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February 12, 2006

No cameras!

Things like Abu Ghraib and the new British soldiers beating the crap out of protestors video are bound to happen in war. They've always happened, and they always will. Hearing Tony Blair say that "The overwhelming majority of British troops in Iraq behave properly and are doing a great job for our country and the wider world" strikes me as formulaic to the point of absurdity — is there really anyone outside of Iraq and the Islamic world who believes otherwise?

There's nothing anyone can say to mitigate the impact of this video, which shows coalition troops doing exactly the sort of thing they were sent to Iraq to stop. Of course Saddam did worse, but that's only relevant to people discussing the situation over coffee — it's insane to expect Iraqis to be thankful for the difference.

It seems to me that a very logical preventative measure would be for the armed forces to prohibit their members from carrying cameras. This would no doubt create a huge fuss in the media, who would point out the many horrible things these videos have unearthed — things that shouldn't have happened. But war shouldn't happen, and when it does even the good guys must pursue victory by means that are less than 100 percent honest. The problem is not the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and the Basra beatings — it's that the Iraqi population has seen the images of them. If the overwhelming majority of military personnel really is working for a better Iraq, then there's no need for them to have cameras as a whistleblowing measure. The strength the insurgency has gathered from Abu Ghraib and will gather from Basra will cost infinitely more lives than the disgraced soldiers did.

(Cross-posted to the Shotgun.)

Posted by Chris Selley at February 12, 2006 10:54 PM

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» Youth beatings: the video is not the problem from Odd Thoughts
Uncharacteristically, Tart Cider gets it wrong. Badly wrong. Go read it, and watch the video. If your disgust at the video has died down then let’s take a look at what Chris wrote. Things like Abu Ghraib and the new British soldiers beating... [Read More]

Tracked on February 13, 2006 12:37 AM


I get it. If someone has a gunshot wound, we can cure it by bandaging it up and putting the injured person in a nice outfit...Wow, Chris, your suggestions are among the most ignorant, fascist, anti-democratic, anti-freedom ones I've heard in my life!
Do you think the filmed incident is the only one of its kind? Do you really beleve that covering up these incidents as you suggest makes them go away? Who are you trying to make feel better, the Iraqi people, or yourself?
The success of democracy and freedom in a country like Iraq (where they have no first-hand experience of those things) depends on the model behaviour of the diplomats of democracy who, in case you didn't realize it, are the US and UK soldiers. By acting like savages themselves; by not following due process of law - the US and the UK are condemning the slim chance that democracy will prevail to its death.
Ignoring the truth is never the answer. The history of the Nazi and communist totalitarian regimes should have taught you that...

Posted by: JS at February 13, 2006 12:48 PM

Do I think the filmed incident is the only one of its kind, JS? No I don't — see my first two sentences. The question is, as the western world becomes more and more "civilized", ever further removed from the horrors of war, will we eventually get to a point where images of these incidents — the disgust of those on the homefront combined with the righteous fury of the "occupied" people — will render such wars unwinnable?

I don't think the Basra thing is unique — just the opposite, I think it's typical of all wars, and what's more I don't think you'll ever get rid of such unacceptable behaviour entirely. We've sent these young men to Iraq to kill people, remember? That's far more of a compromise in western principles than limiting "free speech," as if soldiers had any to begin with.

Posted by: Chris Selley at February 13, 2006 02:02 PM

You say that "We've sent these young men to Iraq to kill people, remember?" - but that's not the case. We sent these young men to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, which is an entirely different thing. Clearly, in trying to accomplish that task, the DEFENCE of Iraqi freedom and democracy might require killing, but that is supposed to be as a last resort, not as the purpose of the Western presence in Iraq.

At the end of the day, you may be right that these sorts of wars are unwinnable when people know the truth of what goes on. But the truth must continue to be told so that armies attempting a fools errand such as this one know that either they do it right, or the stay out of it. Prohibiting cameras is just going to prevent the West from knowing what the Iraqi people already know only too well, which is that the US doesn't give a hoot about them.
Keep in mind that all the more recent polls asking Iraqis what they think indicate that their lives are far worse since the invasion than they were under Saddam. No doubt, if Western troops had set positive, fair examples of appropriate conduct they would have musc more support - but they haven't, and this video is likely just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to the vicious and unjust treatment that the West has demonstrated. And if it means that the West is worried the next time they start an unjustified war based on lies and greed, then so be it, let them worry. Something has got to keep them in check. The freedom of the press and of expression are two of the right tools to do so.

Posted by: JS at February 13, 2006 04:08 PM

JS makes a good point. This is the sort of thing you get when you try to people whose primary business is killing to perform police/peacekeeping/reconstruction duties. It just doesn't make sense. This is another reason why I like Tom Barnett's idea to bifurcate the military into two seperate forces for those two seperate jobs, each with its own rulesets for conduct. It eliminates this kind of institutional schizophrenia.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at February 13, 2006 05:38 PM

Chris: You are very off base here.

1) While all wars are brutal, there has been tons of law since WWII trying to regulate and control how wars are fought. Firebombings and using toxic gas on civilians is a strict no no now. This is largely because our past excesses have seen the light of day and NGOs have been pushing governments to behave less recklessly in war.

2) The truth about disgusting behavior always gets out, cameras or no cameras. To win the hearts and minds of Iraqis we should show them that we hold those who committed crimes responsible. Healthy democracies behave transparently and attempt to correct their wrongs - this is what separates us from the Stalins and Saddams of the world.

3) Without knowing the truth about war, how can it even be meaningful to talk of supporting a war? Without the photos from Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration would still be getting a free ride on its use of state-sanctioned torture, and Americans would still be under the illusion that things are going quite well in Iraq, thank you very much. War is a serious business, which is why we should know it in all its unmitigated ugliness.

Give every soldier a camera - especially if he is fighting a war in the name of democracy and human rights.

Posted by: Milan at February 14, 2006 12:56 AM

Milan, I'm not sure we're arguing the same thing. You seem to want to build better, more honourable armies. I think that's a super idea. But I also believe that the armies fighting in Iraq are among the best and most honourable the world has ever seen, and yet their efforts have suffered enormously because of the Abu Ghraib and Basra images. By extension, the Iraqi people have also suffered more because of these images.

Of course tales of prisoner abuse and random beatings would have made the rounds, but you can't possibly be suggesting that they would have had the same power. I don't think the average Iraqi is going to read in tearful wonderment of the due process and eventual punishment the offending British soldiers -- I think he just wants them the hell out.

I take your point about the governments being able to act with impunity, but armed forces like impunity. It's not so much that I'm advocating the camera ban, but that given how much damage this inconvenient evidence has done to the armed forces and to the Iraqis, I can't understand why they haven't instituted it already. I still believe that the images have caused far more tangible harm than the ban ever could.

Posted by: Chris Selley at February 14, 2006 08:58 PM