What war can do

The president asks Americans to "imagine an enemy" who kills innocent people in the name of democracy.


Tim Grieve
March 22, 2006 1:15AM (UTC)

During his press conference this morning, George W. Bush asked Americans to "imagine an enemy that says: 'We will kill innocent people because we're trying to encourage people to be free.'"

We have no idea what he meant. We do know what we thought.

Now, let's be clear about this from the outset. We have no quarrel with the vast majority of the U.S. troops in Iraq. They're doing a job they signed up to do, they're doing it in extraordinarily difficult conditions, and they're doing it with neither the equipment nor the planning they had every right to expect from those who sent them in harm's way.

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This is not about them.

But when the president talks about "an enemy" that kills "because we're trying to encourage people to be free," it's impossible not to think about the toll that the invasion of Iraq is taking on the people the United States is trying to liberate. We've seen the photographs from Abu Ghraib. We read today about the conviction of Sgt. Michael J. Smith, an Army dog handler at the prison who apparently engaged in contests with a compatriot to see whose snarling shepherd could cause terrified detainees to soil themselves first. We've heard the president acknowledge that at least 30,000 Iraqis have died in the war -- that was long before sectarian violence upped the toll dramatically -- and we've read reports suggesting that the number is much, much higher than that.

The men and women in the U.S. military are not our enemy, and they are not the enemy of the Iraqi people, either. But are some of them killing "innocent people" -- intentionally, not accidentally or as some sort of "collateral damage" -- as we claim to be spreading democracy? Two new reports suggest that it's a question that must be asked.

As Knight Ridder reported Sunday, Iraqi police say that U.S. soldiers last week executed 11 people, including a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant, after raiding a house where an al-Qaida suspect was captured. Knight Ridder says that such accusations are "commonplace" in Iraq, and that most "are judged later to be unfounded or exaggerated." This one is different, Knight Ridder says, "because it originated with Iraqi police, and because Iraqi police were willing to attach their names to it." The report, a copy of which Knight Ridder has obtained, says: "The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 persons, including five children, four women and two men. Then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles and killed their animals." The military said today that it is investigating the allegations.

Meanwhile, Time reports that the military is investigating charges that Marines seeking revenge for a deadly roadside bombing went on a rampage in the western Iraqi village of Haditha in November, murdering 15 civilians in the process. A Marine communiqué initially claimed that the civilians were killed in the roadside bomb blast itself. But a subsequent investigation -- apparently begun when Time confronted military officials in Baghdad with the eyewitness accounts of local Iraqis -- acknowledged that the 15 civilians were, in fact, killed by the Marines.

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The Marine Corps has turned over the case to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. A spokeswoman for the military says that the referral doesn't necessarily mean that anyone thinks that a crime was committed, and that insurgents are ultimately to blame anyway because nothing would have happened if they hadn't set off an IED. But of course, the insurgents wouldn't have had a U.S. Humvee to bomb if the United States hadn't sent its troops into a war of choice in the first place. "What happened in Haditha," Time says, "is a reminder of the horrors faced by civilians caught in the middle of war -- and what war can do to the people who fight it."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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