′We have a culture of immunity′ | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 20.03.2012
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'We have a culture of immunity'

The world was shocked in mid-March when a US soldier went on a shooting spree in Afghanistan. But expert John Tirman told DW that the killing of civilians is all too common - and rarely punished.

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John Tirman is the Executive Director and a Principal Research Scientist at MIT's Center for International Studies. Tirman is author, co-author and editor of 12 books on international affairs, including, most recently, "The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars" (Oxford University Press, 2011).

DW: Robert Bales, the soldier accused of going on the murderous rampage in Kandahar earlier this month, is currently in a military prison in the US awaiting trial. How do you see this case?

John Tirman: The issue of civilian casualties becomes prominent in the news media when there is an atrocity like there was last week in Afghanistan with the soldier killing 16 civilians, including apparently nine children. It's certainly a deeply regrettable incident, but I want to point out that this is not the way most civilians are killed in these kind of atrocities. Typically many, many more civilians die during operations that are considered routine, house to house searches, roadside checks, aerial bombardment, artillery and so on.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said Bales might face the death penalty. But how does the US handle the situation when groups of soldiers, and not individuals, kill innocent civilians?

We have a culture of immunity. Given the scale of killing, not very many people are actually held accountable. In my reckoning the US is probably responsible for as many as 200,000 deaths of civilians in Iraq. The US military typically describes its operations as targeting only insurgents or terrorists. They rarely acknowledge, at least in the first publicity about an incident, that civilians were killed or many civilians compared with the number of insurgents they claim.

For example in the Haditha massacre in the Anbar province (in Iraq) in 2005 the initial report from US marines was that 15 civilians were killed by an insurgent roadside bomb, when in fact 24 civilians had been killed by the Marines and only one US soldier and no civilians had been killed by a roadside bomb. That one incident may be notorious, but it nevertheless gives us a picture of how the military routinely misrepresents the nature of the casualties. I focus on that because we happen to know what actually happened in that incident. Most of the time we don't have more information than what the military gives us. Haditha only came to light because an Iraqi human rights group tipped off a Time magazine reporter who then wrote about it.

An Afghan youth mourns for relatives, who were allegedly killed by a U.S. service member in Panjwai, Kandahar

Civilians are often viewed as hostile by US soldiers

But Calvin Gibbs, the sergeant who led a "kill team" that murdered Afghan civilians two to three years ago, was convicted and given a life sentence by a US military court.

As far as culpability is concerned, responsibility, there is virtually none, except in these very rare instances where there is an atrocity that has been committed. Even in the case of Haditha, no one is going to prison for what everyone acknowledges was 24 civilians having been killed in this incident. Several marines went around throwing grenades into houses and shooting up houses, when there was no evidence that there were insurgents there. Almost everybody who was killed was innocent of being insurgents in the war in any way. So you would have expected consequences in this well-documented case, which was investigated by the navy and others in the military, and which had fairly good news coverage. But even with all that no one has been held accountable for what happened in Haditha.

Why is that?

For the most part what will be invoked by the defenders of the soldiers is that they were operating within the rules of engagement. And the rules of engagement are very broad. They are actually not published, they are classified, but the rules of engagement basically inform soldiers when deadly force is permissible. From what we know about the rules they are very broad. Any time that soldiers feel that they are under threat - not necessarily fired upon, but under threat of being fired upon - they have the permission to shoot to kill. That includes anyone who may be part of the threat, whether brandishing a weapon or not. So that gives great latitude to commanders and to soldiers to kill.

Is that why there are so many civilian casualties?

John Tirman

Tirman says the US must stop protecting soldiers who murder civilians

You have to add on to this an attitudinal problem. As we've seen in polling that's been done, survey research that has been done within the military, officers and soldiers have attitudes towards civilians that are very hostile. A third or more of soldiers and Marines in Iraq, for example, viewed civilians as hostile, as being sympathetic to terrorists. If you go into battle with that attitude, then there are going to be some tragic consequences. I think there are many, many officers, many soldiers who do behave properly. I don't want to cast blame on everyone in the US military because I think that most try to do the right thing. They try to discriminate civilians from fighters, and they try to act with restraint.

But you are dealing with a lot of recruits who are not particularly well-trained, who don't even have high school diplomas, and who are trained to be killers and not peacekeepers. You run into a great many problems and of course tremendous frustration and psychological trauma from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So there are a lot of pressures. This is not to exonerate them, but there are a lot of pressures on many soldiers that result in civilian casualties.

What's the best way to protect civilians?

Don't go to war.

Interview: Dennis Stute / jc
Editor: Rob Mudge

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