A Spanish Judge has ordered the arrest of three American soldiers, charging them with the murder of Spanish journalist Jose Couso. Couso was killed by an M-1 tank round in April, 2003 while he, treating war as the spectator sport we all know it is, was observing the battle of Baghdad from a balcony of the Hotel Palestine.
The facts of what occurred, both from a journalist who was observing the battle and the U.S. Central Command investigation, do not seem seriously in dispute. A Company of the 4-64 Armor, 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, was attacking through Baghdad from the West. It was trying to secure the Eastern side of a bridge spanning the Tigris River. The A Company tanks had made it onto the bridge, and were taking heavy fire from mortars and RPGs. (The Mudville Gazette has maps that might make things a bit clearer).
The day before the Americans had captured an Iraqi radio intact, and it was being monitored by an Arabic speaking intel officer. He was able to intercept Iraqi communications indicating that the fire on A Company was being directed by an observer in a nearby hi-rise. This information was passed on to the A Company troops, who began scanning the nearby buildings for the observer.
The Palestine Hotel was about 1700 meters away (little over a mile) across the Tigris. Using tank optics, the soldiers were able to see (apparently through a lot of smoke) a flash on one of the Hotel's balconies, indicating the presence of optics of some kind. The troopers were also able to make out something on a tripod next to where they saw the optics.
After getting clearance the soldiers fired a single tank round at what they reasonably believed was the spotter. What they hit, instead, were journalists who were observing the battle from the Hotel balconies. (For what it is worth, after the tank round hit the intel guy on the radio reported that the Iraqi observer was taking fire and had to move).
So let me get this straight. American forces were in the middle of a battle, taking fire, and had every reason to believe that it was being directed from a nearby high-rise. On a nearby high-rise they saw someone observing them with some sort of optics. So they shot at him. At worst this was an unfortunate accident, but Murder? A War Crime?
I have a couple of thoughts. First, maybe a little of this detail might have been included in the CNN report linked to above, to point out how silly the arrest warrant really is. Second, there is no chance that the warrants will result in the soldiers' extradition, but things would be different if America had signed onto the International Criminal Court. Anybody out there still think it is a good idea to allow foreign courts to have jurisdiction over our guys in the military?
Third, the most remarkable thing about all this is the journalists who have the under ware all bunched up about the "targeting" of journalists. They seem to think that American troops, in the middle of combat, have a responsibility to be aware of where all the journalists are and make sure none of them are injured by stray bullets.
To this, I am reminded of a story out of Boston a year or so ago. A woman watching a Red Sox game was injured by a foul ball. She sued (of course) claiming that she didn't know that there was a risk of getting hit by a foul ball while watching a ball game (been some years since she was at the park, she claimed). The Courts threw out the suit, with the following reasoning:
The three-member panel said that even someone with scant knowledge of baseball should realize that "a central feature of the game is that batters will forcefully hit balls that may go astray from their intended direction."
Likewise, it seems to me that everyone should have an idea that battles are generally pretty dangerous places to be. And anyone hanging out of a balcony trying to "observe" the battle is either very brave or very foolish, but in either case should not be surprised when, in the middle of the smoke and confusion, someone lobs a round at them.