Teaching Democracy With a Machine Gun

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    Now that we have had a teaching moment of our own from President Obama about the basic structure of American democracy, i.e., the supremacy of civilian control over the nation’s military, it is a good time to take a look at how our military conducted itself in The Surge in Iraq when Bush was President and CIC, putting down insurgents, pacifying the locals so as to teach them democracy—- and ask ourselves, is this what has been going on in Afghanistan under the immediate past commander, General McChrystal, under the guise of doing the same thing?  

    Wikileaks has just released a heretofore classified video (see below) of the death-by-helicopter in 2007 of two Reuters newsmen, among others; and Ethan McCord, a former soldier with Bravo Company 2-16, who appears in the video, has claimed that orders from battalion level for “360 degree rotational fire” against civilians were SOP whenever an IED hit the troops. McCord says the soldiers were told to “kill every motherf****r on the street.” Apparently, it was kill first and ask questions later, or forget the questions, just waste ’em. Admittedly, in an insurgency it is difficult to distinguish innocent civilian from insurgent, and, after a while in edgy situations when a unit has suffered attack and casualties from innocuous-seeming locals, the man on the ground in harm’s way doesn’t much care whether the people around him are innocent or guilty, it’s the lives of his fellow soldiers and himself that are on the line, so better safe than sorry.

    According to McCord, as reported by Ralph Lopez in Soldier’s Shocking Allegation when he first heard the orders, his reaction was “Are you kidding me? You want us to kill women and children on the street?” and he and some other soldiers would “shoot up into the roof of a building instead of down on the ground toward civilians.” The orders, to shoot full circle at every Iraqi on the street, were, however, usually obeyed: “….I’ve seen it many times, where people are just walking down the street and an IED goes off and the troops open fire and kill them.”

    This sort of mass and indiscriminate execution of civilians as retaliation for attacks on military forces is considered a war crime: after World War II we held German officers responsible for doing exactly that. Similar high-level orders to kill civilians in Nanking in 1937 and in Hankow in 1938 by Japanese, and in 1939 by Germans in Poland have also been designated as war crimes.  If what McCord and some other soldiers have said is true, then the American command in Iraq (and, possibly higher-ups in the chain of command to the very top) are also guilty of war crimes.

    Since President Bush’s famous Surge has been deemed a great success, the concept has influenced subsequent military decisions and policies, especially in Afghanistan today under President Obama. The truth may be rather different, especially in view of events that are beginning to come to light, like the comments of McCord, and the evidence of videos like that of the attack by Apache helicopters in 2007 on a group of civilians which included Reuters newsmen (and, a moment later, a van with two children).

    If the objective of both the Iraqi surge and the Afghanistan surge was to secure the territory, creating stability and security (that is, calmness and a feeling of safety) among the population so they could vote democratically to rule themselves, how effective can it be to kill everyone in sight upon the slightest suspicion they are all enemies? How long is it before you have indeed turned them all into enemies?  Justifying an endless string of 360-degree firing on civilians by saying they all deserve to die because they permit insurgents to hide among themselves (“they shouldn’t bring children to a war”) is not only a war crime, it is stupid—- if, that is, your intent is to teach them democracy.  The lesson actually taught is something else entirely.

    Listen to the dialog in the video. There was considerable back-and-forth about “permission to engage,” but in the end it was the judgment all around that any gathering of Iraqis was suspicious; weapons were discerned (where, it seems, there were no weapons, just cameras). The sequence sounds more like teen-aged boys playing a video game, but maybe that is a big part of modern warfare when one side has the technological advantage of being almost invulnerable raptors in the sky. The seeming success of the Iraqi surge is now beginning to fade away as violence grows; what success there was perhaps was due to enforcing other approaches than 360-degree mayhem.

    Fast forward to Afghanistan-Pakistan with drones and angry complaints of civilian deaths from both Afghans and Pakistanis. The policies of the Surge now reside in Af-Pak. Are we doing any better? Will General Petraeus do a better job than McChrystal at schmoozing village civilians while managing to protect the lives of his troops and decimate the Taliban? Or, do we need a different approach entirely? Think about the recent reconciliation and apology of the British government for Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, where the Brits fought another seemingly endless war against local “insurgents.”

    It’s worth watching the short version of the 2007 attack from the sky on what turned out to be Reuters newsmen, to get an idea of the haphazard cruelty, the fog of war, and, ultimately, the stupidity of teaching democracy with a machine-gun: