June 11, 2006

Haditha, War Crimes and an Act of Conscience

Lets start with First Lt Ehren Watada, who this week announced that he will refuse deployment to Iraq. He feels impelled to take this action, which puts him on the line for court martial and a substantial prison term, because he believes that “the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.” Lt. Watada joins a number of other soldiers, sailors and marines who cannot in good conscience participate in the war.

Each individual who has taken this position has acted for their own unique reasons. Lt. Watada is notable because he is the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment. He hasn’t claimed Conscientious Objector (CO) status because he does believe that some wars are justified. In fact, he joined the Army in 2003, when the war was already under way.
However, he has come to realize that the reality of this war is very different from the story that he believed when he signed up. The government told him that the war was about weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism. It turns out that the weapons were imaginary and that Iraq posed no threat to the United States. Furthermore is is clear that the Bush Administration knew this very well and deliberately lied to the American people and to the world. They sent our troops into harms way on false pretenses in furtherance of a secret agenda.

The war at its inception was a violation of international law, the UN Charter, and US law because it was not sanctioned by the UN and was not undertaken in self defense.

The war in its conduct is a violation of all of the above as well as the Army’s Law of Land Warfare because of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, collective punishment in Fallujah and elsewhere and torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

Given this new understanding of the war, Lt. Watada could not in good conscience participate. In his words, “My oath of office is to protect and defend America’s laws and its people. By refusing unlawful orders for an illegal war, I fulfill that oath.” He informed his superiors and asked to be assigned to duties not directly connected to the war, or to resign from the Army. The Army has refused these requests and intends to prosecute him if he refuses deployment to Iraq.

The Haditha “massacre” offers some insight into why people have been talking more and more about war crimes. This was just one incident during three years of war but it is hardly unique. Haditha is a city in Al Anbar province about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. It is the site of the largest hydroelectric dam in the country, which gives it strategic importance. It has been the site of several attacks against Iraqi officials and police and American troops.

Initial reports from the Marines stated that a roadside bomb killed one American and 15 civilians in November 2005. In February 2006, a video of the bodies of the civilians showed that they had been shot in their homes. Eyewitnesses reported that after the American was killed, Marines stormed nearby houses and killed men, women and children indiscriminately. The story only made it to the mainstream press in the US a few weeks ago, leading to investigations and possible prosecution of the troops involved. The thing that was most shocking to Americans was the possibility that our troops had deliberately murdered civilians. Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine said that the episode might prove to be America’s darkest hour in Iraq. “This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. And we’re set back every time something like this happens.”

Today’s Washington Post offers an account of the events that day by one of the Marines involved. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich told his story through his attorney in an attempt to show that his actions were consistent with military rules of engagement in Iraq and to defend himself against possible criminal charges.

He says that they did not set out to kill civilians. However, they shot first and asked questions later. “Marines noticed a white, unmarked car full of ‘military aged men’ lingering near the bomb scene. When Marines ordered the men to stop, they ran; ...it was standard operating procedure at the time for the Marines to shoot suspicious people fleeing a bombing, and the Marines opened fire. ... Iraqis .. said the vehicle was a taxi carrying a group of students to their homes and that the driver tried to back away from the site, fleeing in fear. ... AK-47 shots rang out from homes on the south side of the road. ... A corporal with the unit leaned over to Wuterich and said he saw the shots coming from a specific house ... A four-man team of Marines, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms, noticing quickly that there was one room with a closed door and people rustling behind it ... They kicked in that door, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room, and one Marine fired a series of "clearing rounds" through the dust and smoke, killing several people ...The Marine who fired the rounds ... had experience clearing numerous houses on a deployment in Fallujah, where Marines had aggressive rules of engagement.” Noting that there were only civilians in the room, they figured that the insurgents had slipped out the back door, so they charged into another house with the same tactics and the same results. Altogether, 15 - 24 civilians were killed, including children as young as 2 years old. It does not appear that any actual insurgents were killed.

There are a number of aspects of this report that are deeply disturbing. The Geneva Conventions require troops to minimize civilian casualties. This conduct displays a reckless disregard for civilian life. Troops assume that anybody they encounter is likely to be an enemy and act accordingly. This is especially true of men of “military age”. During the siege of Fallujah, women and children were allowed to leave the city as American troops prepared to attack but men were not. The assumption was that all men were suspected insurgents. There have been numerous reports from American troops that they respond to any attack with indiscriminate fire in that direction, regardless of who might be caught in the crossfire. Air attacks cause the most civilian casualties. The very first “official” bombing of the war, attempting to kill Saddam Hussein, instead killed a small child. Thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded by American troops who cannot or will not tell the difference between fighters and bystanders. Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist covering Iraq, documents many other similar events in his article, Countless My Lai Massacres in Iraq.

Other violations of international law, constituting war crimes, include the use of white phosphorus bombs in Fallujah, attacks on ambulances, preventing people from receiving medical care, and the widespread torture of prisoners. There are also indications that the American supported Iraqi police or militias are involved in rounding up, torturing and killing people. This may be related to the Salvador Option, as outline in this January 2005 Newsweek article.

Lt. Watada is responding to this systematic violation of international law by taking a principled and courageous stand. It is the highest form of patriotism to defend the Constitution, the rule of law and morality when the government seems to have abandoned it.

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