hus 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.
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?’”
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.
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