Counterinsurgency Means Civilian Deaths

Tom Lasseter, a war correspondent with Knight-Ridder, cites a mission from last week as evidence that civilian deaths are an unavoidable tragedy of fighting insurgents.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Cremer listened carefully as Army Capt. Irvin Oliver described the upcoming mission. They’d raid a compound of houses the next morning; a map was sketched on the ground in chalk lines of yellow, blue and white. Oliver looked at the soldiers bunched around him and reminded them that aerial photographs had showed at least 17 people in the compound the night before, and that they were looking for just one – an insurgent cell leader suspected of orchestrating roadside bombs that’d killed American soldiers.

Be careful, Oliver told his men, not to get shot. And be careful, the company commander said, not to shoot any unarmed civilians. Despite those warnings, last Thursday’s mission would serve as a reminder that counterinsurgency is among the most complex forms of warfare, and sometimes the wrong people are killed.

While outrage gathers over the reported killings of 24 civilians by U.S. Marines in the western Iraqi town of Haditha, U.S. military units such as Oliver’s Delta Company quietly go about the daily task of patrolling a very complicated battlefield. As part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Oliver’s soldiers are responsible for an area south of Baghdad where there are Sunni Muslim insurgents who kill U.S. soldiers, Shiite militiamen who kill Sunni families, Sunni insurgents who kill Shiite Muslim families, and an assortment of smugglers and criminals. Most Iraqis are caught in between, just trying to make it to the next day.


It’s often a gray line, said Staff Sgt. Francis Lott, who works with Cremer. “They (the jets) look for anything suspicious, but everything’s suspicious around here,” said Lott, 25, of Clarkesville, Tenn. “It’s a big game of hide and seek. You’re fighting people where you can’t tell who’s who. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys in Iraq.”


As they got closer to Musayyib, a small group of Humvees, including Cremer’s, peeled off and rode into town. They were going to pick up a truckload of Iraqi police who hadn’t been told about the operation in advance because of fears of insurgent sympathizers in the police force.


Less than five minutes after arriving at the police station, Cremer got a call on his radio: “Be advised, the lights just went off in that area.” The pilot, watching the insurgent leader’s compound, had seen every light in the group of houses get turned off. Cremer shook his head. “These (expletive) – someone made a phone call,” he said, motioning toward the police station.


The radio crackled with a report of one shot fired, then a second, third and finally a fourth. Soldiers called in as they cleared rooms of the seven houses. They’d come in expecting about 17 people; there were 27.

Time passed. Cremer kept watching the screen. The radio squawked: Two men and a woman were dead. The details were vague. A soldier had seen the woman and said he thought she had a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on her shoulder. A sergeant’s voice boomed on the radio: “I need to know what the (expletive) that rocket (expletive) ended up being.”

Cremer called in for illumination rockets, and the white balls bounced in the air, turning night to day. The soldiers didn’t find a rocket-propelled grenade or its launcher. They scoured the compound and found only two AK-47 assault rifles, common in Iraq. The insurgent leader wasn’t there. The soldiers detained a man who intelligence reports suggested was an associate.


Cremer’s boss, Capt. Jason Earley, said there would be plenty more missions to come – bringing the chance to stop insurgents who’ve killed and maimed innocents, but also bringing the risk of killing the innocents themselves. “We’re trying to give these people freedom, which I think is an incredibly noble thing,” said Earley, 32, of New Buffalo, Mich. But, he added, “it’s complicated.”

Complicated, indeed.

Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher and a critic of the war, dubs Lasseter “one of the most intrepid of all the U.S. reporters over the past few years” and notes he “was co-winner of an Overseas Press Club award earlier this spring for his Iraq reporting.”

As powerful as Lassiter’s acount is, it’s nothing that should be new to those who have studied counterinsurgency warfare. Indeed, this was a typical day in the life of an infantryman in Vietnam.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Media, Military Affairs, Policing, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. madmatt says:

    Nice to see no lessons were learned in Vietnam…why doesn’t somebody shoot a general or two and see how things improve.