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Posted by on Jan 24, 2010 in Politics, War | 6 comments

Can you blame soldiers for getting killed?

It sounds like a crazy question, but it’s coming from Andrew Exum, formerly an infantry officers and Army Ranger. Exum’s comments are a response to Leon Panetta’s insistence that no one should blame either a CIA officer or a soldier who is killed in the line of duty.

Panetta assumes that [it] is beyond the pale to say that Marines or U.S. soldiers died in a firefight due to poor war-fighting skills, but that in fact has happened quite regularly over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every single firefight U.S. soldiers and Marines engage in is subject to an admirably honest after action review (AAR).

Exum doesn’t say, but would probably agree, that it is politically unthinkable to say that soldiers or Marines died because of their own incompetence. Presumably, there are some exceptions out there if you look hard enough. But imagine if George Bush or Dick Cheney ever said that a portion of our casualties in Iraq are the fault of the victims. And have you ever read an article in the NY Times or WaPo that began “Four American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb yesterday because they chose the wrong road to drive on and missed obvious warning signs (such as freshly dug earth) that a bomb had been planted nearby.”

I didn’t think so.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly

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  • Well, it isn’t polite to speak ill of the dead. And if soldiers make a mistake that costs them their own lives, it seems kind of pointless to be pointing fingers because, well, they are dead. Exum is right, however, that mistakes should be used for learning to ensure they are not repeated.

  • kathykattenburg

    But imagine if George Bush or Dick Cheney ever said that a portion of our casualties in Iraq are the fault of the victims.That would have been pretty nervy, given that it was George Bush and Dick Cheney who sent the future casualties to Iraq for appallingly, atrociously venal reasons having nothing to do with national security.On the other hand, although I don’t know for sure, it’s possible that George Bush and Dick Cheney were among those who blamed Iraqi civilians for getting killed (when they got killed by Americans — not when they got killed by insurgents or suicide bombers).

    • adesnik

      A perfect illustration of the point. Even if it were 100% analytically true to say that some soldiers died because of their own incompetence, any President who said anything like that would subjected to withering criticism. (Enjoy that hypothetical — Bush criticized by liberals for saying something true.)

      As for Iraqi civilians, the most common situation where they have been the targets of blame is when civilian vehicles have failed to slow down while approaching checkpoints, then ignored verbal warnings and/or warning shots, resulting in a lethal response. In some cases, the civilian vehicles were acting out of fear or confusion, resulting in behavior that resembled a threat.

      Regrettably, Kathy, I don’t know of any quotations to prove that Bush & Cheney were as callous as you suggest with regard to Iraqi civilians. For the moment, they will have to remain guilty until proven innocent.

      • kathykattenburg

        Even if it were 100% analytically true to say that some soldiers died because of their own incompetence, any President who said anything like that would subjected to withering criticism.Actually, I don’t agree. No president would ever say, “Some soldiers die because of their own incompetence,” but a president theoretically might say (although none has even gone this far), “Some soldier deaths could be prevented by teaching them to recognize signs of insurgent activity or roadside bombs.” I personally would not take the latter construction as “blaming the victim.”As for Iraqi civilians, the most common situation where they have been the targets of blame is when civilian vehicles have failed to slow down while approaching checkpoints, then ignored verbal warnings and/or warning shots, resulting in a lethal response. In some cases, the civilian vehicles were acting out of fear or confusion, resulting in behavior that resembled a threat.Also, in “some” cases, the civilian vehicles were operated by civilians who did not speak English (imagine that!) and the U.S. soldiers who killed them did not speak Arabic or any other local languages (of course not; why should we expect American soldiers to be able to effectively communicate with the residents of the country we’re invading?).In any event, if you think it’s wrong to blame U.S. soldiers for causing their own deaths by not recognizing supposedly obvious signs of danger, then you must also think it’s wrong to blame Iraqi civilians for causing their own deaths by not understanding what Americans wanted from them in a highly tense, confusing, panic-filled window of action taking place at a military checkpoint in their own country.

  • shannonlee

    Hmm…maybe we should blame soldiers for their own deaths because they joined the military? That is basically the same logic isn’t it?

    Or maybe we should blame the people that killed them?

  • gcotharn

    The criticism can more properly be seen as criticism of the CIA’s tactics in the conflict – and thus as criticism of CIA management, and thus as criticism of Director Panetta. When U.S. military tactics are ineffective, those tactics are properly criticized – i.e. the military leaders who dictated the use of those tactics are criticized. There is frustration with CIA ineffectiveness in Afghanistan. CIA is being criticized for being out of touch – for instance: for not knowing who the major players are amongst the important Afghan tribes. If CIA is ineffective, is out of touch, is using sloppy or ineffective tactics: the buck ultimately stops with Panetta. Seen from this perspective, Panetta’s statement is a way of deflecting blame away from himself and onto deceased personnel. Here’s the implication of Panetta’s statement: agency tactics and procedures are solid; deceased personnel died b/c they deviated from established practice. I think Andrew Exum cannot quite fully figure out that what makes him uncomfortable is the way Panetta’s statement points the finger of blame away from Panetta and onto deceased personnel. Exum has picked up the scent of what makes him uncomfortable, but has not yet identified the prey. Something else bothers me:Even if deceased personnel were operating outside of typical procedure: the buck still stops with Panetta. In other words, either CIA has poor tactics (which is Panetta’s responsibility), or CIA personnel routinely ignore proper tactics (which is Panetta’s responsibility), or the specific deceased personnel were not up to the task and never ought have been assigned to the task (which is Panetta’s responsibility). I’m not calling for Panetta to be thrown from office (yet). Mistakes happen. Leaders are not omniscient. However, when Panetta deflects blame, he is not showing leadership. The criticism of Panetta’s appointment as Director of CIA was this: Panetta is a political creature, and knows nothing about intelligence. And now Director Panetta deflects blame. Deflecting blame is what a politician does. It’s not what a military leader does – and Panetta ought properly be seen as a leader who is conducting warfare. Deflecting blame is not what good leaders of large organizations do. Deflecting blame is what elected politicians do, and it’s what bad leaders do. It’s as if Panetta is trying to prove his critics right.

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