Sorry We Shot Your Kid, But Here's $500
For the entire war in Iraq, the press has been kept largely in the dark concerning the number of civilians killed by our forces, and what happened in the aftermath. Now several hundred files posted online reveal some of the true horror while raising questions about lack of compensation.
Here you will find, for example, that when the U.S. drops a bomb that goes awry, lands in an orchard, and does not detonate -- until after a couple of kids go out to take a look -- our military does not feel any moral or legal reason to compensate the family of the dead child because this is, after all, broadly speaking, a "combat situation."
Also: What price (when we do pay) do we place on the life of a 9-year-old boy, shot by one of our soldiers who mistook his book bag for a bomb satchel? Would you believe $500? And when we shoot an Iraqi journalist on a bridge we shell out $2500 to his widow -- but why not the measly $5000 she had requested?
This, and much more, is found in the new PDFs of Iraqi claims, which are usually denied.
Last June, The Boston Globe and The New York Times revealed that a local custom in Iraq known as "solatia" had now been adapted by the U.S. military -- it means families receive financial compensation for physical damage or a loss of life. The Globe revealed that payoffs had "skyrocketed from just under $5 million in 2004 to almost $20 million last year, according to Pentagon financial data."
In a column at that time, I asked: How common is the practice? And how many unnecessary deaths do the numbers seem to suggest?
It's necessary to ask because the press generally has been denied information on civilian killings and, in recent years, it has become too dangerous in much of Iraq for reporters to go out and investigate shootings or alleged atrocities.
Now we have more evidence, thanks to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) request for files on payments by the military. The FOIA request produced 500 case studies, which deserve broad attention.
An Army spokesman told the New York Times that the total payments so far had reached at least $32 million. Yet this figure apparently includes only the payments made in this formal claim process that requires offiical approval. The many other "solatia" or "condolence payments" made informally at a unit commander's discretion are not always included.
The ACLU site, www.aclu.org, now features a searchable database of reports (the ACLU is seeking more of them in case this is just the tip of the iceberg).
The New York Times comments today: "There is no way to know immediately whether disciplinary action or prosecution has resulted from the cases. Soldiers hand out instruction cards after mistakes are made, so Iraqis know where to file claims. ..."
Exploring the case reports quickly turns disturbing. They often include the scrawled claims by a victim's family member detailing a horrific accidental or deliberate killing (all names blacked out) and then a ruling by a U.S. Army captain or major with the Foreign Claims Commission.
Occasionally the officer orders a payment, although it can still make you scream, as for example: "Claimant alleges that her two brothers were returning home with groceries from their business, when U.S. troops shot and killed them, thinking they were insurgents with bombs in the bags. I recommend approving this claim in the amount of $5,OOO."
More often the officer denies the claim due to alleged lack of evidence, or threatening behavior by the deceased (usually just failing to stop quickly enough while driving) or the death occurring in some sort of vague combat situation. Many of the denials seem arbitrary or unfair, particularly when the only reason cited is a "combat exemption" -- as in the case of the dead kid in that orchard.
Then there's this example:
"Claimant's son and a friend were fishing, in a small boat, 15 kilometers north of Tikrit on the Tigres river at 2200 hours on 31 March 2005. The claimant and his son had fished the Tigres many nights recently, but the father did not join his son this night. U.S. Forces helicopters were flying overhead, like they usually did and there were no problems.
"A U.S. Forces HMMWV patrol pulled up to the beach near where they were fishing. The patrol had spotted and destroyed a boat earlier in the evening that had an RPG in it. They set off an illumination round and then opened fre. The claimant's only son was shot and killed. His friend was injured, but managed to get the boat to the other side of the river. At the small village across the river they received medical help and were taken to the hospital. But, it was too late for the claimant's son.
"The claimant and his son were huge supporters of democracy and up to this day held meetings and taught there friends about democracy. The claimant provided two witness statements, medical records, a death certificate, photographs and a scene sketch, all of which supported his claim.
"Opinion: There is sufficient evidence to indicate that U.S. Forces intentionally killed the claimant's son. Unfortunately, those forces were involved in security operations at the time. Therefore, this case falls within the combat exception."
Sometimes the Army officer, perhaps feeling a bit guilty for his ruling – or the whole war – authorizes a small payment in "condolence" money, which does not require admitting any wrongdoing on our part. One of the PDFs notes that a U.S. army memo states a maximum condolence payment scale: $2,500 for death, $500 for property, $1,000 for injury.