent them must share in the guilt for the dead." We need to consider these words spoken by a military hero from a greater war. They may be our only hope to return to being a nation where the rule of law takes precedent over war's rules of engagement.

• Rich Moniak is a resident of Juneau and an active participant with the Juneau People for Peace and Justice.

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