How To Lose A War

occupation.jpgA very troubling article in Salon today explores the events surrounding the apparent execution in cold blood of an unarmed Iraqi farmer by U.S. Army snipers, and asks “why would these elite American soldiers kill an unarmed prisoner in cold blood?

The answer: pressure from their commanding officers to pump up a statistic straight out of America’s last long war against an intractable insurgency.

A review of thousands of pages of documents from the legal proceedings obtained by Salon shows that in the months prior to [the Iraqi farmer, Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi]’s death, the young snipers, already frustrated by guerrilla tactics, were pressed to their physical limits and pushed by officers to stretch the bounds of the laws of war in order to increase the enemy body count. When the United States wallowed in Vietnam’s counterinsurgency quagmire decades ago, the same pressure placed on soldiers resulted in some of the worst atrocities of that war.[…]

The pressure from above for more bodies was also toxic in Iraq, where the isolated, outnumbered and outgunned snipers of the 1st Battalion had to make split-second life-or-death decisions. When those decisions landed them in a military court, it was the lowest-ranking soldiers, not the brass, who paid the price, and a sergeant who said he was pushed into taking a fatal shot who wound up with a long prison sentence. It was battalion commander Lt. Col Robert Balcavage, who pushed for a higher body count, who initiated the prosecution of three of the battalion’s snipers.

I think we’ve seen this “dead bodies=success” mentality bleed out into pro-war blogs as well, where the numbers of insurgent dead are credulously relayed and uncritically reported as progress, irrespective of the collateral damage incurred in those deaths and of the galvanizing effects that this has on support for insurgency. (Of course, if you’re someone who believes that trying not to create more insurgents is irrelevant to the task of counterinsurgency, then no big deal. I suppose one could always apply the Bush Doctrine on the ground in Iraq, and justify the murder of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi on the theory that he might, one day, have joined the insurgency. But then you’d have to kill his son, and then all his friends, too. Nice war we’ve got going here, huh?)

The murder of Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, and the atmosphere in which it occurred, is reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib abuses. In both cases, a high-pressure environment, hazy rules of engagement, and pressure from above to produce usable intelligence/dead “insurgents” led to atrocity. In both cases, the lowest men down were punished for carrying out the directives of their commanders (and Commander-in-Chief), while those commanders were left untouched.

As the article demonstrates, it is a mistake to regard this killing as an isolated incident. I think it would also be a mistake to see this any of this solely as a failure of command. Rather, the lesson to be drawn here is that we should, if at all possible in the future, avoid invading and occupying foreign countries, and thereby creating situations where tragedies like this one are predictable and inevitable. One of the best ways to support our troops is to ensure that they not be misused as instruments of bad policy.