Half of the self-appointed Western human shields have quit Iraq. Their departure so soon after arrival questions their underlying understanding and motivation for the events they seek to influence # not only for themselves but for those who remain and for their movement.
Our service people have done a vastly superior job to these voluntary shields of thinking through their behavior toward civilians within a violent environment.
During the Gulf War, there were a couple of instances in which Special Forces troops, behind the lines, were inadvertently discovered by Iraqi civilians. In one case it was a young girl. Capturing the civilians was never possible. The option for U.S. troops was to either kill the enemy civilians or likely forfeit their own lives.
What would any of us do, in the middle of a war, with certain death coming at the hands of an alerted Iraqi military and a split second to make the decision: Live or die, her or me, no one will find out? In each case, the civilian was allowed to run away unharmed and our troops were consequently extracted under the most lethal of combat conditions.
These were not cases of human shields but are certainly perfect examples of the high value our troops now place upon morality while in combat.
Later in Somalia, our troops were placed in even more ambiguous circumstances. In actual events described in the book “Black Hawk Down,” gunmen used human shields while shooting at U.S. soldiers. In some cases the unarmed shields were children and in others, they were adults, mostly women.
In each case, with split seconds to decide while under fire, with no graduate-level ethical training, our troops made very calculated, moral judgment calls. They used non-lethal means to scatter children. They were eventually forced to be more expedient with adults but only after placing themselves at great risk.
The latter case is almost parallel to the present day. The adults, though unarmed, were obviously not coerced into being shields and were directly aiding and abetting someone trying to kill our soldiers.
Unlike this life-or-death military reality, these Western shields have had a relatively infinite period to contemplate their actions.
Superficially, the voluntary human shield may appear to be noble, even courageous, but in reality is naive and ill considered at best. As well intentioned as these people may be, there are significant flaws with their stance.
By definition, they will not prevent hostilities; a shield only finds utility during combat. In other words, it will be their righteous beliefs versus the clairvoyance of our bombers. Can a pilot truly discern their presence?
The half who know this answer have already left for home due to “cold fear,” as one returning shield stated.
In their idealism, they truly seem to believe they can be anti-war, within Iraq, without being pro-Saddam. This nuance will likely be lost on the Iraqi civilians they wish to protect.
There is also the implicit presumption of a higher value on their Western lives compared with the Iraqis’. As described above, our own troops don’t make this assumption.
When volunteers shield their preferred sites such as orphanages, hospitals and schools, they also denigrate our military by implication. No sites like these were deliberately targeted at least in the last 30 years. Even the Iraqis know this fact and are assigning shields to areas that are less than absolutely civilian in nature.
Being a voluntary shield does not cleverly subvert international law since belligerents must discriminate between civilian and military targets. Instead, it shifts the burden of a war crime onto their own heads and to the host government for allowing this conduct. Should they shield legitimate targets, they will directly aid and abet Saddam’s forces and unwisely place themselves into harm’s way.
It is likely there will be no place more dangerous for the shields than among a newly liberated Iraqi populace, who will view them as pro-Saddam.
In all likelihood, our troops will choose the most moral option even with but a split second to consider their act.
Steve Bristow of Oak Harbor is an active duty U.S. Navy commander and Desert Storm combat veteran.