From The Herald http://www.theherald.co.uk/
The skinny young man wearing an Ellesse t-shirt has been forced to his knees. His eyes, together with much of the lower part of this face, are covered by a broad,, bandage-like blindfold. An American soldier in full battle dress is forcibly writing a “code number” on his forehead.
This photograph is not one of the iconic images of the Iraq war – there are too many ghoulish torture shots for it to compete in that particular hall of horrors.
But like the pictures of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib, it tells a complex story of what happens when one side of a conflict views the other as sub-human. The young man marked like a side of beef was a citizen of Haditha, 140 miles north west of Baghdad. He is being humiliated during a routine “mop up” operation during which hundreds of marines descended on the town
That operation took place a year ago and resulted in the deaths of 24 people, six of whom the Americans claim where insurgents. But who can tell whether they were actually among the 38.990 Iraqi civilians killed so far, according to the respected, unofficial organisation Bodycount.
Six months after the photograph of the young man’s “branding” was taken, US Marines embarked on what is now widely acknowledged to be an indiscriminate killing spree in the Haditha. after one of their comrades was killed by a roadside bomb. One survivor, a 10 year old girl, described last week how she hid under a cushion with her little brother, listening to the dying groans of their mother, father, grandparents, uncle and younger cousin, aged just four. The marines burst into her tiny breeze block house, threw a grenade into her grandparents room, then opened fire on the rest of the family.
US congressmen who have been briefed on the report of the incident by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service say the findings are “ugly” and much worse than Abu Ghraib, which President Bush last week admitted was a a set back for his administration.
And just as it was a journalist who uncovered the prisoner abuse scandal, only the tenacity of Time magazine brought Haditha into the open. Military reports initially said 15 people were killed by the bomb, when that was challenged another internal investigation suggested civilians died in a gun battle with insurgents. This cover-up has caused the Haditha deaths to be compared to the Mai Lai massacre, the incident which changed the course of the Vietnam war for America.
I await the Haditha investigation with weary resignation. It will not be the last and is unlikely to deliver justice. America has a poor record of calling to account its thugs in uniform. Ernest Medina, was in charge of Charlie company which killed between 347 and 500 Vietnamese villagers at Mai Lai in 1968. American witnesses saw him shooting wounded people. But despite all the investigations and national soul searching, Medina walked free.
Almost 40 years later, the parallels between both incidents are uncanny. Iraq 2006 has frightened, arrogant and ignorant Americans fighting a war they don’t understand. Now we have Arab villagers caught between the insurgents and the foreign invaders. Haditha was once a peaceful farming town, living on the proceeds of its date palms. It became a citadel of insurgency after the Americans raised Fallujah and the rebels sought a new base. Last August, Omer Mahd of the Guardian film unit visited the town under cover. He described it as being in the grip of Islamist insurgents, who regularly carried out public beheadings on a local bridge. The executions were watched by local children and recorded on DVDs later distributed free in the marketplace. One of these, it is reported, featured a young blonde man who had been disembowelled. Locals told Mahd he was an American, captured and paraded through the town before being killed.
This ruthless cruelty should remind us what war triggers in men, and explains the mixture of fear, anger and adrenaline which causes a young soldier to lose control. But there is a difference between atrocities committed by faceless insurgents who have known only dictatorship, war and occupation, and those carried out by elite troops supposedly fighting for the cause of democracy and freedom.
It is significant that the imminent publication of the Haditha investigation comes as we in Britain contemplate a leap in the number of our own soldiers deserting their posts. Figures obtained by the BBC suggest 1000 servicemen have gone AWOL since the war began in 2003, most of whom are still on the run. Lawyers who represent servicemen who refuse to fight say they are regularly approached by disenchanted soldiers.
One of the most articulate of these “conscientous objectors” is Ben Griffin, a former member of the elite SAS. Mr Griffin asked to leave the armed forces last year because he was disgusted with the behaviour of American troops with whom he worked closely during counter-terrorism operations around Baghdad. He received an honourable discharge. Mr Griffin describes the Americans as “trigger happy” and totally indiscriminate in their choice of detainees. However it is his comments about their racism which is most frightening.
He said: “As far as the Americans were concerned, the Iraqi people were sub-human, untermenschen.” (this was the Nazi terms for Jews and others they regarded as inferior).
He went on: “The Americans would talk to the Iraqis as if they were stupid and these weren't isolated cases, this was from the top down. There might be one or two enlightened officers who understood the situation a bit better but on the whole that was their general attitude. Their attitude fuelled the insurgency. I think the Iraqis detested them."
That Mr Griffin suggests the commanding officers were as much at fault as the grunts is significant. Who gave the order to shoot in Haditha? Who is ultimately responsible for Abu Ghraib? Who decides whether or not to investigate the numerous illegal incidents we never hear about? Who insists that America and Britain fail to count Iraqi dead? Last week the US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the violence at Haditha did not reflect American policy, goals or values. But talk of bad apples sounds increasingly rotten. Regular atrocities cannot be dismissed as “isolated incidents”.
Some of the most notorious war crimes in Iraq have gone unpunished. We all remember the widely publicised film in which an American soldier “finishes off” a wounded Iraqi in Fallujah. The CBS cameraman was lucid in his testimony, but no action has been taken. Why not? Who has been called to account for the 2004 bombing of a desert wedding party, which killed 45 people?
The organisation Human Rights Watch last year released a report into torture of suspects by troops of the 82nd Airborne division stationed near Fallujah between 2003 and 2004. Two sergeants and a captain describe routine, brutal beatings of prisoners. One had his leg broken by a baseball bat, others had chemicals daubed on their skin and eyes. The soldiers say such treatments was specifically ordered by military intelligence and their senior officers knew about it, further undermining the Bush administration’s insistence that Abu Ghraib was the work of a few errant underlings.
Has anyone learned from mistakes in Iraq? The 1000 British deserters appear the only people taking any positive action to end the violence. Instead of steady improvement, there is escalation of bad behaviour among the occupying troops. The explanation is obvious. Miscreants just get worse when left unchecked. When those in charge fail to show moral leadership, encourage abuse and feed prejudice…the war is lost..