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

Back in I wrote a short piece for The Picket Line that compared some then-recent press coverage of civilian casualties and “human shields.” I’ve since exchanged some emails with an Army Captain whom I quoted, who tells me I’ve got the wrong idea.

In combat, one tactic used to prevent the enemy from successfully attacking what you don’t want them to attack is to increase the risk that such an attack will include collateral damage that is unacceptable to the enemy.

For instance, you could set up your prisoner of war camp adjacent to your command bunker so that if the enemy tried to bomb the latter, they’d risk killing some of their own soldiers who are imprisoned in the former. Or you could set up your anti-aircraft batteries next to some national monument that is held sacred or valuable by both parties to the conflict so that the enemy would be reluctant to bomb it. That sort of thing.

One approach sometimes taken is to surround targets with noncombatants so that an attack risks killing many civilians — either to reduce the likelihood of an attack or to increase the propaganda value of one.

This sort of thing is illegal under the laws of war, to the extent that anyone takes that sort of thing seriously. For instance, Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention says:

The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

And a commentary on this provision states:

During the last World War public opinion was shocked by certain instances (fortunately rare) of belligerents compelling civilians to remain in places of strategic importance (such as railway stations, viaducts, dams, power stations or factories), or to accompany military convoys, or again, to serve as a protective screen for the fighting troops. Such practices, the object of which is to divert enemy fire, have rightly been condemned as cruel and barbaric…

In order to determine the exact scope of the provision, it is necessary to define the term “military operations”. Those words refer here to any acts of warfare committed by the enemy’s land, air or sea forces, whether it is a matter of bombing or bombardments of any kind or of attacks by units near at hand. It also covers acts of War by groups, such as volunteer corps and resistance movements, which are placed in the same category as the regular armed forces…. The prohibition is expressed in an absolute form and applies to the belligerents’ own territory as well as to occupied territory, to small sites as well as to wide areas.

The prohibition expressed in this Article also occurs in Article 83… which lays down that places of internment for civilians are not to be set up in areas particularly exposed to the dangers of War.

The United States has frequently accused its enemies of using “human shields” in violation of the laws of war and of honorable behavior. Frequently this accusation comes after the United States kills a lot of civilians in an attack. A spokesperson then insists that the United States military was properly engaging the enemy, but that the enemy had contrived to hide among civilians or herd civilians into the line of fire in order to discourage an attack or make the consequences of an attack useful for propaganda purposes.

In some circumstances, this may be accurate, but it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Bombing attacks in urban areas are frequently going to result in civilian casualties, and it’s no use to complain that the guerrillas you were trying to bomb wouldn’t assemble in some open area away from people so that you could bomb them more easily.

And the United States itself is no great respecter of the Fourth Convention. For instance, as Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch point out in a fascinating article about Abu Ghraib in the latest New Yorker, that as a “place of internment for civilians” (including children being held to flush out or intimidate their parents — another violation of those alleged laws of war) that camp was “set up in [an area] particularly exposed to the dangers of War” including frequent mortar attacks that killed internees.

In that Picket Line piece I wrote in , I also noted that there seemed to be evidence that the U.S. military was deliberately using human shields to deter attacks. I quoted from a Wall Street Journal article by reporter Greg Jaffe in which he reported on how junior officers in the U.S. Army in Iraq are innovating new tactics in response to the challenges of urban guerrilla warfare, focusing on the example of Captain Nicholas Ayers. The paragraph I quoted from the article read:

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 added:

A little over a week later, 34 children were killed by car bombs while U.S. soldiers handed out candy at the reopening of a sewage treatment plant in Baghdad.

(Several months after that there was another case in which 24 children were killed when a suicide car bomber hit U.S. soldiers who had come to an Iraqi neighborhood to warn residents of possible car bomb attacks in the area and who then began to hand out candies to children.)

While I was away on vacation last month, I got an email from Jesse Beaudin, and we have exchanged several emails since. He tells me I have drawn an incorrect conclusion from what was quoted in Greg Jaffe’s article.

He was unwilling to let me quote directly from his emails to me, but the gist of what he has to say is as follows:

  • If Iraqis did not attack Beaudin’s platoon it was because the platoon was doing important and beneficial work in the community and the Iraqis were grateful for this.
  • His troops handed out school supplies in schools, not when they were conducting combat patrols. The schools were indoors and were surrounded by security, so there were no mobs of children surrounding troops in the open. At other times and in other contexts the platoon handed out things like food, soccer balls, medical supplies, toothbrushes, and propaganda.
  • It was not unusual for Beaudin’s troops to be swarmed by children or other curious civilians while out on patrol, but they did not encourage this, and sometimes actively discouraged it. They would sometimes patrol through crowded areas like marketplaces, but the crowds were incidental to the mission and were not being used as cover.
  • Beaudin and his men frequently met with Iraqis in a number of contexts, but at no time did they intend in these encounters to be using the Iraqis they met as human shields.
  • Greg Jaffe is the only Wall Street Journal reporter Beaudin has spoken with (and this was for a different article), and Beaudin says that Jaffe told him that Jaffe did not write the part of the article that I quoted that quotes Beaudin. Furthermore, Beaudin did not deliver the quote attributed to him directly to any reporter, but it has been reported second-hand. Beaudin shared with me a email to him from Jaffe in which Jaffe agreed that the implication that Beaudin was using children as human shields was incorrect. (I’ve contacted Jaffe to ask him to comment directly on this, but he has not yet responded.)
  • Beaudin was in a different unit from Nicholas Ayers and never spoke with him about operations, and never spoke to any of the men in Ayers’s unit. But in any case, Beaudin thinks it unlikely that Ayers would use children as human shields.

In , Nick Ayers wrote me to tell his side of the story. I also eventually got some limited feedback from Greg Jaffe. Please see The Picket Line for for a follow-up article.

And to tie the whole civilian casualties / human shields issue back to The Picket Line’s core competency issue of tax resistance, here’s a satirical letter from Harper’s “Readings” this month, penned by Ben Metcalf:

Why I pay my taxes

Dear Taxpayer,

Your contribution was put toward the maintenance of an F-15 fighter jet, which on dropped a bomb on the town of Ramadi, in Iraq, killing, among others, Muhammed Salih Ali (age six) and Haifa Ahmed Fuad (age eight) and Saad Ahmed Fuad (age four). Little Haifa and Saad were sister and brother; you helped accomplish their deaths by a jet very similar to, if not exactly the same as, those that fly over the stadium after the American Idol winner sings “and the home of the brave” at the Super Bowl.

Thank you and congratulations.