Geoffrey Millard, a soldier with the New York National Guard, was a general’s assistant in Iraq. He related a story he attended a briefing his boss about: a soldier at a traffic control point, faced with a speeding, oncoming car, “made a split-second decision” to fire “more than 200 rounds into the vehicle,” killing its inhabitants. “He then watched as the mother, father and two children were carried from that car.
“That evening, as it was briefed to the general — and I flipped the slides for that briefing — Col. [William] Rochelle, from the 42nd Infantry Division, DISCOM [Division Support Command] commander — and I have to apologize for a little vulgarity here, but I feel it’s intricate for my testimony — he turned in his chair to an entire division-level staff, and he said, and I quote, ‘If these fucking Hajjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.’”
To me, in a sense, it’s these checkpoints incidents, more than anything else, that exposes the fundamental folly of occupation.
If you’re an American, it’s just not going to be tolerable to have a bunch of foreigners who only speak Arabic manning traffic stops while heavily armed and ultimately accountable only to an all-foreign chain of command. Nobody would put up with that — it’s absurd. And of course if an American cop had put 200 rounds into a car and killed a whole civilian family over a traffic violation there would have been a shitstorm about it in local politics and the legal system. Even if the shooter evaded any criminal sanction, there would be consequences — you couldn’t possibly just brush it off and put the guy back out there directing traffic!
And conversely, suppose you were asked to finish up your basic training and then go to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language but there is a domestic insurgency that forms one part of a complicated patchwork of oft-violent political machinations that you have no way of understanding. You’ve got a gun, some of your colleagues have been blown up, and here’s car speeding right toward you. How am I going to blame you for opening fire? And can you imagine orders going down the chain of command asking U.S. soldiers to radically increase their chances of getting killed in order to somewhat reduce the odds of Iraqis being killed in good faith mistakes? Or putting your life in the hands of your fellow soldiers and then turning around and ratting them out if their errors led to loss of civilian life?
The whole thing is maddeningly impossible. I can’t at all imagine the right way to handle these situations. Shrugging it off with an “If these fucking Hajjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen” clearly isn’t the right answer, but is there one? I say, no there isn’t — there’s just no good way to be a long-term occupying power. American soldiers are (rightly) accountable to American politicians who are (rightly) accountable to American voters but that means they can’t be the ultimate source of authority in Iraq in any kind of reasonable way.