Is the US Military guilty of war crimes in Iraq?
Some people believe it is unpatriotic even to ask this question, which may be why the issue has been largely ignored by American news media. But the question of U.S. war crimes is not being ignored elsewhere around the world, where images of dead Iraqi women and children, tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the devastation of the city of Fallujah and the shooting of unarmed captives in a Fallujah mosque have done much to destroy America's image abroad.
It isn't only a question about the moral culpability of American troops, their commanders or their political leaders. While they bear moral responsibility for their actions, we as citizens in a democracy share responsibility for actions undertaken in our name. That responsibility is not diminished by the fact that Iraqi insurgents are committing horrific crimes against their own people. In years to come, the world community will likely ask of us: Did we know? Did we care? Did we speak out?
The issue of war crimes has taken on a new urgency in the wake of a recent study by public health researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and a Baghdad medical college, which estimates that 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died because of the war. Those numbers, which are far higher than previous estimates, are extrapolated from a statistical sampling and may be inaccurate, but they are the best estimate available. The study attributes many of the deaths to aerial attacks by coalition forces, and found that most of the fatalities were women and children.
Unless the civilians were deliberately targeted, many of these deaths may not count technically as war crimes. But United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the war itself violates international law, an opinion shared by many legal experts.
Civilian casualties are inevitable in war. The wrongful actions of individual soldiers should not be taken as a reflection on the morality of our country as a whole. What does reflect on our character is how we respond: Do we hold perpetrators accountable? Do we offer reparations? Do we make every effort to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized?
But there is troubling evidence that some of the worst violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and a significant proportion of the civilian casualties, aren't simply a matter of individual misconduct, but result from deliberate policies approved by our military and civilian leaders.
The Marine who was caught on camera executing a wounded Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah was quickly relieved of duty, and his commanding officers promised to investigate the incident. But according to war correspondent Evan Wright, who observed similar killings when he was embedded with a Marine unit during the initial invasion of Iraq, such executions are common practice.
"One thing military officials are not saying is that the behavior of the Marine in the video closely conforms to training that is fairly standard in some units," Wright reported recently in the Village Voice. "Marines call executing wounded combatants 'dead-checking.' "
Torture and abuse
The torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has also generally been portrayed in the media as the actions of a few isolated individuals. A number of low-level enlistees are being prosecuted. But independent human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and two of America's most respected investigative reporters, Mark Danner and Seymour Hersh, have all concluded, in detailed investigations, that torture of prisoners was authorized at the highest levels of command.
"This pattern of abuse across three countries did not result from the acts of individual soldiers such as [Specialist Charles] Graner who broke the rules," Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune. "It resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to bend, ignore or cast rules aside. ... No soldier higher than the rank of sergeant has been charged with a crime. No civilian leader at the Pentagon or the CIA is even being investigated. But the privates and sergeants are not the ones who cast aside the Geneva Conventions, or who authorized illegal interrogation methods. Unless the higher-level officials who approved or tolerated crimes against detainees are also brought to justice, all the protestations of 'disgust' at the Abu Ghraib photos by President George W. Bush and others will be meaningless."
Rather than distancing himself from those abuses, Bush nominated Alberto Gonzales, author of a memorandum offering a legal rationale for the use of torture, to be attorney general.
Killing of civilians
Human Rights Watch has also documented numerous cases in which military authorities have failed to adequately investigate allegations of indiscriminate or excessive force against civilians. In October, Britain's Channel 4 news aired video footage, shot from a cockpit camera, that appears to show U.S. pilots attacking and killing a group of unarmed civilians in Fallujah. The British newspaper the Independent carried a story about the April incident, which has gotten no coverage in mainstream U.S. media.
According to Independent reporter Andrew Buncombe, "The 30-second clip shows the pilot targeting the group of people in a street in the city of Fallujah and asking his mission controllers whether he should 'take them out.' He is told to do so ... . At no point during the exchange between the pilot and controllers does anyone ask whether the Iraqis are armed or posing a threat."
A similar incident was reported in Baghdad in September, when a helicopter fired on a group of Iraqi civilians who had gathered around a disabled Bradley fighting vehicle, killing 13 and wounding 61. There have been a disturbing number of such reports of massacres, but few have resulted in criminal prosecution.
But the most troubling questions of war crimes are raised not by isolated incidents involving individual soldiers, but by strategies and tactics that put large numbers of citizens at risk. As the occupying power, the coalition forces have a legal obligation under the Geneva Conventions to protect civilian lives. The U.S. military has offered repeated assurances that the bombing of Fallujah, Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is carried out with precision weaponry that is carefully targeted against insurgent positions, and that every effort is made to minimize civilian casualties, but the sheer volume of civilian casualties undermines the credibility of those claims.
We know that hundreds of civilians were killed last spring in the assault on Fallujah that followed the killing of four civilian contractors, but there is no reliable count of the number of civilians killed in the near-daily bombardment that followed -- often using indiscriminate 500-pound bombs -- or in the capture of the city in November.
Most Americans probably have little sense of the scale of destruction caused by the U.S. assault on Fallujah, a city roughly the size of St. Paul. But it is devastated, reported Ali Fadhil, an Iraqi journalist for Britain's Guardian in a documentary shown on British TV. "Fallujah used to be a modern city; now there is nothing. We spent that first day going through the rubble that had been the center of the city; I don't see a single building that is functioning."
In that attack, U.S. and Iraqi troops stormed the city's main hospital, making it off-limits to Iraqi civilians, and bombed a second hospital and an emergency clinic -- all violations of international law.
Other problematic issues include the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions. Although Iraqi physicians have blamed U.S. use of depleted uranium munitions for increased levels of cancer and birth defects, that link is unproven. But Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from cluster bombs are well-documented.
In a report in December, USA Today found that U.S. forces had fired hundreds of cluster bombs into urban areas, killing dozens of civilians, while other sources give much higher casualty estimates.
There are standards in international law that govern when civilian lives may be put at risk in military conflict, but it is highly questionable whether those standards are being met.
The United States has still not ratified or even signed Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, where most of the limits to bombing of civilians may be found, but that does not make our conduct morally permissible; rather, it marks us as failing to accept and conform to internationally recognized standards.
For as long as the United States remains the world's only superpower, and as long as we refuse to submit to the authority of international tribunals, nobody else can compel our government to investigate these incidents, punish wrongdoers, or stop employing strategies that cause high numbers of civilian casualties. Those responsibilities fall to us as Americans, for the sake of our own honor and self-respect.
Jeremy Iggers is a Staff Writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
© 2005 Star Tribune