Setback to US Image in War ; the Footage of a Marine Killing a Wounded Iraqi Has Roiled the Middle East

By Dan Murphy writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Setback to US Image in War ; the Footage of a Marine Killing a Wounded Iraqi Has Roiled the Middle East


Dan Murphy writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The killing of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi by a US marine, videotaped by an embedded reporter from NBC on Saturday and broadcast around the world, is stirring anger in the Middle East and elsewhere.

That anger, reminiscent of the outcry that followed the release of torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison, is the latest upsurge in a propaganda war that the US has been embroiled in from the get-go in Iraq. US officials say an investigation has begun.

The act itself, perhaps a result of the fog of war, perhaps an act of revenge, represents a key challenge for the Marines. Keenly aware that US excesses in the past have turned global opinion against the war in Iraq, and thereby threatened US strategic objectives, commanders repeatedly have warned their subordinates not to shoot unarmed or seriously injured men.

The notion that armies are only as good as their least disciplined soldier in the media glare of modern warfare has become almost a matter of doctrine, given the need for enlisted men to think quickly in stressful situations.

"They call it the 'strategic corporal,' " says Lieut. Michael Aubry, a vehicle commander from Arlington Heights, Ill., with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance company in central Fallujah. "[Lower ranks] are seeing stuff and reacting to it without guidance" from higher authority.

In a 1999 article, Gen. Charles Krulak, then the Marine Commandant, coined the term. In the 21st century, he wrote, young marines would need "to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress - decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion. In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy."

Yet in the heat of the moment Saturday, a young marine did severe damage to the image of a precise and clean assault that the US had hoped to project from Fallujah. The footage has already become more fodder on jihadi websites peddling the conspiracy theory that the US is on a crusade against global Islam. It also caused cringing in the capitals of US friends and allies. Tuesday, UN Human Rights chief Louise Arbour called for an investigation of alleged US abuses in Fallujah.

Charles Smith, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Arizona, says the military triumph in Fallujah could be undermined by global anger at how the victory was achieved. In the coming weeks, he says, observers are likely to see "the Bush administration trumpeting 'victory' and much of the rest of the world, including Europe, considering some of our practices as war crimes."

Fallujah has long been a center of Iraq's information war - whether it was video of the four mutilated US security contractors there last April that insurgents hoped would demoralize the US, or the pictures of the women and children severely wounded in the retaliatory American assault that followed.

"This incident hasn't elicited the type of shock that Abu Ghraib did - that set a bar in a way, and lowered expectations,'' says Toby Jones, who tracks Islamist trends for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. …

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