Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rules of Engagement
An Accounting of the Victims

The debates in Tractate Sanhedrin to determine who is qualified to judge, setting conditions for incarceration, and the relative severity of various punishments provide a useful model for attempting to understand the American role in Iraq. The graphic shown above this paragraph is a portion of a visual representation published in today's NY Times to aid our understanding of the chronology of the killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha on November 19, 2005. Two front-page articles raise issues related to the conduct of troops in Iraq that we can imagine the rabbis debating in principle and perhaps even with the specific known facts.

First, there is the question of whether the use of lethal force is permissible against those believed responsible for murder; in this case, by the planting of a roadside bomb. I believe that everyone would agree that if the marines believed that they were under attack and in immediate danger, the use of lethal force would be justified. Legally, the marines would be entitled to protect themselves under their own officially sanctioned rules of engagement. Some rabbis might suggest that if they were certain that their targets were attacking them, they were obliged to shoot to save themselves, but that they were first obliged to be certain that their targets were indeed attacking them. (In this case, if the marines did in fact share the certainty that they were under a sustained attack by their targets, they were mistaken, since their targets turned out to be innocent civilians. Nevertheless, their understanding of the situation at the moment they fired their weapons is the sole determining factor of their guilt or innocence.)

Second, there is the question of the responsibility of the governing authorities who establish the official rules of engagement and provide the only training and resources the marines receive before being handed weapons and placed in the line of fire. These marines had previously been stationed in Falluja, where the areas they patrolled had been cleared of civilians, and house-to-house fighting was the norm. Marines were trained in a technique called clearing by fire. In the Times article an unidentified marine describes the technique: "You stick the weapon around and clear the room," he said. "It's called prepping the room."

Since Haditha, unlike Falluja, had a substantial civilian population, the governing authorities did provide training between those two postings in how to protect civilians during combat. We need to know if the training included testing (or some other form of evaluation) and whether those who did not pass were held back. The soldier quoted in the last paragraph served in both Falluja and Haditha, and his last comment suggests that the training was ineffective: "You've got to do whatever it takes to get home. If it takes clearing by fire where there's civilians, that's it." The last sentence, which fails to meet the rabbinic standard prohibiting the destruction of innocent lives to save oneself, also belies the marines mission: Their role is to protect the civilians by putting themselves in harm's way. If the unidentified marine quoted here is representative, they understand their mission as "to do whatever it takes to get home."

As Congress (the closest deliberative body we have to a Sanhedrin in this sorry mess) debates whether we should remain in Iraq, they should also be defining what our goal is moving forward, and whether or not it includes putting the lives of our soldiers at risk to provide peace, security and freedom for Iraqi civilians. Moreover, we all need to come to terms with the consequences of failing to live up to our own highest standards. Whether or not the marines believed they were defending themselves or were caught up in an adrenaline and testosterone intoxicated vengeful rage and flaying out destructively with no clear target, the official account "that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed in a bombing . . . and that marines had killed eight insurgents"-- obviously false and self-serving statements that can only fuel the fires of hostility and mistrust among the Iraqis we deployed to protect-- has never been retracted. How can anyone respect or trust us when we let these falsehoods stand? This failure to acknowledge our responsibility does more long-term damage than the unfortunate incident it attempts to conceal.