Why are the orcs flying the Stars and Stripes?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden isn’t happy [*] about having people wearing our flag cutting down citrus and palm trees at the edge of a desert in order to inflict “collective punishment” on the local farmers.

I guess his patriotism, and mine, must be different from other people’s.

If things in Iraq are going so damned well, why is this necessary?

Update More detail from Iraqi blogger River. She’s not a fan of the occupation, but that doesn’t make what she says wrong.

The silence from our side isn’t encouraging, either; two correspondents have suggested that cutting down the trees might have been a military necessity (eliminating cover for ambush attacks) rather than collective punishment, but no one in authority, as far as I know, has come forward to say so. The warbloggers, eager to climb all over anything they consider biased coverage, have been silent, which seems to be their standard policy with respect to any sort of news that can’t be seen without removing their blinders.

I’d rather believe that U.S. troops hadn’t committed a public relations blunder that might also have been a war crime, but so far no one is offering me any help in achieving that belief.

Second update I just figured out that Patrick Cockburn, the author of the original story, is related to and has collaborated with Alexander Cockburn, the Stalinist serial prevaricator. (I recall a 10,000-word essay by Cockburn on Andropov’s succession to the Soviet leadership that never mentioned his previous post as boss of the KGB.) That doesn’t mean that anything that Patrick writes is a lie, but it means that if you bet on what he says you’d better be sure you have cabfare home. Still, I’d like to hear some actual facts to refute his story.

Third update Jonathan Adler at NRO’s The Corner seems to share Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s idea, and mine, of what constitutes patriotism. He thinks the story is ugly if true, but he’d rather find that it wasn’t.

[Post Update Update.]

I should note that one of his sources is third-hand, while the other (the one with the appallingly callous “sucks to be them, I suppose)” matches verbatim the text of some semi-literate hate mail I’ve received, but the story they tell is certainly plausible; I just wish we had an official statement or some follow-up reporting by journalists on site.

There seems to be no doubt that the trees were private property and were cut down in response to resistance activity. The open questions are whether the trees themselves were a hazard to soldiers, how the action was presented to the owners, and what compensation was offered them.

The most favorable version of the story would be that the trees were being used to shelter ambushers, that the villagers were told in advance that the trees would be cut down if the ambushes didn’t cease, and that, after they were cut down, the owners and other villagers were offered full (ideally even generous) compensation, not only for the direct income stream the trees would otherwise have produced but for the loss of shade and other amenities provided to the whole community.

That would still leave the owners and their neighbors feeling aggrieved due to the emotional importance of the trees — and that feeling, and its later consequences, ought to be weighed in the balance against the military advantages of cutting down the trees — but it’s a rule not merely of war but of ordinary civil life that private property can be taken for public use (which includes being destroyed if it’s a public menace, even if the owner is entirely innocent) as long as full compensation is paid. American firefighters occasionally dynamite houses when there’s no other way to make a firebreak, and no one thinks that’s a crime against humanity.

Note the justification in that case wouldn’t involve any judgment that the owners had done wrong, as opposed to the judgment that the trees themselves were a menace. That being true, the destruction ought to have been preceded and followed by apologies as well as compensation, and done in a manner not designed to express contempt for the owners. (Making a party out of the destruction by playing music would count as an expression of contempt.)

A less favorable story would be that the soldiers were angry at the locals for not turning in the guerrillas, and that the tree destruction was presented as a threat in advance and represented as a punishment afterwards. Even if the destruction could have been justified in terms of military necessity, presenting it as collective punishment would render it criminal under precedents we helped establish. In that case, even the payment of compensation might not be enough to remove the curse.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with commanders who decide that collective punishment is useful in keeping occupied populations under control. Of course it is. It’s just against the rules, and one of the ways you know that the good guys won the latest war is that we (mostly) play by the rules, while the bad guys didn’t.

On the other hand, if destroying the trees was justified by military necessity and if compensation was paid, the mere fact that the soldiers were angry at the villagers and said as much wouldn’t constitute a crime, though it might constitute a political blunder.

So I’m left pretty much where I started. I’d like to hear an official statement from the occupation forces about what was done and why. Even an insincere statement about the motivation for this particular incident would at least help establish that we know the rules and intend to act by them. I’d also like some real reporting from a real reporter with a last name other than Cockburn.

Fourth update A reader informs me that the above is unfair to Patrick Cockburn, who shouldn’t be blamed for the politics of his brother or his father. (His material is routinely posted to Counterpunch, which persuaded me that the connection was more than familial.) Patrick Cockburn has been a fellow at CSIS, which is a fairly strong index of mainstream respectability, and a sample of his reporting doesn’t suggest any very strong bias at work. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem, from his own reporting, ever to have asked anyone from the U.S. Army to explain why the trees were cut down. That seems a curious omission.

I’m still puzzled why other reporters aren’t following up on this.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com