War Crimes And The Struggle For Truth

An ancient Roman aphorism made a crucial point: “The senators are good men, but the senate is a beast.“ In the same way, no matter how deeply media corporations may be compromised by profit-orientation and links to establishment power, some journalists will always be willing to respond reasonably to criticism.

On March 30, a Media Lens reader challenged the BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, about his article reviewing the possibility of a US attack on Iran. Our reader, noting that Reynolds had made no mention of the illegality, or otherwise, of a US attack, asked:

“How can you find space to discuss the operational considerations of a mission but not the implication for international law?” (Darren Smith, email forwarded, March 30, 2006)

Within a matter of hours, the following paragraph had been appended to Reynolds’ article on the BBC website:

“Of course, the legality of any attack would be hard to justify. The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters this week: ‘I don’t happen to believe that military action has a role to play in any event. We could not justify it under Article 51 of the UN charter which permits self defence.’” (Paul Reynolds, ‘Will US use Iran military option?‘, March 30, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4860492.stm)

One reader, writing one reasonable and rational email, had made a difference. Paul Reynolds told us:

“I often respond to readers’ suggestions and this was one such. As was obvious, the piece was more about the military and political issues but I did feel on reflection that I should not leave out legality entirely.” (Email, March 31, 2006)

This willingness to respond honestly to criticism is admirable.

In February, the Observer journalist Mary Riddell described how “Britain is embroiled in two… ill-judged interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq (Riddell, ‘The soldier’s song has become a lament,’ The Observer, February 5, 2006). When a reader challenged this description of what, in fact, are major war crimes, Riddell responded:

“Many thanks. Apologies for my understatements; you’re quite right to point them out.” (Forwarded, February 26, 2006)

The BBC also deserves credit for a film broadcast by Newsnight on March 29: ‘Soldiers: Coming Home.’ The film followed members of Iraq Veterans Against The War on their “Walkin’ to New Orleans” protest march against the Iraq war (see: www.ivaw.net).

A veteran on the march, Jody Casey, was asked if the US military had been concerned about the people of Iraq. He replied:

“Oh no. Definitely that was not a concern at all… I was not concerned about them at all.”

Asked if this was simply his personal view, or the view of the military in general, Casey responded:

“No! I mean that’s why they call them ‘Hajji’ [the Iraqi equivalent of ‘Gook‘]. I mean you have got to de-sensitise yourself from them: ‘They’re not people they are animals’. [There was a] total disregard for human life.”

The veteran described how Iraqi civilians discovered in the vicinity of detonated Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) were routinely shot:

“I have seen innocent people being killed. IEDS go off and you just zap any farmer that is close to you… hit him with the 50 [heavy machine gun] or the M-16 [rifle]. Overall there was just the total disregard – they basically jam into your head: ‘This is Hajji! This is Hajji’. You totally take the human being out of it and make them into a video game… If you start looking at them as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you gonna kill them?”

Former soldiers claim that this attitude extends up the chain of command, right to the top. In April 2004, the Daily Telegraph reported great unease among senior British army commanders in Iraq at the “heavy-handed and disproportionate” military tactics used by US forces who, they said, viewed Iraqis “as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life… their attitude toward the Iraqis is tragic, it is awful”. (Sean Rayment, ‘US tactics condemned by British officers,’ Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2004)

An apparent example of the kind of indiscriminate killing described by Casey was reported in The Nation on April 12:

“On November 19, after a roadside bomb killed Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 15 Iraqi civilians – including seven women and three children – were allegedly shot and killed by a unit of US Marines operating in Haditha, Iraq. Then, this past Friday, a battalion commander and two company commanders from the same unit were relieved of their duties.

“We also know that the Marine Corps initially claimed that the 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by a roadside bomb. But in January, after Time magazine presented the military with Iraqi accounts and video proof of the attack’s aftermath, officials acknowledged that the civilians were killed by Marines but blamed insurgents nonetheless who had ‘placed noncombatants in the line of fire.’

“However, video evidence shows that women and children were shot in their homes while still wearing nightclothes. And while there are no bullet holes outside the houses to support the military’s assertion of a firefight with insurgents, ‘inside the houses… the walls and ceilings are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes as well as the telltale spray of blood.’” (Katrina vanden Heuvel, ‘Haditha, Iraq,’ The Nation, April 12, 2006; www.thenation.com/blogs/edcut?bid=7&pid=76825)

One eyewitness told Time: “I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny.”(Quoted, Hala Jaber and Tony Allen-Mills, ’Iraqis killed by US troops “on rampage”,’ Sunday Times, March 26, 2006)

This is how the incident was originally reported in the Mirror:

“Elsewhere, an ambush on a joint US and Iraqi patrol north-west of Baghdad left 15 civilians, eight insurgents and a US Marine dead. An improvised explosive device was detonated next to the Marine’s vehicle in Haditha on Saturday.” (Brian Roberts, ‘Brit toll rises after roadside blast kill soldier,’ Mirror, November 21, 2005)

The most shocking revelation in the Newsnight film concerned the carrying of shovels and AK-47 rifles on US patrol vehicles – these were regularly dumped beside bodies to give the impression that they had been planting roadside bombs. Casey explained the orders he had been given:

“’Keep shovels on the truck and an AK, and if you see anybody out here at night on the roads, shoot them. Shoot them, and if they weren’t doing anything, throw a shovel off.’ At that time when we first got down there, you could basically kill whoever you wanted – it was that easy…

“You’re driving down the road at 3 in the morning, there’s a guy on the side of the road, you shoot him… you throw a shovel off.”

The IVAW website contains a harrowing interview with Iraq veteran, Doug Barber, who subsequently took his own life. Asked if he had seen any Iraqi civilians being killed, Barber replied:

“You know, I didn’t see any get killed, but we heard about it on a daily basis. I knew some guys in our unit had gone through it. They had experienced a situation where they were ambushed and had to open up, uh, open fire, on these people. The guys in the unit that had to open fire, well it really messed them up. It really messed them up bad, it really got to them.

“We would hear about our own friendly fire from the helicopters and some other combat units would hurt or kill civilians, things like that we knew were going on all the time.” (Jay Shaft, ‘Interview with Spc. Douglas Barber- OIF Vet suffering from PTSD’, December 3, 2005;

The killings at Haditha have generated some media coverage – there have been eight mentions in national British newspapers. One-off horrors of this kind are generally covered in brief and in isolation. During the Vietnam War, the US massacre of up to 500 civilians at My Lai eventually received substantial media coverage. To this day, My Lai continues to be presented as an isolated incident. In reviewing Haditha, the Daily Mail wrote, for example: “It has chilling echoes of America’s darkest hour in Vietnam [My Lai].” (Charles Laurence, Daily Mail, March 22, 2006)

But in fact My Lai, part of Operation Wheeler Wallawa, was unusual only in that it was reported. Newsweek journalist Kevin Buckley wrote:

“An examination of that whole operation would have revealed the incident at My Lai to be a particularly gruesome application of a wider policy which had the same effect in many places at many times. Of course, the blame for that could not be blamed on a stumblebum lieutenant. Calley was an aberration, but ‘Wheeler Wallawa‘ was not.” (Quoted Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume 1, South End Press, 1979, p.317)

By contrast to coverage of the incident at Haditha, Newsnight’s even more disturbing eyewitness accounts – suggesting the routine killing of civilians – have generated no response in the media: not one article discussing these reports has appeared in any newspaper since the film was shown.

Children Are Dying Daily

But this is hardly surprising, given the almost complete indifference of so many British journalists to the fate of Iraqis. Also ignored by the media was last week’s report that, “The mortality of children in Basra has increased by nearly 30 percent compared to the Saddam Hussein era,” according to Dr Haydar Salah, a paediatrician at the Basra Children’s Hospital. Dr Salah added:

“Children are dying daily, and no one is doing anything to help them.” (IRIN, ‘Doctors, NGOs warn of high infant mortality in Basra,’ April 11, 2006; http://www.reliefweb.int/ rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ- 6NRGZK?OpenDocument&rc= 3&emid=ACOS-635P5D)

The causes are water-borne diseases and a lack of medical supplies. Marie Fernandez, spokeswoman for European aid agency Saving Children from War, reported:

“For weeks, there were no I.V. [intravenous] fluids available in the hospitals of Basra. As a consequence, many children, mainly under five-years old, died after suffering from extreme cases of diarrhoea. Hospitals have no ventilators to help prematurely-born babies breathe.”

Fernandez added that, for the last three years, the Maternity and Children’s hospital in Basra has not received any cancer drugs from the health ministry:

“In all of Basra, a city with nearly two million inhabitants, there’s no radiotherapy department available.”

This was reported by the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Network but has not been covered since by a single British newspaper. Recall that the protection of the civilian population of Basra is the legal responsibility of the British occupying forces. Why is the catastrophe befalling the children of Basra not filling the front pages of the Guardian and Independent? Why are government ministers not being called to account? Where are the demands for increased medical assistance and supplies from one of the world‘s wealthiest countries? Where are the campaigns for donations and support? Is this not a clear example where even minimal media compassion would actually save lives?

In similar vein, a recent survey conducted by London-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting ranked Baghdad as the worst city in the world in terms of the quality of living, with a total score of 14.5. Other cities at the lower end of the scale were Brazzaville in the Congo Republic (30.3), Bangui in the Central African Republic (30.6) and Khartoum in Sudan (31.7).

Fadia Ibraheem, a senior official at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Iraq, said:

“We have to admit, this city is getting worse everyday in regard to the quality of life. As long as US troops remain, the city will continue to deteriorate.” (‘For quality of life, Baghdad ranks last in world, survey finds,’ April 11, 2006, www.irin.org)

We can be sure that the better, more compassionate journalists are doing what they can to bring these horrors to the attention of a deceived British public. But the struggle is uneven – major corporate media have everything to gain from the current insane but lucrative status quo. And that status quo inevitably requires the West’s projection of military power for profits and control. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it well:

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.” (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘The New Rulers of the World’, Verso, 2001, p.114)


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

We have written to Paul Reynolds to congratulate him on his willingness to respond honestly to criticism. We have also congratulated Newsnight editor Peter Barron for his film providing a small glimpse of the suffering in Iraq.

Write to: [email protected]

and [email protected]