The dismaying news that five American soliders may be charged with the rape and murder of an Iraqi woman, and the subsequent murder of her family in Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad, follows other recent accusations that U.S. troops are abusing and killing Iraqi civilians.
The reported crimes at Mahmoudiya, and the alleged murders by American marines of 24 civilians at Haditha, along with other incidents, are partially the reflection of an undermanned and beleaguered U.S. military struggling with a difficult insurgency. Coalition forces do not share language, culture, or (for the most part) religion with Iraqis and Kurds. They face road-side bombs, ambushes and sniper attacks: it is hard to tell friend from foe.
There are no excuses for what can only be viewed as war crimes (if these initial allegations prove true), but they must be viewed in the context of a military stretched to the breaking point. The Boston Globe reports that:
The string of military probes into civilian deaths has raised concerns that high levels of combat stress among US troops — many on their second and third tours of Iraq and facing an often brutal enemy — have caused more of them to break down under the strain.
Here is a difficult truth. Those soldiers and marines are on their second and third tours because the Bush Administration ignored the Weinberger Doctrine and commenced a war “without decisive force and clear objectives.”
The Weinberger Doctrine (enunciated in a speech given by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984 and later advanced by Colin Powell), outlined six tests civilian policy makers should consider before U.S. troops were committed abroad. Since the start of the Iraq war, we have failed to satisfy at least two of those tests–committing sufficient military resources to win, and sustaining that commitment.
“Nation-building” and “peacekeeping” by an occupying force in a country riven by sectarian strife is near impossible without adequate numbers of “boots on the ground.” Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had estimated before the war that it would take hundreds of thousands of American troops to occupy Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and assistant secretary Paul Wolfowitz derided Shinseki’s estimate and encouraged his retirement.
Sadly, Shinseki has been proven right, as Coalition forces have never established law and order in Baghdad or the “Triangle of Death,” as the region south of the capital (where the alleged Mahmoudiya incident occured). The New York Times notes that the Triangle of Death “has become a melting pot of insurgents, criminal gangs and lawless tribes. The American military considers the region a crucial strategic approach to Baghdad, with important highways running south to the holy city of Najaf and the oil center of Basra, but has never been able to establish control in the region.”
Above and beyond the horrific nature of the Mahmoudiya incident, there are other worries: are some American troops beginning to mirror the brutality, violence and lawlessness around them? It now appears, according to Associated Press reporter Ryan Lenz (who was embedded at one point in the involved unit, the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division) that the Mahmoudiya rape and murders may have been premeditated.
Investigators believe American soldiers spent nearly a week plotting an attack in which they raped an Iraqi woman, then killed her and her family in an insurgent-ridden area south of Baghdad, a U.S. military official said Saturday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the attack appeared “totally premeditated” and that the soldiers apparently “studied” the family for about a week before carrying out the attack.
Most of the other recent cases of suspected use of excessive force by US troops against noncombatants occurred during or immediately after combat operations — including allegations that Marines killed two dozen civilians in November in the town of Haditha after a comrade was killed by a roadside bomb.
Bender quoted from an article Moore had contributed to Scientific American Mind about how the conflict in Iraq differs from previous wars:
“First, at no other time in American military history have service members been required to take such a defensive and reactive posture in combat operations. The anxiety and fear of not knowing if or when an attack might occur can be difficult to manage. Second, everyone is in harm’s way,” including support troops, “who would have been spared the emotional strains of combat in previous wars.”
The Iraq-conflict veterans I have spoken with have all described this same pervasive sense of anxiety; several now suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A doctor who has served in the Gulf told me recently that the emotional scars from the war would dwarf the already considerable physical toll.
The cost of the Iraq conflict has already been immense. Add to the significant human and financial cost the damage to America’s reputation and that of its military as a result of Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Mahmoudiya (to say nothing of the impact in the Middle East). In that context, it’s fair to second guess a President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense who deliberately slighted the Weinburger Doctrine and cut corners in the deployment of American forces. Who can argue that the U.S. brought “decisive force” to bear in Iraq? The Weinburger Doctrine drew on the painful lessons of Vietnam and Lebanon–it is a tragedy that those lessons have been ignored.
Jefferson FlandersCopyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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