Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Protecting Both Rears -- Simultaneously

One of my favorite movie comedies is “The Hallelujah Trail” filmed in 1965 and starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasence, and Brian Keith. It’s a side-splitting saga of the vicissitudes of moving a wagon train of liquor across the western plains to Denver before the onslaught of a predicted (“dogs are shaggy as never before”; “beaver are feeding ravenously”) terribly harsh winter that will render the mountain passes impassable.

In one memorable scene, a dismounted cavalry patrol believes it is receiving rifle fire on its position from opposing directions. Unable to change position, the officer in charge follows – but doubles – the standard operating procedure by ordering his men to “protect BOTH rears – simultaneously!”

While humorous in the movie theater, taking fire from opposite directions in a real life combat theater indicates big trouble – i.e., you are or will soon be surrounded. But this, first metaphorically and then actually, may well be part of the future for U.S. units in Iraq.

Go back to December 2001. Sixty-five civilians were killed when U.S. warplanes bombed a convoy heading for Kabul. U.S. military spokespersons said the planes had come under fire from the convoy which, the Pentagon said, carried al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Local Afghan villagers countered that the convoy carried tribal elders on their way to the inauguration of Hamid Karzai. Later the same month, 62 Afghans (the UN’s count) attending a wedding celebration died when U.S. aircraft bombed a compound where guests were sleeping.

In both cases, the Pentagon said its planes were in the area because of intelligence tips. Pentagon critics suggest the military was duped by one Afghan faction or tribe into being the executioner of a rival faction’s leadership.

Wedding celebrations in Iraq have also come under air attack. In May 2004, 40 Iraqis died in a strike on a house located just five miles from the Iraq-Syria border. Video turned over to U.S. news media clearly show a wedding celebration before the bombing while on-site news video show destroyed tents, musical instruments, and other items that were also in the pre-bombing tapes.

Today’s Houston Chronicle carries a story of two more incidents in which U.S. forces in Iraq stand accused of killing civilians. Only these episodes don’t involve airplanes. In both, U.S. ground forces are accused of willfully killing civilians – 15 near Haditha in western Iraq last November after a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine, and 11 near Balad in the center of the country. In Haditha, there is video tape said to have been shot immediately after the killings last November.

It is the Balad case that adds something new. Local police, not the camera’s eye, is the basis for the claim that U.S. troops killed civilians. And these police are not hiding in the shadows of anonymity; they signed their report.

So what’s the big deal?

Simply this: as more and more Iraqi police and army units assume control of what the Pentagon likes to call “battle space,” they may be less reticent about criticizing U.S. practices that kill or endanger Iraqi civilians. It is not inconceivable that Iraqi security forces will cross swords with U.S. forces – even though the Iraqis are woefully outgunned.

Only one or two such incidents might be enough to galvanize Iraqi politicians to pluck up their courage and unite around a demand for jurisdiction over any soldier accused of willfully killing civilians or – when the U.S. refuses – a demand for U.S. troops to leave Iraq altogether.

In short, U.S. forces in Iraq are in danger of slipping into a twilight zone in which security forces may unite with nationalist insurgents against foreign troops. Quite candidly, there are simply not enough soldiers and Marines and coalition soldiers to protect all the rears that would be exposed – simultaneously.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another element in these two incidents is the reluctance by the field command to police itself. In fact, according to the Time reporters, when they presented the Marines with evidence that the initial Haditha action report was in error, they were accused of buying into the enemy's propaganda. In the end, the reporters felt the need to bypass the Marine heirarchy altogether (Democracy Now, 2006-03-21). So not only are all the rears exposed, but there's some rot on the inside, too.

3:38 PM  

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