War is hell — and it’s not fought by angels

Gee, I wonder why they hate us.

Last month an embedded TV cameraman taped a U.S. Marine executing an unarmed insurgent in a mosque during the all-out assault on Fallujah.

Broadcast first on NBC Nightly News, the video showed the marine yelling, “He’s f—–g faking he’s dead! He faking he’s f—–g dead!” before snuffing out what little life the man had left.

Along with other wounded Iraqis, the victim had been disarmed and left in the mosque earlier by another marine unit until they could be given medical attention. According to the cameraman, Kevin Sites, no weapons could be seen inside the mosque.

“Through my viewfinder I can see him raise the muzzle of his rifle in the direction of the wounded Iraqi,” Site writes in a first-person account of the incident. “There are no sudden movements, no reaching or lunging.

“There is a small spatter against the back wall and the man’s leg slumps down.”
“ He’s dead now,” another soldier quipped once the man no longer had to “fake” his death.

But never mind. Inspired by right-wing talk-show hosts, the marine’s jingoistic defenders offered excuses ranging from the improbable to the implausible to justify shooting a grievously wounded man in the head. At the same time, they condemned anyone who expressed horror and shame at the marine’s act and accused them of “trying him in the press.” (A curious twist of logic, in that they themselves took to the airwaves to pronounce him not guilty.)

The American soldier had himself been shot in the face the previous day, these apologists pointed out, and a buddy had been blown up by a booby-trapped body. And he had no way of knowing other American soldiers had already disarmed the shot and bleeding rebels.

Beyond that, he was in fear of his life, they said, and had to make a split-second decision about whether the insurgent, motionless on the floor, represented a danger to not just himself, but his comrades in arms.

All that may be true. But was the shooting really self-defense? Afterward, the contrite shooter, who hadn’t realized the tape was rolling, approached Sites and said, “I didn’t know, sir. I didn’t know.”

Many turned their anger over the incident to not the marine, but the cameraman, a seasoned photojournalist who has been denounced and even threatened with death since the video’s release. He wrote on his web site that he was “shocked to see myself painted as some kind of antiwar activist.”

But they’re our marines right or wrong, his critics say, and the video should not have been shown. More important than revealing the truth is hiding ugly images so the public can retain its romantic view of war as a noble activity in which Good Guys battle Bad Guys, no little kids have their feet blown to shreds by American bombs, none are left orphaned, and only the bad die young.

What, then, to make of another, less publicized story about the siege of Fallujah? Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein gave a first-hand account of his attempt to get out of the city – along with many other civilians fleeing the carnage – by crossing the Euphrates River.

“I decided to swim,” he said, “but I changed my mind after seeing U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river,” including a family of five. “I kept walking along the river for two hours and I could still see some U.S. snipers ready to shoot anyone who might swim.”

In nearby Ramadi, marines riddled a van with bullets when it failed to stop at a checkpoint, leaving three civilians dead and five wounded.

So we have American soldiers picking off defenseless people trying to escape the hell created by our invasion – i.e., their “liberation” – and killing unarmed, wounded enemy combatants just to make sure they are really dead. Perhaps it was only to be expected, since we began this ill-begotten adventure by incessantly bombing Baghdad for weeks and killing uncounted Iraqis to create a free and democratic country for those who were lucky enough to survive.

(I say “uncounted,” but a research team from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University recently conducted an extensive survey of Iraq and concluded that, by conservative estimate, 100,000 civilians – some of them insurgents, many of them not – have been killed in the war so far.)

But my point here is not just to condemn these particular acts of inhumanity that clearly violate the “rules of war,” as they are bizarrely called. After all, training soldiers to kill requires they see their enemies as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs rather than real people who have lives and aspirations not so different from our own, when you think about it – which is exactly why soldiers are conditioned not to think about it.

And which is exactly why brutal acts such as these are bound to occur during any armed conflict, no matter how well-intentioned the cause. (The same sort of things went on in Vietnam, despite what some self-serving revisionists claim, and will happen again in whatever war comes next – Korea, Iran, Colombia, take your pick. They all appear to be on President Bush’s short list of evildoers.)

My point is that war forces horrible actions and horrifying decisions onto good people who went into the military with the finest of goals. How will all this change them? What does shooting wounded human beings in the head and plucking off civilians swimming a river do to the shooters?

Remember how quickly the administration’s reason for the invasion changed once no weapons of mass destruction could be found?

Why, Saddam had killed thousands of innocent Iraqis for his own ends, they said indignantly.

Well, so have we now. And you know what they say – act like your enemy and you are your enemy.

Gee, maybe that’s why they hate us so much.

David Grant Long writes from Cortez.

From David Long, December 2004.