Last week Arab satellite channels replayed -- over and over again, in slow motion, with special graphics and explanatory narration -- the videotape of an American Marine appearing to shoot a wounded insurgent inside a mosque in Fallujah. They meanwhile declined to show the tape, made available the same day, of a terrorist firing a bullet into the head of Margaret Hassan, a British humanitarian worker whose abduction outraged many Iraqis.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called for an investigation of the Marine's action as well as other alleged instances of U.S. "war crimes" in Fallujah. That the Marine had already been withdrawn from action and an official probe launched did not deter them. Arbour cited -- on what basis she did not say -- "the deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, the killing of injured persons and the use of human shields." The beheading of Western captives in Fallujah, and the terror imposed on the city's population by Islamic extremists before the U.S. operation, went unmentioned.
For Americans, there are a couple of possible responses to this spectacle. One, understandable enough, is rage at the vicious anti-Americanism that drives the popular media of the Middle East, and at the milder variety that informs Arbour, a Canadian, and many of her European counterparts. But another should be a greater willingness to accept, and adjust to, a couple of realities about fighting insurgents and terrorists that the British, Israelis and others have understood for a long time.
One is that, in a war against an enemy already defined as extremist and barbaric, only our excesses count -- and the amplification of them can negate all tactical success on the battlefield. Another is that, even in the fair fighting of those battles, the most efficient military means are not necessarily the most effective.
The Abu Ghraib scandal, and the terrible damage it caused, seems to have impressed the first of those truths on the Pentagon -- which is probably why the videotape of the mosque shooting quickly produced a show of accountability, rather than the brusque dismissal that too often answered reports of atrocities by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq before this year.
But that still leaves the question of whether the hard-hitting combat tactics employed in Fallujah, including the liberal use of heavy artillery and 500-pound bombs, will in the end prove to have done more harm than good. Yes, the Marines and Army were able to rout the dug-in insurgents in relatively short order, with relatively few U.S. casualties, thereby achieving a textbook victory according to traditional U.S. doctrine. But what of the aftermath? Will others -- Fallujans, Iraqis, other Arabs, the world -- judge that the U.S. attack involved "excessive force"? And if so, will we still have won?
For now U.S. spokesmen are insisting that civilian casualties in Fallujah were modest; if that's the case, the fallout may be mild. But reports from the scene tell of heavy destruction of property, with scores of buildings flattened by the 500-pound bombs and 155mm artillery shells. One vivid battlefield account by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times described a confrontation between Marines and a couple of insurgent snipers in a mosque's minaret. A tank round punched a hole in the minaret and eliminated one sniper; but when a survivor shot and killed a Marine, two 500-pound bombs were dropped, reducing the entire mosque to rubble.
Such stories prompted some acerbic commentary from the veteran Israeli journalist Zeev Schiff, a sympathetic observer who has covered his own country's wars for decades. After resorting to warplanes and artillery in urban areas, he wrote in the daily Haaretz, Americans should at least find it more difficult to issue reports lambasting Russian military offensives in Chechnya or Israel's in the Gaza Strip.
Alternatively, U.S. commanders could learn something from the Israelis, who, Schiff says, found out the hard way that "this is not World War II" and that "the legitimization of international public opinion" is needed to fight terrorists successfully. A turning point came in July 2002, when the Israeli air force killed a Hamas leader by demolishing a block of houses in Gaza: Thirteen civilians were killed, and even the Bush White House joined the international chorus of condemnation, calling the attack "heavy-handed."
Since then, Israel has quietly refined its tactics, developing special warheads that can be placed on small missiles and fired from helicopters, and depending more on foot soldiers than tanks to root out militants in heavily populated areas. Palestinian civilian casualties are down significantly this year. No, Israel is not more popular with al-Jazeera and Amnesty International than it was before. But there are fewer Palestinian families with a terrible grievance to nurse over the death of an innocent. And there is less grisly footage that can be shown to the world, over and over and in slow motion.