Sunday, March 13, 2005

An intelligent discussion of the Italian hostage (Sgrena) shooting

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Manning the Barricades

The author of this Op-Ed piece is a former Marine captain. He discusses the Sgrena shooting. He rapidly dispenses of the absurd claim that Sgrena's car was specifically targeted (if so, why is she alive?). He also points out that arguments about prior notification are irrelevant. Most of all, he had informed ideas on what to do differently. Of course I also like the recommendations because they're what I thought of myself after a the young children of accidentally killed Iraqis were famously photographed covered with blood.
... Unfortunately, instead of helping to answer that question, the uproar after the shooting has focused on two distractions. From her hospital bed, Ms. Sgrena hinted that the Americans had tried to kill her to protest Italy's policy of negotiating with hostage-takers. Her assertion begs the questions of what the United States could possibly gain from such an act and, why, after approaching her car, the soldiers apologized and called for medical help rather than finishing the job.

More dangerous, because it sounds more plausible, is the claim that proper coordination between Italian and American authorities could have prevented the shooting. Gen. George W. Casey Jr. , the top American commander in Iraq, said Italian officials gave no advance notice of the car's intended route. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi disagrees. This dispute is a red herring. No high-level government coordination, short of an American military escort for Ms. Sgrena's car, would have changed the outcome on that highway. The pivotal players were the men on the ground.

A hallmark of modern warfare is what the Marine Corps calls the "strategic corporal." The immense firepower of our troops, the haphazard nature of the Iraqi insurgency and the ever-watching eyes of the global news media combine to place decisions of strategic consequence on the shoulders of the junior-most troops. Consider the videotaped shooting of a wounded insurgent by a marine during the fight over Falluja in November, or the atrocities committed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib referred to by some in the military as "the seven idiots that lost the war." The training provided to young marines and soldiers must be commensurate with the extraordinary demands we now make of them.

The fact is, checkpoint techniques can be taught. My platoon had to learn them on the fly, but that was two years ago. The lessons we and other troops learned should have been institutionalized long ago.

For example, we tried and discarded the three tactics that were used to warn the Italians as they approached the checkpoint: hand and arm signals, warning shots and shooting into the vehicle's engine block. We found that hand and arm signals were tough to decipher, and subject to different cultural interpretations. Warning shots are hard to hear or see, and frequently only panic the driver they're intended to warn. Shooting into engine blocks to avoid injuring passengers is Hollywood fantasy. Even my Marine snipers - some of the best marksmen in the world - couldn't do it consistently.

So we adapted. For example, once while driving through a town, we cut down a traffic sign - a bright, red octagon with the word "stop" written in Arabic - and used it at checkpoints. Who knows how many lives this simple act of theft may have saved? We also learned to shoot off highly visible smoke grenades and brightly colored flares when possible threats approached. We started putting our concertina wire at least two football fields away to give us more reaction time.

Every combat unit learns its own lessons from hard experience. The important thing is that they be passed on so they are not continually relearned at the cost of innocent lives. Americans must understand that tragic mistakes in war are unavoidable, but that every legal, moral and strategic imperative demands that they be kept to a minimum. This is our obligation to Ms. Sgrena and to Mr. Calipari's family, to the thousands of Iraqi civilians who pass through military checkpoints each day, and to the Americans who must man them and live with their decisions.

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