Another Part of the Story

Having been thinking about the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, I recently recalled a conversation with my company commander prior to my third Iraq deployment in 2005.

A colleague and I had extended our enlistment contracts to redeploy with our unit on its third tour in Iraq. Our company commander had offered the opportunity to be part of an experimental company intelligence section run entirely by infantry Marines. He’d implied that we would be given considerable leeway to use small-unit tactics that the conventional platoons were in less of a position to use.

On our previous deployment, we had attempted with little success to conceal our movement through highly populated areas even when in groups as small as four. Given our commander’s enticing description of the newly created position, we decided to propose concealing our uniforms and rifles with burkas like those worn by local women. We knew that an affirmative answer was far from a guarantee because the pretense of an entirely female civilian group would require us to move in a group of two or three–far less than the manpower needed for a sustained engagement.

In retrospect, it was a far-fetched idea. It would have given us a very small window in which we could have traversed even lightly populated areas without being discovered. If we moved during normal waking hours then there would inevitably have been people on the streets. If we moved at any other time, we’d be three women walking unaccompanied at odd hours in an Arab country.

But when my commander turned down our proposal, it was not for the reason I expected. He turned it down because he thought it a violation of the law of war.

International Humanitarian Law, the governing body of law for the use of military force, does not require armed forces to wear a uniform per se. However, it does require combatants to distinguish themselves from noncombatants so as to protect the latter from inadvertently becoming targets of attack. This requirement makes it impermissible to don civilian clothing without otherwise making one’s combatant status obvious to observers. Individual members of armed forces may use virtually any technique to render their form indistinguishable from the natural environment, but “civilian” is not a permissible pattern of camouflage.

I was a very high-information infantry Marine, so my ignorance should speak volumes about the exacting standards necessary for effective law of war training. That, however, is not my principle message.

In the past, I have been very critical of my unit (and, by extension, the US military)’s approach to the letter and spirit of the law of armed conflict. In the near future, I’ll do so again. However, in this case, my company commander actually reined me into accordance with the law. Being several years removed from my most public critiques, I thought it appropriate to acknowledge the complexity this incident brings to my story.

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