Did U.S. Troops Use Children as “Human Shields” in Iraq?

On , I quoted the following section from an article by Greg Jaffe in the Wall Street Journal about the innovative tactics being developed by junior officers in Iraq:

Capt. Ayers took lessons from his fellow captains. In , Capt. Jesse Beaudin convinced a friend from the U.S. to send backpacks, notebooks and pencils for schoolchildren. Kids mobbed troops for the goods whenever they went out on patrol. “The kids provided security. No one attacked us when we were surrounded by children,” Capt. Beaudin says. After hearing about this tactic at the dining hall, Capt. Ayers’s men also wrote home requesting school supplies.

I compared this tactic to the accusations by U.S. military spokespersons that civilian casualties caused by U.S. attacks were the consequence of its enemies unscrupulously using the civilian population as “human shields.” I noted that a little over a week after this article appeared, 34 children were killed in a car bomb attack on U.S. soldiers who were handing out candy to children in Baghdad.

, Jesse Beaudin wrote to me to give his side of the story. As I wrote in a follow-up article here, Beaudin told me that Jaffe’s article gives the wrong impression, and that his troops did not use Iraqi civilians as human shields. He also said that he had never spoken to Ayers or to the men in Ayers’s unit about operations, and that he had only spoken to Jaffe on one occasion and that Jaffe later told him that he had not written the part of the article in question that appeared under his by-line in which Beaudin’s quote that I reproduced above appeared.

I’ve tried to get Jaffe to tell me whether he stands by the article as-is or whether that part of the article was inserted by someone else or was edited in a misleading fashion. After multiple attempts to reach him, he sent me an email telling me curtly that he was upset that I had used a quote from his article in a way that he felt was out-of-context in order to advance an agenda. He did not address any of my specific questions, and did not respond to further emails.

Beaudin did, however, send me a copy of an email he had received from Jaffe. That email seems to contradict the suggestion that Jaffe did not write the paragraph in question. Also in the same email Jaffe recharacterizes the tone of the paragraph from his article, asserting that it merely noted that Beaudin handed out gifts to children in order to promote goodwill and that Beaudin noticed that this seemed to result in fewer attacks in areas in which his troops did this.

I think this is a dishonest whitewashing of what the paragraph actually says. I also think that the charge that I quoted from his article in a misleading out-of-context manner is dishonest. You can read Jaffe’s article on-line if you’d like the context, but I think you’ll find that none of that context makes a difference to the characterization of the tactic Jaffe describes as being like the use of “human shields.”

Whether that tactic was accurately described in Jaffe’s report is another matter. Beaudin vigorously denied to me that it was, and a couple of days ago I was also contacted by Nicholas Ayers, who gave me his side of the story. He gave me permission to quote this section from his emails to me:

With regards to a posting concerning an article by Greg Jaffe (WSJ, ), I wanted to reinforce comments by Jesse Beaudin, especially since Greg’s article may have gave readers a false impression that units were actively using Iraqi children as shields.

Jesse and I were in different sectors and although I knew Jesse, we didn’t discuss these sorts of practices. We did provide some supplies to children, but this was not connected in any way to trying to use them as shields. We took great care in trying to protect the local citizens and being an officer and a father of 3, I would never have done anything that would put children in danger. I think the comment during the interview with Greg was something like, “We’ve noticed that when the kids start going inside or can’t be found, there is probably an attack going to occur,” … and then at another point in the conversation telling him that we have provided school supplies to children. I don’t think Greg was trying to insinuate the use of “shields,” but I can see why, from the article, someone would have gotten that impression.

Anyway, Jesse is 100% correct in what he said and I know Jesse and he would never have put any children in danger. I know the area that he was assigned to and it was a very difficult and challenging situation. Jesse did a great job there and really did great deal to try to build a healthy and cooperative relationship between his unit and the local populace. I hope this helps to clarify it.

I’ve been misquoted enough times by the media that this all sounds plausible enough to me. Reporters have a way of cobbling together quotes and anecdotes Frankenstein’s-monster-style in such a way that their stories stitch together well but don’t always much resemble reality. Both of the officers in Jaffe’s account have denied the implication of the quote attributed to Beaudin, and so that part of the story doesn’t have much left to stand on except for Jaffe’s original telling, which he seems reluctant to forthrightly defend.

On the other hand, there did seem to be a number of tragic episodes in which members of the U.S. military ventured into hostile territory, surrounded themselves with children by handing out gifts, and then were attacked. In one case, they were in a neighborhood warning people about the likelihood of car bomb attacks when they attracted a crowd of children in this way and then were hit by a car bomb — 24 of the children were killed.

It still seems possible to me that innovative junior officers like the ones Jaffe describes were creatively trying a variety of tactics to try to keep their troops safe and their missions effective, that they stumbled on the tactic of discouraging attacks by encouraging children to flock around them, and that only some time later — perhaps after news of this tactic hit the press — did it occur to them that they had inadvertently reinvented a war crime. So they then disavowed it and discontinued it. This is a plausible, if not particularly generous, interpretation of the available facts.

Luckily in this particular case we’re privileged to have some feedback directly from the officers in the field that helps us see a little further beyond what makes the papers.

In any case, it’s heartening — especially in a day in which when White House officials were accused of ordering torture, some people were less concerned with denying the charges than with defending torture — that members of the armed forces have gone out of their way to defend themselves on an obscure blog from a newspaper account that they may have participated in a Geneva Conventions violation. Whether Jaffe’s Wall Street Journal account was accurate, exaggerated, or totally off-the-mark, both of the people mentioned in the account considered it an insult to their honor in need of correction, and that’s good news.