In his 1989 big-screen drama Casualties of War, director Brian De Palma told the story of American soldiers in Vietnam through a fictional tale in which U.S. troops kidnap, gang-rape and ultimately murder a Vietnamese woman. Vietnam veterans objected, with justice, that De Palma’s slanted focus on a hideous act of brutality obscured the prominent truth that the overwhelming number of American servicemen accorded themselves humanely amidst the carnage of the war.
To judge by De Palma’s latest release, Redacted, their appeals fell on deaf ears. Shot as a faux war documentary, Redacted updates De Palma’s earlier thesis about the depravity of the armed forces for the Iraq War. Loosely based on a March, 2006, incident in which American soldiers raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and her family, the film recreates the gruesome murder through a montage of video and photographs (of which the most gruesome, a shot of the murdered rape victim, is forged), and carries the implicit suggestion that such conduct, hardly a horrific aberration, is the norm when American soldiers march into war. Underlying it all is the conceit that this “truth” about the military’s conduct is redacted from the media’s reporting on the Iraq War. Not one to overestimate the intelligence of his viewers, De Palma stresses in the subtitle for Redacted that “truth is the first casualty of war.”
Thus described, Redacted would seem easy to dismiss as the latest example of the film industry’s political insularity -- only in Hollywood can it be claimed straight-facedly that media reporting on the war has been insufficiently critical -- and its cultural estrangement from the country’s fighting men and women. What invests it with a perverse significance is that it coincides with a larger trend in the media and entertainment worlds to cast American servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan as amoral agents of death and destruction -- the real-life counterparts to De Palma’s uniformed savages.
Additional examples abound. Before he was revealed as a pathological fabulist, former Marine staff sergeant Jimmy Massey caused an international sensation by accusing American troops, including his own unit, of murdering Iraqi civilians as a matter of policy. “We are all just murderers,” Massey informed the Italian newspaper Manefesto in a March 2005 interview. “We kill innocent Iraqi civilians all the time. That's the way it is.... they don't want to talk and admit that killing terrorists is not our mission. It's to kill innocent civilians." It’s no mystery that the audience went wild for De Palma’s Redacted at this summer’s Venice film festival; they’d been prepped to see American troops in the worst possible light.
More recently, the New Republic magazine published diary entries by Army private Scott Thomas Beauchamp in which he charged that the military engaged in wanton cruelty, including desecrating human remains and killing stray dogs with Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Beauchamp supplied no documentation for his lurid charges, and an internal Army investigation found them to be wholly without substance. Nevertheless, the story served to lend credence to the growing narrative that American troops commit violence without scruple or restraint.
Most noteworthy about this narrative is not that it is wrong, which it is, but that it is almost the perfect inverse of the truth. Not only is it not the case that American troops operate in a moral vacuum but -- as soldiers’ accounts from the battlefield and interviews with combat veterans reveal -- they are often so constrained by restrictive rules of engagement and the dictates of political correctness that the real danger in the field of battle is not to Iraqi civilians, but to the troops themselves. De Palma and company notwithstanding, the disturbing truth about the troops in Iraq is not they are too ruthless but that they are not ruthless enough. If any story has been “redacted” from the dominant coverage of the war effort, surely this is it.
Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia knows all about political correctness. Throughout his deployment in Iraq in 2004, Bellavia encountered frequent situations when the military made concessions to local and cultural sensitivities that inhibited its ability to fight and endangered American lives. Arriving in a village in Diyala province, then a prime refuge for al-Qaeda in Iraq, Bellavia recalls the resident sheiks protesting that Americans would not be welcome unless they abandoned their tanks and fighting vehicles and entered on foot. “Our platoons basically said, ‘Yes,” Bellavia recalls with dismay. “We were sent to fight al-Qaeda and in that situation we were forced to fight on al-Qaeda’s terms.”
That scenario was not atypical. An underappreciated fact about the rules of engagement in Iraq is that they prohibit the military from entering mosques as a good-faith indulgence of Islamic mores (exceptions are sometimes, but not always, made for Iraqi Security Forces). Thus does the military treat mosques as sacred sites instead of what they often are, namely, weapons storehouses and bases of operations for Iraqi insurgents and their allies in foreign terrorist organizations.
In Fallujah in November of 2004, Bellavia’s unit learned firsthand the perils of that policy. After taking intense fire from a mosque, Bellavia’s men moved in to surround it. Restricted from entering the mosque themselves, the troops were forced to wait while an Iraqi unit could be found to enter the mosque and root out the attackers. “Meanwhile, we’re exposing ourselves to hellfire,” Bellavia recalls. “Even when the Iraqis arrived, we had to ask for permission to enter the firefight.” Today, Bellavia is understandably bitter about the mosque policy. “We’re being asked to respect landmarks that we know for a fact are being used as stockpiles for weapons. On the level, the whole thing is ridiculous.”
It doesn‘t improve matters that the military is increasingly deemphasizing self-defense, Bellavia says. “When I went to Iraq in 2004, before entering Fallujah we were given a pep talk. We were told, ‘Kill the rattlesnake before it strikes.’ But when I went back in 2006 as a reporter, I heard [officers] telling those kids things like, ‘If you make a mistake, we’ll come after you.’ I thought to myself, ‘That’s the pep talk you’re giving them?’”
Paradoxically, the military’s well-intentioned efforts to tread carefully around Iraqi culture and minimize civilian casualties have sometimes led to more civilian deaths.
Case in point is the above-mentioned mosque policy, whose folly can be summed up in one instructive incident. In February 22, 2006, the political climate in Iraq, already fragile, took a sharp turn for the worse when Iraqi militants disguised as police officers forced their way into the Golden Mosque of Samara and triggered twin bombs blasts that decimated the revered Shiite structure. In the sanguinary aftermath, 20 Sunni mosques across Iraq were targeted by retaliatory attacks, including bombs, and at least 18 people, among them two Sunni clerics, were killed. Then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, recognizing the scope of the violence, declared a day of national mourning.
But if this part of the story is well known, it is less appreciated that the Golden Mosque might have been saved and the subsequent spree of violence averted if an American Special Police Transition Team, positioned just feet from the mosque, had been allowed to intervene to root out the insurgents. “The whole time we knew explosives and weapons were in the mosque,” Major Darrell Green, the team’s commander, would later recall. But because rules of engagement prevented the team from entering the mosque, Green and his men were forced to look impotently on as the military’s grand plans to accommodate Iraqi culture went up, quite literally, in smoke.
To see further evidence of the disastrous consequences of military multiculturalism, it is useful to consider the rules of engagement introduced at some checkpoints in Iraq. Initially, troops manning the checkpoints were permitted to fire warning shots to alert Iraqi drivers that they needed to stop. The measure proved highly effective, since Iraqis, preoccupied with cell phones or children in the backseat, would sometimes forget to stop; for distracted drivers, a warning shot quickly impressed the need to step on the breaks.
But then the rules changed. Military brass decided that, in the words of one American security officer, “they didn’t want to antagonize the civilian populace.” In short order, the warning shot was banned under the rules of engagement. Instead, troops were now ordered to shout for drivers to stop, or, if that failed, to fire at the engine or the driver. Major Darrel Green summed up the problem with new approach: “The problem is that when you’re trying to shoot at a moving vehicle and you’re aiming at the engine block, sometimes the rounds skip, sometimes your aim isn’t on and you end up killing innocent civilian Iraqis. What you’ve now done is just created the exact environment you were trying to avoid by not firing the warning shot to antagonize the population. It was absolutely ridiculous. It was very frustrating.”
Still, the rules at least allowed soldiers at checkpoints to use deadly force in case of emergency. That wasn’t always the case, and one who capitalized on the fact, according to Army Times correspondent Sean Naylor, was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late head of al-Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. In 2005, Zarqawi was spotted by an Army Ranger unit speeding through a roadblock. With Zarqawi’s vehicle in his site, a machine gunner asked for permission to take out the target. But since the rules of engagement prevented the Rangers from firing unless they had 100 percent “positive identification” -- a difficult proposition in a speeding vehicle -- the permission was denied. Zarqawi lived to fight for another year, directly ordering hundreds of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and bolstering his reputation with stories of an unlikely escape from the U.S. military, before finally being killed in a June 2006 air strike.
It’s hard to miss the grim irony off the episode. While Hollywood and its hangers-on re-imagined the American military as a modern-day incarnation of Genghis Khan’s barbarian hordes, the actual military balked even at shooting a world-recognized terrorist for fear that they might take an innocent life.
Even apart from basic ethics, there are of course good reasons why the military tries to minimize collateral damage, be it the ruin of mosques or the loss of civilian lives. For military strategists, the seminal lesson of the Vietnam War is that military operations that fail to garner the support of local populations are bound to fail. In that sense, excessive force is transparently counterproductive, alienating civilians, frustrating intelligence gathering, fueling enemy propaganda, and generally harming America’s image across the globe. One need only consider the despicable murders that inspired Redacted, as well as the damaging public relations fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, to see the evidence for that view.
What’s more, the troops themselves know it. “We’re trying to deliver on the promise of a better life to the vast silent majority of Iraqis,” says Pete Hegseth, an infantry platoon leader and assistant civil-military operations who served in Iraq with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. “If, say, [the security contractor] Blackwater comes in and shoots up a neighborhood, we are the ones who have to deal with the cultural ramifications of that. We’re trying to provide security, but to do that it requires a concerted effort to demonstrate our common humanity.”
Yet there is also plentiful warrant for thinking that the military has gone too far in trying to demonstrate its “common humanity.” One can understand the need for some of the compromises, such as the fact that soldiers are forbidden from openly wearing crucifixes and the star of David. (“Certainly not the star of David,” one Iraq veteran told me, “that would be unforgivable.”) But it becomes harder to see the rationale behind confining rules of engagement that imperil American soldiers and provide little benefit to civilians, still less behind those that result in precisely the kind of needless casualties and chaos they are designed to avoid.
“You don’t want to kill the locals and turn them against you, but at the same time, especially in Iraq, they really respect force, so it’s a fine balance,” observes Major Chris Shields, who had a close-up view of the combat when he served with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 and 2006. “A lot of times I think we were simply too conservative in our collateral damage restrictions. We could have been a little looser and gotten some better effects.”
It need hardly be said that the notion that American troops on the frontlines of the global war on terror should be granted more freedom to fight will be anathema to those who, like Brian De Palma, are invested in the caricature of the U.S. military as a laboratory of sadism and the ideological dogma that war is inherently degrading. But if De Palma’s portrayal of the military is preposterously inaccurate, it does confirm, however unintentionally, one of his core themes: Truth often is the first casualty of war.