Berlin's leading paper Der Tagesspiegel always answers some "Questions of the Day" on page 2. On Saturday, Caroline Fetscher answered the question whether some individual Marines are responsible for the alleged massacres in Iraq or whether these instances indicate a problem of the entire US military. She considers the alleged massacres to be more of the latter:
Der Imageverlust für die Soldaten von "Operation Iraqi Freedom" könnte kaum verheerender sein. Nach den Skandalfotos aus dem Gefängnis Abu Ghraib nun Haditha und Ishaqi. Dass es immer wieder zu solch erschreckenden Vorfällen kommt, ist auch in der Struktur der US-Armee begründet. Sie ist eine Berufsarmee, zu der sich Freiwillige melden, die grob gesagt aus drei Gruppen rekrutiert werden: aus der weißen, arbeitslosen und ungebildeten Unterschicht ("White Trash" ist der Slangausdruck dafür); aus ehrgeizigen Nichtweißen, zumeist Hispano- und Afroamerikaner, die in der Armee die Chance zum Aufstieg suchen; und einer teils akademischen Führungselite, die zum Beispiel an der berühmten Militärakademie Westpoint ausgebildet wird.This paragraphs includes at least five claims to take issue with:
1. She mentions Abu Ghraib and alleged massacres in Haditha und Ishaqi and concludes that the structure of the US Army is one of the reasons, why such shocking incidences happen "again and again", which is an exaggeration, if you put the number of proven massacres and abuse in relation to the appr. 130.000 troops serving in Iraq at any time for the last three years. How many working hours under the most severe circumstances does that make?
Each massacre and abuse is one too many and the perpetrators should be punished, but Ms. Fetscher's claim that these things happen "again and again" is unfair to the 99% of the servicemen and women who perform honorably despite witnessing the horrors of war daily. It is naive to expect a clean anti-insurgency/terrorism war of this scale without anyone acting in a shameful way. It's an illusion like being able to end Iran's nuclear program with "surgical" air strikes.
2. The allegations concerning Haditha seem to be solid, but the Marines should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Most journalists apply this legal principle to the Guantanamo detainees. Besides a U.S. investigation cleared the soldiers of any misconduct in Ishaqi. While their might be other massacres, Ms. Fetscher does not mention any of them, but refers to Haditha and Ishaqi only. Her article, especially the subheadline and the way the "question of the day" is phrased, suggests that the Marines have already been found guilty of murder and the US troops have "learned nothing from Abu Ghraib."
3. Ms. Fetscher says that the structure of the U.S. volunteer Army is partly to blame for these alleged massacres. She wrote "Army", but she probably means the entire military because the Marines are accused of the Haditha massacre and they are not part of the Army obviously. Besides, "Armee" is often used by the German media for the entire military.
According to Ms. Fetscher the Army/military gets its recruits from roughly three groups: Unemployed and uneducated "White Trash", ambitious non-Whites (Hispanics or Afro-Americans), and "a partly academic elite" that gets trained for example at Westpoint.
It is true that the military provides the best advancement opportunities for many poor and disadvantaged Americans in rural areas and troubled inner-city neighborhoods. The US military has a long and proud history of providing social, educational, and economic advancement for less fortunate Americans. It is fair enough to criticize the lack of opportunities in some rural areas, which is something we are familiar of in East-Germany as well.
However, Ms. Fetcher is wrong to claim that the army/military enlists disproportionately many uneducated Americans. According to the American Forces Press Service, Bill Carr, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for military personnel policy, said that military recruits are better educated than the general youth population. "More than 90 percent of recruits have a high school diploma, compared to about 75 percent of the U.S. youth population." According to the 2004 Department of Defense (DoD) report on social representation in the U.S. Military Services, "enlisted members tend to have higher cognitive aptitude than the civilian youth population, as measured by scores on the military’s enlistment test."
4. Ms Fetscher is wrong to claim that roughly everybody in the military apart from elite leaders is recruited from "White Trash" and Blacks and Hispanics seeking social advancement. Secretary Carr says that the military recruits mirror the U.S. population and are solidly middle class. The same DoD report concluded:
African Americans were equitably represented in the military overall. In the enlisted force, African Americans were slightly overrepresented among NPS active duty accessions (15 percent) relative to the 18-24 year-old civilian population (14 percent). (...) Hispanics, on the other hand, continued to be underrepresented, with 13 percent among NPS accessions compared with nearly 18 percent for comparable civilians.The Washington Post has more on various studies about military recruiting.
5. Ms. Fetscher said the "structure" of the military is one of the reasons why massacres and abuse happen. Even if the US military would be structured the way Ms Fletcher thinks it is, this would not be a fair explanation for Abu Ghraib and Haditha. "White Trash", ambitious Hispanics and Blacks are not more likely to be morally unfit or more likely to get brutalized by the horrors of war and lose their nerve and humiliate/torture prisoners in Abu Ghraib or take revenge on innocent Iraqis in Haditha. Again: If the allegations concerning Haditha are true.
Since Ms. Fetscher claims in her bio on her blog to focus on transatlantic relations, one would have hoped she knew better. Her university education (MA thesis about Africa clichés) also suggests that she is sensitive to stereotypes. She wrote a better article about the US nation in her blog at the end of 2005. The article, I am criticizing, appeared prominently on the top of the second page of the Tagesspiegel's Saturday issue.
Why make a fuss about a single article? I got the impression that many Germans believe that the US military is made up primarily from the lower classes of society and that this would explain many U.S. wrongdoings. Good journalists work against such myths and stereotypes rather than reinforce them.
The White House, Congress and the civilian and military leadership of the Pentagon have underestimated the problems in Iraq and made wrong decisions and severe mistakes. They deserve a lot of criticism. The troops on the ground, however, do the best they can with their limited resources under the most severe circumstances. To be fair to Ms. Fetscher: She acknowledges that the troops have to operate in extremely dangerous and complex territory.
Many young Marines are entrusted with the most complex duties in the toughest hotspots in Iraq, but US laws don't trust them yet to drink beer responsibly. Yet most of them perform honorably and are much more mature than their peers in college due to the military training.
Still, it seems the US military is stretched too thin and the government asks too much of some servicemen and women. The Marines accused of the massacre in Haditha have been on their third tour of duty in Iraq. A year before the alleged Haditha massacre the unit had been engaged in fierce house-to-house fighting in the battle to retake Fallujah from insurgents, explains Mike Dorning in The Chicago Tribune:
While no one is arguing that such pressure is an excuse for wartime atrocities, there are clear signs that the mission is taking a psychological toll on U.S. troops. An early study of veterans returning from the Iraq war found one in six showed symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. A more recent study found that one in three Iraq veterans has sought help from a mental health professional.The troops need more help. The new ethics and war rules refreshing course will not help. A bumper sticker "I support the troops" is not enough. Attacking antiwar activists does not help the troops either.
Many of the U.S. troops in Iraq are now on their second or third tour of duty in a conflict that has stretched beyond original expectations; some have been forced to remain in the military longer than their original enlistment period.
Many folks who consider military solutions to various problems underestimate the horrors of war. And antiwar activists exaggerate the alleged wrong-doings of the US military. Haditha is already compared to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam with 20 times more casualties. The world's moral expectations of U.S. troops seem to be higher than in the past. Massacres by Russian forces in Chechnya are not so newsworthy.
UPDATE: Ms. Fetscher was grateful for the feedback and published my entire criticism on her blog. I agree with our reader "Fuchur", who wrote that constructive criticism works.
Davids Medienkritik on : Atlantic Review: Tagesspiegel Characterizes US Military as "White Trash" and Minorities
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