Prey to their own propaganda

Coalition forces' defensiveness about civilian casualties could backfire.

Josie Appleton

Topics World

Coalition forces seem to be going to great pains to avoid Iraqi civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. They have used precision weaponry, protected bridges, oilfields and TV stations, and called off confrontations that might endanger civilian lives.

This strategy is founded on the claim that the aim of the war is to liberate an oppressed people from an evil regime. ‘I hope the Iraqi people hear this message’, said UK prime minister Tony Blair in his TV address at the outbreak of attacks. ‘We are with you. Our enemy is not you, but your barbarous rulers.’ (1).

But troops getting bogged down in messy fighting around Basra are starting to realise that reality is more complicated than propaganda. ‘We always had the idea that everyone in this area hated Saddam’, Captain Patrick Trueman complained to the Guardian. ‘Clearly there are a number who don’t.’ (2)

Signs are that coalition forces’ attempt to wage war against the Iraqi elite while leaving civilians untouched will prove difficult. ‘The Iraqi people’ are unlikely to see themselves as they are portrayed in Western propaganda: as victims occupied by an evil regime, just waiting for Western forces to come and liberate them. In fact, many may see coalition soldiers as the real occupation forces in Iraq.

The attempt to avoid civilian casualties began with the first strike of the war, which was an attempt to end it before it started by ‘decapitating’ Saddam Hussein’s regime. If they could just take off the evil head of the regime, went the US plan, the body would wither and the people would rejoice.

The first large-scale bombing of Baghdad on 21 March focused on official buildings with high-precision weaponry, often leaving buildings across the street untouched. These strikes targeted the Presidential Command HQ, the Ministry of Information, and Saddam’s palaces. This represented a focused assault on the central symbols of Saddam’s power and authority, attempting to avoid damage that might affect civilians.

While the 1991 Gulf War targeted infrastructure, coalition forces have sought to protect power lines, water supplies and communication facilities. UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon signalled his pleasure that, after heavy bombing, ‘the lights stayed on all over Baghdad, but the instruments of tyranny are collapsing’ (3).

Coalition forces also placed great strategic importance on seizing oilfields, to prevent Iraqi soldiers from setting them alight as they had done when retreating from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. The aim here, the coalition claimed, was to prevent environmental damage and retain Iraq’s wealth for its people. When some oilfields were set on fire, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: ‘it is a crime for that regime to be destroying the riches of the Iraqi people.’ (4)

The desire to avoid civilian casualties has driven the choice of targets and weaponry. According to the US government’s International Information Programs website, American forces now use high-precision tools to model the level of ‘collateral damage’ that could be expected from bombing a particular target. ‘Collateral Damage (FAST-CD) looks at the target, its surrounding terrain, the direction and angle of attack, and the particular characteristics of the munition proposed for the strike and generates an image of an irregular-shaped “probable damage field” that looks somewhat like insects hitting a car windshield at high speed’, the website reports (5).

Colonel Donald Hudson is quoted as saying that, if it looks like collateral damage can’t be avoided, then intelligence analysts recommend against a strike to the joint force commander. ‘And lawyers sit next to us throughout’, he said.

US military officials have said that they have avoided bombing as many as three dozen high-priority Iraqi targets for fear of civilian casualties, including the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, the regime’s communication facilities, and the Rashid Hotel, which intelligence analysts claim has a secret underground communications bunker (6).

Of course, the fewer civilian casualties, the better – but the overblown discussion suggests that something else might be going on.

Why are US strategists today so anxious to avoid civilian casualties at all costs? It is hardly because they are more pacifistic than military leaders of the past. More likely is that past leaders held a firmer belief in their reasons for fighting the war – civilian casualties were justified in terms of overall strategic goals, as a means to an end. It is the coalition’s uncertainty about what they are fighting for that explains their defensiveness about civilian casualties, and pushes them to make a big issue out of casualties even before they happen.

This avoidance of civilian casualties at all costs is likely to create problems for coalition forces. No doubt many Iraqis are war-weary, fatalistic, and tired of Saddam’s rule. But they are not the craven ‘victims’ that Bush and Blair imagine, ready to welcome the coalition forces with open arms.

For American and UK leaders, ‘the Iraqi people’ represent a code for something else. Bush doesn’t like Saddam, and wants to get rid of him; this translates into ‘the Iraqi people’ not liking Saddam and wanting to be liberated.

But coalition forces are finding that it is not possible to invent the Iraqi people in the policy rooms of the White House and Downing Street, and expect this to coincide with reality.

The first British soldier killed in action died not in confrontation with Saddam’s Republican Guard but while attempting to control a civilian riot. ‘It’s not the Iraqi army we have to worry about, it’s the person with the Kalashnikov in the back garden’, commented a British sergeant involved in the battle around Basra (7). ‘The Iraqis are smiling assassins’, he continued: ‘They wave at you as you go past, then shoot you in the back.’

Many Iraqis are likely to be as unhappy about their country being occupied by American forces as they are about living under Saddam’s regime. As the conflict gets bogged down, more civilians are likely to turn against invading forces.

What’s more, the fact that the US coalition is making such a high-profile issue out of avoiding civilian casualties offers a source of weakness for Saddam to exploit. US officials have complained that Saddam has been using mosques and schools as ‘shields’ for military operations. There have been other accusations of Iraqi soldiers disguising themselves as civilians, approaching coalition soldiers, then opening fire.

And the refusal to target communications infrastructure has left Saddam in the position of being able to deliver ongoing propaganda and parade American prisoners of war in front of the Iraqi nation. So while coalition forces are listening to their own propaganda about the Iraqi people, the Iraqi people are watching Saddam’s propaganda about the coalition forces.

If it carries on like this, the US/UK coalition could end up with the worst of both worlds: killing civilians anyway, in order to win the war; while at the same being forced to admit the illegitimacy of their actions.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Guardian, 21 March 2003

(2) Guardian, 25 March 2003

(3) Observer, 23 March 2003

(4) Guardian, 21 March 2003

(5) U.S. Air Force Uses New Tools to Minimize Civilian Casualties, International Information Programs website

(6) Rumsfeld Says Important Targets Have Been Avoided, New York Times, 24 March 2003

(7) Guardian, 25 March 2003

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Topics World


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