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Don't rush to judgment, local vets say

September 1, 2004

Tags: 2004

Footage of a Marine shooting a Fallujah insurgent to death spurs a worldwide uproar.

By Sam Stanton -- Bee Staff Writer
Last Updated 4:55 am PST Thursday, November 18, 2004

They've watched with mounting irritation as TV's talking heads debate whether a young Marine was justified in shooting a wounded insurgent during the fighting in Fallujah last week, a debate fueled by the fact the incident was caught on videotape by an embedded television crew.

But Sacramento-area combat veterans say they have heard enough, and that unless you've been in the same situation you probably have no idea what pressures the Marine faced.

"It's a terrible dilemma you get put into and you've only got a split second to decide," said Sacramento attorney Jerry Chong, a Vietnam veteran and former "hunter-killer" Marine team leader. "And the decision is usually to shoot first."

"I watched it on television last night and it was really irritating, some of the people Monday-morning quarterbacking this," said Korean War veteran Ron Broward. "When you have to make a decision on the spur of the moment, obviously you've got to protect yourself and the people who are with you. Combat close in is very intense."

The veterans' comments came Wednesday as worldwide scrutiny of the shooting intensified. The office of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi released a statement saying he is "very concerned by allegations of an illegal killing," and American military officials announced they are investigating whether other wounded insurgents found inside the mosque were similarly killed.

Amnesty International denounced the incident as "the deliberate shooting of unarmed and wounded fighters who pose no immediate threat," contending such tactics constitute a "war crime under international law."

The uproar stems from network footage of an incident Saturday during which a Marine unit entered a mosque that had been the site of fighting the previous day. Ten insurgents were killed in the Friday battle, according to Kevin Sites, the NBC correspondent who took the footage, and five others wounded and left behind for other Marines to evacuate.

Recounting the incident on the MSNBC Web site, Sites said reports surfaced Saturday that the mosque had been reoccupied and two new units were sent to respond. Sites entered with one of those units and said he saw the five Iraqis wounded Friday still inside, four of them shot anew. On the video, a Marine can be heard shouting that the fifth man, lying under a blanket, is only pretending to be dead. The Marine then fatally shoots the man.

Sites reported that the wounded man did not appear to be armed. He also said the Marine seemed unaware the man had been a wounded prisoner.

A military investigation into the shooting is under way, but combat veterans and legal experts cautioned Wednesday against rushing to judgment.

"We saw a piece of tape that indicated that a Marine shot somebody who was lying down in a mosque," said Timothy Naccarato, a retired Army colonel and former staff judge advocate. "We don't know what happened just before or after that, so we don't really know all the facts other than this little snippet of tape."

Naccarato, director of academic support at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and chief judge of the California Military Appeals Panel, said the rules of warfare require that "you don't shoot enemy soldiers who are prisoners of war and you don't shoot enemy soldiers who are injured." But, he added, if the Marine believed the wounded man posed a threat, "then he's justified in shooting."

"It gets right down to that, to self-defense and defense of others," he said.

Naccarato added that while the Americans are operating under the international Law of War established under the Geneva Conventions, the enemy is not operating under any such prohibition and poses a grave threat.

And combat veterans say there are plenty of examples in which enemy soldiers who were believed to be dead or wounded have killed American troops with hidden weapons or booby-traps.

Broward, the 71-year-old Korean War veteran and owner of the Davis brew pub Sudwerk, recounted an incident from 1951 when he was on patrol after his unit had taken a hill controlled by North Koreans.

"There were a lot of enemy dead around there, North Koreans," Broward said. "It was actually pretty quiet and we just passed up most of them when we heard a couple of shots.

"One of the fellows we had passed up (as dead) had shot one of the squad leaders in the back - his name was Sergeant Riley - and killed him instantly. And it was from a guy we had passed up."

Chong, 59, who spent two years in the Marines during the Vietnam War, said he recalls instances of enemy soldiers pretending to be dead in order to ambush Americans.

"It's an impossible situation," Chong said. "You put young men into combat, you expect them to be able to read the enemy's mind and know when to shoot and not to shoot. That's totally unrealistic, and the only reason people raise this kind of thing is because they've never been in combat themselves."

Charlie Harrison, who fought in three wars during a 30-year career with the Marines, agreed, saying it was common for wounded enemy soldiers to lie in wait for Americans.

"I saw a lot of this in Korea and Vietnam both, where they play dead or they're laying on a grenade and their bodies have been booby-trapped," the 83-year-old Grass Valley resident said.

Insurgents have adopted similar tactics in Iraq, and soldiers there know they must guard against such attacks, said Paul George, a 53-year-old California National Guard veteran who returned from Iraq last spring.

George noted that the Marine under investigation had been shot in the face the day before and that a colleague had been killed by a booby-trapped corpse.

"It is very difficult under those circumstances, where there's firing going all around you and you're in danger the entire time," George said. "I don't think he overreacted at all. That was the (tactic) that the insurgents were using, booby-trapping their fellow insurgents with hand grenades or feigning injury or death before opening fire.

"You just can't take that chance."