Saturday, September 1, 2007

Editor's Introduction - September 2007

“The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness” by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. The Nation, July 30, 2007.

An Annotation:

Beyond the Congressional hearings and the Defense Department briefings, operating on another plane from debates in the American media about the state of the war in Iraq, are the daily operations of the men and women of the U.S. Military who have been dealt the responsibility of “winning” the war. For observers without first-hand exposure to the “hell” of war, the perspective of those on the ground is something foreign. Even reading their testimonials is surreal, though it cannot be dismissed as mere fiction. Rather, the harsh reality of their experience is evidence of the depth of the impact this war has had on those most directly involved. This month’s Roundtable discusses the human story that has been virtually absent from all mainstream discourse on this seemingly intractable conflict. This human story is irreducible to the traumatic effect on the soldiers, the enormous cost of Iraqi civilian lives, and the growing hatred throughout the world of all things American—these elements are the causes and results of a tragedy, the sum of which is unknowable and the end of which is unforeseeable.

“In Iraq, Specialist Middleton said, ‘a lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if they don’t speak English and have darker skin, they’re not as human as us, so we can do what we want.’”

The dehumanization of the enemy in warfare—commonly achieved through racist demonization—is not a new phenomenon, but a perpetual product of conflict. Conceiving of the opposing force as the “Other,” as so radically different from “Us” that any comparison fails from the outset, seeks to teach the type of moral flexibility necessary to affect the most harm and sidestep the kind of second guessing that disrupts esprit de corps. Once it has been established that “They” are not like “Us,” the Golden Rule—the virtual foundation of universal human rights—ceases to play a role in decision-making. The rules of war are effectively dismissed as irrelevant as soon as the humanity of each side is relegated.

“‘The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried,’ said Sergeant Flatt. ‘You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see them. I mean, it’s just by pure luck who’s getting killed and who’s not. If you’ve been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you’re even more stressed and insecure to a point where you’re almost trigger-happy.’”

Without a clear-cut mission, and ill-equipped to deal with the threats that confront them, U.S. soldiers are placed in a compromised position from day one. Iraqis equally experience symptoms, as U.S. forces are simultaneously perceived as occupiers, as well as those responsible for protection from violent elements within. Confused, base instincts fill the space previously held by common sense and proper training; survival and self-defense take priority. Unprepared, scared and armed with lethal weaponry, lines between innocent and guilty, friend and enemy, blur completely.

“For Sergeant Westphal, that night was a turning point. ‘I just remembered thinking to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and that’s just not what I joined the army to do,’ he said.”

In war, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme because the stakes are so high. However, any peripheral research into military history will illustrate that these circumstances are not new ones. It is for this expectation that it is wiser to tiptoe rather than trudge ahead on the march to war. Unfortunately, this human story does not provide the way out; it merely describes the wrong way in. Human rights advocates face the daunting task of enriching the debate about the Iraq war by injecting a greater respect for human dignity, recognizing that the situation may get worse before it gets better.

These issues and many more are addressed in this month’s installment of Human Rights & Human Welfare’s Roundtable.

~ The Editors


Wars against Civilians are Unjust Wars

by Richard A. Falk

"There is an intellectual gap that exposes the central flaw of the whole Iraq War. Instead of the illusionary slogan of 'mission accomplished,' a more accurate rendering would be 'mission impossible.'"

For those of us old enough to recall the anti-war testimony of Vietnam vets during the early 1970s, reading the chilling report by Hedges and Al-Arian on the attitudes of Iraq war vets is shocking, and yet not surprising. It is shocking because of the eyewitness confirmation of cruelty and lethal brutality on a regular basis in the interactions between the coalition army of occupation and Iraqi civilian society. Sadly, it is not shocking because of the nature of the violent resistance to occupation being encountered by American forces in Iraq, giving rise to a Vietnam-style mentality of counterinsurgency in which “victory” is pursued by treating the whole of Iraqi society as potentially, if not actually, hostile.

As with Vietnam, there are many contradictions present. In Vietnam while soldiers summed up the war by the oft-quoted assertion, “[w]e had to destroy the village to save it,” official thinking came to believe in the latter stages of the struggle that the war would be won or lost in the “hearts and minds” of civilian society in South Vietnam. Of course, a low-technology adversary makes its own strategic use of this muddle. It blends in many of its militants with sympathetic elements of the society. It sensibly refuses on almost all occasions to meet the occupying high-technology adversary in open battle, and it too struggles for the hearts and minds of the people. And here is its huge advantage in most counterinsurgency situations: the people whose allegiance is at stake share an ethnic and cultural identity with the insurgent side, which can more easily claim the mantle of nationalist legitimacy. This was certainly true in Vietnam where the American presence was widely seen as “colonialist,” the successor to France, previously defeated in a long war of independence, and in more complex ways, it is also true in Iraq.

What the Hedges/Al-Arian study shows vividly is that occupying soldiers on the ground are confronted with situations in which the humane treatment of Iraqi civilians runs counter to their personal fears and resentments, but also seems inconsistent with a climate of opinion established by their commanders. Combat operations are conducted against supposedly hostile forces in urban settings where battlefield tactics are of little use. Soldiers are wounded and killed during their terms of duty, but the militants engaged in the violence of resistance are generally invisible. Moving against civilians suspected of being militants was based on thin, often misleading evidence, leading to fury and anger generating many atrocities as expressions of frustration or sheer revenge.

In my view, the most powerful conclusion of this study of Iraqi vets’ combat experience was their sense that “most of the Iraqi civilians were assumed to be hostile” which made “it difficult for soldiers to sympathize with their victims- at least until they returned home and had a chance to reflect.” A quote attributed to one soldier is emblematic of the consensus among the soldiers, “Well, we’re trying to help you and you just turn around and try to kill us.” Hedges and Al-Arian correctly conclude that this kind of attitude “led many troops to declare open war on all Iraqis.” As such, the basic tactics were indiscriminate, and civilian casualties were not “collateral damage,” but the core result of the military effort and, as such, unlawful and unjust.

This dynamic was encouraged, at least passively, by the words and deeds of American military and political leaders. The abuse of Iraqi civilians derives from the same climate of leadership that produced the scandals associated with torture at Abu Ghraib, and other prison facilities. There was little training that emphasized the importance of guidelines embodied in international humanitarian law, or more simply, in the ethics of human interaction. This should not be understood as just a moral lapse. There is an intellectual gap that exposes the central flaw of the whole Iraq War. Instead of the illusionary slogan of “mission accomplished,” a more accurate rendering would be “mission impossible.” Iraq was an artificial state created after World War I as a matter of colonial whim, an expression of Anglo-French oil diplomacy. Its coherence depended on coercion, and thus the twin aims of liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule and establishing a constitutional democracy sympathetic to Washington were internally contradictory. A unified Iraq depended on an authoritarian state, and continues to do so; the most that the United States could hope for by way of “victory” at this stage would be either the reestablishment of a coercive government under either Sunni or Shi’ia dominance or the acceptance of a dismembering of Iraq either by the de facto partition of the country and its substantial retribalization—that is, working out deals with local tribal leaders as has been the reported “success” of the surge strategy in al-Anbar Province.

The main points I would stress are the following:

—counterinsurgency warfare against a mobilized hostile opposition necessarily results in the civilian population identifying, at least in part, with the resistance effort; in turn, this leads the occupying soldiers, being unable to tell reliably who is hostile, to regard the civilian society as a whole as dangerous. Such attitudes are further inflamed by racist images based on differences of language, religion, dress, which in the case of Iraq are further accentuated by post-9/11 Islamophobia;

—this dynamic produces a vicious circle in which the civilian population becomes more and more alienated by the tactics and attitudes of the occupiers, and the occupiers become more and more disillusioned about their supposed mission of democratization and liberalization. Each attitude feeds off the other, and the military and civilian leadership of the occupying forces is generally reluctant to face the problem because it will seem defeatist and demoralizing to do so, and tries to hide its failures by claims of progress;

—the central conclusion is that this kind of warfare based on foreign intervention in violation of international law cannot achieve its political goals by acceptable means even if it enjoys total military supremacy and dominates battlefield phases of the conflict.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His most recent book, The Great Terror War (2003), considers the American response to September 11, including its relationship to the patriotic duties of American Citizens. In 2001 he served on a three person Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestine Territories that was appointed by the United Nations, and previously, on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Human Rights Horizons; On Humane Governance: Toward a New Global Politics; Explorations at the Edge of Time; Revolutionaries and Functionaries; The Promise of World Order; Human Rights and State Sovereignty; A Study of Future Worlds; and This Endangered Planet. Falk also acted as counsel to Ethiopia and Liberia in the Southwest Africa Case before the International Court of Justice.


Occupational Hazard

by Michael Goodhart

“It is fairly easy to understand how this vulnerability...can lead the troops to engage in cruel and degrading treatment of civilians. That does not make such abuses or the policies that condone them justifiable—it simply makes them predictable.”

“The Other War” describes how the patrols, supply convoys, checkpoints, raids, and arrests, which make up the daily routines of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, sometimes involve degrading and abusive treatment of Iraqi civilians. Through interviews with some of those soldiers, the article portrays the everyday tragedy of the Iraq war and demonstrates how the very policies used to “secure” the country are creating greater insecurity and sparking Iraqi resentment of the occupation. The authors’ main point is that such abuses are inevitable under what they call “misguided and brutal colonial wars and occupations” like Iraq, “the French occupation of Algeria… the American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.” They hope to convince us that such “colonial” occupations are wrong because they inevitably lead to abuses like those they document.

I am persuaded that occupation goes hand-in-hand with abuse, a point I will return to in a moment. I am not persuaded, however, that this connection is limited to “colonial” occupations. If this is correct, it has sobering implications for peacekeeping missions and humanitarian interventions.

The authors rightly condemn the abhorrent actions described in the article, which might constitute war crimes. Indeed, from a normative political theorist’s point of view these actions are so clearly wrong that they do not require additional commentary. I also think the authors are right to condemn the larger fiasco that is the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Though I wonder why, in their view, only liberal democratic countries make such blunders—perhaps the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Russian destruction of Chechnya, the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the ongoing Chinese colonization of Tibet, and other examples merely slipped their minds.

Turning then to the wider implications, the authors contend that occupation is morally hazardous because it creates extreme security risks to soldiers while simultaneously giving them extraordinary power. Occupation is risky for many reasons, including the wide availability of small arms, the ease of assembling deadly remote explosive devices, the proliferation of sophisticated communication technology, and the difficulty of differentiating friend from foe among the population. It is fairly easy to understand how this vulnerability creates stress that—combined with soldiers’ frustration at being unable to identify and confront the enemy and their almost limitless and largely unaccountable authority—can lead the troops to engage in cruel and degrading treatment of civilians. That does not make such abuses or the policies that condone them justifiable—it simply makes them predictable.

The main point is that the types of abuse chronicled in “The Other War” are almost inevitable side-effects of occupation (they result from what we might call the structural characteristics of occupation). If that is correct, then all occupations, not just “colonial” ones, are likely to cause similar problems. After all, peacekeeping and humanitarian missions often look a lot like “colonial” occupation on the ground, with raids, arrests, checkpoints, shadowy insurgents, and all the rest. These similarities will only grow as peacekeeping increasingly morphs into peace-making (peacekeepers have in fact come under intense attack in theaters like Sudan, Lebanon, East Timor, and the Balkans in recent years).

Of course, bad policies—such as telling soldiers that the “Geneva Conventions don't exist at all in Iraq, and that's in writing if you want to see it”—can increase the likelihood of abuse, as can racism and cultural ignorance. Yet even if racism, ignorance, and bad policy are more likely in “colonial” occupations (a big “if”), the structural problems with occupation are still likely to lead to some abusive behavior. Besides, it seems naïve to imagine that soldiers participating in “good” missions will necessarily behave better than their “colonial” counterparts, as a recent U.N. report on sexual misconduct by peacekeepers reminds us.

If my argument is correct, humanitarian and peacekeeping missions will predictably result in cruel and degrading treatment of civilians by occupiers. This conclusion will upset those who admire, as I do, the brave and important work done by soldiers struggling to make and keep peace and aid the distressed parts of the world. But it is worth pointing out why it is upsetting: It makes such missions harder to justify.

My point in making this argument is not to discourage peacekeeping or humanitarian missions. It is to highlight that we—citizens, policy-makers, human rights advocates—have a responsibility to grapple with the structural hazards inherent even in “good” occupations and to minimize the risks to civilians and soldiers alike. It is at least possible that the measures necessary to provide reasonable security for occupying soldiers entail an unacceptable level of risk to civilians. It is also possible that while bad policies might worsen the problem, even good policies might be insufficient to reduce the risk to civilians to “acceptable” levels (whatever that might mean). These possibilities must be taken seriously, for the sake of those who humanitarian missions are intended to help and for the sake of the soldiers we ask to help them. This is especially important as demands for intervention in dangerous and ongoing conflicts increase.

“The Other War” gives the impression that the problem with the occupation of Iraq is its “colonial” character. Yet the article itself suggests that much of the problem with the occupation of Iraq is simply that it is an occupation. Ending the Iraq war is an important policy priority, but distaste for current American policy and disgust with reported abuses should not disguise the hazards inherent in occupation. Addressing these hazards is itself an urgent priority.

Michael Goodhart is Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on democratic theory and human rights, especially in the context of globalization. He has published on these subjects in Human Rights Quarterly, Perspectives on Politics, the Journal of Human Rights, Polity, and elsewhere. Goodhart’s first book, Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization, was published by Routledge in 2005. He is book review editor at Polity and a past president of the APSA organized section on human rights. For more information visit


Facing Up to the Truth

by Susan E. Waltz

“War may be marked by acts of courage and heroism, but warfare also elicits the basest of human responses and actions.”

American GIs who liberated Dachau from the Nazis in April 1945 exist in our collective memory as iconic representations of the American soldier-hero: competent and capable, disciplined, principled and fundamentally good. From their collective example, we expect American soldiers to reveal, report, and excoriate war crimes. This makes it difficult to acknowledge that Americans may also commit war crimes—and on a regular basis.

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war, and we Americans need to face up to the conduct of our soldiers in Iraq. The 50 combat veterans interviewed by The Nation direct our attention to acts of brutality and depravity we would rather not confront. When we say “support the troops,” are we ready to embrace the American soldier who poses for his buddies with a spoon poised to scoop up the spilled brains of a dead Iraqi? We have our heroes, to be sure, and the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been immensely complicated by the presence and participation of civilians. But neither of these truths exempt us from a hard look at another unsavory reality.

As we now know, the war billed as liberation for the Iraqi people quickly morphed into a war against the Iraqi people. Roughly 10 percent of the 1,757 soldiers and Marines interviewed by Army health professionals as part of the 2006 Medical Health Advisory Team study (MHAT IV) acknowledged hitting or kicking non-combatants “when it was not necessary,” or gratuitously damaging or destroying Iraqi property. Less than half of those polled agreed that Iraqi civilians should be treated with dignity and respect, and about a third acknowledged insulting or cursing non-combatants in their presence. Moreover, 60 percent of the Marines indicated they would not report abuse by their comrades, even if it involved injuring or killing an innocent civilian.

The prevalence of such attitudes cannot be attributed simply to the nature and exigencies of war. At one level they reflect training, messaging, and discipline. It is not immaterial that b y 2002, American officials were already seeking ways to cut corners on the Geneva Conventions. And a Navy recruitment ad that ran in Field and Stream in 2004 spoke volumes with its blustery message: “ KICKING BUTT IS MANDATORY. TAKING NAMES IS OPTIONAL.”

Civilian and military leaders bear responsibility for the culture created and cultivated by the military, but w e must also be concerned about the attitudes and actions of individual soldiers. In international law, criminal acts are by definition individual acts. The Iraq war has lifted thousands of young Americans from the routines of civilian life and confronted them with moral choices that most of us cannot imagine. Twenty-percent of the MHAT IV subjects report that their military training left them unprepared for ethical dilemmas they have faced in Iraq, and 30 percent reported that officers in their units did not reinforce a prohibition against mistreatment of civilians. The study also revealed that the propensity for abuse of civilians was exacerbated by mental health problems (including anger management, anxiety and depression), the loss of a comrade, or handling human remains.

In response to the MHAT IV study, the Pentagon has pledged to develop new soldier training modules, and General David Petraeus sent a letter to all military personnel in Iraq admonishing them to respect “human dignity, maintain integrity, and do what is right.” These are appropriate and welcome steps, but will they suffice? Thirty years ago, an investigation into the My Lai massacre concluded that, among other things, American soldiers had not received sufficient training in provisions of the Geneva Conventions for the treatment and safeguarding of civilians, and a new program of officer training was inaugurated. And to what effect? The current commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq is none other than General Raymond Odierno, who as commander of the 4 th Infantry Division in the early years of the war stands accused of fueling the insurgency by alienating Iraqis with his blatant and indiscriminant use of strong-arm tactics.
The treaties and customary law that constitute international humanitarian law of war are admittedly weak and incomplete, but they represent our best chance for “alleviating the calamities of war.” War may be marked by acts of courage and heroism, but warfare also elicits the basest of human responses and actions. It is humanitarian law that sets the limits, draws the lines, for behavior that cannot be sanctioned. Ultimately, we have to rely on prosecutions to enforce humanitarian law, and individual soldiers must accept responsibility for their own actions. But, we as a society also have to accept responsibility for ensuring that our institutions uphold humanitarian law. The investigation undertaken by The Nation and the MHAT IV study underscore the need to scrutinize our military recruitment standards, training for soldiers, decisions about fitness for battle, and the ways in which civilian leaders and military officers alike model their attachment to the standards of humanitarian law. Our own values hang in the balance.

Susan Waltz is a Professor at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. She has published extensively on the politics of human rights in North Africa and has recently completed a series of essays on small state participation in the negotiations of human rights standards. From 1996-1998 Dr. Waltz served as International Chairperson of Amnesty International, and since 2001 she has convened a working group on arms transfers for Amnesty International-USA. Her article on U.S. policy on small arms transfers is forthcoming in World Policy Journal.


Bad Apples or Bad Policies?

by Daniel J. Whelan

“What should we expect of our soldiers when our institutions inspire reckless, blind fear and sense of the imperative of shooting first, and asking questions later?”

In a scene from the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters, the haughty and cantankerous character Frederick (Max von Sydow) is telling his girlfriend (Barbara Hershey) how he spent the evening flipping through channels on television. Ever the arrogant social critic, Frederick remarks,

You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips. And more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question: “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is: “Why doesn't it happen more often?” … Of course, it does.

Frederick is not denying the horror of the Holocaust, or that it happened. We can compare his observation just as easily to the violations of human rights and humanitarian law we read about in this article. Frederick asks why we “puzzled intellectuals” are horrified by what we see. He wonders why we should be shocked at the prospect of American soldiers who terrorize and kill innocent Iraqi civilians, mock their culture and religion, treat them as sub-human, and freely express deep racial animosity toward those whom they have been sent to protect. Frederick mocks us for our naïveté: why we fail to ask the right question.

Perhaps we are confused intellectuals, shocked by what we see. But hopefully we are thoughtful intellectuals, who do want to dig deeper into this unsettling state of affairs. If we are thoughtful, this article confronts us with an irreconcilable tension—even conflict—between the virtue of the American soldier or Marine and the lack of virtue of the architects of this policy that these soldiers and Marines must execute. High profile atrocities, such as the horrific events that transpired at Abu Ghraib, prompt the Bush administration to yield the “bad apple” defense—and quite effectively, by all accounts. This article should give us pause to think critically about that defense, upon which is predicated the idea of the out-of-control rogue soldier who somehow does not understand the difference between right and wrong—but who should “know better.” The problem is not the leadership, nor the policy, nor the mission—it is merely the “bad apple.” However, those of us who believe in the values that are meant to undergird our institutions are faced with a deeply troubling question. Are the institutions and those who lead them flawed, or does the flaw lie in the very human beings who, because they believing in those institutions and are doing what they believe to be right, are doing what they are told to do? After all, we are talking about soldiers and Marines.

Let’s take a look at these institutions. The myopic leadership of the Bush administration—the intelligence failures, the rush to war in a swirl of (un)patriotic exuberance with nary a serious debate about the consequences, the ideological fantasies that envisioned Iraqi flowers showered upon American “liberators”—inevitably led to the insurgency our soldiers and Marines now face in Iraq: the descent into truly Hobbesian anarchy. We created this state of affairs. And in so doing, we created a situation wherein intelligence-starved, poorly trained and poorly equipped soldiers are forced into situations where the rules of engagement—which are the bedrock of the fourth Geneva Convention—are so fluid as to be practically meaningless. If the paramount principle driving the actions of the soldiers and Marines typified in this article is self-defense, and their enemy could be anyone, anywhere, in essence, we have bestowed upon “our brave fighting men and women” the necessity—indeed, the right—to do anything and everything to protect themselves—including committing acts inconsistent with our idea of military virtue and international law.

Think about how the actions of the soldier or Marine in this article parallels the United States’ claim to a right to act preemptively in international affairs—to shoot now and ask questions later. The only plausible defense of pre-emption was that Hussein had or was developing weapons of mass destruction. They did not exist. But what if they had been there and we had failed to act? What about that mushroom cloud we imagined might be the result of inaction? How is our national policy of pre-emption (which actually is preventive engagement…which is illegal under international law) any different, on a larger scale, than what we witness through the stories and testimonies emerging from the pages of this article?

What should we expect of our soldiers when our institutions inspire reckless, blind fear and sense of the imperative of shooting first, and asking questions later?

There is one ray of light shining through this article: It is the possibility that all soldiers who have struggled with similar challenges and horrors in Iraq will have a chance to reflect upon their experiences and their actions for what they are—violations of humanitarian law and human morality rather than patriotic acts and following orders. The virtue of the soldier can be rescued and redeemed. Our soldiers and Marines are placed in an impossible situation, in which they cannot be successful in carrying out their orders and abide by humanitarian law at the same time. One notices that all those interviewed for this article were no longer serving actively. They needed to be out of the theatre to think about what they had done, and what that means for the ideals of the nation whose principles they believed they were protecting and honoring through their actions. President Bush has said he would veto any Congressional act that guarantees to servicemen and women at least 12 months out of Iraq before their next rotation. One wonders if the Administration is worried about what 12 months of reflection might mean for its ability to fight an illegal war using illegal means.

What we read in this article is evidence of substantial and significant—perhaps even routine—violations of the fourth Geneva Convention. But the laws of war are predicated on the idea that the “bad apples” will either be punished by their own states, or face the consequences of international justice (as did the Nazis and the Japanese after World War II). In the final analysis, I have to conclude that there is no way to reconcile this kind of war (illegal and so poorly executed, it reveals an even deeper contempt for government than I thought imaginable) with the humanitarian law as expressed in the third and fourth Geneva Conventions. No matter what, those principles are supposed to provide a framework of limitations for armed conflict—no matter what the mission or who is doing the fighting. But without the context of leadership that is committed to those principles as the rule of law, we find that Frederick was right: If we want to know what is wrong with these soldiers profiled here, we are asking the wrong question.

Daniel J. Whelan (Ph.D., DU, 2006) is currently Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College. He was founding editor (with Laura A. Hebert) of HRHW from 2001-2004, and Senior Editor from 2004-2007. He now serves on the HRHW Editorial Review Board. His doctoral dissertation, "Interdependent, Interrelated, and Indivisible Human Rights: A Political and Historical Investigation," was awarded the 2006 Best Dissertation citation by the Human Rights Section of the American Political Science Association.