Benefit of the Doubt

Today’s New York Times is running a John Burns story on shootings at U.S. security checkpoints in Iraq, like the one late last week that nearly turned a freed Italian captive into a freed dead Italian captive. So, while the dust settles on that incident — our troops say they followed all the rules before firing on a car they regarded as suspicious; survivors from the car deny anything happened to arouse suspicion — the Times takes a look at other episodes in which apparently innocent people have wound up dead, wounded, or scared witless.

The article ends with a discussion of a widely reported January incident in which an American patrol accompanied by a press photographer opened fire on a car carrying a father, mother, four of their children, and two other kids. The parents were killed; except for seeing their dad’s head blown off and their mom riddled with bullets, the children were unharmed. Burns’s story concludes with an account from the photographer, Getty Images’ Chris Hondros:

“Back at a base in Tal Afar, the soldiers and Mr. Hondros filled out forms with their observations on the incident. The company commander told the soldiers that there would be an investigation, but that they had followed the rules of engagement and that they should tell the truth, Mr. Hondros said. ‘I’ll stick up for you,’ the captain told the soldiers, Mr. Hondros recalled. He said the platoon involved in the incident had been engaged in an intense firefight with insurgents in Tal Afar two days before the incident. ‘It was a jangling experience,’ he said.”

What gets me about these incidents, besides the wanton waste of life, is our forces’ attitude toward what I guess I’d call consequences. It’s great that these soldiers’ captain said he’d stick up for them. But where in this situation is the one who’s sticking up for this family, who’s up front acknowledging responsibility and acknowledging that we have a double-homicide on our hands? (No — the usual canned statement of regret doesn’t work. Neither does patting the kids on the head and saying we’re sorry.)

Yes, the people who concocted this war for us have sent our troops into a situation that is a) next to impossible to handle cleanly and b) one for which they appear to be ill trained to handle with anything other than force. But even given that, how is it that whatever happens, whoever dies, our troops get the benefit of the doubt nearly every time while the hapless Iraqis and others who wander into their gunsights almost never do? How do we think this looks to the people who know they’re going to be shot at if they make the wrong move; who know that if they’re killed, well, that’s just the breaks and at least Saddam Hussein didn’t do it?

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