Editorial – General Petraeus and the $2000 Payoff

Editor and Publisher

May 09, 2007 – Until recently, the press has rarely covered the U.S. military program that occasionally offers “condolence” payments to Iraqis and Afghans whose loved ones have been killed or injured by our troops. But a number of high-profile incidents involving the killing of noncombatants has drawn some long-overdue, if fleeting, attention to the subject.

On Tuesday, in the latest example, the U.S. military apologized for a not-accidental atrocity near Jalalabad back in March and agreed to make the usual maximum payment — don’t laugh — of about $2000 to survivors for each of the 19 Afghan lives lost.

That’s an improvement in some ways. Last month I titled a column on this subject, “Sorry We Shot Your Kid, Here’s $500,” referring to a documented case in Iraq.

Those 19 deaths in Afghanistan (and 50 wounded), by the way, were not the result of some unintentional air strike. Troops, angry about a bomb attack on them, carried out a rampage along a ten-mile stretch of highway, shooting villagers apparently at random. Well, we got around to saying we were sorry — two months later.

Not that we don’t kill civilians from the air. Today, AP reports that a U.S. air strike killed 21 noncombatants in southern Afghanistan, including many children, on Tuesday.

The war zone killings, the justification for most of them — we rarely apologize even as we sometimes pay up – and the amount of the restitution, are all appalling, and a debasement of our values. It’s time for the press to ponder all of this deeply as the war — and the suffering of U.S. troops and civilians in Iraq — continues with no end in sight.

This also serves to reminds us of several disturbing questions: How many innocent Iraqis have been killed or injured, accidentally or on purpose, by our troops? And what is the price of a human life — in our view, and in the view of the survivors whose hearts and minds we are attempting to win?

Reporters should also ask Gen. David Petraeus, who is directing the “surge” effort in Iraq, why he lied in responding to a reporter’s question this week concerning widespread abuse by U.S. troops.

At the Associated Press’ annual meeting in New York on Tuesday, I sat in the audience observing Gen. Petraeus on a huge screen, via satellite from Baghdad, as he answered questions from two AP journalists. Asked about a military study of over 1,300 U.S. troops in Iraq, released last week, which showed increasing mental stress — and an alarming spillover into poor treatment of noncombatants — Petraeus replied, “When I received that survey I was very concerned by the results. It showed a willingness of a fair number to not report the wrongdoing of their buddies.”

That’s true enough, but then he asserted that the survey showed that only a “small number” admitted they may have mistreated “detainees.”

That was a lie. Actually, the study found that 10% of U.S. forces reported that they had personally, and without cause, mistreated civilians (not detainees) through physical violence or damage to personal property. So much for the claims by President Bush, military leaders and conservative pundits that 99.9% of U.S. troops always behave honorably. Of course, that kind of record has never been achieved by any country in any war.

The survey also noted that only 47% of the soldiers and 38% of marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. More than 40% said they backed torture in certain circumstances.

Only 40 % of American marines and 55% of soldiers in Iraq said they would report a fellow service member for killing or injuring an innocent Iraqi. Of course, this only guarantees that it will happen again, and again. But that’s okay, a few American dollars will make that right again.

Or maybe not. Last month I spoke with Jon Tracy, a former Army captain who helped administer and make day-to-day condolence or “solatia” payment decisions in Iraq as a Judge Advocate in 2004 and 2005. This came after I found on the Web a paper he had written about his experience which critiqued the program in a balanced way. At the time I was deeply troubled after examining files on hundreds of Iraqi claims forced into the open by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Every Iraqi he had dealt with Iraq, Tracy revealed, “expressed shock and disbelief” when he told them he could only offer them, at most, $2,500 for a precious life lost. He observed that this “limits the unit’s ability to adequately assist in the most egregious cases.” Under the rules, “the full market value may be paid for a Toyota run over by a tank in the course of a non-combat related accident, but only $2,500 may be paid for the death of a child shot in the crossfire. … The artificial limit leaves survivors bitter and frustrated at the U.S.”

In other words, it can do more harm than good. The solution, of course, is to make such payments unnecessary.

Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor.

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