Condolence Money a Regular Feature of Iraq War

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Troops in Iraq often give condolence money to families of Iraqi civilians who've been killed during fighting. Marines gave thousands of dollars to families in Haditha, where a massacre is alleged to have occurred. But they distributed the money when the official explanation was that the deaths occurred in an insurgent bombing.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's talk some more about the condolence payments the general mentioned.

This week, news organizations, including NPR, reported that U.S. Marines distributed $38,000 to the families of people killed in Haditha. The payments came one month after the alleged massacre. That was a time when military officials were still attributing the deaths to an insurgent bomb. And while condolence payments are common, the military does not typically compensate people killed in insurgent attacks. NPR's Ari Shapiro explains why some people are suspicious of the payments in Haditha.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

For decades, the U.S. military has calculated how much money a human life is worth at a particular time and place.

Admiral JOHN HUTSON (Judge Advocate General, U.S. Navy, Retired; Dean, Franklin Pierce Law Center): I can tell you that, in Iraq, the cash value of a human life in 2006 is $2,500. The cash value for an injury is $1,000.

SHAPIRO: Retired Admiral John Hutson with the Judge Advocate General for the Navy, and is now dean of Franklin Pierce Law School:

Adm. HUTSON: It's not unlike an insurance adjustor who comes out and looks at the damage on your car and the payments are made for death, for injury or for property damage.

SHAPIRO: The money serves as a condolence gesture when the U.S. military harms civilians in a conflict. Sarah Holewinski is the executive director of Civic, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. She's a fan of the program.

Ms. SARAH HOLEWINSKI (Executive Director, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, CIVIC): It's something that is absolutely vital to the U.S. military's mission there, and that is to win the respect and the trust of the Iraqi people so that they can get their job done. And this condolence system is really important for that.

SHAPIRO: It's up to the individual commander to decide when to make a payout. Circumstances can vary widely. If someone's accidentally shot, for example, or if their car is run over by a tank, Holewinski says all of the scenarios have one thing in common.

Ms. HOLEWINSKI: The payouts are specifically for victims of U.S. operations.

SHAPIRO: That's what makes the condolence payments at Haditha so puzzling. Families received the money a month after the killings. When the cash was handed out, the official line was that the civilians were killed by an insurgent bomb.

Dr. GARY SOLIS (Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University): Why would we be making a payment if these people were killed by a roadside bomb, as initially reported?

SHAPIRO: Gary Solis is a Georgetown law professor. He served as a Marine in Vietnam and has written extensively about war crimes.

Dr. SOLIS: What it suggests is that someone, somewhere along the line, recognized the possibility that a payment might make the issue go away for these individuals. It's impossible to say with any authority, one can only guess. But, you have the fact that they were made, and the supposition is not unreasonable that it was made for a purpose, and what purpose other than to perhaps make this go away.

SHAPIRO: Pentagon spokespeople referred questions about this to Baghdad, and the public affairs officer on duty in Baghdad didn't know whether there were any other instances in which victims of ostensible insurgent attacks had received condolence payments. The situation smells funny to Hutson.

Adm. HUTSON: Those facts and circumstances, in this case, start to look very suspicious and, you know, is it blood money to compensate for pain and suffering or is it hush money to cover up the misdeeds of the perpetrators?

SHAPIRO: There may be documents that can answer those questions, says Holewinski of CIVIC. She points out that claimants have to fill out paperwork before they receive condolence payments.

Ms. HOLEWINSKI: All documentation is needed. You know, where the incident happened, what time, who was involved, and then it is up to the commander and his military staff to process that claim.

SHAPIRO: In the Haditha case, those documents may provide one key to figuring out why Marines handed out $38,000 for victims of what they claimed was an insurgent attack.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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