Before becoming a
photographer I served in the Danish Army as a peacekeeper in Croatia
and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. It was a very different conflict from
Iraq--there were actual front lines, violence was only occasionally
directed against the peacekeepers, and we were clearly instructed
to act as guests in the region, rather than as an occupying force.
Now, while I don't see the Balkan missions as a complete success,
I consider them a lot more successful than Iraq, which seems to spin
ever more out of control.
During the few days I was embedded with an infantry company in the
Sunni Triangle during January, 2004, the American soldiers routinely
violated the Geneva Conventions. I witnessed them raid a hospital
with the intention of taking anybody with a gunshot wound back to
the base for interrogation; I was told (but not shown) that a prisoner
at the Forward Operating Base who had been shot in the abdomen would
receive no medical attention unless he decided to speak.
I also witnessed the implementation of a policy called Leave
No Refuge, aimed at destroying the houses of suspected highway
hijackers. In the process of finding those houses, the soldiers raided
literally every house in the village. They forced villagers to do
push-ups, just for the fun of it or to extract information. I saw
them kick in villagers' doors and offer their kids teddy bears confiscated
in earlier raids as compensation.
At times it was truly absurd, as when they used 8 TOW missiles (at
an estimated $20,000 each) as well as hundreds of rounds of other
ammunition, to destroy the empty houses of two of the suspected hijackers.
The US forces have not had an easy time figuring out the response
to an insurgency they never really expected and hadn't prepared for.
While it is unrealistic to think that the US forces will leave Iraq
anytime soon, it is essential that this administration comes clean
and offers a different strategy than the one that brought us the Abu
As much as rules to live by, the Geneva Conventions can also be seen
as limits of acceptable behavior: not only constraints for the benefit
of the vanquished, but guidelines for the victors that prevent them
from becoming mortal enemies to be avenged, rather than the nameless,
faceless professionals who have to wage a war that has been decided
elsewhere. As an eyewitness, I can report that the transgression of
the Geneva Conventions unfortunately has contributed to a state of
affairs where the Americans have ceased fighting a limited military
war and are now waging a cultural battle that completely alienates
the civilian population.
I know a little bit about what it feels like when the boundaries of
civil behavior are crossed. For eight long days during the invasion
of Iraq, I became a prisoner of Saddam Husseins regime at Abu
Ghraib, along with three other journalists and a peace activist. We
were never harmed physically, but heard and saw other prisoners being
abused on a daily basis, and feared for our lives. We were lucky enough
to be released on April 1, 2003. A week later, on the day when American
troops first rolled into Baghdad, the prisoners in our section were