Difference in Conduct between US and UK Troops
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
"Death's embrace gave the bodies intimacies they never knew in life. Strangers, bloodied and blackened, wrapped their arms around others, hugging them close." This was how Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian (U.K.) described the horror striking civilians in Baghdad on 8 April. Robert Fisk (The Independent, U.K.) confirmed her report as he documented that civilians "lay in lines, the car salesman who'd just lost his eye but whose feet were still dribbling blood, the motorcyclist who was shot by American troops near the Rashid Hotel, the 50-year-old female civil servant, her long dark hair spread over the towel she was lying on, her face, breasts, thighs, arms and feet pock-marked with shrapnel from an American cluster bomb" (9 April).
For some time now Pentagon officials have gone to great lengths to reiterate that US forces have demonstrated "extraordinary restraint" in seeking to avoid civilian casualties. This message was reinforced by most reports in the US media which refused to show or describe the true face of war and instead went to great lengths seek out images of Iraqis welcoming in US soldiers. News outlets supporting the war have tried to maintain their focus on the intended purpose of this war: the disarmament of Saddam Hussein; destroying the Iraqi military's ability to threaten world peace and security; and the liberation of the Iraqi people. While many Iraqi's are happy to be rid of their dictator, the fact of the matter is that none of the original reasons for going to war have been proven legitimate. No weapons of mass destruction have been used by Saddam's regime in the war thus far; the performance of Iraq's armed forces during the war have proven that they never constituted a threat to world peace and security (not even to Israel); and Iraqi civilians have clearly borne the brunt of this conflict.
Despite these facts, what has been extremely revealing over the past three weeks has been the stark contrast in reporting exhibited by the press in the US and the UK (the only two countries fighting against Iraq). As was highlighted above, British newspapers have depicted the human cost of war much more profoundly than have the US media. In fact, it could be said that US media outlets have gone to great lengths to exclude such images from their reports.
However, as the human toll rises, US based newspapers such as the Washington Post have begun to take up the issue with more interest. The reason being that a number of ex-generals and defense experts have claimed that there is a remarkable difference in terms of restraint when one compares the behavior of US forces and British forces in Iraq.
Daniel Plesch, a senior researcher and specialist on defense issues at the Royal United Service Institute in London, was quoted in the Washington Post (9 April) as stating that, "US forces lack fire discipline. This has been demonstrated not only in the high number of casualties inflicted by the Army in its raids through downtown Baghdad but also in ‘friendly fire' incidents early in the war". An unnamed US Army general backed up Plesch's remarks by indicating that "my impression is that they (the British) are much more sensitive to the fact that the fight is about the population in the cities, not the enemy forces in the city. Americans tend to see the fight as a medieval clash of the titans, with the population on the sidelines, while British view it as a fight between two sides for the support of the people". While official accounts seek to refute such claims, evidence on the ground indicates that there have been an undetermined number of instances when US troops have not shown "extraordinary restraint".
The account of Hussein Obeid (22) is a case in point. After being struck by shrapnel near his home in Dora, Obeid told a Washington Post correspondent that, "he didn't understand what was happening". He went on to insist that US troops had promised that they "had nothing against civilians. I was sure 100 percent they would not shoot at a civilian". However, after witnessing the conduct of US troops on the field he stressed that, "now I'm 100 percent sure they will". Abdel-Wudud Mustafa told a similar story. He described that the family was driving in a ravaged southern suburb at about 11 a.m. when they saw US tanks and armored personnel carriers. When their car approached them Mustafa indicated that they were fired upon. "They were firing at any car, any person", he said. "It was like a public execution in the street" (Washington Post, 9 April)
The two Baghdad market bombings, the targeting of media offices and the Palestine Hotel by US forces further question whether US troops are indeed showing restraint. While the humanitarian situation in Basra is of tremendous concern and no doubt also constitutes an act of violence, reports alluding to a lack of restraint on the part of British forces have been relatively absent. What explains this difference?
While it is impossible to bring back the lives of those lost in this conflict, all parties involved in the conflict have a responsibility under international law to facilitate an independent investigation into all cases. Indeed, the US military has promised an investigation into these matters and it is up to the international community to insist that these promises are kept. Unless such investigations are carried out, there is a great possibility that the US may indeed win all battles but end up losing the war.
- Anthony Shadid, "Hospitals Overwhelmed By Living and the Dead", The Washington Post, 9 April 2003
- Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks, "Military Defends Risks of Aggressive Tactics", The Washington Post, 9 April 2003