This is an extraordinarily long post, but I think the material I have here is very important, so I hope you hang in there with me. It's like this:
I have long had a particular research focus on the way the media portrays civilian casualties resulting from American military operations (one of these days I may get it together enough to link some onto this site.) So it was with great interest that I received an email from one of my regular readers, now an attorney, and a veteran of Desert Storm, about a recent New York Times article regarding allegations that an Army unit had unnecessarily caused the deaths of several Iraqi civilians. I hadn't posted anything about the article at the time, but I had noticed that, as is a pattern with the Times, there were no quotes or comments from any Army personnel -- then towards the end of the article they went to a higher headquarters for comment. That's at least something, but as was not surprising, the higher headquarters had not yet heard of the incident with enough detail (or enough lead time) to be able to comment. Par for the course at the Times.
First, the initial email from my reader:
The attached is from my former company commander, COL Pete Mansoor, now a
brigade commander in Baghdad, Iraq. The NY TImes ran a story that after an IED
exploded near a convoy, Americans shot into a civilian vehicle and killed a
father and son, and wounded others. The reporter, Ed Wong, quoted an Iraqi
policeman. Notably, Wong did not quote any Americans, and apparently made one
call to division headqarters who had not heard of the incident.
The Army brought in and outside investigating team (as per SOP), who
concluded that the civilians were not shot by Americans, but were wounded by
shrapnel from the IED. No Americans fired their weapons. The Iraqi policeman?
When interviewed, the policeman quoted denied making the statement, and said
someone else used his name. Another policeman admitted to using a different
name, and says he did not see any shooting, but heard it on the radio.
(Perhaps notably, the lying Iraqi policeman was quoted saying he knew the
Americans would fire him, but he had to speak out--so he must have figured
better to have the Americans fire someone else and used the other guy's name.)
I followed up with COL Mansoor, who pointed out that the reporters know
where his HQ is, and the gate is only 500 yards from where the incident
occurred, so the reporter, had he wanted, could have easily sought word from
his HQ, rather than calling the higher echelon unit, which is less likely to
have up-to-the-minute information.
At best this is shoddy reporting. I think it is simply fitting facts to a
preconceived template to make a story sensational. At worst, of course, it is
a deliberate attempt to make American forces look bad. COL Mansoor is a superb officer.
He graduated top of his West Point class,
has a Ph.D. in history, and authored "The GI Offensive in Europe." He
currently commands the Ready First Combat Team in Iraq. He was my commander
when he was a captain and I a lowly Second Lieutenant in Germany in 1989.
He was also kind enough to send me (with the Colonel's permission to distribute it)
the email that he received regarding this matter from Col. Mansoor.
Family/Friends:This is a long e-mail, but bear with me, it is
worth your time.Two weeks ago an incident occurred in the Ready First
Combat Team zone that was covered by the New York Times, then picked up by other
news outlets as a result of that article. None of the news outlets (to my
knowledge) interviewed any of the soldiers involved in the incident, and most of
them based their stories on the initial report from the Times, which erred
badly. [Here the Col. includes the text of the Times article.]
Now, a summary of the findings of the independent
investigating officer (from outside the Ready First Combat Team) who
investigated the incident based on the allegations of civilians being killed by
At 2040 hours on 12 January 2004, a roadside bomb (IED)
exploded on Palestine road just north of the Martyr's Monument. The target
was a three vehicle military police (MP) patrol. A dark blue Opel station
wagon carrying five Iraqi civilians was traveling between the second and third
Upon detonation of the IED, the MP patrol responded by moving
rapidly away from the explosion site and proceeded to the Martyr's Monument for
medical treatment of two wounded soldiers. No soldiers fired their weapons
during the incident. A patrol from 1-36 Infantry, hearing the explosion,
moved to the site and assessed that the IED had exploded between the second
and third HMMWVs, hitting not only the U.S. vehicles but killing the two Iraqi
males in the front seat of the Opel and injuring two passengers in the back
seat. U.S. medics attended to the wounded before turning them over to
Iraqi Police (IP) for transport to a civilian hospital.
On 13 January 2004, The New York Times reported that IP Lieutenant Muhammad Ali
alleged that U.S. soldiers had opened fire on the Opel station wagon causing death and
injuries to Iraqi civilians. Upon interrogation, Lieutenant Muhammad Ali
stated that he was not at the scene of the attack, but believed that another IP
officer, Ali Hussein, who works in the same police station, used his name during
an interview with a reporter that night as a vendetta to get him (LT Muhammad
Ali) in trouble. Upon questioning, IP officer Ali Hussein admitted that he
was the IP officer who gave the interview and that he told the reporter that
U.S. forces had fired wildly after the IED explosion, killing the two civilians
in the Opel.
He admitted he had no first-hand knowledge of whether the
soldiers had fired or not, but repeated what he said he heard over the
radio. When pressed why he had used a false name, he stated that he gave
the name "Muhammed Ali" without thinking. [Pete's note: Now,
remember that Ali Hussein stated to the reporter, "I'll tell you the truth. The
Americans did this. I know after this conversation they will fire me from my
job, but that's what happened."That is what you would expect him to say if
he wanted his fellow officer,whose name he used in the interview, to lose
his job. Once he claimed that Americans had shot the two civilians, others
on site picked up the comment as fact, and away the rumor flew. . .
The 1st Armored Division surgeon attended the
autopsy of the two dead Iraqi civilians and noted that there was no evidence of
wounds caused by rifle or machine gun bullets. The wounds were irregular
in shape and caused by shrapnel - pieces of which were removed from the wounds
during the autopsy. There were no bullets in the bodies. Wounds to the two
injured Iraqi civilians were likewise determined to have been caused by
shrapnel.Likewise, visual inspection of the Opel station wagon revealed an
irregular pattern of damage but no bullet holes, just what you would expect from
damage caused by a large explosion. All the holes in the car were either
too mishapen or too large for them to be bullet holes.
OK, so you've read the reporter's story and you've read a
synopsis of the investigating officer's
report. You can make up your own mind. My main issue with this whole
incident is that although you can read both sides of the story in this e-mail,
the American people only know the original story as printed in the Times, which
never issued a retraction or clarification.Let the reader
So, what of the article that kicked up all this fuss? (I'm only looking at the parts of the article pertinent to the incident itself. The article begins this way:
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 12 -- American soldiers on Monday night killed an Iraqi man and a boy and wounded four others in a car that was driving behind their convoy after a roadside bomb went off nearby, said witnesses, a police official and relatives of the family in the car.
The soldiers, traveling in a convoy of two Humvees, opened fire on the family, which was riding in a dark blue station wagon, after the bomb exploded on Palestine Street about 300 yards from the Oil Ministry, witnesses said.
The family's driver, a man whose first name was Haider, was killed, as was a 10-year-old boy named Mustafa in the seat beside the driver, said family members, a neighbor and a police officer. Mustafa's mother and two of his siblings and his aunt were injured and taken to local hospitals.
''You want to know the truth?'' said Lt. Muhammad Ali, an Iraqi policeman who was driving away from Al Kindi Hospital with several colleagues after taking one of the women there. ''I'll tell you the truth. The Americans did this. I know after this conversation they will fire me from my job, but that's what happened.''
No effort there to even illict a response from an American in the opening three dramatic paragraphs. Then the reporter writes:
A soldier at the scene of the Palestine Street violence in Baghdad said that the bomb had killed two Iraqi civilians and wounded two others and that all had been in the blue station wagon. Capt. Jason P. Beck, a spokesman for the First Armored Division, which controls most of Baghdad, said three hours after the incident that he had not received a report.
Now, this suggests that an American was interviewed at the scene. But, whoever he was, he remains nameless, he is not quoted directly, and the fact that what he is saying directly contradicts everything in the article to that point is so underwritten it almost escapes your attention unless you are explicitly looking for it. That higher headquarters -- a whole three hours -- after the incident had not received word is hardly surprising. Remember, unlike reporters, the management of information is not the top priority for soldiers. They had people to take care of, a scene to secure, all of which takes time. It is not their priority in such circumstances to report the information up the chain, and, in fact, an experienced reporter would understand that and would not expect a higher headquarters to have any useful information or comment that quickly.
The reporter then goes on to note other events around the country that day, then returns to this one:
Soldiers opened fire on the family in the station wagon traveling behind them, said the witnesses, relatives of the victims and Lieutenant Ali, the police officer. The station wagon crashed into a wall about 200 feet past where the bomb had exploded, and soldiers soon began pulling bodies out, the witnesses said.
About 9:20 p.m., more than two dozen soldiers from the First Armored Division were walking around the scene, inspecting the wrecked car, the ground and the area of the median where the bomb had exploded. One soldier warned a reporter and a photographer to leave the area, saying that ''something is about to happen that you won't like.'' A couple of armored vehicles sat on Palestine Street, blocking several lanes as rain continued to fall.
It seems odd to report that soldiers pulled bodies out of the car doesn't? Contextless like that, it seems a grotesque gesture, almost an act of hostility acted out against the dead. Of course, had the reporter noted that the medics on the scene were attempting to give medical attention it comes across a little differently. As to the warning issued to the reporter in the area, that behavior is understandable but inappropriate. Is that why the reporter doesn't bother to ask soldiers their version of events? They were angry when the reporter came close, and the reporter got angry at their hostility? Did the reporter explain it was their chance to correct the record about what had happened, and ask if any of them had been there? (Or is that what got him the angry reaction?)
From there the reporter writes about the scene at the hospital, where angry victims curse the Americans. OK, but that ain't exactly proof either.
What I find frustrating about this is the assumption that witnesses have credibility if they are making charges against the US military. Was there any sense that relying on the word of an Iraqi policeman who hadn't been on the scene might be questionable? No, because he announced he would be fired for saying what he was saying (nobly standing up against the evils of the US military.) Did anyone wonder if the Iraqi civilians might not have the purest of motives in a neighborhood where, clearly, somebody wanted Americans dead? No, because there were, after all, bodies, and weeping relatives, and isn't that proof enough? If the higher headquarters didn't have anything after three hours, why not go back after five? or ten? The reporter waited long enough to go back and watch the clean up, waited to go to the hospital . . . but it's more important to be quick, then to give all parties a chance to respond.
And more to the point, why no follow up? These are incendiary charges at best. But the results of the investigation as Col. Mansoor describes them seem fairly definitive to this relatively well-read layperson. Can you imagine the outcry if the Times reported allegations of suspected murder, but never reported the police investigation completely exonerated the person?
The point is that charges of this kind of behavior get reported not out of any kind of ill-intent but because reporters who haven't been exposed to the military for lengthy periods are prepared to believe these kinds of charges. Tell them soldiers opened fire on a station wagon full of civilians (why? because they were angry? afraid? panicked?) and they believe it, because isn't that the kind of things soldiers do? This is not, I believe, a function of ideological bias but of cultural bias. That's just the image they have in their heads of what soldiers are likely to do, so hearing charges that soldiers have done that, they don't see the reason to check all that carefully.
Unfortunately, a lot of people who read the New York Times also have not had exposure to the military. Do we want them to believe that this is the kind of thing American soldiers do?