Good Soldiers and ‘Bad Guys’

The horrors of Abu Ghraib should prompt something long overdue — serious media scrutiny of the military’s actions in Iraq.

Photos: Associated Press courtesy of The New Yorker

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Even before the photographs of soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced, the Bush administration’s contention that everything is going according to plan in Iraq was finding fewer and fewer takers either among the American public as a whole or in the media. Even in the right-wing media like the Fox network, conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly had begun to challenge the government line that the Iraqi resisters fighting in Fallujah or Najaf are simply a minority of malcontents — those few “individuals,” as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s spokesman, Dan Senor, put it in a press conference on April 20, “who would like to see Saddam Hussein’s regime return.” For anyone but Bush administration true believers, the evidence of widespread support for both the Fallujah insurrection and the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr was too overwhelming to deny.

In other words, Americans had already come a long way toward sobering up from those heady post-Saddam days when White House advance men could sanction a banner reading ‘Mission Accomplished’ as the perfect backdrop for Bush’s announcement that major combat in Iraq was at an end. The images of postwar Iraq — the charred and mutilated bodies of the American contractors hanging from the bridge in Fallujah as jubilant Iraqis crowded round, the ever-growing tide of flag-draped coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — have all but guaranteed that. But the Abu Ghraib photographs finally seem to have galvanized even many supporters of the war into realizing that not only has the occupation been a failure, but it may well turn out to be the calamity for U.S. interests and America’s reputation in the world that the war’s most adamant opponents always claimed it would be.

But, even if a serious mainstream debate on Iraq is beginning to emerge in this country, one in which the Bush administration cannot simply silence its critics by optimistic predictions and appeals to patriotism, there still is virtually no criticism of the American military. One might think that the military itself would have been discredited by the revelations of what happened at Abu Ghraib — and, as seems increasingly apparent, at the constellation of prisons from Afghanistan through Guantanamo to Iraq where “unlawful combatants” are being held in contravention of the most elementary norms of humane conduct. But this has not been the case, at least so far.

To the contrary, the standard line Democratic critics of the war are taking about Abu Ghraib is the same one that they have been taking about the occupation of Iraq generally. For them, it is the politicians who have erred, not the soldiers. In the case of Abu Ghraib, the consensus is that what has taken place must be Rumsfeld’s fault, or that of the private contractors in interrogations, or the CIA’s, but not that of the uniformed military hierarchy itself. If anything, the military is exonerated on the grounds that some officers, notably Major General Antonia Taguba in his admirable report, have done their duty.

It is certainly true that, as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld bears the ultimate responsibility for everything the military does. It is also true that is the glory of our democratic army that it hews to its role of carrying out, without public protest let alone resistance, the orders of the President of the United States and the rest of the legitimate civilian leadership. After all, the alternative is a military that sees itself as being above the country’s elected leaders; in other words, a short road to hell, or at least 1970s-era Argentina. But to insist upon this point neither entirely explains, nor entirely excuses the virtual free ride the U.S. military has gotten from both the mainstream media and the overwhelming majority of the American public both during the Iraq war itself and in its aftermath. Indeed, uncomfortable as it may be to recognize, there is a connection between the military’s attitude toward its Iraqi foes and the crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners.

Think, for a moment, of the fact that the same reporters and pundits who lambaste President Bush for speaking so simplistically of an “axis of evil,” of “evil-doers,” and of “those who hate freedom,” report without the slightest skepticism the equally reductionist boilerplate of the U.S. military when it refers to Iraqi insurgents simply as “the bad guys.” Did anyone point out that once one starts talking of ‘bad guys’ rather than, say, ‘the enemy,’ a great deal more becomes permissible? Enemy soldiers have rights under the Geneva Conventions. But unlawful combatants, “bad guys,” terrorists? The nomenclature itself is the first step to Abu Ghraib.

Every reporter in the field in Iraq heard U.S. soldiers using this terminology as a matter of routine, and yet, as far as I know, none of us ever call the military on it. And yet, having spent five of the past 12 months in Iraq, I have become convinced that almost as many of our mistakes in the postwar derive as much from the sheriff’s posse fantasy that U.S. forces are simply protecting the innocent locals from a few bad hombres as from any planning mistakes in Washington. Language does matter and what confronts us in Iraq has little to do with the moral certainties of a Louis L’Amour novel. From the soldiers’ perspective inside Abu Ghraib, their prisoners were evil-doers. Thus do the rhetorical simplicities of Washington exact their real toll in blood, suffering, and shameful conduct.

The Occupier Effect

Of course, U.S. soldiers were completely unprepared for the actual Iraq (as opposed to the Iraq of neo-conservative fantasy). What American troops have had to learn, and what even President Bush now concedes when he says that he realizes Iraqis are ‘chafing’ under the occupation, is that, while a majority of Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by American forces, they still view these American forces as foreign occupiers.

This Iraqi view has been widely reported. What has been less reported is why Iraqis have quite a lot of reason for feeling as they do. This is where it is hard not to conclude that the media’s indulgence toward the US military plays a role. Because, as anyone who has spent any time on the ground in Iraq knows, the conduct of U.S. forces toward the Iraqi civilian population is, to put it mildly, extremely variable. Some soldiers bend over backwards to conduct themselves respectfully and humanely. Others behave like, well, occupiers, expressing with words, gestures, body language, and actions that theirs is to command and the Iraqis’ is to obey.

Perhaps this is the inevitable by-product of any occupation. The soldiers speak no Arabic, and have little or no understanding of Iraqi culture (a combination of security considerations and their commanders’ wish not to offend Iraqi mores preclude even the kind of raunchy fraternization that was the hallmark, say, of the US occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II). As the security situation has deteriorated, American troops have grown increasingly and quite justifiably frightened of the Iraqi masses among whom they must move. Some behave brutally, and as the recent killing of several teams of Arab journalists demonstrated, their fire discipline is not what it should be.

During the war itself, some foreign reporters accused U.S. troops of killing too many civilians during the advance to Baghdad. It was an assertion the soldiers and commanders bitterly rejected, and one that U.S. reporters, most embedded with front line American units, viewed with skepticism. Indeed, the so-called embed system was a prophylactic against critical thinking; anyone who heard reporters use the term ‘we’ to describe the actions of their particular unit learned what needed to be learned about just how well the system was working.

But even this does not really explain the free ride the military has gotten since the fall of Baghdad. Today, reporters are eager to expose the errors of the Bush Administration’s. Why, then, has the media not evinced a similar drive to unmask the errors of the US military on the ground in Iraq?

The brutality of Abu Ghraib is only one element in a larger picture of brutality on the part of the occupiers that rages from many of the cordon and search operations mounted over the past year in the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’ of central Iraq, to the kind of arbitrary arrests of Iraqis that practically every reporter in Iraq has witnessed. In the case of the cordon and search, American forces have routinely loosed dogs through women’s quarters of Iraqi compounds, and have forced even men they would eventually let go to sit bound and often hooded on the ground while the G.I.s tore through family belongings searching for weapons or documents. As for the arrests themselves, in my experience these often end with a US soldier, his boot on the back of a prone Iraqi ‘suspect,’ ringed by a perimeter of US troops with M-16s shouldered and ready to fire. Beyond this cordon, an angry crowd of Iraqis gathers, muttering about how much they hate the Americans for the humiliations visited on their country and its people.

None of this might matter so much were so many US commanders not convinced that the only people who oppose them are the ‘bad guys.’ To believe that you can face and destroy your enemy is a necessity for a competent soldier. But to believe that you can defeat your enemy while misunderstanding him is, in fact, a recipe for failure. It is the postwar equivalent of the cardinal military sin, taught in every service academy worthy of the name, of losing touch with your adversary during or after a battle. It is also an attitude that smoothes the way from warrior’s honor to torturer’s disgrace.

Obviously, the US military is anything but monolithic. Plenty of commanders in the field in Iraq have been well aware that purely military solutions rarely work well in guerrilla conflicts. One US army general I got to know in Iraq told me that his criterion for whether or not to launch a cordon and search operation in his area was whether it would create more enemies among the civilian population than it would take ‘bad guys’ — again! — out of circulation. “If that seemed at all probable,” he told me, “I wouldn’t allow the operation to go forward.” But, he conceded, many of his fellow commanders took a different line. In the Sunni Triangle, in particular, he told me regretfully, there are those who behave as if they were Israelis in Gaza.

Unfortunately, the Israeli comparison is not one that some in the U.S. defense establishment would find fault with. Some American officials have been quite comfortable in making the analogy between the situation the Israelis face and that which the U.S. faces in postwar Iraq. “Those who have to deal with like problems tend to share information as best they can,” was the way Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, put it at a Washington breakfast in late-November of 2003.

From Walking Softly to Hitting Hard

Some in Washington’s ‘coalition of the willing’ have been critical of the American approach. In March of this year, a high-ranking British officer in Basra in southern Iraq gave an interview to the London Daily Telegraph in which he publicly expressed the UK military’s concern about the American military’s postwar tactics. “My view and the view of the rest of the British chain of command,” he said, “is that the American use of violence is not proportionate and is over responsive to the threat they are facing.”

This was a British commander speaking, a member of a military that views itself as second to none in the dishing out of organized violence. And the sentiments expressed by this officer reflected the sense that many observers of the Iraqi postwar have felt for a long time. Yet a serious discussion of the issue has been largely absent from the stories those of us who have covered the postwar have filed. Indeed, to the extent that the issue has been brought up at all, it has been raised by the Marine Corps officers charged with putting down the Fallujah uprising.

These officers have gone to great lengths to insist to reporters that their original (i.e. pre-uprising) plan for the Sunni Triangle was to go softly. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s motto might be, ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy,’ but in an address to his troops, the unit’s commander added the noble phrase from the Hippocratic Oath, ‘First Do No Harm.’ The Marines insisted that they would take off their sunglasses when they spoke to Iraqis (a constant source of annoyance and hurt pride to ordinary Iraqis), and, clichéd though the phrase might be, win hearts and minds.

These statements, which heralded an approach that could not be more antithetical to the approach taken by Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza, were accompanied by a sophisticated assessment of why so many ordinary Sunni Iraqis throw in their lot with the insurgents. “Planting an improvised explosive device might seem like a good deal,” said Major T.V. Johnson, the Marine spokesman, “if you can’t feed your family. We need to give the people of Fallujah a better deal.”

But it should not have fallen to Marine officers to raise issues about the military tactics being used in Iraq by other American forces. That is supposed to be the media’s job. And yet for a wide variety of reasons — ranging, I think, from an unstated but nonetheless powerful internalization of the critique that the press undermined America’s will to fight during Vietnam, to the legacy of the embed system with its profound sense of identification between soldier and reporter, to the simple but compelling fact that for Iraqi insurgents, all foreigners, whether they were US soldiers, aid workers, or journalists, were part and parcel of the same occupation — few of us have focused on the military’s own mistakes.

Obviously, Abu Ghraib has changed all that. But it is not encouraging that the media emphasis, again, seems to be on the civilians in the Pentagon. Deserving as Rumsfeld and company may be of condemnation, the uniformed side of the U.S. military still does not deserve a free ride. Yes, U.S. forces must obey orders from the civilian leadership in Washington. But this does not exempt them either from the need to fight intelligently, or to fight legally. When the military briefers in Baghdad OR Fallujah claim that they have killed almost only terrorists, but reports from inside the city’s hospitals suggest that many civilians have been killed, this should be a central story for U.S. reporters, not just Al Jazeera. And yet, while the US media has not covered the story up, it has not focused on it either — any more than we focused on the rumors about Abu Ghraib that have been rife in Iraq for some time.

I write this as a member of this media, and someone probably at least as culpable as any of my colleagues. Certainly, I can’t help wondering if, for me and perhaps for others as well, my profound lack of trust in the Bush administration’s competence in judging postwar Iraq has made me look for competence and sound judgment in the military. Have I glossed over errors committed by the troops because I believe they have been misused by the civilian leadership, and because many of them have expressed their grave doubts about what they are being asked to do in Iraq?

In the end, nobody deserves a free ride — not the administration, not the press corps, not the military. To the contrary, if things go wrong in Iraq, if we end up changing course again and destroying much of Fallujah, or Najaf, or Kufa, or Sadr City, the lack of criticism of how the war is being fought is going to seem like a terrible dereliction of responsibility. There are honorable reasons for why nothing seems more inappropriate — impious even — than criticizing the military at the very moment when U.S. soldiers are dying. But if truth is not to become the first casualty of this war, as the old cliché goes, then we must accept that there is no good moment to criticize, make sure the criticism is undertaken with seriousness and gravitas and without cheap tricks, and get on with criticizing. We do the military no favor by making it a sacred cow, and we do the country the most profound disservice.


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