This past month, it has not been a popular occupation to be an American in Britain. The war in Iraq has degenerated into a sectarian bloodbath with 101 Americans killed and coalition troops caught in the middle, no longer sure of their mission. British General Sir Richard Dannatt suggests that the presence of troops only exacerbates the present situation, and he worries that he will not have a fit and healthy army for future needs if the conflict continues.
America is blamed for everything. Because of overwhelming British hostility to all things American, some even think Madonna has suffered unprecedented media condemnation in her bid to adopt a baby from Malawi.
A story that has had minimal coverage in the United States but has been afforded banner headlines in Britain is the Coroner’s report on the death of British ITN journalist Terry Lloyd in Iraq in 2003. The report has inspired a stream of invective about the brutality of American troops. Lloyd, a veteran newsman known across the nation, had chosen to cover Iraq in his own way without being embedded with American or British troops. He was killed during a fierce battle; the Coroner has determined that he was alive and being rescued by an Iraqi civilian when American troops filled him with bullets as he was being evacuated in a makeshift ambulance.
Lloyd’s daughter and the lawyer representing the family were shown on British television over and over again making fierce pronouncements about the cruel and reckless behaviour of the trigger-happy American ‘cowboys’ who committed cold-blooded murder.
As a journalist, my complaint is that Lloyd did not take advantage of the embedding facilities that might have prevented him from danger, and that ITN seems to have underestimated the peril in which he was placing himself on their behalf. This week the Ministry of Defence placed an unprecedented ban on ITN covering Iraq. Their official excuse is that ITN intruded upon soldiers in its story about the care of returning veterans (see my FrontPage story "Soldiers of Misfortune"), but one suspects the Pentagon was infuriated by the media coverage in Britain of the Terry Lloyd case and conveyed its sentiments to its British counterparts.
The story of the death of Lloyd generated the expected clamour about the appalling battle etiquette of Americans, but the ultimate insult came when John Simpson, BBC Iraq bureau chief, wrote an editorial for The Independent in which he said:
"Since the First World War, every war in which the Americans have fought has been marked by unnecessary civilian deaths and wholly avoidable 'friendly fire' incidents. Now, it seems, there may be a new distinguishing feature of American wars: the killing of journalists"
His comment brought to mind a cavalcade of images: the firestorms of Coventry and London, the devastation of Dresden, an RAF raid masterminded by Bomber Harris and the millions killed by Nazi Germany in concentration camps and Eastern European killing fields.
The thrust of Simpson’s charge against American servicemen and women is "where Yanks appear, innocents die."
Yes, all armies cause carnage during wartime but the idea that the presence of Americans means extra civilian deaths is a truly unfortunate slur. One wonders if the Crusaders worried about civilian casualties. And the bloody world wars were perpetrated by Europeans.
When Europe became embroiled in the First World War, the United States, for its part, was at peace and was a booming and flourishing nation, led by a man of integrity, Woodrow Wilson. America entered the Great War a reluctant participant. Eventually the Spanish ‘flu contracted by troops coming back from Europe to the Philadelphia Navy Yard (Philadelphia eventually suffered more deaths than any other city in the 1918 pandemic) killed almost as many soldiers as perished in the trenches. The idea that Americans caused unnecessary civilian deaths in World War I is a cruel slur against men who fought with courage to help their British and French friends.
Europe was in turmoil whilst Franklin Roosevelt was pulling America out of the Great Depression, and again it was a reluctant United States that joined the Second World War. It is difficult for Britons and Europeans to understand why Americans were reluctant to enter the war, but it has always been tough for Americans to understand the passionate and visceral hatreds European cultures harbour against one another.
John Simpson seems to forget that a quarter of a million American men died in action and more than a million came home maimed or mentally scarred for life. At Omaha Beach, the Americans suffered far more than the British or Canadians, losing 10,000 men in the Normandy invasion. 600,000 brave Americans fought in the subsequent battles and one unit alone lost 91% of its men. Americans fought with valour in the Pacific, all five of the Sullivan brothers dying on the Juneau.
If we are to follow John Simpson’s theory, is it America’s fault that, during World War II, 52 million civilians died? There is no doubt, as Robert MacNamara pointed out in The Fog of War, that Curtis le May’s bombing of Japan created a firestorm that resulted in massive civilian deaths. But set alongside the criminal atrocities of the Axis powers this was a blip in the statistics. China suffered millions of casualties in its protracted struggle with Japan. In the Second World War Russia, Poland, Great Britain, France and Belgium alone suffered some 16 million civilian losses, added to which were the millions of Jews and other civilian captives who perished in German labour camps and in the gas chambers and ovens of the Nazi extermination centres.
How John Simpson can suggest the presence of Americans caused a rise in civilian deaths is an insult to the Allied men and women who witnessed the liberation of these camps and who died on countless battlefields across Europe and the Pacific. He may have some obscure document showing the civilian losses in battles Americans fought, but his suggestion that Americans create unnecessary deaths is unfortunate because the overwhelming number of United States servicepeople, including World War One and Two veterans in my own family, served with valour and honour. Yes, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars have been bloody and ugly, but Britain has not been angelic in its wars either.
This brings us to Robert Fisk’s article "The US Military and its Cult of Cruelty."
He cites the American military’s new "Warrior Ethos:"
I am an American soldier.
I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the Unites States and live the Army values.
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.
I am an expert and I am a professional. I stand ready to deploy, engage and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.
I am an American soldier.
Fisk refers to the supposed ethic as "ferocious" and argues that it corresponds to "Bush’s rantings." Frankly, having sampled the American way of life, one can understand its citizens being willing to fight to the death to preserve it. The creed is a standard military oath and is very likely a lot less chilling than that of a Syrian or North Korean regiment. One wonders if Fisk ever served in a military unit and pledged to stand by his nation and his brave band of brothers.
What makes Fisk’s argument disturbing and highly suspect is that he sees atrocities and sadistic torture as an inevitable consequence of America's current administration, not as isolated, criminal acts that oppose the military institution itself and its code of ethics. Hundreds of thousands of fine young men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the overwhelming majority have behaved with decency and honour.
Simpson and Fisk, however, want to paint a very different picture in which "humiliation, beatings, rape, anal rape and murder" comprise a "cult of cruelty." Such an assertion only serves to blur the public's view of not only the Iraq conflict, but also the war on terror itself. This is why Robert Fisk finishes his article by comparing the American forces to al Qaeda. He asserts that "under the fists of US Marines" cruelty abounds as they proclaim, "We are warriors. We are Samurai. We draw the sword. We will destroy," comparing such a moto with the creed of Osama bin Laden.
The reality in Iraq, however, is that the atrocities being committed at present are by Iraqis against each other. According to recent reports, Sunni and Shia militias are using power drills to torture people to death inside their own hospitals. Of the thousands who have died in Iraq, the staggering majority were not killed by Americans, but by fellow Muslims, most heavily during Holy Ramadan, a time that Muslims is claim for prayer and reflection.
Perhaps Robert Fisk, who has spent the past quarter century in an obsessive rage about the crimes of Israel, might like to investigate the atrocities committed by thousands of Iraqi militias, including those against their fellow Muslim children and teachers at schools. But this would go against the pre-established script he and his fellow believers have in mind: that "imperialism" is the most prevalent cause of violence and oppression in the world.
During World War II, Germans prayed they would be captured by the Americans because they knew the cruelty they would suffer in Soviet captivity. When Iraqi forces assumed control of Abu Graib early this year, the inmates where soon begging for the return of American control. The face of war has certainly changed in this new age of terror, but the humane and noble conduct of American troops certainly has not.
The American media rarely, if ever, level venom at British forces or politicians. It would be good to see a small amount of civility in the discourse from Britain’s newspapers as American forces suffer unspeakable sacrifices in service to their country and the Iraqi people who are even now struggling to define the future character of their country.
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