How the Pentagon has used "tactical perception management" to obscure the killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces.
“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” — Col. Potter, M*A*S*H
Name them. Maim them. Kill them.
From the beginning of the American occupation in Iraq, airstrikes and attacks by the U.S. military have only killed “militants,” “criminals,” “suspected insurgents,” “IED [Improvised Explosive Device] emplacers,” “anti-American fighters,” “terrorists,” “military age males,” “armed men,” “extremists” or “al-Qaida.”
The pattern for reporting on such attacks has remained the same from the early years of the occupation to today. Take a helicopter attack on Oct. 23 of this year near the village of Djila, north of Samarra. The U.S. military claimed it had killed 11 among “a group of men planting a roadside bomb.” Only later did a military spokesperson acknowledge that at least six of the dead were civilians. Local residents claimed that those killed were farmers, that there were children among them, and that the number of dead was greater than 11.
Here is part of the statement released by U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq, Maj. Peggy Kageleiry:
“A suspected insurgent and improvised explosive device cell member was identified among the killed in an engagement between Coalition Forces and suspected IED emplacers just north of Samarra … During the engagement, insurgents used a nearby house as a safe haven to re-engage coalition aircraft. A known member of an IED cell was among the 11 killed during the multiple engagements. We send condolences to the families of those victims and we regret any loss of life.”
As usual, the version offered by locals was vastly different. Abdul al-Rahman Iyadeh, a relative of some of the victims, revealed that the “group of men” attacked were actually three farmers who had left their homes at 4:30 a.m. to irrigate their fields. Two were killed in the initial helicopter attack and the survivor ran back to his home where other residents gathered. The second airstrike, he claimed, destroyed the house killing 14 people. Another witness told reporters that four separate houses were hit by the helicopter. A local Iraqi policeman, Capt. Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 — seven men, six women and three children, with another 14 wounded.
As often happens, the U.S. military, once challenged, declared that an “investigation” of the incident was under way.
On Oct. 21, two days before that helicopter strike near Djila, American soldiers, again aided by helicopters, but this time in a heavily populated urban neighborhood, claimed to have killed 49 “armed men” in a “gun battle” in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Then, too, the military initially insisted “no civilians were killed or injured.” A Shiite citizens’ council and other Shiite groups responded that many innocent bystanders had died. Among the 13 dead mentioned in initial reports by local Iraqi police were three children and a woman. Other Iraqi authorities announced that 69 people had been injured.
The U.S. military had no explanation for the widely varying American and Iraqi tallies of casualties.
The official American account went like this:
To be fair, the military admitted that the target of this manhunt was not, in fact, among those captured or killed.
“The operation’s objective was an individual reported to be a long time Special Groups member specializing in kidnapping operations. Intelligence indicates he is a well-known cell leader and has previously sought funding from Iran to carry out high profile kidnappings. Upon arrival, the ground force began to clear a series of buildings in the target area and received sustained heavy fire from adjacent structures, from automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, or RPGs. Responding in self-defense, Coalition forces engaged, killing an estimated 33 criminals. Supporting aircraft was also called in to engage enemy personnel maneuvering with RPGs toward the ground force, killing an estimated six criminals. Upon departing the target area, Coalition forces continued to receive heavy fire from automatic weapons and RPGs and were also attacked by an improvised explosive device. Responding in self-defense, the ground force engaged the hostile threat, killing an additional estimated 10 combatants. All total, Coalition forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three separate engagements during this operation. Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation.”
After the “operation,” television news outlets broadcast images of grieving families in the streets of Sadr City. One man reported that his neighbor’s 6-year-old child had been killed, and a 2-year-old wounded. Arab television outlets caught scenes of ambulances with wailing sirens carrying the injured to the Imam Ali hospital, the largest in Sadr City, where doctors were shown treating the casualties, including children.
Typically with such incidents, those 49 dead “criminals” turned back into civilians when local police began checking, including two (not three) children in their final count.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed an investigation for which U.S. military officials offered to form a joint committee; but, as is so often the case in such “investigations,” there have been no follow-up reports. In this “incident,” the U.S. military, as far as we know, still stands by its assertion that no civilians were killed or wounded.
Two months earlier, in a similar incident, the U.S. military claimed 32 “suspected insurgents” killed during an airstrike, also in Sadr City, a claim disputed by Iraqis in the neighborhood, followed by the usual promise of an investigation — of which, once again, nothing more was heard.
For perspective, let me take you back to Iraq in November 2003. I had been there less than a week on my first visit to that occupied country when the U.S. military reported a raging firefight between American forces and 150 of Saddam Hussein’s former Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. According to Gen. Peter Pace, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, American soldiers, on being attacked by the group, had responded fiercely and killed 54 of them. “They attacked and they were killed, so I think it will be instructive to them,” Gen. Pace had smugly observed.
Most of the Western media simply chalked up the number of “insurgent” dead at 54 and left it at that. Local media in Baghdad, as well as outlets like Al-Jazeera, were, however, citing very different figures taken directly from the hospital in Samarra where the wounded were being treated. Doctors there announced a count of eight killed in the incident, including an Iranian pilgrim, and 50 Iraqis wounded.
I traveled to Samarra that week, visited the morgue at Samarra General Hospital, spoke with wounded Iraqis at the hospital, and interviewed one of the leading sheiks of the city as well as several eyewitnesses to the event. What I found was general agreement that a U.S. patrol had, in fact, come under attack — but by only two gunmen while delivering money to a downtown bank. Jumpy American soldiers had responded with a spray of fire that had killed neither of the attackers, but eight civilians, while wounding 50 others. The streets in the city center, where the firing took place, were riddled with bullets.
The military, nonetheless, stood by their figure — 54 dead — and insisted that the enormous force of “insurgents” had attacked with mortars, grenades and automatic weapons.
A man I interviewed, who had been in his tea stall in the vicinity and witnessed most of the incident, summed up the local reaction this way:
“The Americans say the people who fought them are al-Qaida or fedayeen. We are all living in this small city here. Why have we not seen these foreign fighters and strangers in our city before or after this battle? Everyone here knows everyone, and none have seen these strangers. Why do they tell these lies?”
Another man at the scene had drawn my attention to a parked car scarred with 112 bullets. As I was photographing it, a man with two children at his side approached. They were, he said, the children of his brother who had been killed by the gunfire.
“This little boy and girl, their father was shot by the Americans. Who will take care of this family? Who will watch over these children? Who will feed them now? Who? Why did they kill my brother? What is the reason? Nobody told me. He was a truck driver. What is his crime? Why did they shoot him? They shot him with 150 bullets! Did they kill him just because they wanted to shoot a man? That’s it? This is the reason? Why didn’t anyone talk to me and tell me why they have killed my brother? Is killing people a normal thing now, happening every day? This is our future? This is the future that the United States promised Iraq?”
My life as an independent reporter in his country was just beginning and his questions felt like so many blows to the gut. Of course, I was the only American reporter there to hear him and I was then writing for an e-mail audience of under 200. This is what it means, in Pentagon terms, to dominate not only the battlefield, but the media landscape in which that battlefield is reported. And that sort of domination was, it turned out, very much on Pentagon minds in that period.
Within days of the incident, for instance, the New York Times published an article about how the Pentagon had awarded a contract to SAIC, a private company, which was to investigate ways the Department of Defense could use propaganda for more “effective strategic influence” in the “war on terror.” The Pentagon referred to this potential propaganda blitz (which would eventually come back to haunt Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) as a “tactical perception management campaign.” The title of the document SAIC produced was “Winning the War of Ideas.”
On Dec. 2, 2005, the U.S. military would admit that the Lincoln Group, which described itself as “a strategic communications & public relations firm providing insight & influence in challenging & hostile environments,” had been hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-American good-news articles in the new Iraqi “free” press that the Bush administration was just then touting. This was exposed during a briefing with Sen. John Warner of Virginia, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The admission would not, as one might have expected, prove a step toward deterrence. Not only did the Lincoln Group get further contracts, but a wide range of similar tactics continue to be employed by the military in Iraq today with even greater impunity. In Iraq, the propaganda and misinformation have, in fact, been continual and on a massive scale. And, of course, the regular announcements of Iraqi “insurgent” or “criminal” deaths in American operations have never stopped, nor have the announcements of “investigations,” when those claims are seriously challenged on the ground — investigations that, except in a few cases, are never heard of again. All this is a reminder of something George W. Bush once said: “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”
Even when one of those investigations did lead somewhere, that somewhere was almost invariably a dead end. Take Haditha. Witnesses told reporters that, on Nov. 19, 2005, in the western town of Haditha, 24 Iraqi civilians had been slaughtered by U.S. Marines. It was no secret that the Marines had shot men, women and children at close range in retaliation for a roadside bombing that killed one of their own.
The Washington Post quoted Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who was watching from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families. He had heard Younis Salim Khafif, his neighbor across the street, plead in English for his life and the lives of his family members. “I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: ‘I am a friend. I am good,’” Fahmi said. “But they killed him, and his wife and daughters.”
A Post special correspondent and U.S. investigators in Washington reported that some of the dead were women attempting to shield their children. According to death certificates, the girls killed in Khafif’s house were aged 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1.
After the news broke in the U.S., the military ordered a probe of the incident. An Iraqi had actually managed to film the interiors of the blood-soaked houses as well as scenes of the wounded at the Haditha hospital, and had recorded statements of eyewitnesses to the massacre.
Even now, two years after the massacre, investigations continue. Anonymous Pentagon officials have admitted to reporters that there is an abundance of evidence to support charges against the accused Marines of deliberately shooting civilians, including unarmed women and children. Currently, Marine Corps and Navy prosecutors are reviewing the evidence, and will likely ask for further probes.
As for the charges levied against the soldiers involved in the massacre, on April 2 of this year, all of the charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, who was accused of killing five civilians, were dropped as part of a decision that granted him immunity to testify in potential courts-martial for seven other Marines charged in the attack and in its alleged coverup. On Aug. 9, all murder charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and charges of failing to investigate the incident against Capt. Randy Stone were dropped by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, well known for claiming of fighting in Afghanistan, “It’s fun to shoot some people.”
On Aug. 23, the investigating officer suggested that charges against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum be dropped as well. On Oct. 19, Tatum’s commanding officers decided the charges should be lowered to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault. More recently, on Sept. 18, all charges against Capt. Lucas McConnell were dropped, and the investigating officer recommended that charges be similarly dropped against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.
On Oct. 3, an investigating officer of an Article 32 hearing (a proceeding similar to a civilian grand jury) recommended that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich be tried for negligent homicide in the deaths of two women and five children, and that the murder charges for his involvement in the killing of 17 innocent civilians, be dropped. In other words, so far, no one has gone to jail for the massacre in Haditha.
It is now commonplace for such investigations, regarding heinous crimes against Iraqi civilians, to drag on for months or even years. Equally commonplace: On completion of these investigations, the low-level soldiers, who are charged with the crimes, are often either cleared entirely or given laughably light sentences by military courts.
On Nov. 8, for instance, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley, a sniper, was found not guilty by military judges on three charges of premeditated murder for killing three Iraqi civilians. He was instead convicted only of placing an AK-47 rifle with the remains of a dead Iraqi during one of his missions — as evidence that the man was an “insurgent.”
In January 2004, 19-year-old Zaidoun Hassoun and his cousin Marwan Fadil were forced off a ledge into the Tigris River in Samarra at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers. Fadil survived. He testified that the soldiers, after forcing the two into the water, had stood by laughing as Hassoun drowned.
Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins was the only soldier tried in the case. Defense attorney Capt. Joshua Norris suggested that Perkins could not be convicted of manslaughter because there was “no body, no evidence, no death.” He was, in fact, cleared of the involuntary manslaughter charge in a military court on Jan. 9, 2005, and instead was reduced in rank by one grade and sentenced to six months in a military prison for assault.
Similarly, on June 6, 2006, three British soldiers were cleared of charges of killing 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem in May 2003 by forcing him into a Basra canal.
None of this — from the unending “incidents” themselves to the way the Pentagon has dominated the reporting of them — would have been possible without a widespread dehumanization of Iraqis among American soldiers (and a deep-set, if largely unexpressed and little considered, conviction on the American “home front” that Iraqi lives are worth little). If, four decades ago, the Vietnamese were “gooks,” “dinks” and “slopes,” the Iraqis of the American occupation are “hajis,” “sand-niggers” and “towel heads.” Latent racism abets the dehumanization process, ably assisted by a mainstream media that tends, with honorable exceptions, to accept Pentagon announcements as at least an initial approximation of reality in Iraq.
Whether it was “incidents” involving helicopter strikes in which those on the ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on videotape (Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis: “How many people go to the middle of the desert … to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive.”), or killings at U.S. checkpoints, or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an “enemy”; report only “fighters” being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill.
At the time of this writing, the group Just Foreign Policy has offered an estimate of Iraqis killed since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Their number: 1,118,846. Consider that possibility in the context of the latest round of news from Iraq about lessening violence.
The estimate is based on figures from a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and published in October 2006 in the British Medical Journal the Lancet, which found 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation. The report methodology has been called “robust” and “close to best practice” by Sir Roy Anderson, the chief scientific advisor to Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Since that time, in addition to Just Foreign Policy, the British research polling agency Opinion Research Business has extrapolated a figure of 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Based on this, veteran Australian-born journalist John Pilger wrote recently, “The scale of death caused by the British and U.S. governments may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, making it the biggest single act of mass murder of the late 20th century and the 21st century.”
It is an indication of the success of an effective Pentagon “tactical perception management campaign,” of the way the Bush administration has continued to “catapult propaganda,” and of the dehumanization of Iraqis that has gone with it, that the possibility of the number of dead Iraqis being in this range has largely been dismissed (or remained generally undealt with) in the mainstream media in the United States. Add to that the refusal of the U.S. military to bring to justice those charged with some of these heinous crimes, the lack of accountability, and an establishment media that has regularly camouflaged the true nature of the occupation, and we have the perfect setting for a continuance of industrial-scale slaughter in Iraq, even while the news highlights the likes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and their adventures in various rehab clinics.
In what could reasonably serve as a summary of the American occupation of Iraq, the 18th century philosopher Voltaire wrote, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of the just-published Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey over the last four years. He maintains a website, Dahr Jamail's Mideast Dispatches, with all his writing. More Dahr Jamail.
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