Is there anything the American military can do at this point to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people? Personally, I, as well as many Americans and Iraqis don’t believe any reservoir of good will remains. As far as I’m concerned, this war of choice was immoral and ill conceived from the start and I don’t believe the current escalation in troops can accomplish any good.
However, I’ve never served in the military or been to Iraq. Jeremy Joseph has. He is currently a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and a student at Washington’s Georgetown University Law Center. While in Iraq he was part of the active duty force.
Joseph postulates in his article, “Winning Hearts and Minds in Iraq Through Mediated Condolence Payments,” (subscription required) that establishing a reconciliation protocol following accidental deaths of non-combatants can help dilute an insurgency’s intensity. As a model, he cites the Dalkon Shield arbitrations and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund hearings.
The International Institute For Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) published Joseph’s article in the May 2007 issue of Alternatives. A longer version of the article shared the 2006 CPR Institute student articles’ Award for Excellence. It’s also scheduled to be published during the summer by the Harvard Law School Program in Negotiation Journal.
As Joseph notes in his article, since 2004, whenever an Iraqi non-combatant civilian is inadvertently killed in the crossfire between the American military and hostile forces, a victim’s family may apply for a condolence payment – a sum up to $2,500 when his article was first published. Yet this approach is both condescending and insulting to the victim’s families.
How can a monetary token of sympathy assuage a mother’s grief, satisfy a wife who lost her family’s breadwinner or heal the pain of a child who lost their parent from a stray bullet? Indeed, this detached approach can’t help but fuel anti-American sentiment among the Iraqi population.
As Joseph writes,
“The current condolence payment program fails to achieve its potential because it misses the opportunity for dialogue between the aggrieved Iraqi family and the United States Military (USM). This failure does not reflect callous individual soldiers or Marines, but a policy failure of too few troops to implement any meaningful process and a doctrinal failure that undervalued the winning of hearts and minds.Joseph argues that how the military responds to these individual families serves as a tipping point to Iraqi public opinion. He therefore asks if an Iraqi family who suffered a loss will continue to support U.S. troops or instead provide aid and comfort to insurgents “who look more like freedom fighters and heroes?”
Consider the situation of a family whose father and sole breadwinner is killed inadvertently by a stray bullet from an insurgent-USM firefight. That family has questions to ask the U.S. soldiers:
- Who killed our husband and father?
- What happened and why?
- What is the USM trying to accomplish in our town?
- Do the USM troops actually feel sorry for the loss they have caused us? Do they even know?
- How are we to support ourselves now that our bread-winning father is dead?”
Joseph further asks if the eldest children of families the American military inadvertently killed will “pick up weapons and join the insurgency in their fight – now this family’s fight – against the USM.”
My first reaction upon reading Joseph’s article was to wonder why these questions weren’t asked four years ago. I also can’t help but wonder if Joseph’s strategy of utilizing trained mediators to facilitate reconciliation between aggrieved Iraqi families and the U.S. military is too little too late.
There is also the reality that far more personnel would be required for this program to be implemented on a large enough scale to have any significant impact. Meanwhile, it appears increasingly likely a policy of withdrawal from Iraq will gain momentum with both parties in September. But even if Republicans join Democrats in pushing for a withdrawal timeline, a substantial American military presence in Iraq will likely remain at least until the early months of 2008.
Joseph believes that with the current surge, we have sufficient numbers to at least attempt a pilot condolences program in Baghdad. He makes a compelling case that doing so is both morally right and sensible.
Overall, I thought Joseph’s article was thoughtful and believe he is sincere. More troops on the ground from the beginning combined with this reconciliation approach might have helped four years ago. Perhaps it can still make a difference in Afghanistan where a growing sentiment exists to reconcile with the Taliban in order to avoid more deaths among the civilian population. It might also merit consideration for future military engagements.
Joseph agreed to a podcast interview with me and we discussed his experience with the Iraqi civilian population, the legalities behind his program and the potential strategic benefits. I also asked Joseph if private contractors such as Blackwater could be mandated to participate in a condolences payment program and whether liberal critics of the war like myself undermined the morale of our troops in Iraq.
His answers to those and other questions were compelling and thought provoking.