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The reality of Australia’s collateral damage in Iraq

By Chris Doran - posted Monday, 4 August 2008

In a November 2005 editorial denouncing its use, the New York Times described white phosphorous: “Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy's positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body.”

Again, one does not have to be an international legal expert to know that the use of chemical weapons is considered to be a war crime, and a particularly heinous one. We are particularly aware of this thanks to The Australian and other Murdoch press, which told us ad nauseam in the lead up to the invasion that there was no better proof of the need to remove Saddam Hussein by force than his use of the same white phosphorous on the Kurds.

For the record, Protocol III of the UN Convention on Certain Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (1980) bans the use of incendiary weapons against military targets in areas with concentration of civilians. Australia is a signatory.


Further allegations of atrocities occurred when US and Iraqi troops entered Fallujah. Jamail reports first hand accounts of US snipers shooting women and children in the streets; unarmed men shot while seeking safe passage with their wives and children under a white flag; photographers shot as they filmed battle. And in images captured by journalist Kevin Sites and beamed around the world on November 9, a U.S. marine was shown to approach a clearly wounded man lying on the floor of a mosque. The marine then fired his rife directly into the man, said “He's done”, and casually walked away.

Relatively few insurgents were found once the city was subdued; most had, predictably, fled the city long before the assault began. Meanwhile an estimated 70 per cent of the city was utterly destroyed, with thousands dead (Jamail and Fadhil 2006).

More alarming than what Molan omitted in his excerpt is what he actually included. He details how leaflets dropped on Fallujah just prior to the attack contained the message "Foreign terrorists will stay until Iraq has burned to the ground - Do not let these criminals destroy your future." Does he really expect us not to see the irony? Or even more disturbing, does he really not see the irony?

His account of what a bullet actually does is particularly chilling: “A bullet achieves its effect by transferring kinetic energy to a human body, something that does not go far in winning the heart or mind.”

Molan claims, and perhaps even believes, that his actions “represented the rule of law”. In writing about the “terrorists”, Molan succinctly expresses the view of many in the international community regarding the Coalition in Iraq: “But there are rules; they just did not obey them. In fact they institutionalised the transgression of international law.”

There is little evidence to suggest that the resistance emanating from Fallujah was anything other than Fallujans fighting an occupation they believed to be illegal and unjust, a view shared by good deal of the planet. Yet Molan doggedly holds onto the long warn out US propaganda view that there were just a few extreme “terrorists” who could be singled out: “They went to Fallujah to hide among the people but committed mindless acts of violence against them. They set up local religious courts and Fallujans were tried and punished, even tortured and executed, if they did not commit to extreme fundamentalist Islamic ideology and sharia law.”


While he does not provide evidence to support this claim, regardless, it is stunning to suggest that this was somehow a worse fate than what awaited ordinary Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, the scandal of which had broken months earlier. Or what clearly awaited them once the assault on their city began under his direct command.

Under the international legal doctrine of command responsibility, a commander can be held liable if they knew, or should have known, that anyone under their command was committing war crimes and they failed to prevent them. The consistency and similarity of the attacks at Najaf, Samarra, and Fallujah display a deliberate disregard for civilian casualties in the planning and implementation of those military assaults. By Molan's own admission, he was responsible for not only planning, but also directing, these attacks. It is not conceivable that Molan was unaware of the serious and well documented accusations of atrocities being committed under his command.

While admirable that General Molan is so quick to admit responsibility for Fallujah, it is disconcerting that he does not seem to feel that he has done anything wrong, or should in any way be held accountable, for his actions. It is this utter hubris that most accurately characterises his writing. Sanitised as it is though, Molan has written an excellent brief regarding why it is crucial we start holding our political and military leaders accountable for their actions in Iraq. He would be an excellent place to start.

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About the Author

Christopher Doran is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Economy at Macquarie University.

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