Tuesday, April 01, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Oh, The Horror Of It All - and the "Fog of War"

Before I get into my daily dose of war-rant, let me tell you about a little old paperback pulp mystery collection I found in my apartment's laundry room this morning, free for the taking - "The Baby In The Icebox and other short fiction," by Jim Cain, author of the steamy, seamy "The Postman Always Rings Twice." The title is just twisted enough that it should deter any unwanted stranger conversations or panhandling on the subway. "Have I got a quarter? Are you kidding, I'm reading The Baby In The Icebox!" I have no idea if it's even worth reading, but the cover was worth every penny. I'll let you know after tonight's train ride.

Talk about a wartime dilemma that's sure to keep game-theory dilettantes up at night: coalition forces near Najaf fire at a van that refused to stop at a military checkpoint despite repeated requests - and warning shots. At least seven women and children are killed. I'm having a hard time getting the incident out of my mind, because it seems like it was a needlessly tragic, no-win situation for all involved. But I'm also trying to put myself in the position of the coalition forces faced with this strange and potentially dangerous scenario.

First, now that some of the Iraqi troops have taken to "dirty tactics" like fake surrenders and suicide bombings, I think the soldiers at the checkpoint were justified in firing at the van if the events truly happened as described: the driver was waved to stop repeatedly and refused, warning shots were fired, and then a shot was fired at the van's radiator in an effort to halt the vehicle using nonlethal means. Some people have said, "But what about the language barrier? What if the driver didn't understand they were asking him to stop?" Somehow, I think that even if the driver didn't understand verbal or manual signals to stop, a warning shot across the bow might get the message across.

I think it's entirely possible that the van could have contained women and children as human shields to conceal something far more deadly within, like a car bomb. So: should coalition forces have refrained from shooting, and possibly been killed by a car bomb charging through the checkpoint - or should they have fired at the vehicle's interior, killing the occupants - or, another possibility, shot out the tires if possible? That would still be a gamble, because even if the van were stopped using nonlethal means it could still have been loaded with an explosive charge that could be detonated when the vehicle got close enough to the soldiers. From CNN:
Commenting on the incident early Tuesday, CENTCOM spokesman James Wilkinson told CNN that the newspaper account does not match the report from field commanders. "On the battle field we have this phenomenon called 'fog of war," he said. "We continue to see reports from embedded reporters that have discrepancies from our headquarter's reports. What I can tell you is that right now as we speak, we are working to reconcile this."

[Hmmm. Interesting. Reporters saying something different than the official military standpoint? I guess those reporters must be suffering from the "fog of war" delusion. After all, the military's never suppresses anything from the press, right?. - LR]

An Army medic was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen, and I hope I never see it again." Central Command said it appeared the proper rules of engagement were followed.
An incident like this highlights how often there are no simple choices in war. It's full-on battle now, and all bets are off - "fog of war" or not.