Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Injury and Insult: How the U.S. is Failing Iraqi Civilians

Back in April, we told you about EPIC's partnership with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) and the legacy of CIVIC's founder, Marla Ruzicka. Marla was a great champion for innocent civilian victims of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocating proper compensation for their families. Tragically, she was killed by a suicide bomber in 2005, at the age of 29.

Following her death, Congress established the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund, giving money to small, community-based projects assisting families directly affected by U.S. and coalition actions. Meanwhile, CIVIC continues Marla's work, and we have teamed with them in promoting the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S.594). This act would prohibit the use of U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas, where they cause untold devastation.

However, even with these steps forward, an article in today's New York Times entitled "Sometimes in War, You Can Put a Price on Life," by Jon Tracy, proves we still have a long way to go in protecting and compensating civilian victims of U.S. aggression.

Tracy, a military lawyer who spent 14 months working with Iraqis claiming various combat- and non-combat-related injuries, points to the shocking Pentagon failure to adequately compensate Iraqis for deaths and injuries clearly resulting from the wrongdoing of U.S. forces.

In 2005, 24 civilians were massacred in Haditha at the hands of U.S. troops, and their families received only about $1,500 each. Just last year, a teenage girl in Mahmudiya was raped and then murdered along with her family. Their relatives received nothing, despite two U.S. soldiers confessing to the crimes. (read EPIC's statement on this tragedy here.)

In contrast, consider that the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund awarded an average of $1.8 million per family of each victim. Do we really believe Iraqi lives are worth that much less than those of Americans?

What disturbs Tracy more than the meager amounts being offered is the fact that it is in the form of condolence payments rather than official compensation under the Foreign Claims Act. The latter acknowledges wrongdoing, while the former considers the incident an accident of war. "Imagine the feelings of the families...devastated because a foreign soldier has brutalized a loved one, and then the military grossly insults them by offering a token sum with no acknowledgment of the egregious wrongs committed."

Adding insult to injury in this way breeds even more resentment in the Middle East and further damages U.S. credibility abroad. We can and must do more to fulfill the legacy of Marla Ruzicka, and properly compensate and protect innocent Iraqi civilians.


Anonymous said...

In the first place, it's almost impossible to tell who the "innocent" Iraqis are when even women and children are used as suicide bombers, etc.! I'm sure there have been way too many civilian victims but let's not start giving away too much too soon!

Emily Stivers said...

Anonymous - the problem of defining civillians and combattants is one we're going to follow up on in a future entry.

While this is an issue in many victim compensation cases, we are talking about U.S. troops hap-hazardly firing into a crowd in the streets, or going into a home, raping a young girl and murdering an entire family. We're talking about instances where soldiers are being tried for these crimes and convicted, many even confessing, and yet the families are STILL not awarded just compensation.

When we fail to live up to our own laws about compensating victims, we put our well-meaning soldiers in jeopardy - they are, afterall, the face of the military that is harming and insulting Iraqis this way. We need to do more.

Emily Leaman said...

At the same time, we shouldn't over-simplify the conflict in Iraq, and that's a point that I think Anonymous, whether intentionally or not, alludes to. EPIC has long held that Iraq is more than Victims v. Victimizers. In fact, it is growing increasingly difficult to clearly define "sides" in the conflict, as Shias attack Shias, Sunnis attack Sunnis, and so forth. So yes, I agree, identifying the "innocents" can be difficult.

However, Emily S. is right to point out that CIVIC looks at Iraq in a different light. The "side" that CIVIC takes is the side of all Iraqis, seeking reparation for those directly harmed by U.S. combat in Iraq. They don't seek compensation for Iraqi-on-Iraqi combat but for American-on-Iraqi conflict.

Anonymous said...

Who gets compensated here when there is a crime? The perpetrator may go to trial and be put in prison but who gives "awards" to the victim?

As for 9/11, IMO we over-reacted and never should have given that much money to each family! Were the families of the Oklahoma Bombing compensated? Hardly!

Marla B said...

Certainly this is a difficult situation for all involved, Iraqis and our military.

With regard to Anonymous' comment: Actually it is quite prevalent in US judicial proceedings to have a criminal and a civil case. The criminal of course punishes the wrong doer while the civil provides compensation or 'reparation' for the harm done. In the case of Iraq (and actually Afghanistan) the US military has a very similar system in place to deal with just such cases. The Courts Martial punishes those who commit wrongful acts and the FCA should, if used correctly, provide appropriate compensation for the deaths.

The point Mr. Tracy is making is that the US government and military themselves have put these laws in place yet fail to use them correctly.

Erik K. Gustafson said...

Re: Anonymous' first comment, I got to sound off as a vet.

None of the 24 civilians killed at Haditha by U.S. Marines on Nov. 19, 2006 were "suicide bombers." In one house alone, Younis Salim Khafif, his wife and their six daughters, ages 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1, were killed. From all accounts I've heard from returning soldiers and my contacts over there now, there have been zero cases of Iraqi children under the age of 14 carrying out suicide attacks (and certainly younger than 10). Nor was 14-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi who was brutally raped and killed along with her family by soldiers with 502nd Infantry Regiment.

Of course, the incidents mentioned above are rare. When innocent civilians are killed, it is almost always accidental. As military commanders will tell you, it is critical to the success of the U.S. mission to compensate all innocent victims of their unit's operations. It can also help heal the psychological scars of war, for both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers and Marines. As an example, check out Act 2 of What's in a Number on This American Life (episode #320). Here's the description of the clip, which runs 8 min.: "Captain Ryan Gist was given a particularly tough assignment in Iraq: to build relationships with a town where U.S. bombs had killed twelve innocent people. But first he has to apologize to the families of those who were killed. We hear the apology, captured on tape by a journalist in Iraq, and talk to Captain Gist about his work there after this incident."

In counterinsurgency warfare, the object is to use the minimal force necessary and to do whatever's possible to win over the local population (or at the very least, to ensure that the local population does not side with the insurgency). While compensation should be a strictly humanitarian program done as part of our moral responsibility to safeguard Iraqi noncombatants, there are also military advantages. In his classic book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, the French military officer and attaché David Galula writes: "Since antagonizing the population will not help, it is imperative that hardships for it and rash actions on the part of the forces be kept to a minimum. The units participating in the operations should be thoroughly indoctrinated to that effect, with misdeeds punished severely and even publicly if this can serve to impress the population."

So yes, compensating innocent civilians harmed by U.S. military operations will cost money, but it is money well spent both for helping to heal the harm done by war and for our troops who remain in harm's way.

average joe said...

In these hard economic times you're going to be hard put to find a lot of sympathy in the rank and file. People maybe outraged when details of these incidents first become public (if they do) but there is too much resentment over terrorist acts, price of oil and perceived hatred of us for the sympathy to last for long. Sorry, that's just the way it is.

Erik K. Gustafson said...

Average Joe - That might be so, but that lack of sypathy is what's killing our soldiers and Marines. For example, our lack of "sympathy" for Iraq's unemployment crisis leads to less pressure on Bush and Congress to act to support an economic solution, which in turn leads to a military surge without an equal emphasis on economic and political steps.

Let's hope Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who has just been tapped at Bush's War Czar, together with Gen. Petreaus, Amb. Ryan Crocker and Amb. Tim Carney can better balance U.S. efforts over there.

Capt. Sha-Zam said...

As a combat Vet from Nam, I see far too many parallels. Can't we learn anything from the history of that era?? Rogue soldiers must be punished like Lt. William Calley. They disgrace the military and our country.
I am very pessimistic about peace efforts in Iraq. Nation building and peace keeping efforts are doomed

Anonymous said...

To say our efforts are "doomed" is a little too pessimistic, even for me. We got ourselves into this and now we have to find a way out.

It is hard to get your aversage citizen's mind off his own problems long enough to really focus on Iraq but somehow we must. There's just too much at stake. People have to realize how much the war is affecting our lives everyday!

Your organization must keep trying to get the message out, always remembering that you need the "people" of this country behind you to help push the politicians. Speak to the guy on the street. You need him.

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