The Gray Zone Between War and Peace

Tech Central Station

March 7, 2005

Friday’s shooting incident during which Giuliana Sgrena, a writer for Italy’s communist newspaper Il Manifesto, was wounded and her bodyguard killed by American soldiers has raised serious questions about the way U.S. checkpoints in Iraq are handled.

Christian Science Monitor reporter Annia Ciezadlo, in a story published after but written before the incident, describes her own experiences with the checkpoints:

It’s a common occurrence in Iraq: A car speeds toward an American checkpoint or foot patrol. They fire warning shots; the car keeps coming. Soldiers then shoot at the car. Sometimes the on-comer is a foiled suicide attacker, but other times, it’s an unarmed family.

As an American journalist here, I have been through many checkpoints and have come close to being shot at several times myself. I look vaguely Middle Eastern, which perhaps makes my checkpoint experience a little closer to that of the typical Iraqi. Here’s what it’s like. You’re driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road – but that’s a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don’t think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn’t even know it was a checkpoint.

If it’s confusing for me – and I’m an American – what is it like for Iraqis who don’t speak English? In situations like this, I’ve often had Iraqi drivers who step on the gas. It’s a natural reaction: Angry soldiers are screaming at you in a language you don’t understand, and you think they’re saying ‘get out of here,’ and you’re terrified to boot, so you try to drive your way out.

Ciezadlo’s experiences are, apparently, widespread. John Burns recounts several horror stories in Monday’s New York Times suggesting that this problem has been festering for some time.

 Next to the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.

He explains,

The confusion arises, in most cases, from a clash of perspectives. The American soldiers know that circumstances erupt in which a second’s hesitation can mean death, and say civilian deaths are a regrettable but inevitable consequence of a war in which suicide bombers have been the insurgents’ most deadly weapon. But Iraqis say they have no clear idea of American engagement rules, and accuse the American command of failing to disseminate the rules to the public, in newspapers or on radio and television stations.

The military says it takes many precautions to ensure the safety of civilians. But a military spokesman in Baghdad declined in a telephone interview on Sunday to describe the engagement rules in detail, saying the military needed to maintain secrecy over how it responds to the threat of car bombs. The spokesman, as well as a senior Pentagon official who discussed the issue in Washington on Sunday, said official statements issued after the Friday shooting offered a broad outline of the rules. In those statements, the military said it tried to slow Ms. Sgrena’s vehicle with hand signals, flashing lights and warning shots before firing into the car’s engine block. But many Iraqis tell of being fired on with little or no warning.

A front page piece in the Washington Post has more such incidents. Furthermore, they note, the rules of engagement are themselves secret.

Military officials in Iraq have said for two days that they cannot answer questions about U.S. rules of engagement because of a need to keep insurgents off guard. Officials have not said whether these rules have changed since the insurgency in Iraq worsened in late 2003. They also have declined to estimate how many civilians such as Calipari have been killed accidentally by U.S. forces — at checkpoints or elsewhere in Iraq.

There is little doubt that young soldiers can get trigger happy. Indeed, during the Gulf War, the decision was made not to allow troops to lock and load their weapons* unless they were expected to be in a firefight because there were incidents of soldiers on guard duty, especially at night, getting a little jumpy and shooting at friendlies.

Still, our troops have been manning checkpoints in Iraq long enough to have smoothed out most of the wrinkles. I’d bet than many of the “no warning” stories are false. Some, undoubtedly, are true.

An anecdote in the Christian Science Monitor puts the problem in a nutshell:

Marine Sgt. Jim Beere knows something about protecting people. Back home he’s an undercover cop in Oakland, Calif., where he works on a special-victims unit tracking rapists and child molesters. He’s usually responsible just for himself and, at most, the safety of a partner. But early on Feb. 22, he saved his own life and quite possibly the lives of a dozen other Marines who were taking a well-deserved catnap after an all-night operation in the city of Hit, 90 miles north of Baghdad. During the same operation, his platoon had killed two unarmed Iraqis who had failed to obey orders to stop. The incidents reveal just how much pressure and how little time troops have to determine whether approaching cars mean them harm.

An undercover cop from Oakland who’s also a Marine sergeant is hardly a kid unaccustomed to high pressure situations. Further, many of the incidents described in all the stories are of innocents who were in fact running checkpoints out of coercion, confusion, fear, or whatever. It’s hard to fault our troops in those cases, however tragic the outcomes.

Major Andrew Olmstead, who helps train soldiers for duty in Iraq, adds a firsthand account:

A traffic control point [TCP] presents a different stress [that urban warfare], of course. There is not the constant ebb and flow of adrenaline presented when a soldier has to clear multiple rooms. Instead the soldier has to balance the boredom of standing at a checkpoint with limited traffic with the knowledge that a TCP is a target for enemy forces and any vehicle which approaches the checkpoint may contain a lethal threat to that soldier. Yet most vehicles which approach contain nothing more lethal than local Iraqis who are indistinguishable from terrorists. So every vehicle which approaches the TCP is a game of chicken that forces the soldiers to decide whether or not it is a threat in seconds. A vehicle approaching a TCP at 60 miles per hour will cover 88 feet per second. Assuming the TCP is set on a straightaway with 300 feet of visibility in all directions (not always an easy condition to meet), that gives soldiers less than four seconds to decide whether or not to engage a vehicle approaching at high speed. Even a vehicle moving at 30 miles per hour gives less than eight seconds for soldiers to react. If vehicles coming towards the TCP don’t slow down, the soldiers are forced to make a life-or-death decision almost immediately.

We draw the line in favor of the soldiers. It can be argued whether or not that is appropriate for soldiers serving in a nominally sovereign nation, but it is unlikely the soldiers would act otherwise even if trained to give every benefit of the doubt to the oncoming vehicle. It’s hard to watch a vehicle speeding towards your position with the knowledge it might kill you and simply watch. That is why we push so hard to place warnings well out from the TCP, to notify approaching vehicles that they are approaching a TCP and that they will be fired upon if they do not slow down. Just as the soldiers have limited time in which to decide whether or not to fire on an oncoming vehicle, a moving vehicle has only a little time in which to realize that it is approaching a TCP and needs to slow down. In order to minimize incidents like this, it is vital that we provide the drivers with as much warning as possible. Even then, I suspect such actions will not prevent accidents.

University of North Carolina professor Cori Dauber observes,

Here’s the bottom line: there are calls for making checkpoints safer on the margins (larger signs, bigger, brighter lights) and those all sound like good ideas. But the real heart of the matter is that the troops have clearly been told to act as if any vehicle that fails to slow down after a certain number of warnings is hostile. That’s where they place presumption: the risk of letting through a suicide bomber is greater than the risk of fatally shooting civilians.

 And that’s what’s really upsetting the critics. They want presumption placed the other way. They want the troops to act as if the risk of shooting civilians, fatally or not, is a greater risk than letting through a suicide bomber or a drive-by shooter.

Jim Henley, a libertarian freelance writer on national security affairs, adds:

It’s an article of faith among hawks that the Pentagon’s assertions that the US goes out of its way to minimize civilian casualties are true. I think they’re true to an extent – when planning an offensive operation at leisure, I believe the US generally targets its precision-guided munitions carefully. But I don’t think casualty minimization survives as a priority in the heat of ground operations or the stresses of ‘peacekeeping.’ Force protection, the overriding principle of contemporary American military doctrine, trumps casualty minimization.

A quarter-century ago, I learned in my military ethics class that soldiers have a duty to minimize non-combatant casualties even at the risk of their own lives. Soldiers can’t, for example, simply burn down a village with dozens of civilians in it to avoid the risk of getting soldiers killed taking out a sniper. In conventional combat, though, we at least have a situation where identifying the enemy is relatively easy: they wear a different uniform. In counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism, that’s seldom the case. One rather has to presume that a car coming to a checkpoint that isn’t stopping is hostile.

The presumption of which Dauber writes shifts depending on the circumstances. At, for example, a police roadblock in the United States, we would expect the rules of engagement to require the officers’ shooting at the last moment, after having taken heroic measures to get the car to stop otherwise. In a pure war zone, we would expect the soldiers to shoot at the slightest hint of danger. In post-election Iraq, our forces are in a gray zone between war and peace.

For both humanitarian and practical reasons, we need to take all reasonable measures to make the roadblocks more obvious, especially at night. That should include, immediately, a serious media campaign within Iraq to make sure people know what the procedures are. While keeping the rules of engagement secret likely adds some small measure of safety for our forces, since this knowledge would allow the terrorists to know how far they can go before getting shot, this advantage is far outweighed by having legitimate innocents confused.

Beyond that, though, I expect the ROE to be set to maximize the safety of our soldiers. If you’re in Iraq and come to a checkpoint manned by uniformed soldiers, you stop. That much should be obvious in any language.

Original article