Unrep MSC to amphib

Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Incident in Fallujah

The Diplomad have a posting on the Fallujah Shooting Video (as does nearly every other blog on the internets). Up to now, other than providing some citation to the Law of War/Law of Armed Conflict, I have stayed on the sidelines. But more and more I have seen calls that the "messenger" - the MSM - be barred from reporting what happened or that the reporter should have been more "patriotic" or something akin to it and have self-censored. The good people at The Diplomad blame the military censors:
Why did US military censors allow NBC to run the tape? It should have been seized as "evidence" in any legal proceeding or investigation that will follow the shooting incident, or simply as posing a danger to lives and future operations.
Some military PR flack should lose his job over this...
And they ask to be told if they are wrong...I commented on their site that I think they are wrong, but space limitations prevented a fuller response, which is what follows:

When the decision was made to embed reporters with the troops, the decision was also made that the "truth" of combat might be revealed and that risk was deemed acceptable. War is hell and that hell includes having to make split second decisions based on insufficient information that result in permanent change of life condition for someone involved.

If the military had attempted to censor the video or suppress it, the outrage would have been even greater. My view is that the military should have engaged in a full court PR press explaining that the Marine had the absolute right to act in self defense against an enemy who has continuously violated all law of war and humanity and detailing such abuses. It was good to announce the removal of the Marine from combat and commence an investigation, but a clear and concise explanation of how "playing dead" constitutes a violation of the Laws of Armed Combat by some sharp young JAG would have been great. This stuff needs to be treated like a a corporate PR disaster (think the poisoned Tylenol case) and not as a purely legal matter. But it should not have been (and probably couldn't have been) stifled. If you have nothing to hide, I say hide nothing. But explain it well...

I do find fault with the PR shops that did not anticipate that such an event might be captured on film and have to be explained. There should have been a planned response that could have immediately been launched, complete with videos, charts, photographs and anything else that would have established the context for the world media that may have made the Marine act as he did. I believe the Commander of the Marines involved could and should have stood up immediately and announced something along the lines of :
"PFC X has served in Fallujah for the past 72 hours and has been under fire almost that entire time. He suffered a slight wound but asked to be returned to combat.

Yesterday, in a similar situation, one of his friends discovered the hard way that the enemy has booby trapped corpses and others have discovered that the enemy sometimes feigns jnjury to create an ambush. Both of these are in violation of the laws of armed conflict.

This type of action by the enemy plants a doubt, in any reasonable person's mind, that the enemy can be trusted in such situations. As a result, the proper and prudent behavior of any soldier concerned with self defense, which is an absolute right under the laws of armed conflict, would be to place the burden of showing absolute surrender or capitulation on the enemy.
In other words, if there is doubt as to the status of a wounded or allegedly surrendering enemy, the wise course is to shoot first and sort the facts out later.

If an enemy soldier intends to surrender or is wounded and wishes to be treated humanely, he had better make damn sure his intentions are unmistakeably clear.If it means stripping naked to show you are unarmed, so be it.

Based on my personal review of the video in question, there is no doubt in my mind that PFC X acted well within the law of war and there will be no further investigation.

We will not make any changes to our policy of allowing reporters to be embedded with our troops. One of the fundamental beliefs of the American people is having a free press. The press has shown the bravery and honor of our Marines and soldiers and if it also occasionally catches a glimpse of how hard war is, then so much the better.

Captain T, our JAG officer will now discuss in depth the violations of the law of war which have created the atmosphere under which PFC X was acting."


The truth shall set you free. I, as an old Navy guy from the Vietnam days, remember all too well the effort to shade the truth and which created a massive amount of mistrust between the military and the press. Let's not revisit that experience.

Update: Alec Rawls at Error Theory weighs in on The Diplomad question with some excellent thinking and some terrific links to Jawa, Ace, Cold Fury and to an excellent essay by Dale Franks. Read Alec first, then work through the links. It's worth the trip.

Update 2: I hadn't seen this before, but here Donald Sensing captures the difference between those who have served in the military ( or even those who have given war some thought) and those who have never troubled to move out of their comfort zones.
Not understanding the intentional lethality of battle is a very common misperception among people of the comfortable classes such as Mrs. Joel - for example, the graduate students I had dinner with one night just after the air campaign began against the Afghan Taliban. They apparently thought that our bombing was a form of posturing, a symbolic display, intended to yield psychological, not lethal, effects on the enemy.

One guest said that the bombing "wouldn't intimidate" the Taliban.

"We're not trying to intimidate them," I said.

"Then why are we bombing them?" came the question.

"To kill them," I answered. There was a long silence at the table. The concept seemed not to have occurred to them.

War is about killing people and breaking things until one side can't go on any more, either physically or psychologically. If more of our citizens understood this, as they might if we don't shield them from reality (including the reality of what the enemy is doing to the Iraqis, other innocents they find along the way and to our troops), then the less ill-informed criticism of our men doing their professional best we will hear. And I am not suggesting that our troops have not ever done wrong. Abu Ghraib, though a relatively minor situation, was flat-out bone headed. But it wasn't government sponsored genocide like we have found was practiced in Iraq under Saddam. And it wasn't setting up IEDs with complete indifference to who the victims will be. And it wasn't executing CARE workers or disemboweling women or beheading truck drivers, either.

Update 11/22/04: The Diplomad has issued part 2 of their Fallujah shooting post. I still think they are wrong for the reasons set forth above. Wretchard at Belmont Club weighs in with two posts on the topic: first and second. In the first, Wretchard asserts, "...we need the truth, however ugly. There is due process to protect the innocent from arbitrary punishment." I think that agrees with my position. In the second, he notes an AP article that appears to slant remarks posted by Kevin Sites about the incident into an assertion that the Marine "acted without provocation" and worries, "Sites may now even regret that his explanatory web posting is being used by the Associated Press in ways that he did not originally intend. His story might indeed "further inflame the volatile region"; now his well-meant comments might bear on a political atmosphere that may send a man to jail. We can accept his sincerity, but who will accept the consequences?" We know the answer is not the AP. Frankly, I think passions are most inflamed among people who already hate the U.S., including those who support the insurgents no matter how much evil they do and many of our own "Bush-hating" left who are blinded by their rage. As one of the comments below demonstrates, our openess about this sort of issue works to our benefit. Trying to suppress the story would have made it much worse.

I stand by my original premise - this is a primarily a public relations problem (yes, a legal problem is part of that). In a situation where context is everything, there needs to be a major PR effort to set the stage of what the young Marine was facing and why it was perfectly reasonable for him to have powerful, self-presevation concerns about what any given "insurgent" was up to, regardless of whether that "insurgent" was wounded or not. And there should be a warning given, loud and clear that it may happen again, for the very same reasons. As may have already happened, see here (hat tip; Drudge.

Update: Greyhawk at Mudville Gazette makes some outstanding points in his post that draws on Sites' own post.
For those accusing Sites of various anti-American crimes I offer the same admonition I'd give to those who accuse the young Marine of atrocities: "You weren't there."

The gist of which was drawn from an misunderstood, sometimes misquoted, and often ignored post I offered up a more in-depth defense, noting the fact that in Fallujah only one side was fighting for freedom of the press - among other noble causes - and that those who would call for the end of embedded reporters were dishonoring the sacrifices of a lot of GIs.

Now I'll dispense with subtleties and add this: I've seen a number of people claim that Sites "wasn't fit to accompany those Marines" yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah but the one inescapable fact is this: He was accompanying those Marines, he did go through that door, and I'm not sure the loudest whiners in this entire episode would have the guts to do so.
"...only one side was fighting for freedom of the press..." Yep.

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