“What About Fallujah?”

(Originally posted here)

What do you have to say about Fallujah, let’s talk about Fallujah, what do you have to say about Fallujah? Since you care so much on the Left… What have we done in Fallujah Nick? WHAT HAVE WE DONE? Have you even bothered to find out?

-Yasmin Alibhai Brown

When they say ‘Fallujah’ they refer to the Second Battle of Fallujah from Nov/Dec 2004. For commentators with an engrained anti-American perspective it is almost impossible to write about any combat, anywhere, without name checking Fallujah. Usually it comes in handy as whataboutary, ‘you think X are bad guys? Yeah? Well what about Fallujah?’. For them it proves we are no better than our enemies, it proves what the Coalition did in Iraq was evil, it is the unarguable catchall to show just how sick we are as people and how sophisticated in their self-criticism those that deploy it are.

A classic of this type can be seen in this show (04:00-04:30) with Nick Cohen cross-examined by Yasmin Alibhai Brown and Iain Dale. Although in this, like the Douglas Murray one, Dale generally sits back and laughs while Alibhai Brown is humiliated. It really is worth watching in full just for giggles. For now though watch the specified section and examine the moral outrage. The word ‘Fallujah’ is nothing less than an accusation to be spat at people, you can positively feel the indignant anger.

To further demonstrate the contempt many have for the actions in Fallujah you can look to its common inclusion in a list, such as: ‘what about Abu GhraibHaditha, Fallujah?’ These lists come out in people’s comments daily. There are countless examples, try googling the three together and you’ll see.

It is in strange company there as both of the other two were out of policy. The abuses in Abu Ghraib were indeed disgusting, though barely comparable to the systematic barbarism Saddam’s goons undertook as official policy there. However, they were admitted as wrong and 11 of the perpetrators were convicted. Everyone’s favourite villain Donald Rumsfeld said of the scandal:

They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong.

To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.

The killings at Haditha were also out of policy. It could certainly be said that the legal follow up was not to a standard one would hope for, but illegal killings by soldiers are notoriously hard to prove. The action was however condemned and very much appears to be an exception.

With these two incidences, does one choose to claim them as an indictment of officially malign U.S. policy and morality or does one use it to show that such behaviour is not the norm, not the intention and not condoned? When making a moral comparison is it not strange to compare an action by the U.S. that is condemned condemned by the U.S. with an action by another entity which is in policy and actively encouraged? I say it is and yet it so often occurs.

So why is Fallujah included? What is it about this three syllable word that has transformed it into a four letter one? Beyond the fact that a U.S. led coalition were victorious in the battle? It is very hard to ascertain as it is rarely spelt out by those that use it. The word has just seemed to pass without fight or enquiry into the debit column in the ledger of morality. But surely something terrible must have happened for it to be casually included in lists of criminal atrocities? If there was something I am yet to find out what it is.

A mistake has been made by the people unwilling to contradict those that use it, so that it has now been commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a stain on the record of the Allies. Even in that Nick Cohen exchange he readily concedes that it is legitimate to say ‘a plague on all your houses’ regarding it. Fallujah is asserted as a wrong and very little counter argument is ever provided. It seems to be accepted with a shrug that says ‘you might be onto something there but look at the wider picture…” This is a mistake and it will take some effort to restore some sanity regarding it.

We can take for granted that those who use Fallujah as a pejorative were against the invasion of Iraq. Fine. Accepting however that the invasion occurred and once it had there was a responsibility to try and do the best possible by Iraq, the first question is ‘should anything have been done in Fallujah at all?’

Before the Second Battle, Fallujah’s defences had been handed over, on request by the Iraqi government, to local Iraqi forces. In the proceeding months they had utterly failed in their task and according to U.S. intelligence a takfiri gang, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had taken de facto control of the city. His forces numbered up to 5,000 (probably closer to 3,000-4,000) and were mostly foreign fighters. This group was the direct predecessor of ISIS.

Their control of the region was not only to be considered a current and increasing disaster for the inhabitants but it was also beginning to be the home base for wider Islamist and Baathist disruptions. I posit that to leave these people in place would not only be immoral but tactically insane. After taking the city Coalition troops found torture rooms, IED factories and a calendar for video beheadings. Both the inhabitants of the city of Fallujah and the new Iraq as a whole required their removal if there was to be any chance at all at a better future. Unless you disagree with this requirement the imperative for action to rid the city of this group is overwhelming.

As I am yet to hear any serious argument that when confronted with the situation as it was at the end of 2004 Fallujah should have been left to rot, we can begin to look at what actually happened.

Indulge me in a thought experiment:

Imagine a city with up to 300,000 civilian inhabitants. Inside there are un-uniformed enemy fighters that need to be removed but are hard to distinguish from the civilian population. They have had substantial preparation time and have set up IEDs and ambush points on all routes into the city.

Now imagine you control a military force with almost unimaginable might. You are charged with removing the enemy force inside. You have it within your power to obliterate the entire city without losing any of your own forces and the costs will amount to little more than jet fuel and bombs.

I propose that in this scenario the number of civilian deaths incurred says a great deal about your morality as a leader and as a society. Let us try and estimate a number for them.

Try these:

1: You’re Gengis Kahn born again. The civilian deaths would number fairly close to 300,000. Perhaps some will be allowed to live for slavery and rape purposes.

2: You’re of the moral level of ISIS. Probably fewer as you don’t consider all the inhabitants the enemy. But surely as many dead as the easiest route to supremacy entails is a fair assumption.

3: You’re an Assad Jr. or a Saddam. You’d kill as many as necessary and probably a few more and you’d surely use poisoned gas and barrel bombs no? Assad Senior was faced with a similar number of Islamist combatants in a city with a similar population in Hama in 1982. He managed to kill between 20-40,000 civilians. In his own country.

4: You’re a modern Russian. Perhaps the best comparison is the Battle of Grozny. There the Russians faced a similar problem with similar numbers. But the civilian dead were never reliably counted and the corpses merely stuffed into unmarked, mass graves. It was certainly in the thousands, most probably in the 10s of 1000s. What would you have done in a totally foreign, Arab city?

5: You’re part of an evil corporate American empire that simply doesn’t care about Iraqi lives at all and are comparable in morality to others mentioned but have to make some effort for the cameras. What, 10,000 dead? Minimum?

Well, according to the Red Cross, who I have no reason to suspect are good friends of Dick Cheney and George Bush, 800 civilians died. And it is by no means clear that all were killed by the allies. 800 out of 300,000. 1,500 insurgents were captured and 1,200 – 1,500 were killed.

800 civilian deaths is 800 we can wish had not occurred. 800 deaths is though, by many orders of magnitude, a smaller number than if the equivalent action had been taken by our enemies or more tellingly by the moral actors the apologists and anti-Americans pretend exist in the U.S. Still the question, ‘how many fewer could it still have been?’, should be asked.  I suggest not very many. Not realistically, not without massively increased risk to allied forces and not when compared to any other combat of similar nature. 800 is a remarkably low figure.

The allies surrounded the city and painstakingly passed through their lines up to 90% of the entire population. Thus leaving perhaps 30,000 in pockets in the city. The insurgents knowing that civilians were good cover for them (it seems the insurgents had a higher understanding of their enemy’s care for civilians than the moral equivalence monkeys do), prevented as many leaving as they could. It was only after this was complete that the U.S. Marines began systematically moving through the city at great risk to themselves. In total the Coalition forces lost 107 killed and over 650 wounded. Overwhelmingly from the U.S.M.C.

A colleague of mine told me of a lecture he attended when in the British Army, given by a WW2 veteran on the subject of fighting through Western Europe. The veteran spoke of the orders to protect civilian housing and of the restraint they were ordered to show. He said however, that no matter who you are, when you lose a good friend the previous day going house to house, the urge to ignore the orders, sit back at a distance and shell and machine gun the target building to the ground is overwhelming. I mention this to suggest the coordinated, controlled and relatively restrained actions of the U.S. Marines go against every sensible instinct of self-protection and speaks to an enormous degree of professionalism. Professionalism in this case being the reflection of Coalition command’s intention to do the least damage practical and to show the highest care and attention to civilian lives.

Combat is ugly and messy. The results rarely perfect. Once such a grim undertaking as clearing Fallujah of insurgents is deemed necessary it must be judged on its merits, with relevant comparisons to relevant examples. It can’t be judged against a bland pacifism or with no counter-factual beyond an assumption of zero deaths. Sam Harris’ ‘perfect weapon‘ thought experiment is important here and worth the read. Yes 800 civilian deaths is 800 deaths but if the perfect weapon existed the number would have been zero. Do you think we could say the same if those that we are compared to undertook the mission?

A note on chemical weapons:

The example of Fallujah is oft heard in comparisons of illegal warfare with specific reference given to chemical weapons. This week it was mentioned in a very confused piece by Owen Jones where he wrote:

But the Assad regime does not flaunt its cruelty. It does not make videos with Hollywood effects – slo-mo, closeups, haunting music, the aftermath in high definition. Instead, it adopts the same regretful tone of western powers, like when the US dropped flesh-burning white phosphorus over Falluja. We regret any civilian casualties (or “collateral damage”, as the west prefers). We do not target civilians, unlike our opponents – and so on. The scale of death may be far greater, but the claimed intentions are different: unlike our opponents, we do not aim to kill civilians, they say, so we retain our moral superiority.

I think he is being sneaky here. Even if he honestly means to simply compare the tone, he is wrong. I read nothing regretful in the U.S. admitting the use of WP. Nor should they had to have been. If there is any regret it is simply because it contradicts earlier reports. The U.S. denied it killed civilians with it so its use here is irrelevant. It strongly whiffs of an attempt to tar them with the same atrocity brush he uses against Assad.

I quoted more than required by Jones there because as a side note I want you to look at his final use of ‘they say’. I think he is hinting at a claim he isn’t actually willing to make. Yes Owen, all things being equal, not aiming to kill civilians makes you morally superior to those intending to kill them. Argue this case explicitly or don’t at all. As I say, sneaky.

But other’s apart from the Orwell of Our Generation use the WP incident and usually in more brazen terms. It was repeated many times during the debate about striking the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in order to show that we are no better than they and have no high ground from which to launch our strikes. This form of masochism is worth little even with solid examples. Fallujah is not a solid example.

White Phosphorus is not a chemical weapon. When not used as a smoke screen it can be used as an incendiary weapon. This is not illegal. The U.S. used it in Fallujah in highly specific attacks to push the enemy out of cover due to the heat and then kill them with high explosive shells. The very nature of the tactic requires highly specific and accurate use of artillery fire. At worst, some claim that the generation of heat when the WP meets moisture is a chemical weapon because this amounts to toxicity. But it isn’t asphyxiating, it is burning. This may be a small distinction for some. But the distinction remains. It was effective and it was legal.

In the interest of fairness I recommend George Monboit’s article from the time, I don’t agree with it but it is worth a read and he is more responsible there than many. He also provides reasons why the execrable Italian documentary on Fallujah, which still appears to be at the root of so many feelings about Fallujah, can be dismissed.

The use of incendiary weapons against civilians is illegal. However, seeing that it was used in areas cleared of civilians and no credible evidence of it causing civilian deaths has been presented, I suggest this charge can also be dismissed. Its use in combination with HE rounds was highly effective. That’s why it was used, both sparingly and deliberately. And as much as this may offend those whom Orwell described as the ‘pansy left’, killing the insurgents was the point of the exercise and of benefit to the vast majority of civilians who remained unharmed. To do so efficiently is a moral act.

So what is the actual complaint? If it is that the U.S. used chemical weapons it is false. If it is that it used incendiary weapons against civilians, it is false or at least entirely unproven.

If it is that that the deaths of 800 civilians from a population of 300,000 is an example of callousness, incompetence, bloodthirstyness, or a lack of care comparable with our enemies or reasonable expectations, then the complainant is ahistoric, ignorant and frankly, silly.

There are tradeoffs in military operations. Risk to property, risk to civilians, risk to your own forces, effectiveness in dealing with the enemy. Each army and society has to make rules and undertake the training to reflect their own operational and moral priorities. Some like Monboit won’t be happy unless the risk to civilians is non-existent and all of that risk is placed on our armed forces. This is not realistic and at some point becomes its own form of immorality. Regardless of how much moral wrangling is done around the legality. I look at the decisions of the Coalition in the Second Battle of Fallujah and see a set of moral tradeoffs that put us in stark and favourable contrast to those who apologists seek to compare us to. Even if one accepts the worst versions of accounts from the most unreliable of sources, the Coalition still comes out on top in any reasonable moral comparison.

We can’t allow this military action to be used as rhetoric against our society or our armed forces. I won’t because I don’t think it merely not a crime, I think it a startling military undertaking which clearly indicates our moral superiority over those we fight.
As an isolated action it should be mentioned with pride and placed firmly in the credit column of the moral ledger. And yes, I am comfortable expressing moral superiority.

What about Fallujah? Good question, what about it?

3 thoughts on ““What About Fallujah?”

  1. I think you are too kind to Owen Jones here. When he says ‘claimed intention’ and ‘they say’ he is not arguing whether or not it is morally better to aim not to kill civilians or to intend to kill them. He is suggesting that it is a lie that ‘we’ aim not to kill civilians. He is suggesting that we do in fact aim to kill civilians, just like ‘our’ opponents.

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