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Ze Gratest Harmy in the Warrrld

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    Posted: 02 June 2006 at 10:55am

My Lai's untaught lessons

US troops in Iraq are aggressive and culturally insensitive to the point of racism, a senior British soldier has warned.

Richard Norton-Taylor

Ever since the invasion of Iraq, more than three years ago, British officers have criticised the tactics of US troops, their closest allies.

"We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean we must be able to fight as the Americans," General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the British army, told MPs a year later.

It was the time of heavy US attacks on the cities of Falluja and Najaf. A leaked Foreign Office memo written at the time exposed deep misgivings within the British government over America's "heavy-handed" behaviour and tactics.

The British suggested they knew all about counter-insurgency operations - very different from all-out war - from their experiences in the colonies, and, most recently in Northern Ireland, where the objective was to appeal to "hearts and minds". The US in Iraq responded by saying that British troops, based in the then much quieter south of the country in and around Basra, had an easier task than US troops facing more violent insurgents in the rest of the country. They also pointed to cases where there was evidence British troops had mistreated and, on occasion, allegedly killed Iraqi civilians.

There may therefore be a touch of schadenfreude after the US military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, yesterday ordered US military commanders to conduct core values training on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield.

Responding to the alleged killings by US marines of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in the western city of Haditha last year, Gen Chiarelli said the planned values training would emphasise "professional military values and the importance of disciplined, professional conduct in combat" as well as Iraqi cultural expectations.

Has the US army learned, or rather taught, nothing since the 1968 My Lai killings in Vietnam that helped turn the tide of public opinion against that war? This reporter was struck last month during a visit to Basra by the stoicism of young British soldiers who were about to go on a patrol aimed at protecting Iraqis from criminals, insurgents, and armed militia. Two more of their colleagues had just been killed by Iraqis. They said they "felt angry", and left it at that. It is a question of training and discipline.

Early this year, a senior British officer publicly criticised the US army for its conduct in Iraq, accusing it of institutional racism, moral righteousness, misplaced optimism and of being ill suited to engage in counter- insurgency operations. The criticism came from Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, who was the second most senior officer responsible for training Iraqi forces.

US soldiers, the brigadier said, were "almost unfailingly courteous and considerate". But "at times their cultural insensitivity, almost certainly inadvertent, arguably amounted to institutional racism". The US army, he added, was imbued with an unparalleled sense of patriotism, duty, passion and talent". Yet it seemed "weighed down by bureaucracy, a stiflingly hierarchical outlook, a predisposition to offensive operations and a sense that duty required all issues to be confronted head on." (a gang of head butters!)

Yet his central theme is that US commanders have failed to train and educate their soldiers in counter-insurgency and the need to cultivate the "hearts and minds" of the local population. US military strategy in Iraq was "to kill or capture all terrorists and insurgents: they saw military destruction of the enemy as a strategic goal in its own right". Such an unsophisticated approach exacerbated the task the US faced by alienating significant sections of the population, he said.

What was startling was not so much the severity of the brigadier's comments but the decision by Military Review, a US army magazine, to publish them. US officers said they were published in the magazine to promote a debate. They also said at the time that the US army was rewriting its field manuals and reforming its training programmes. Judging by Gen Chiarelli's comments, it has had little effect so far.
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