There was a brief scuffle in the comments here recently between reader/author Craig, reader Thom, and me regarding the nature of US Marines’ and Sunni insurgents’ actions in Fallujah (see Firsthand account of Fallujah and More on events in Fallujah). It ended up that Thom was surprised I would take accounts of Marines sniping on clearly marked ambulances seriously, until I explained that I considered it likely that the insurgents might have used ambulances for transport, at which point Thom creatively spun my remarks to be somewhat stronger than I intended them, declared victory, and we let the matter drop.
Now I’ve come across a little more detail on the issue. Dahr Jamail (a peace activist who visited Fallujah a week ago, and who wrote one of the accounts I previously linked to) has this item on his weblog: Iraqi health minister presses authorities to explain U.S. targeting of Falluja ambulances. It includes the following:
I attended a press conference today at the Ministry of Health, led by the Iraqi Minister of Health himself. In short, he held the press conference to stave off criticism of not doing enough to assist (medically) the besieged and suffering residents of Falluja, as well as some of the areas down south where fighting has occurred.
Al-Iraqia television, the Coalition Provisional Authority-run propaganda station that most of my Iraqi friends call the “CIA Station”, was at the press conference. They packed up and left promptly after the minister and his two doctors finished their discussion, entirely missing the pointed questions that were to follow.
A stunning surprise, however, was that the minister acknowledged the U.S. military had been intentionally targeting ambulances in Falluja. He expressed his outrage over the matter, and stated that he had personally pressed the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and Bremer for explanations about why these human rights violations, as well as violations of the Geneva Conventions, are occurring.
He said that the U.S. military had accused mujahedeen in Falluja of using ambulances for fighting, and that is why Marines were firing on them. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but at the same time, ambulances that were being used legitimately are being targeted as well, and innocents are dying. My personal friends Jo Wilding and David Martinez were riding in one of these that received 5 sniper rounds through it. I can vouch that they are not mujahedeen.
Also, a number of outlets are carrying the message from a US military briefing announcing details of the latest cease-fire agreement between Iraqi and US forces. Among the terms of the agreement are these:
- Coalition forces will allow “unfettered” access to Fallujah General Hospital for treatment of sick and injured.
- All parties agreed to provide for the removal and burial of the dead, as well as providing food and medicine in isolated areas of the city.
- The start of an evening curfew will be moved from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to enable Fallujah religious functionaries to conduct services.
- Measures will be implemented to provide passage of official ambulances throughout the city via checkpoints.
- Medical, technical and security personnel will be allowed access throughout Fallujah to conduct their work.
Examined in context, and taking into account the spin being applied by the various participants, I think the broad outlines of this ambulance-sniping behavior are pretty clear. Yes, Marines have been sniping ambulances, as described by activists in Fallujah a week ago and tacitly acknowledged by the US military in the latest cease-fire agreement.
Marines have justified shooting ambulances by claiming Sunni insurgents were using them to transport themselves. Were the insurgents actually doing that? I think it’s probable. These are guerrillas fighting an enemy who has overwhelming air support and heavy armor. Their only hope of surviving, to say nothing of inflicting harm on the enemy, is to be quick, stealthy, and, for want of a better word, “creative.” If ambulances are being treated as sacrosanct by the Marines, the insurgents would be stupid not to use them. And if they’re using them, the Marines would be stupid not to snipe them. And given those facts, those of us trying to figure out what’s going on from the outside would be stupid to expect anything other than what has taken place.
Now, to the extent the insurgents are using ambulances to get around, that would, I assume, constitute a war crime. To the extent they’re hiding among civilians, using them as shields against the US forces, that would constitute a war crime. Those crimes notwithstanding, to the extent Marines aren’t working particularly hard to distinguish between real ambulances and clandestine troop carriers, or to the extent they’re not making a good-faith effort to determine if any given 10-year-old boy is or isn’t toting a Kalashnikov, or a particular burqa-wrapped “woman” is or isn’t actually a male insurgent concealing an RPG, before shooting said ambulance/boy/”woman”, they’re also guilty of war crimes.
Of course, good faith isn’t the sort of thing one should expect to find in a war zone. War crimes happen on both sides in every war. When the war is over, the victors get to make a show of exposing the other sides’ perfidy, while sweeping their own under the rug. To believe that our side doesn’t engage in such things is naive.
War is the realm of pragmatism. It explicitly sets aside the usual norms of civilized behavior. Warriors kill people. They do it brutally, efficiently, and without compunction. Civilian casualties are minimized “to the extent that it’s possible and prudent.” Prudence, in this case, though, often means nothing more than not using up your bullets on people who don’t represent a real threat. In the position the Marines were in in Fallujah, not knowing who was a combatant and who wasn’t, which ambulances were carrying insurgents and which weren’t, and with no shortage of bullets, the international conventions that prohibit shooting unarmed civilians and ambulances were set aside. And it was completely predictable that that would happen when the decision was made to go in and make an example of Fallujah.
Which is why I continue to think that the decision to go into Fallujah with guns blazing was stupid. Sure, we can defeat individual bands of insurgents, and given the provocation of the four contractors/mercenaries’ killing and mutilation on March 31, I can see where the desire to go in and just impose our will on the city, “pacifying” it by killing anyone suspected of opposing us, along with anyone who happened to get in the way while we were doing so, was tempting, especiallly to someone like Bush. In that sense, as I’ve said before, Fallujah represents a microcosm of the larger Iraq war, and the overall “war on terror.” One can almost hear Bush, after watching footage of burned and dismembered Americans, saying, “Fuck Fallujah. We’re taking it out.”
Yeah, I happen to think that Bush’s quick resorting to blunt military solutions, without exhausting the messy, complicated solutions available short of war, is immoral, betraying as it does a tragic indifference to the innocent lives that war grinds into hamburger. But as I’ve also said before, I’m not basing my objection to the Fallujah action on a moral claim. I’m basing it on a more practical concern. It was completely predictable that it was going to descend almost immediately into this sort of ugliness, thereby driving Iraqis all across the country, not just in Fallujah, away from us and into the arms of anti-US radicals. Which makes the solving of our larger Iraq problem much, much harder.
We need Iraqi hearts and minds if we’re going to leave a friendly-to-the-US government behind. Fallujah was a huge failure in that regard. In the same way, we need the support, trust, and cooperation of other countries if we’re going to effectively combat terror around the world. By misleading the world about things like Saddam’s connections with al Qaeda and his stockpiles of WMD, and then launching a pre-emptive invasion over the objections of the UN Security Council, we’ve taken a huge step backward in that regard, too.
George W. Bush: Fuckup-in-Chief.