Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » November 2004 » Juan Cole weighs in....

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11/18/2004: Juan Cole weighs in....


today on the incident of the Marine killing the wounded Iraqi in the mosque. From the PR standpoint, of course, the incident is a complete and absolute disaster:

Iraqis continued to be furious Wednesday over the shooting by a US marine of a wounded Iraqi fighter in a mosque in Fallujah. Indeed, the Arab press in general expressed horror and outrage. Unlike US news outlets, al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite news stations actually showed the prisoner being shot, which made the footage more powerful. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat reports that both the Iraqi interim government and the Arab League have condemned the mosque shooting and demanded the perpetrator be tried.
From the military justice perspective, as you might imagine, things aren't nearly so cut and dried:
US veterans and military justice experts were less willing to jump to judgment. They point out that the full context is not apparent from the snippet of film. This second team of Marines had not known that a previous team had left these wounded guerrillas in the mosque for subsequent medical pick-up, and appear to have assumed that they were active combatants and that one of them was a suicide bomber only pretending to be dead. Such contextualization and nuance were not part of the debate in the Arab press.
Even as a former military lawyer, I don't have an opinion right now; I simply don't know enough about the situation. I've seen some stills purporting to be of the incident, but I've only seen U.S. network video of it, and of course those videos aren't showing the actual killing.

At the risk of being accused of not supporting the troops, I think it's clear that the Marine in question must be tried by court martial. Even if he's legally innocent (and with video evidence of the actual shooting, the question of innocence here is absofuckinglutely a legal one; I don't think anyone is seriously suggesting that the shooting didn't take place, or that the Marine in question didn't pull the trigger deliberately). Having worked in the system, I'm reasonably confident in the ability of a general court martial to accurately assess legal innocence based on the likely defense of "self-defense/defense of others", if there was in fact reason to believe (however mistakenly) that the Iraqi corpse was a suicide bomber who was merely playing possum.

What the Marine Corps needs to do, though, is make sure that that trial is very well covered, and that all the evidence establishing legal innocence (if the Marine is found innocent) is fully aired publicly, and if the Marine (and any responsible superiors, if any) are convicted, it needs to be shown to the world that the system did indeed take care of this incident properly, and that justice was in fact done, as nearly as is possible this side of the grave.

Cole had some very interesting comments for some of his more critical readers (below the fold):

Others expressed surprise that I declined to accept any comparison between the US Marine Corps and the guerrillas who beheaded aid worker Margaret Hassan. (!) I kid you not. They actually wanted to put them on the same plane.

Let me just clarify my comments. First of all, I did not say that the Iraq war was a legitimate war. It was not. It violated the charter of the United Nations.

What I said was that the role of the US military and other multinational forces in Iraq is now legitimate because it was explicitly sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. This is true. Many readers appear to have forgotten all about UN SC Resolution 1546 (2004), which was adopted unanimously. Here is what the Security Council said about the issue at hand:
9. Notes that the presence of the multinational force in Iraq is at the request of the incoming Interim Government of Iraq and therefore reaffirms the authorization for the multinational force under unified command established under resolution 1511 (2003), having regard to the letters annexed to this resolution;

10. Decides that the multinational force shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq in accordance with the letters annexed to this resolution expressing, inter alia, the Iraqi request for the continued presence of the multinational force and setting out its tasks, including by preventing and deterring terrorism, so that, inter alia, the United Nations can fulfil its role in assisting the Iraqi people as outlined in paragraph seven above and the Iraqi people can implement freely and without intimidation the timetable and program for the political process and benefit from reconstruction and rehabilitation activities;

11. Welcomes, in this regard, the letters annexed to this resolution stating, inter alia, that arrangements are being put in place to establish a security partnership between the sovereign Government of Iraq and the multinational force and to ensure coordination between the two, and notes also in this regard that Iraqi security forces are responsible to appropriate Iraqi ministers, that the Government of Iraq has authority to commit Iraqi security forces to the multinational force to engage in operations with it, and that the security structures described in the letters will serve as the fora for the Government of Iraq and the multinational force to reach agreement on the full range of fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations, and will ensure full partnership between Iraqi security forces and the multinational force, through close coordination and consultation;
So, the Marines at Fallujah are operating in accordance with a UNSC Resolution and have all the legitimacy in international law that flows from that. The Allawi government asked them to undertake this Fallujah mission.

To compare them to the murderous thugs who kidnapped CARE worker Margaret Hassan, held her hostage, terrified her, and then killed her is frankly monstrous. The multinational forces are soldiers fighting a war in which they are targetting combatants and sometimes accidentally killing innocents. The hostage-takers are terrorists deliberately killing innocents. It is simply not the same thing.

Now, I don't like the timing of the Fallujah mission. I don't like all the mistakes made along the way, which produced this operation. I don't like its tactics. I don't like the way it put so many civilians in harm's way. I don't like the violations of international law (targetting the hospital, turning away the Red Crescent, killing wounded and disarmed combatants), etc. I protest the latter. I don't know enough about military affairs to offer an alternative on the former issues, and don't mind admitting my technical ignorance. You can't do everything.

But the basic idea of attacking the guerrillas holding up in that city is not in and of itself criminal or irresponsible. A significant proportion of the absolutely horrible car bombings that have killed hundreds and thousands of innocent Iraqis, especially Shiites, were planned and executed from Fallujah. There were serious and heavily armed forces in Fallujah planning out ways of killing hundreds to prevent elections from being held in January. These are mass murderers, serial murderers. If they were fighting only to defend Fallujah, that would be one thing; even the Marines would respect them for that. They aren't, or at least, a significant proportion of them aren't. They are killing civilians elsewhere in order to throw Iraq into chaos and avoid the enfranchisement of the Kurds and Shiites.

Some of my readers still want good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. That's not the way the world is. It is often grey, and very bleak.

Len on 11.18.04 @ 01:37 PM CST



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