The First Step

It’s been a while since I’ve done an email post, which is something silly as I’ve had some interesting discussions through email lately.  As of right now, my very best discussions come from Iraqslogger columnest Tracey Caldwell whose knowledge and energy often drives me into submission.

Lately, she’s taken to sending me articles to get my viewpoint, and considering the subject matter around here lately, I thought it fitting to post both her email, and my response:

from the August 07, 2007 edition – <>

Is military justice in Iraq changing for the better?

High-profile cases reveal both new emphasis on laws of war and the shortfalls of military justice.

By Brad Knickerbocker <> | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The wheels of American military justice seem to be turning as they should in Iraq, particularly given the extreme difficulties of urban combat against tough and sometimes suicidal insurgents blending in with the general population.

In a series of cases involving the unlawful killing and abuse of Iraqi civilians, officers as well as enlisted soldiers and marines are being prosecuted and punished. The need to follow the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and the laws of war is being reemphasized in combat training down to the individual platoon level.

But the improvements in military justice come with some worrisome caveats as well, experts say: It took the highly publicized abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison to get the military’s attention. The severity of punishment has been mixed, raising questions about the sympathy of military juries made up of fellow Iraq combat vets. And the length of the war, including multiple combat tours, plus the lowering of recruiting standards to meet manpower shortages, is adding to the stress and discipline problems that can lead to abuses.

“Based on a very incomplete picture of what’s happening day to day in Iraq, it appears that there’s much more attention to human rights and to the laws of war than, for example, in Vietnam or Korea,” says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

At Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Friday, Marine Corps Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III was sentenced to 15 years in prison and given a dishonorable discharge for organizing the kidnapping and killing of an Iraqi man in Hamdaniya last year. Six junior marines and a Navy petty officer involved in the case received lesser punishments.

On Saturday, one of the soldiers convicted of rape and murder in an attack on a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, was sentenced to 110 years in prison with parole possible after 10 years.

The case of 24 Iraqi civilians killed at Haditha in 2005 is approaching the court martial phase for a Marine staff sergeant and two lance corporals charged with murder. In that case, four officers, including the battalion commander, also are accused of failure to fully investigate the killings. The military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding this week will consider charges of dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order against Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani.

Later in the month, Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan faces a general court-martial on charges that he failed to stop soldiers from abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, a retired US Army lieutenant general has been censured in the friendly fire killing of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, and he could be demoted to two-star rank.

“In a perverse way, these courts martials are a sign of the vitality of the military justice system, the fact that it’s working,” says Gary Solis, a Vietnam combat veteran who went on to spend 20 years as a judge advocate and military judge in the Marine Corps before teaching laws of war at the US Military Academy at West Point. Abu Ghraib, he says, was an impetus to cracking down on the abuse of civilians. “All of the armed services, it seems to me, are facing the music and saying, ‘Hey, if we’re a nation of laws, if we’re the good guys, we’ve got to take action.’ “

Especially important, says Mr. Solis, is the prosecution and punishment of officers.

“Haditha for the Marine Corps is sending a … message for battalion commanders that they cannot turn a blind eye for what may be war crimes,” says Solis, who now teaches at Georgetown University. “You’re not going to get attention paid until you start trying officers.”

“I only wish it went higher,” he adds.

Do veterans make for lenient jurors?

The Hamdaniya case, in which marines killed an Iraqi man and then made it look as if he had been an insurgent planting a roadside bomb, has raised questions about the appropriateness of punishment. Four of the seven men convicted were sentenced only to the time they had already served in the brig.

Some observers wonder whether that was because the jurors in those cases were made up largely (in some cases exclusively) of Iraq war veterans who had experienced first-hand the same kind of hostile environment.

“One person’s jury that understands what it’s like in Iraq is another person’s jury that’s too friendly,” says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“There is a tension there,” says Mr. Fidell, a former Coast Guard lawyer. “No one seems to think that it makes no difference that the jury has had something of the same experience. No one seems to think that that’s a neutral factor.”

Just as the Vietnam war did a generation ago, the Iraq War is teaching a new cohort of military men and women hard lessons about fighting an enemy that doesn’t hold to traditional means of combat in which soldiers in uniform primarily attacked one another. In particular, commanders of combat units are reexamining the “rules of engagement” – what to expect on a combat mission and what violent responses are permissible, especially in an urban setting.

Here, retired Army Col. Dan Smith sees a common thread to most of the abuse cases: the killing and wounding of US troops by roadside bombs, the greatest single cause of American casualties in Iraq.

“There is pure frustration, pure anger, pure rage because there is no one who is the obvious perpetrator,” says Colonel Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation who fought in Vietnam and later taught philosophy at West Point.

“Soldiers soon decide they can trust no one except their comrades … and quickly the indigenous people – all of them – become inferiors,” he says. “Being inferior, they are less than human and deserve less respect, at which point one has entered the slippery slope that can end with a war crime.”

To reduce combat stress, the Army now gives combat soldiers a break after 90 days. But that may not be enough, some experts say, especially for those on their second, third, or fourth tour in Iraq.

Experts point to relaxed standards

While military units are reemphasizing the importance of the laws of war and rules of engagement, some relaxed recruiting standards may cause other problems.

“Waiving rules against recruiting men and women with criminal records is leading to a substantial rise in the number of gang members wearing uniforms and getting trained to use military weapons,” says Smith. “Put them in a war zone where death is common and life cheap – that’s a real recipe for wanton killing.”

Solis, the former Marine Corp judge advocate, agrees. “When enlistment qualifications go down, that means discipline rates go up.”

As the nature of modern war changes to become less “conventional,” it may be that the Uniform Code of Military Justice (passed by Congress in 1950) and the laws of war will need to be reexamined, some experts suggest.

“If what we’re seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq is a harbinger of future conflicts, then there’s going to have to be some change in the rather old-fashioned and conventional concepts of behavior in the battle space,” says Dr. Thompson, whose work puts him in close contact with military officers and Pentagon officials.

“We are now deep into an era when combatants do everything they can to seem like they’re not combatants until the last moment when they kill you,” he says. “That’s about as far as you can get from the [British] red coats when the laws of war first began to be formulated.

I apologize in advance for the less than structured response, however, I do think the content itself is postworthy, so enjoy:

Put simply, this is just one more example of why we shouldn’t be over there. Late in the article, a case is made about how far removed from the redcoats the Iraqi insurgency is, this should come as a warning sign. The world has not given up on armies and militaries in general, which means if you are employing your uniformed military service against a non uniformed non military service, something is fundamentally wrong there.

We’re talking about reforming the UCMJ, and to a degree I do believe that there are many things about it that do need to be reformed, but I think in this instance, what we’re talking about is something that at least seems to me to be something that is contrary to our values. The UCMJ is designed to ensure that our military service members are upholding the highest professional standards as career soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, and to reform it in such a way so as to facilitate the combating of a non uniformed insurgency seems to me that you’re lowering the bar.

People have to take responsibility for themselves, I believe this, but at the same time, look at the situation that these soldiers are in. Look at who their fighting? I agree that the nature of the conflict over there is the perfect environment for soldiers to dehumanize or subjugate Iraqis, and I believe this actually mirrors behavior that occurred in Vietnam. But we have to ask ourselves, is this the situation that they should be put in?

We look at the primary conflict over there, and we are not directly involved in it. This is between various demographics of the country’s own people, primarily Sunnis and Shia. And yet we’re playing bodyguard and referee. This can’t be a proper or wise use of the military.

Another thing to understand is that vicariously there’s an appreciable bloc of Americans here at home who have quickly undergone the same subjugation and dehumanization, in large part due to the September eleventh terrorist attacks. This came to light following the Abu Ghraib debacle, and the portion of the punditry and of vocal citizens who seemed to have a collective opinion of, “Oh well.”

I think in this country there needs to be a fundamental shift in how we understand things. We have to get to a place where we understand that this attitude in general is counter productive to all foreign policies. We have to get to this place where we understand on a fundamental level we’re all people who are just trying to get by, and that most of us pray to our gods and love our families, and we have so much more in common than we think.

I think we need to get to a place where we don’t slip into the dangerous areas of moral relativism, but we also recognize that concepts of good and evil should be restricted to fairy tales and blockbuster movies. That insurgencies and uprisings, and even terrorists, have root causes and that the entire world would benefit from us actually addressing these root causes.

Look at the Middle East. Effectively the thousands year old culture is tribal in nature, but following the industrial revolution, you have what is very much a local society sitting atop some of the largest deposits of some of the most valuable resources in the world. Of course this is going to cause a stratification in wealth distribution that is incredibly disproportionate. You’re going to see conflicts between the SCIRI, rich upper class Shiites, and the Sadrs, resident of the Sadr slums of Baghdad, also Shia.

And we are also talking about one of the most religiously rooted cultures in the world sitting atop some of the holiest land according to the three most commonly sacred texts of the Bible, The Torah, and the Quran.

We have to recognize this, and see how these circumstances lay the groundwork for faultlines of conflict, and how the passion swirling around the faultlines results in a animosities that pass from generation to generation, the fire never coming close to dying down.

We have to as a country remove ourselves from the laguage and attitude of sand-niggers and towel-heads and camel-jockeys and start treating these people with respect because until that happens, we will always be a target. We will always isolate ourselves from even those folks who are decent, who do want a peaceful reconciliation among themselves and with their global neighbors.

But standing in the way of this is the politics of fear and subjugation (for a much more indepth discussion on this check on my site today, I did a moderate article on this titled Politics of Fear). It is difficult to make a case for peace with a population that, for all intents and purposes, looks like the same people who orchestrated the mass murder of thousands of Americans.

It’s difficult to offer friendship to a people we fundamentally do not identify with. And it’s politically easy not to challenge Americans. But, and this is what is really irritating the piss out of me, is that the temerity of the American spirit is on life support. We cower, we cringe, we turn every event into a terrorist attack, and we bite our nails every time a terrorist is on tv. We have fallen victim to the politics of fear because we have adopted a culture of fear. We are afraid of people who don’t dress like us, who don’t look like us, who don’t talk or act like us, and we are even afraid to challenge the authority of those whom we have put into office.

The same people who have made it part of their every day vernacular to call us defeatists have themselves, in the same breathe, will advertise their own cowardice without the slightest hint of irony by doing anything and everything for the slightest hint of more safety from terrorists.

That’s the first step. We need to remember how to be Americans first, and then we can move on from there.

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