Ethics of the infantryman

Mark Grimsley writes Blog Them Out of the Stone Age. He posted an entry linking to an SF Chronicle article that quoted him, regarding the American soldiers currently being considered for prosecution for raping and murdering civilians in Iraq.
Not to make light of it, but it makes the shenanigans our own Airborne got up to in Somalia look relatively tame by comparison. First, a personal story.


I’ve never served overseas, but I was involved in excercises that featured or surrounded civilians as an infantry reservist. ARCON96, I was the #2 mortarman for my infantry platoon, which was dug in in defense of a checkpoint at a bridge, manned by another rifle platoon from a different unit, backed by MPs. Civvies had been hired to portray, well, civvies, indigenous people of whatever country it is we were meant to be in. (The first half of ARCON for us was a live fire in the defense, but this half was blanks and “militia bullets” for the weapons det mortar and Carl G, so no civvies were harmed in the making of this ex.)
The idea was that the Regular Force units attached to the ex (Royal Canadian Regiment soldiers) would mingle with the civvies and haul out AK-47s if given half a chance and a quarter of the motive, or so I understand it – from our vantage several hundred metres back on a hill, it was pretty frigging boring for the most part, when our attached RCR Sergeant wasn’t making my life hell. (As best I can tell, he didn’t like me much for some failings I had as a soldier, one real and several perceived. I heartily returned the dislike. That was the worst ex I’ve ever been on in my life, and I’m counting the one where our boots all froze overnight after we hiked through kneedeep half-frozen water for several hours and we had to ruck out afterwards – Operation Frozen Boot, we called it. But I digress.)
The last day of the ex, the RCR were to emerge from hiding and attack our positions, which, since it was the last day, it would be deemed we had defended successfully and everybody would get to go home. We actually saw and fired upon their recce folks – hard not to see them, since they delivered themselves in an LSVW and we could hear those goddamn steel brakes for kilometres. Would have been more realistic if we’d had a way to tell them they’d just been blown to bits by direct fire from a 60mm mortar and a GPMG, but I digress again.
In the mortar pit, we had no radio, but our hole was within raised-voice distance of the platoon commander’s, so he could pass on fire orders. We got to “shoot” at the previously-mentioned recce team, as well as a few other unfriendly soldiers that showed themselves (presumably purposely, since they were pretty obvious about it too). On the *second* last day, we saw a large group of civvies approach the checkpoint and begin milling around, as had happened several times previously. Suddenly, without much ado and certainly without firing from down below, our Lieutenant yelled at us to target and begin firing upon the civvies. I had heard him on the radio previously, but had no idea what he was saying. Even my #1, not really noted for his superior brainpower, was confused. “Why? They’re not shooting!” The answer was “I don’t care, fire your godamn weapon!” or something along those lines. We looked at each other and shrugged – we’d been yelled at plenty enough on that ex already thank you very much, and what the hell, it’s not like these were real bombs we were firing. So we went through the motions of load and fire, which apparently satisfied our officer. We never did get an explanation as to why we were meant to be shooting – and it was just us, nobody was firing their rifles or LMGs in support, although half the platoon was off eating. As best I can tell, our officer reacted to an order given on the radio, and passed it on without questioning it.
Ever since though, it has bothered me – why would our officer pass on that order? To be honest, I didn’t have a great deal of respect for him either, nor did a large part of the rest of the platoon. If he’d said “follow me!” and jumped over a berm into enemy fire, he’d likely have been alone. Some officers and NCMs you’ll follow through hell and back on their say-so, I served with a fair number of these sorts, but there’s a few that I wouldn’t have followed to a bar, even if he was buying the beer and supplying women, and this particular Lt was one of that latter group.
That’s not why I questioned the order though, and I don’t think it’s why my fellow Private did either. We questioned it because on the face of it, it was a terrible, bloodthirsty order, albeit one that would only result in administrative bloodshed. If nothing else, I don’t believe that a 60mm mortar was the best weapon to use on that crowd: they were awfully close to the soldiers manning the checkpoint, and I believe that if we had fired real HE bombs on the civvies as ordered, we would have likely killed some friendly soldiers. We ought to have had a couple of riflemen at the ready, scanning the crowd, and we didn’t. A lot of things were poorly done on that ex, this whacko order was just one of many.
Nevertheless, I believe that I would have refused the order absent further explanation had those been real bombs we were firing – the idea that friendlies were too close to the impact zone occurred later, at the time it was just “why are we firing on civvies that aren’t hurting anybody?” This makes me feel a bit better about my own service under arms.
Don’t get me wrong: it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody reading this that stress makes people do insane things, and combat stress is about as “good” as it gets. The soldiers of that American unit were apparently under a great deal of it, just as my Airborne comrades in arms were in Somalia in 1993. I’ve seen myself – in my grandfather (who served in Europe 1941-46) and grandmother (who lived in Belgium under Nazi occupation from 1941-45), in fellow soldiers returning from Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and even after peacetime local deployments (Swissair cleanup). I’ve read a great deal about it – I just finished Shake Hands With The Devil, and what Dallaire and his troops suffered through beggars the imagination, to say nothing of the civvies they were prevented from protecting.
I’m not really sure now what I started out to say, except that if allegations are to be believed – and I believe them – American soldiers in Iraq have been ordered to commit war crimes. These half dozen or so (five?) particular ones were almost certainly not ordered to do what they did, but some other allegations have involved senior field-grade and above officers – Majors and Colonels – ordering things like killing all fighting-age men. I’ve always thought that the failure in Somalia wasn’t Private Brown’s, or Master Corporal Matchee’s personal actions – the failure was one of leadership, and that comes from Sergeants, Warrant Officers, and any officer. If what happened was a surprise, then their leadership was piss poor, and if it wasn’t, then their leadership was criminal. Returning to Iraq, Majors and Colonels should know better than to give orders like that. If the allegations prove true, then not only should those soldiers be put in jail for as long as possible, but the people they report to ought to be as well. Leaders are responsible for the actions of the troops – that’s what they told me on my QL3 course – and they should be.
Disbanding the Airborne was an extreme reaction to the reasons given – they were put into a position to fail, and they did, but in that case the blame ought to have run all the way up to the man who ordered their deployment, Jean Chretien. The actions of US troops in Iraq reflects a failure of leadership at all levels. The junior NCMs who have carried out atrocities, both on their own hook and under orders. The senior NCMs who ought to have stopped both. The junior officers who ought to have backstopped the NCMs, and the senior officers generating the orders in the first place. And, at the risk of joining the anti-Bush bandwagon, the politicians who sent those soldiers into harm’s way in the first place. Not for the sending of them – that’s what soldiers are for, to fight and to die if necessary. But for the sending of them under a cloud of mistrust and hatred. It’s no surprise that that is what they are engendering in their soldiers.
I hope that I would have fared better, under similar circumstances.