Europe’s Innocents
The press continues its focus.


Checkpoint casualties, where soldiers mistake innocent civilians for suicide bombers, have continued to dominate the war coverage in the Euro-press this week.

It’s the outrage of tragic civilian deaths that excites everyone’s passions. In a war full of journos, when an outrage occurs it’s very important that everyone in the press voice outrage at the outrage. It’s the journalistic equivalent of wearing an AIDS ribbon at the Oscars. Perhaps this is just what happens when we let hysterical people cover wars. Next time, let’s send actresses.

Today’s step in the logic of compassion, according to the new, improved view of our sophisticated friends from both the right and left in the British and European press, is that innocent people are dying because American soldiers are quick to draw but slow to think.

Fortunately, says the Daily Telegraph’s Patrick Bishop, we have the British to restrain Yankee bloodlust. “As I write this, the sound of bagpipes is drifting across the desert,” writes Bishop. And what are the pipers piping? Well, it’s not “Amazing Grace” — you can be certain they aren’t burying NYC’s finest out there in the dunes. Instead, I suspect that the song Bishop hears is Buzzy Linhardt’s “You Gotta Have Friends” — one of the sappiest, wimpiest songs ever written.

According to Bishop’s op-ed piece, American troops “have to not only curb their trigger-happy ways, but also come out from behind their Ray-Bans. They must start to recognise when it is time to forget the rule book and think of local sensibilities. They should learn to do simple things like waving at the children and saying hello in Arabic to their elders. In short, they must work harder to show that they belong to the human race.”

For an example of how this is done, Bishop suggests that GIs emulate the British way of war: “British soldiers seem to have a natural sympathy for the poor foreigners they habitually find themselves having to sort out and a mild interest in the political and cultural forces that created the mess. If they are in a place long enough, they play football with the local men and sleep with and sometimes marry their sisters.” Goal!

This view of Americans-as-murderers is also weighing on the hearts and minds of the editorialists at the Times. Today’s leading article, “Strains of War Test the Allies,” worries about the unkindness of American soldiers and quotes an anonymous British military source: “You will never see [American] Marines wandering around in berets. They still wear hard helmets in Bosnia. You have got to be very careful you do not win the battle and lose the war. We have to be sensitive and we do not want to build up any resentment in the country.”

The Guardian also points to the value of berets as the accessory-of-choice for those who wish to wage peace — especially at checkpoints where there is a justifiable fear of suicide bombers. And of course, the Independent anxiously urges more kindness in the conduct of the war. The press in that nation of proud beret-bearers — that would be France, of course — routinely stresses civilian injuries caused by the Americans, as a photo in Liberation graphically demonstrates.

Civilians dying in confusing wartime circumstances isn’t new to history. But what is new are checkpoints where nervous soldiers have to make split-second decisions about who’s a suicide bomber and who’s not. If they get it wrong, a horrible tragedy occurs — and few carry away more sorrow than the guy who called it wrong. His only consolation: Journalists would probably do much worse.

Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.


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