Mark Harrison, Program Director of Peace with Justice with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, claims in an Iraq Update “that degradation and killing of civilians by US troops has become common place in Iraq.” The basis of his accusation is an article by Chris Hedges in the political magazine The Nation.
The author of the Nation article interviewed 50 service members largely referred by anti-war groups. Hundreds of thousands of service members have served in theater since March 2003 – including me. Most would tell quite a different story.
The Hedges article leads with accounts of shooting dogs, furniture being overturned and family members being frightened during a search of homes, children wounded by US forces during insurgent attacks and apparently innocent people being killed when they did not stop at check points. Is there any substance to these accounts?
- Does war suck to the 10th power for everybody, including civilians? Absolutely. Innocents suffer and sometimes even die for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. US forces make every effort – often at great personal risk – not only to avoid needless injury and property damage but to rescue and protect those caught in the middle.
- Do Soldiers and their leaders make mistakes of judgment? Of course. In the fog of war and in a high threat environment, such mistakes may be more common and more consequential than ever. There is, however, no more competent group of military professionals anywhere.
- Do Soldiers sometimes deal with the stress of combat with gallows humor? Certainly, as police officers, firefighters, EMTs and medical professionals sometimes do. Overall, in small doses and in private, the ability to find absurd humor in the chaos and pain of war is healthy. Outsiders, however, cannot often put this behavior in context.
- Do Soldiers commit crimes, ranging from petty theft to murder? A few unfortunately do, as do some members of just about every other group the size of the armed forces. (Some members of the clergy, for example, commit serious crimes. Perhaps we should shut down the churches.) Crimes don’t just take place when Soldiers are deployed to Iraq; they can happen anywhere. And when they are discovered, and there is sufficient evidence of of their crimes, the guilty are punished.
These sad facts are true no matter which nation or which conflict one is discussing. They are only a small segment, however, of a much larger picture of Soldiers, their leaders and their operations. In my personal experience:
- Soldiers and their leaders perform their missions far from home in a dangerous environment with a high degree of professionalism.
- Soldier training repeatedly emphasizes protecting civilian life, property and dignity during operations.
- Leaders enforce standards of conduct and discipline and investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
As I have said on previous occasions, the way forward in Iraq is a question for the people of the United States to decide. There may be many factors involved in making that decision, but Soldier misconduct is not one of them. No one argues that when individual police officers commit misconduct, we should disband the police force and give the criminals a free hand.
There is no question about which force in this conflict is a greater threat to the men, women and children of Iraq. It is not our forces who are bombing mosques, market places and schools with the intention of killing as many innocents as possible and inflaming the passions of civil strife. Our forces are supporting the building of civilian infrastructure; the enemies of Iraq purposely destroy infrastructure with the intent of intensifying suffering. It is not our forces who cut off heads and dump bodies on the street to terrify the local population. Our forces support the rule of law; our enemies do everything possible to undermine it.
If Al Qaeda and the (often foreign supported) militant sectarians laid down their arms today, abandoned their campaign of terror against the populace and joined the political process, there would be no need for cordon-and-searches, check points or attacks by coalition forces. Until that day, it’s ludicrous to argue that US forces are the greater threat to the people of Iraq.
The broad portrayal of Soldiers as sick, malicious thugs is built on rumors, exaggerations, distortions and outright lies about the extent of Soldier misconduct and is a page taken from the anti-Vietnam play book.
Of course, I guess Mr. Harrison could say that he was just pointing out that misconduct Soldier misconduct happens at a noticeable frequency, as in “murders in Kansas City are common place.” For the three years I lived in the Kansas City area, the news would report – it seemed – one or two murders every day. Several hundred Kansas City residents committed murder last year. Several million did not.
Stories of Soldier misconduct are prominent in the news when they occur. Stories of ordinary, faithful Soldiers performing their mission with integrity are not so easy to find. News reports are not proportional to the frequency of occurrence. Of course, one instance of Soldier misconduct is disgraceful and one too many, but don’t confuse those who disgrace the uniform with the vast majority who honor it.
If Mr. Harrison has specific, credible evidence of crimes by individuals, he should report it. His broad stereotyping of US soldiers is as vicious and despicable as racial and ethnic stereotypes. As the director of “Peace with Justice,” it is ironic that he unjustly maligns the men and women who are paying such a high price to achieve both in Iraq.
And, as far as I know, Mr. Harrison – who works for a United Methodist agency – did not talk to any United Methodist service members before he decided to characterize our actions in this way.