On the eve of the first real multi-party elections to be ever held in Iraq, it is interesting to keep an ear cocked to CNN and other news networks for the opinions of sundry media pundits about what looks like the looming failure of this process. They have said similar things about other elections too…
Calling the results of an election ahead of time in a recently terminated dictatorship is always a risky business. People might avoid sharing their opinions with a stranger in a time of fear, but when given an opportunity to actually cast a vote for the first time in a relatively honest process, the turnout is almost always surprisingly high. The results can be likewise surprising.
There has been a lot of terrorism aimed at preventing the election, and the death toll has been almost half as high for Iraqis as what they experienced in a typical year living under Saddam Hussein – except that the terrorists and criminals currently bedeviling them were often secret policemen or security troops and back then. Iran, Syria, and America’s faithful ‘ally’ Saudi Arabia seem to have connived at derailing the elections as well, usually by facilitating the passage of Jihadi terrorists and their arms into Iraq. The idea of a real election is anathema to the ruling elites throughout most of the Middle East.
However, the terror that is being used to attempt to derail the elections has been absent in over 60% of Iraq’s electoral regions. There are dozens of political parties and hundreds (actually thousands) of candidates, and both the Shi’ites and the Kurds have made it clear that they look forward to the process of electing Iraq’s first legitimate government in 50 years. Now how could such a process be described as being illegitimate by any credible person?
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
- William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs, 1875
The filmed shooting of a wounded insurgent in Iraq by a US Marine during last November’s excise of the Jihadists in Falluja didn’t provoked much of a debate -- those who are opposed to the war remain so, those who support it haven’t wavered in their stance. There was some discussion about whether the Marine may have felt justified in doing so because he had reportedly lost a comrade to a wounded Jihadist the day before, and was himself wounded by a booby trapped body. Regardless, the US Military intends to haul him up before a court martial.
The discussions about whether the shooting was "legitimate" skirted around a virtual absence of fact and guidance. While the central act of war is homicide and there is no end to histories and studies of almost every facet of combat, the shelves of literature on the actual act of killing in warfare are strangely barren when it comes to issues like shooting a wounded prisoner. The only exception to this comes under ‘Rules of Engagement’ Instructions issued to Western troops when on particular missions – but these are seldom, if ever, made public.
That war is homicide is a point that needs no debate. War revolves around killing people, but in a manner that most of us sanction in one way or another. In the eyes of most societies, what separates the soldier from the common murderer are three conditions: First, the soldier is assumed to be fighting in some way for the benefit of the society he represents; that he likewise fights at the direction of the leaders of that society and more or less remains under control; and finally that he is under an assumption of risk – he kills today, but may himself be killed tomorrow.
Uniformed fighting men (and women) assume risk, but it is recognized that they will strive to limit these. Killing the enemy from ambush or from a position of superiority is perfectly acceptable. After all, the successful fighter pilot might himself be shot down from behind tomorrow; the lurking submarine might also be torpedoed by an unseen opponent or it is the turn of yesterday’s ambusher to walk into somebody else’s ambush. Until that moment comes, every combatant strives to minimize risk to themselves as much as possible.
We have 'rules', laws, customs and unwritten practices that outline what aspects of homicide are acceptable or not during warfare, yet there is a substantial gray area between some absolutes. It is entirely acceptable for a soldier to kill another soldier who is shooting at him. It is entirely unacceptable to take secured unarmed prisoners in a safe area, and shoot them down. The gray areas lie between, shading from light to dark according to circumstances and situations. The customs and unwritten practices of combatants remain an ambiguous and largely unexplored territory although they go far towards defining what is permissible according to men in battle.
What should be first and foremost in determining what is or is not acceptable is the state of mind of combatants themselves. Combatants are subjected to a complex cocktail of exhilaration and constant dread, adrenalin and mind-numbing fatigue, love and hatred – all in varying strengths and all are powerful influences by themselves. Discipline is supposed to help to inhibit some of the more extreme reactions this cocktail can induce, but it is less strong than the demands of peer esteem and other mechanics of group dynamics.
Peer respect and shared values are the strongest influences on the behavior of soldiers. In combat, the "laws" of war or guidance provided by Rules of Engagement matter less than most of us suppose, save only through their indirect influence on the soldiers through their shared values. Concepts that arise out of traditional morality can have a strong influence but can also be much weakened by the stresses of combat and keyed instinctive or drilled responses.
One '‘light gray' area concerns the killing of people who are trying to surrender in the middle of combat. Most of the literature in this area is anecdotal, but there are many stories about it. A friend of the author once described watching a German fire an anti-tank rocket into a Canadian tank from ambush – killing all but one of the five man crew. Then the German immediately stood up with his hands in the air to offer surrender, only to be promptly cut in half with a burst from an infantryman’s Bren gun.
The thinking of the Canadian infantryman was probably along the lines of "F**k you for thinking you’d get away with that." Another observation from the famous war correspondent Alan Moorhead was of an Australian killing a German machine gunner in North Africa who had kept firing until the Aussies were within a hand-grenade’s toss of his trench. The German then offered surrender, but was told "Too late, chum" (or words to that effect) and gunned down. The end of the D-Day landing sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan can also give the uninitiated a hint about the state of mind of a soldier and his attitude towards his enemies in the immediate aftermath of a brutal encounter.
A combatant who puts his hands in the air at the very last minute will usually be killed by his attackers, who are usually unwilling to allow the survival of someone who just shot at them. In a similar vein, in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act III, Scene III) the King tells the Governor of Harfleur to yield while his soldiers are in command of themselves – or else. By time honored custom, men who endured the horrors and death traps in storming the defences of a fortified city would be merciless to defenders (and their families) who had not surrendered beforehand. As late as 1813, British troops felt that they had an absolute right to rape and rob the inhabitants of cities whose defences had to be stormed. Soviet troops behaved the same way in the fiercely defended Berlin of 1945.
More problematical is the issue of accepting the surrender of people who can’t or won’t offer it, yet have stopped resisting. In the chaos of an assault with the pressing need to immediately secure an objective, there may be no time to debate the issue – so it is solved in more direct ways. There are many anecdotes about troops who wouldn’t come out of their dugouts or caves once the entrance had been captured: So in goes the grenade or demolition charge and the issue is settled. Police behave much the same way with a suspect who simply won’t drop his weapon; other than with a perfunctory inquiry, the shooting is usually regarded as closed.
One grey area is illustrated by an anecdote from Barry Broadfoot’s impressive collection in Six War Years (1974, Doubleday, Toronto, pg 237): The thing I hated was when they’d call up a carrier with a flamethrower to burn out one of their pillboxes. I can still sort of turn green when I think of it. I remember once there was this pillbox, and we could hear the guys inside yelling. We didn’t know what they were yelling and I told the sergeant maybe they wanted to surrender but the door was jammed. I said it might have taken a hit and buckled but they couldn’t get out. He said, “Fuck ‘em" and yelled to the guy with the flamethrower to turn on the heat, and you should have heard those Germans in that pillbox screaming. God it was awful.
Was this murder, rather than the more legitimate homicide of combat? The narrator doesn’t relate whether this was an ongoing assault or not, and a soldier going forward to invite the occupants of the pillbox to surrender might be shot at – one can notice that the narrator didn’t volunteer to do it either. Besides, the sergeant had an obligation to protect his own men, and on the principle that it better to be safe than sorry…
Soldiers are also discriminating about accepting the surrender of those who use weapons they really don’t like. Snipers and flamethrower operators are often likely to be shot out of hand by their captors. Similarly, in WW I, German soldiers who had been issued a saw-backed bayonet were usually advised by their comrades to immediately throw it away (there is a reference to this in All Quiet on the Western Front) as Allied soldiers were likely to summarily shoot any surrendering soldier who had one – in the belief that these bayonets were intended to cause excessively brutal injuries.
There is a substantial grey area about the issue of those who use surrender or who feign being wounded as an opportunity to deceive their enemy into drawing closer. The Jihadists in Iraq are notorious for doing this, and the Waffen SS were known to sometimes engage in the same practices in WW II. Again, a soldier’s first responsibility is his own self-preservation for as long as possible; and a foe who routinely booby-traps his own wounded or who throws a grenade after indicating a willingness to surrender is not going to be given an inch of trust. Even so, American troops in Falluja killed 1,200 of their opponents while taking 2,000 prisoners – clearly not all the Jihadists were faking it, nor were the Marines and soldiers entirely pragmatic and ruthless.
When fighting a fanatical and treacherous opponent like the Jihadis, soldiers can be forgiven for incidents of shooting enemy wounded or for demanding that an individual offering surrender must first strip down to his underwear. Interestingly, most of the photographs of captured Japanese in WW II (and there were a few hundred or so), show them stripped down to their loincloths in a bid to demonstrate that they weren’t concealing weapons.
There are some other conventions about taking prisoners that are seldom discussed except in the occasional anecdotes from soldiers. In combat, even if a surrender is accepted, keeping a prisoner is often difficult. Soldiers on patrol inside territory controlled by the enemy may not want to encumber (and hence endanger) themselves – unless their specific task is to capture someone for subsequent interrogation. They will be especially reluctant to carry back a wounded enemy. Barry Broadfoot has at least one anecdote along these lines while the novelist George MacDonald Fraser recounted a similar episode (where they spared the prisoner after some debate) from his time in Burma in 1945. Technically, what happens next is murder but it is also self-preservation.
It can also be extremely difficult to keep prisoners in the middle of combat. Imagine an infantry platoon which has just managed a successful assault on a defended position; and half a dozen of the enemy are standing around with their hands up. At this moment, only half of the 30 or so men in the platoon are available to its commander – two or three of his men are dead, four or five are seriously wounded and need prompt attention, another half dozen or so are lightly wounded and/or too unlikely to move themselves from cover in the next few minutes. Half (or more) of the platoon’s ammunition has been used and this is the usual time for a counter-attacking enemy force to show up. For the platoon commander, every man and every minute is crucial – can he really spare two or three men to escort the prisoners to the rear?
Often they won’t. Or, equally commonly, two or three men who are given an order like "Take these to Company Headquarters and then double back here – you’ve got a minute" will disappear out of sight and shoot their prisoners immediately. Charles B. MacDonald, the American military historian, recounts a couple of episodes like this in his personal memoirs, Company Commander, of fighting in Europe in 1944-45. A British and a Canadian veteran of WW II both had similar tales for the writer, and there are many other accounts in numerous memoirs. The Germans in Russia were often even more brutal – Guy Sajer (whose gripping story The Forgotten Soldier is a rare account from a German infantryman) described one of his comrades tying Soviet prisoners together and then leaving an ignited grenade in the pocket of one of them.
Still, veteran soldiers tend not to regard the shooting of prisoners by front-line troops as murder per se, or if they do, they generally do not make much of a fuss about it. While it is sometimes seen as being cruel (and the writers normally disprove of the act), it is also not always considered to be entirely inappropriate under the circumstances.
However, soldiers are not unequivocal about episodes like the massacre of American POWs at Malmedy and of Canadian POWs at ‘Panzer’ Meyer’s HQ in Normandy, or by the Japanese bayoneting of wounded Allied soldiers in a hospital in Hong Kong. From the narratives in numerous memoirs, it seems that once a captured soldier has been brought back as far as a company HQ, he should be entirely safe -- in Western militaries anyway. The vast majority of the opponents of Western troops since 1945 have never felt obligated to look up the Geneva Conventions, let alone think about applying them.
Another dividing line between quasi-legitimate homicide and actual murder for prisoners lies with some act of simple human contact. In many memoirs and recollections giving a cigarette or a drink of water to a prisoner seemingly re-established his ‘humanity’, turning him from an enemy into a fellow soldier, and thus guaranteed his survival by his immediate captors.
To step back into the combat boots of that Marine in Fallujah who was filmed shooting a wounded insurgent in the head, it isn’t clear that this was an act of murder. By the reckoning of a Marine on Okinawa in 1945, or a Canadian up against the Hitlerjugend SS in Normandy in 1944, the shooting would not be unremarkable. They also faced opponents who might lie still when wounded, only to pull the pin from a grenade when approached; or who might raise their hands in surrender only to lure a would-be captor closer to an ambush.
Did that Marine commit an act of homicide? Certainly – that’s what he was there to do. Was it murder? Perhaps those who have been in similar circumstances are the only people who could answer that question.
Watching the Anarchists hurl themselves across the police barrier at the 1988 G-7 Summit in Toronto was an education in itself. While relatively few members of the pre-anti-globalization movement at the “People’s Summit” managed to wrestle through the cordon of bored reporters to actually fling themselves over the barrier, those that did all behaved relatively alike: As soon as a police officer laid a hand on him (or her), the member of the Agitprop Rent-a-mob would immediately scream in pain for the benefit of the cameras, acting as if the mere touch of a cop was tantamount to excruciating torture.
The same behavior can be observed whenever others of that ilk confront a line of police. Some of the real enthusiasts have even been observed to make a quick slash with a razor blade across their foreheads before lunging onwards. This is relatively painless and heals quickly, but it does quickly produce an impressively bloody face – perfect for providing “evidence” of police brutality on the evening news to an unsuspecting neutral audience.
Likewise, cops on riot details are now normally instructed not to raise their batons for an overhead strike – if they do, one of these Agitprop types will usually immediately kneel in front of them with hands raised in supplication, and another will snap the picture.
In the theories of propaganda, it is normally considered essential to hang a cloak of distortions on a coat peg of truth. Then there is the technique of the Big Lie used so often by Goebbels and Stalin – telling a fabrication so outrageous that no reasonable person will believe it, but resting sure in the knowledge there are plenty of unreasonable people who will gladly embrace the Big Lie as a truth, and plenty of neutral fools who might believe what they are told – especially if provided with photographic ‘evidence’. Moreover, a lie can appear to become a truth to many people if repeated often and loudly enough without being challenged.
Similar techniques are used in psychological warfare, particularly by insurgents who seek to undermine that trinity of beliefs which must be sustained by those who seek to counter them. This trinity of beliefs can be simply explained: The messages it contains are that ‘We are the good guys’, ‘the enemy are the bad guys’, and ‘we are going to win’. Every society or group engaged in a conflict needs to sustain its own trinity and undermine those of its opponents.
The Nihilists who sought to portray Canada’s police officers as thugs and goons were engaged in their own form of psychological warfare – ‘See how brutish the police are, hitting on poor innocents like us – obviously, the society that employs them has a lot wrong with it!’ If one makes such accusations often enough, eventually other people might come to believe it.
The Jihadist movement with which the civilized world must now contend is no stranger to psychological warfare. First, the psychological techniques used by Hitler, Stalin, and other despots were simple enough that almost anyone can ape them if they wish. Secondly, the ‘Left’ – by which one would mean that long progression of sundry radical socialists, Marxists of various stripes, etc. – has given the world a century-long primer in methods of dissent. In fact, these methods are so good, that they have survived the collapse of Marxism to live on as a self-sustaining process of pointless protest. Finally, while the Jihadist struggle is a rejection of the full spectrum of modern/Western civilization, its members have proven more than ready to adopt some of its products when it suits them – modern small arms and explosives, biochemical weaponry, the internet, credit card fraud, and so on…
Since 2003, al Qaeda has reacted to the suppression of its leadership by relinquishing its central role in the Jihadist war. The main focus of their war has been brought to Iraq, thus putting Abu Musab al Zaraqawi, a former lieutenant of Bin Laden, in charge of the key task of spoiling the creation of a functioning civil society in Post-Saddam Iraq and with attacking the Westerners there. The liberation of Afghanistan deprived Al Qaeda of its most useful base area, but the toppling of Saddam Hussein has also apparently changed the main focus of the Jihadist movement as their operational tempo in Europe and Eastern Asia has fallen off markedly since March 2003 – the Madrid bombing notwithstanding.
Besides setting aside the centralized decision making that used to mark Al Qaeda’s activities, the group has also sought to create a whole new layer of activity through 2004 by encouraging Jihadist-inclined individuals to act autonomously. Among other things, they have released an internet manual in several stages – a Jihadist equivalent to The Anarchist’s Cookbook or the old Earthfirst! Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. Considering the vast amounts of mischief these two texts have made possible, the poison fruits of the al Qaeda manual will be making themselves felt for some time to come.
The Al Qaeda manual (ambiguously carried as “Volume 1 of an Encyclopedia from The Abu Zubeida Centre for the Promotion of Jihad, Research Department”) contains much of the quasi-theological claptrap one might expect from them, but it also contains even more advanced recipes for making bombs (and chemical weapons) than the old Anarchist instruction book ever did. Nor has the psychological warfare component been neglected. Nor is this manual alone, Zaraqawi has also issued one of his own making for would-be Jihadists who wish to travel to Iraq.
Al Qaeda has clearly instructed Jihadists around the world to engage in particular forms of psychological warfare. As usual, they looked to examples within Islam for inspiration – citing the practice of Al-Taqiyah as worthy examples. Al Taqiyah might be best thought of as, um, ‘dissembling’ on behalf of believers against non-believers – usually to advance the cause of Islam through misdirection, psychological warfare and deception. There are many examples of using this to support warfare during Islam’s long history of conversion by fire and sword.
Some of the recommended techniques for dissembling include using every means to engage in psychological warfare within Western societies. Al Qaeda members and all Jihadists are encouraged to loudly proclaim their innocence whenever arrested; blaming their arrests on ‘racism’, ‘racial profiling’ and other abuses by Western security forces. When released from arrest or detention, they are encouraged to declare that they were abused or tortured.
The Jihadists know enough about Western society to know that the accusation of such is more important than the proof – particularly when one is only trying to generate media coverage. Such accusations serve several useful functions simultaneously; they:
Weaken popular support among ordinary Westerners for a tighter security regimen by casting doubts on the ethics and efficiency of police and security agencies. If enough accusations are raised, ordinary people will then believe some of them must be true;
Give domestic opponents to Western governments (e.g. the ‘progressive’ community) and the Jihadist ‘fellow traveler’ front organizations inside the Western world more ammunition with which to denounce official policies;
Force police forces and security agencies to expend time, money and effort to investigate these complaints and in defending themselves;
Provide ‘proof’ for allegations that the civil protections of a democratic society’s legal system are weak and unequal – and therefore that Western democracies really do not enjoy the moral high ground.
Most importantly, such accusations serve to give Muslims who live within Western societies a sense that they have become even more alienated, and that they have no stake in the West – thus making more of them sympathetic to the Jihadist cause.
Nor do these tactics seem to be the least of Jihadi measures against the psychological underpinnings of resistance against their terrorism. In the last two years, there have been a rash of unusual incidents inside those countries (America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy and Spain) that have been specifically identified by Osama bin Laden as priority targets. The same sort of incidents have also been occurring in other Western democratic societies as well – but at a lesser pace.
These incidents consist of unusual, atypical or uncharacteristic behaviors by Islamic visitors or residents inside Western nations. For example, what is one to make of a Pakistani who lands in Australia on a tourist visa without any luggage – and is then discovered that evening measuring the exact coordinates of the Nation’s Parliament buildings with a GPS set? Or of people who drive up to oil refineries, Jewish schools, or port facilities – spend a couple of minutes filming them with a video camera and then driving off at speed? What should one think of poor young students in Toronto (also from Pakistan) who abandon their apartment in the middle of the night, leaving all of their possessions behind except for the hard drive pried from their computer?
There are many other strange incidents reported. In the autumn of 2004, US paramedics from several cities described being approached by ‘Middle Eastern-looking’ individuals (more ethnic profiling, no doubt) and being quizzed about the weight capacity of their ambulances, or procedures for passing through police barricades. Some immigration workers (including at least one Canadian) describe seemingly destitute would-be refugee applicants who deplane with brand-new cell phones – the kind that can take photographs and then transmit them wirelessly. These are then used to take images of the interior of airport facilities and immigration centres.
All these activities in themselves could seem innocuous, but that is only a very superficial assessment. In democratic societies, the burden of proof lies with the authorities in a criminal charge – and those who have been nabbed for these activities have been vociferous in proclaiming the total innocence of their activities. Establishing proof is expensive while acting suspiciously (but legally) is cheap.
What do these activities imply?
Every complaint and every tip about suspicious behavior in these times has to be investigated. Yet what can you arrest someone for? If somebody is detained, it is expensive – and the course of investigation to determine if there is more to the incident than meets the eye is even more costly. These episodes add tremendously to the workload of police and intelligence agencies, yet seldom yield tangible results. However, every incident has the potential to be that vital piece of intelligence about an incoming attack… and the Jihadists know it.
Hiring some poor refugee or scruffy student to act suspiciously might cost the Jihadists a few thousand dollars, yet might force the expenditure of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to investigate the incident and react to it. To fail to react is to increase our vulnerability.
These activities also have the effect of saturating our intelligence agencies with decoys and false alarms, thus increasing the chances of success for the actual reconnaissance probes. However, it may be that all of these incidents are genuine reconnaissance activities; Hizbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda have all encouraged their members and supporters to engage in continuous surveillance and information gathering in the past.
Finally, reacting to each incident provides more grist to the psychological operations mill – as, again, the authorities can be described as over-reacting, engaging in racial profiling, and picking on poor helpless Muslims.
Here then is the final and most profound threat of terrorism; that a powerful group actually can corrode our freedoms and institutions by exploiting our freedoms and civil institutions until such time as a society has no choice but to set its usual standards aside to deal with the terrorists. We are damned if we act, and damned if we don’t. In the long run, our only choice is to intelligently consider how to curtail the ability of the Jihadists and their fronts to operate here without doing lasting damage to our society.
“Going after Jihadis was frustrating… Islamic groups would scream ‘racism’ every time I said something, and the government wouldn’t take action.”
- Steve Emerson as cited in Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror. (Douglas Farah, New York 2004)
“We will control the land of the Vatican, we will control Rome and introduce Islam in it. Yes, the Christians, who carve crosses on the breasts of the Muslims in Kosovo – and before then in Bosnia, and before then in many places in the world – will pay us the Jiziya [poll tax paid by non-Muslims under Muslim world], in humiliation, or they will convert to Islam..”
- Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman al-Arifi, iman of the mosque of King Fahd Defense Academy, 2002
and this just in from the You-Said-It file:
Milne: No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.
Ruth: I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.
- Tom Stoppard, Night and Day, Act 1.
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: email@example.com