Lots of e-mail on the allegations that U.S. troops cut down Iraqi fruit trees as “collective punishment” for failing to provide intelligence on Baathist guerillas. First, many readers are suspicious of the source — the Independent — which is known for its anti-American slant. This is a fair point, and the reason I said the story was troubling “if” it was true.
Other readers accept the story, but suggest it omitted key details — something I am willing to believe. For instance, Joseph Frye comments
I have been in contact with an officer in the Thai army that has provided myself and others with some information regarding this practice (though perhaps not this particular instance) via Thai military operating with the Coalition in Iraq.
While the jist of the story is correct, important and relevant details are left out. It seems that Iraqi “resistance” fighters are using orchards and such as cover to launch attacks on Coalition forces traveling on roads passing near the trees. American commanders are reluctant to destroy private property, so they offer the orchard owners a choice. They may provide information on the attackers themselves and allow American forces to pursue and destroy them, clearly the desirable option, or have the orchards near the road destroyed, thus making it more difficult for the resistance to find cover from which to launch attacks.
If the owner is unable or unwilling to help, the Americans have little choice but to destroy the orchards. If the owners are unable to provide the information requested, this is certainly sad, but ultimately necessary. Mercian forces must be allowed to defend themselves and make their environment safer. Clearly some Iraqis may walk away from such experiences feeling that they have been blackmailed and subjected to collective punishment, but that’s not the whole -or real- story.
Frye’s source also claims that the Iraqis in question are “compensated generously” for the loss of their trees. Assuming this is all true, it changes the complexion of the story quite significantly.
Finally, it has been confirmed to me by two sources that collective punishment is a violation of international law and is punishible under the U.S. Code of Military Justice. The questions, then, are a) whether the alleged conduct occurred, and b) whether it constitutes “collective punishment.”