The War Crimes that Weren’t

We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, and we’ve finally found them.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.”  —Colonel Lewis B. Puller, Commanding Officer, 1st Marine Regiment, November 1950.

Colonel Puller’s comment was motivational to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division in the Korean War, suggesting to the American press of his day that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Now, however, seventy years later, the American people no longer know who the enemy is — and this is probably because there are too many candidates to choose from.

The oath of office and enlistment reads:

  • For officers

“I, _________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.”

  • For enlistees

“I, __________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  So help me God.”

One will note that these obligations specifically stipulate “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Who are the enemies of the United States?  Is it, for example —

  • The politician who is so invested, financially and professionally, in the war industries that s/he has never seen a war that they didn’t absolutely love?
  • The politician that sends young Americans to war, and then ties their hands so that they cannot fight it, cannot win it, or cannot survive it?
  • The politician that sends young Americans into a combat zone, and later labels them as war criminals — and through such labeling, utterly destroy them as American servicemen.
  • Fearful and incompetent senior officers who will not make a momentous combat decision without first consulting with a lawyer?
  • The journalist or media manager who collaborates with the enemy?

An aside: is there any substantial difference between the politician who sends young Americans to war, and the Islamic goombah who wraps teenagers in bomb vests and sends them out to do the most harm?  The difference between the two, or so it seems to me, is that the Islamacist proudly admits to his behavior, while the self-perpetuating American politician wraps his baloney in the American flag and national interests.

We frequently hear presidents and members of congress lecturing to us about our national interests, but they never seem to get around to explain, in detail, what those national interests are.  What, for example, were the United States’ interests in invading Afghanistan or Iraq — and why is our military still in Afghanistan twenty years after the attacks on 9/11?  One further question: if sending our young men and women to the Middle East to engage in lethal combat was or continues to be in our national interests, then why does our government prosecute our combat troops for doing what they are trained to do?

During the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, the Associated Press reported that US Marines bombed a mosque, killing forty (40) innocent “civilians” gathered for prayer.  From the AP’s initial report, the story took off like gang-busters.  False reporting was so intense that it caused senior military commanders to order the Marines out of Fallujah.

A few questions:

  1. If the battle for Fallujah was a critical objective to begin with, then why would “bad press” force senior military officials to back out?
  2. Note that the formal definition of “civilian” is someone who is not a member of the armed forces or a law enforcement organization.  By what justification, then, do we regard any Moslem a civilian who picks up an AK-47 or RPG with lethal intent?  Two principles of warfare come into play.  First, humanitarian law governing the use of force in an armed conflict requires belligerents to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  Since Moslems with AK-47s are combatants, they cannot also be civilians.  Another important principle of warfare is proportionality.  In the legal use of force, belligerents must minimize the harm caused to civilians and civilian property consistent with the advantages of military objectives.  Non-uniformed combatants who use civilian property as firing points or defensive structures become legitimate military targets.

The fight unfolded on video taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle.  The UAV followed a Marine infantry company as it engaged armed enemy (civilians) in the city streets.  The Marines were in a tough spot because the “civilian” insurgents were laying down accurate fire from the minaret of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarai mosque.  During the fight, “civilian” insurgents moved in and out of the mosque, either to bolster their defenses or resupply the insurgents with ammunition.  What made this a critical situation was that the stymied Marines could not keep pace with other advancing elements of the assault force, and this in turn exposed the flanks of the advancing elements to enemy fire.

The battle raged for two hours (all recorded on video).  Meanwhile, five Marines were wounded and evacuated.  Rules of engagement precluded the use of heavy machine guns but small arms fire wasn’t getting the job done.  The company commander radioed back to his higher headquarters asking for assistance.  The battalion commander couldn’t decide about “next steps” until first consulting with a team of lawyers.  While the legal meeting was going on, the enemy continued to inflict casualties on the Marines.  Eventually, higher authority authorized the use of a hellfire missile to take out the minaret.  The aircraft launched missile missed the target and slammed into the ground with no effect on the enemy.  The company commander then requested an airstrike.  Another meeting took place.  Two 500-pound bombs opened a wall in the mosque and the Marines were able to advance and secure the mosque.

The UAV camera captured the explosion.  While opening one wall, the building remained intact.  There were no bodies … live or otherwise … near the point of detonation.  There were no casualties inside or around the mosque.  In fact, when the Marines entered the mosque, all they found was spent casings from rounds fired.

But that didn’t stop the news assault on the Marines.  Associated Press reporter Abdul-Qader Saadi, provided an “eyewitness account” of the incident.  He reported, “A U.S. helicopter fired three missiles at a mosque compound in the city of Fallujah on Wednesday, killing about 40 people as American forces batted Sunni insurgents, witnesses said.  Cars ferried bodies from the scene, although there was no immediate confirmation of casualties.  The strike came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said.”

Saadi’s story was entirely fictitious.  Nothing even remotely similar to this story happened, but that didn’t stop the press from repeating it across multiple outlets, including BBC, and Agence France-Presse.  Then AP modified their story to include a statement by an unnamed Marine official who “confirmed” the alleged 40 dead worshippers.  This too was a lie.  No Marine officer confirmed anything of the sort.

What did happen was captured on video.  The video, however, having been taken as part of a classified system, could not be released to the press — but a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry, witnessed the event as an “embed.”  Reporter Gwen Ifill interviewed Perry and the conversation follows:

            Ifill: We did hear today about an attack on a mosque that killed anywhere from 40 to 60 people.  Were you with that unit and can you describe what happened?

            Perry:  Yeah, I’m with that unit right now.  The first reports are a little misleading.  What happened here … there are several mosques that have been used by the insurgents as places to either gather or strategize or even fire at Marines.  One particular mosque had about 30 to 40 insurgents in it.  They had snipers.  They wounded five Marines.  There were ambulances that drove up and the Marines let them come in to take the insurgent wounded away.  But instead, people with RPGs jumped out of the ambulances and started fighting with the Marines.  Ultimately, what the Marines did is call in airpower.  A helicopter dropped a Hellfire missile and then an F-16 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the outside of the mosque, put a huge crater outside the mosque.  There’s sort of a plaza outside the mosque.  And suddenly, the firing inside stopped.  But when the Marines examined the mosque and went in and went door to door in the mosque and floor to floor, they found no bodies, nor did they find the kind of blood and guts one would presume if people had died.  Now one or two things must have happened: either the people died inside and were carried off somehow — and there is a tradition of the insurgents carting off their dead very quickly; or, two, frankly, they escaped before the bomb was dropped.  We cannot confirm that anybody actually died in that mosque.  The Marines were quite willing to kill everybody in the mosque because they were insurgents.  They had been firing at people, at Marines.  And as the lieutenant colonel who ordered the strikes said, this was no longer a house of worship; this was a military target.”

There appears no major difference in the way the western press handled this fictional story from the way Al Jazeera handled in a few days later, adding to the story, of course: “The bomb hit the minaret of the mosque and ploughed a hole through the building shattering windows and leaving the mosque badly damaged.”

What appears missing here, as the battalion commander observed, is common sense.  If Moslem insurgents intend to use mosques as defensive positions to fire at Marines, a reasonable person should expect to have the entire building blown to hell and everyone inside the building killed.  That’s the way wars are fought.

Going back in time a few generations, collaborating with the enemy was (and should remain) a capital offense.  So too was providing aid and comfort to the enemy.  If the media decides to hire an enemy non-combatant (Saadi) to do their reporting, then media managers and editors should anticipate biased reporting.  The issue then becomes an exercise in logic.  If the effect of reporting fabricated stories provides aid or comfort to the enemy, if false reporting benefits the enemy, then the media is an enemy collaborator.

The net effect of this fraudulent reporting, given its impact on lily-livered commanding generals is that it caused the flag rank officers to abandon the operation — and this in turn produced a win for the enemy.  In the long term, a second battle would become necessary, and even more people would die or suffer life-changing disabilities.  Where was the honor in that?

The Battle of Fallujah was not the first or last instance when the press manufactured stories about American and Coalition forces.  The entire spectacle of the Haditha Affair, which morphed into the most expensive court-martial in American history, produced no convictions for murder, mayhem, illegal assault, or war crimes — and yet, because of this fraudulent reporting, the lives of several good and decent men were outrageously and unforgivably changed.  No one associated with the media was ever held to account for their scandalous behavior, which in my view, classifies these people as “enemies foreign and domestic.”

Sources:

  1. Connable, A. B.  Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, (2009)
  2. Department of Defense Law of War Manual, 2016. (A 1,236 page document).
  3. Witt, J. F. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press (2012)

Published by

Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

14 thoughts on “The War Crimes that Weren’t”

  1. Just before my son’s unit went into Iraq they were briefed on the rules of engagement by two lawyers from brigade headquarters. When I told my friend, Master Sergeant Richard Pittman, CMH, USMC (Retired), about it, he replied, “What are they afraid of, being sued?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Bill.

      I do think there must be “rules of engagement,” but communicating these to subordinates is the job of unit and organizational commanders, not lawyers (who’ve made a nice little notch for themselves in the military). Moreover, rules of engagement must be designed to protect the innocent, not those hiding behind the innocent. Sure, it’s complicated. Something to consider, though, before politicians decide to commit our precious resources to hostile fire. We ought to remember, too, the presumption of innocence when “investigating” alleged violations … nothing like that happened in the case cited, at Haditha, or numerous other incidents. The accused were presumed guilty and treated accordingly. This low history causes my jaws to tighten.

      Semper Fi.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Colonel Tim Hunter, who I knew as a company commander in 2/7 when I was its chaplain, later commanded the sniper school. He said Marines were being killed by the enemy because the rules of engagement made them uncertain of when they could fire. Hence, they returned fire only after taking fire. Yes, rules of engagement are important, but they must not put servicemember’s lives at heightened risk.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, Bill. ROE are just the tip of the iceberg on all the restrictions placed on our warriors. My attitude is that if the civilian leadership doesn’t want us to win wars, then stop creating them. Thanks again …

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that the Associated Press seems to be almost embedded with elements hostile to the U.S.?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not just you, Mr. Gray. It goes a long way in explaining how little regard the American people have for the media. They couldn’t possibly get any lower in my book. Thank you for commenting.

      Like

    2. Once again, you embarrass our current collection of so-called, news media with a dazzling display of content and context. This is well researched and, per usual, well written. You continue to make me proud to call you brother!

      I do not condone the lack of military knowledge or the absence of integrity required of all active duty managers. In fact, I strongly oppose and (with disdain) disagree with many of our current flag leadership. If ROE or any other “Guidance” causes even one death un-necessarily, whoever imposed it should be charged with murder under the UCMJ.

      All my Marines ever asked of me was to not waste their effort. They would walk through hellfire and brimstone for good leaders and would not tolerate a poor leader. Ineffective leadership is Toxic; it is how battles are lost. As for the media and their bias. It has been there since my Vietnam days. I trust them just about as far as I can throw them. They do NOT know content and context. They look at themselves as the world media, not the American media. Never forget that and never trust them.

      Well done, Colonel!!!

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    3. I’ve known Master Gunnery Sergeant Ed Brundage for 36 years. He’s one of the finest Marines I ever knew. Ed, thank you for your comment — and thank you for your friendship. Semper Fidelis.

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  4. It is immoral to send a man into combat and tie his hands. A Commander in Chief of the US military -President- who allows this to happen, through action or inaction, is immoral if not criminal.
    The ROE should be solid and sensible and not subject to the endless waffling of a bunch of REMFs with law degrees.
    I’m tired of politicians and so-called military leaders, that aren’t fit to lead a bunch of kindergartners on an Easter egg hunt.
    Warren

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