Many thanks to Daniel Yates for contributing this article to Coffee House. Daniel was a British soldier with the Intelligence Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is writing under a pseudonym.
– Pete Hoskin
Having completed numerous combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I watched the television footage of Israeli soldiers deploying on Operation Cast Lead with a jolt of familiarity. I saw the emotions that I have felt in the past. I was eager to do my job properly, I had confidence in my abilities and those of my comrades, but I was also apprehensive. That apprehension was not just the fear of what harm may have come to me or my mates, but also the worry that my judgement would fail if I was called upon to make the snap decision to take another’s life. The pressure of these conflicting emotions coupled with the stress of battle is immense. The majority of us called upon to withstand them are young men, some as young as 18.
That is why the casual bandying around of terms like ‘war crimes’ so enraged me when I heard it directed at British soldiers during protest in London. I feel no different when it is levelled at Israeli soldiers. I accept that soldiers enjoy no immunity from the law and that our actions must be scrutinised but that judgement must be a measured weighing of factors, not a knee jerk emotive statement such as that made by Ban Ki-Moon nor a trial by media. I believe that I and other soldiers understand the stress, friction and confusion that combat brings in a way that media commentators and UN bureaucrats never can.
Urban warfare is complicated, disorientating and utterly confusing even in conventional operations. When an enemy, such as Hamas, is willing to dress in civilian clothing, attack from legally protected sites and use civilians as human shields it becomes fiendishly difficult.
The destruction of the UN School, cited by Ban Ki-Moon, is a case in point. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) maintains that its soldiers came under fire from that position. They returned fire; that is what soldiers under contact do. It would appear that light artillery guns or mortars were used. These are emphatically not the ‘smart’ weapons that civilians fondly imagine all war to be fought with. It is commonplace fact of war that such munitions do not always land were they are supposed to.
The urban environment can seriously hinder even the most sophisticated of radio communications, leading to command and control becoming fractured. The assertion by the UN that they provided the IDF with the grid references of their locations is valid. However, it is a fact that often information is not always passed down the chain of command, this is more likely to occur due to the fog of war rather than any malicious intent.
The IDF have also faced accusations that they have attacked ambulances. Again, I cannot speak for the veracity of these claims nor do I seek to diminish the serious nature of such attacks. The British Army’s enemy in Iraq, Jaish Al Mahdi routinely used vehicles marked as ambulances to transport arms, ammunition and fighters around Basra. Like Hamas, Jaish Al Mahdi received training and equipment from Iran.
During the course of Israeli operations in Gaza the whole of the media seems to have become expert in the use of white phosphorous. Most commentators either do not know, or have refused to acknowledge, that the use of white phosphorous is not illegal. The Geneva conventions do restrict the use of white phosphorous in certain circumstances, but it is used almost daily by British forces in Afghanistan.
The IDF have stated that, during this operation, they fired a total of 200 shells containing phosphorous. 20 of these shells were fired in urban areas and the use of those 20 is being investigated in line with these restrictions.
White phosphorous is used because it provides an instant smokescreen, other munitions can provide a smokescreen but the effect is not instant. Faced with overwhelming enemy fire and wounded comrades, every commander would choose to screen his men instantly, to do otherwise would be negligent.
Much has been made of Israel’s ‘disproportionate and excessive’ use of force in Gaza. Footage of Gaza released today does show devastating damage to individual buildings, but this is no Stalingrad. A fact often unappreciated by those with no military experience is that the selective use of overwhelming force, aimed at key targets, actually shortens conflict and saves lives. In Basra in 2003 the USA and the UK chose to use extreme force against locations that had been fortified by the Ba’ath Party, in order to spare our troops and the people of Basra the horror of a drawn-out street battle. It appears that the IDF made the same choice in Gaza.
I do not argue that any soldier should be outside of the law, any army that allows such a thing is not worthy of the name. I do believe, however, that the least the world can do for young men returning from combat is to offer them the basic right to have their actions considered on the basis of events and the context in which they occurred.