Value Systems : Values in War - looting in Basra or Bath?

Looting in Basra - or looting in Bath?


It has been a momentous week, with the images of Saddamís statue being pulled down clearly etched into the global consciousness.  But there is an aspect of this week that has simultaneously interested and troubled me.  Looting.



We have all seen the TV footage of civilian looting, whilst we also have read of soldiers delivering humanitarian aid. We have seen videos of coalition military doctors helping Iraqi civilians.  Yet we also hear of mobs looting major hospitals whilst soldiers looked on ìas they had no ordersî to stop


What sense can we make of these contradictions? Are the people of Basra any different to those in my local town of Bath? When a war is ìwonî, is looting part of the expected process? Without Leaders who are ever-present, would we all loot?  Is looting a political act, or is it just plain criminal? Do we all need externally given rules? Or can we self police? And how does a victorious soldier act in the restoration of law and order?


Is this a question of Leadership, or values, or both?  And then, whose values - the soldiers or the civilians?


Let's begin with looking at how this got started in Basra:



British tactics in Basra praised


By Paul Martin, The Washington Times

Coalition commanders have put together battle plans for Baghdad that they say draw heavily on the unorthodox but "very impressive" tactics adopted by British forces seeking the collapse of resistance in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.


"In Baghdad, we will definitely use a lot of the effective techniques and utilize some of the larger strategic lessons we learned in the British efforts over Basra," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.


...  Two examples of unusual yet successful soldiering in the past two days have drawn praise from U.S. Central Command ... British 7th Armored Brigade troops, known as the Desert Rats, deliberately allowed residents to loot a Ba'ath Party headquarters near Basra within minutes of the office's capture and search.


"Normally we would stop looting because it's a sign that things have got out of control and that law and order has broken down," said Capt. Alex Cartwright to reporters. "But in this case we decided that to allow it would send a powerful message: that we are in control now, not the Ba'ath Partyî.


In another incident, when an Iraqi colonel was fatally shot in his vehicle, British troops found a thick wad of local currency. Instead of handing it in to officers, the troops decided to dole the cash out to wide-eyed local youngsters, a monetary variant of candy handouts.




I admit that initially this seemed reasonable to me. If you want to send a clear message that a Government (or Regime, depedning on your political view) has fallen, invite the local people to help tear it down. But where do you halt teh tearing down?


On a human level, I was especially intrigued by the soldiers who distributed the cash that they "liberated" to the local kids. It is almost certain that the troops were not given a specific order about what to do in this situation - it was opportunistic. But it is a great example of soldiers being sure enough of their "Commanderís Intent" to take independent action, rather than rely 100% on their orders or having to deal with the uncertainty by taking the problem back to HQ. 


"Commander's Intent" is defined as


...  a concise expression of the purpose of the operation [which] must be understood two echelons below the issuing commander. . . It is the single unifying focus for all subordinate elements. It is not a summary of the concept of the operation. Its purpose is to focus subordinates on the desired end state. Its utility is to focus subordinates on what has to be accomplished in order to achieve success, even when the plan and concept of operations no longer apply, and to discipline their efforts toward that end.


In other words, "Commander's Intent" is a combination of strategy and tactics to drive flexibility and successful outcomes.  But it also should include a sense of values if it is to be truly robust in complex situations. This seems particularly important if you want discipline at all levels in the group under your command.  In a democracy, people do things because they want to, and personal values are central to

The Basra incident strikes me as supportive of this view.  The soldiers seem to have had clear goals, and were understanding of their responsibilities to the civilian population. Yet the "money for kids" event also seems illustrative of shared and congruent values. Of course a development professional would argue that giving money to kids in streets is counterproductive.  But the incident does demonstrate where the soldierís heart was, and also how secure he felt in acting.



By contrast, one wonders what was going through the solders hearts and minds when they witnessed the looting of the Baghdad hospitals. Where was their ìCommander's Intentî? In Bath, would we stand by and see our hospitals looted, even if we had no specific orders on the issue.  I think not.


Students of history would say that destroying enemy symbolism is a common characteristic, and transcendent of cultures. How many decapitated statues litter the world, and how many flags have been burned? But is it always as clear how to behave towards a civilian population?


Whilst there are of course many examples of outright destruction, most successful victors usually leave the civilian infrastructure as intact as they can.  They realize that this is essential to future law and order, and to future prosperity. Even Genghis Khan allowed subjugated peoples to keep their religions and their local government institutions, as long as they paid him the necessary tributes and taxes. So, symbol destruction is a rather generic, human characteristic of conflict.  But it must be tempered with respect for civil structures because that is what will allow society to function.


Avoiding hitting civilian infrastructure, mosques or churches has been a very a good start, and is to be very much commended.  But the issue goes beyond the physical to the institutional and the intellectual. Symbols are not all physical. The Americans donít like flag burners - the Brits wear flags as underwear. And witness the way the Arab world (and indeed many others) reacted negatively when the Stars and Stripes was placed on Saddamís head, albeit briefly.  The Pentagon has repeatedly and rightly stopped such flag waving - yet a soldier still did it.


Was it because the "Commander's Intent" was not clear enough, or that the soldier did not understand, or that there was insufficient discipline - or all of these? One personís patriotism can be another persons joke, or worse yet, insult.  A ìCommanderís Intentî must allow for that complexity.  Respect is the key. And only a sense of shared beliefs will break through that kind of fog. Only a more robust discussion on the values involved would have prevented this rather tacky incident.


But back to Basra.  The looting became more controversial ...



April 5, 2003:  UN and Army at odds as troops encourage looting


By Daniel McGorory, The Times (London)

United Nations officials have rebuked British commanders for urging local residents to loot buildings belonging to the Iraqi Army and the ruling Ba'ath Party.


The British view is that the sight of local youths dismantling the offices and barracks of a regime they used to fear shows they have confidence that Saddam Hussainís henchmen will not be returning to these towns in southern Iraq.


One senior British officer said: "We believe this sends a powerful message that the old guard is truly finished".


Armored units from the Desert Rats stood by and watched earlier this week as scores of excited Iraqis picked clean every floor and every room of the Ba'ath Party headquarters building in Basra after it had been raided by British troops.


Villas owned by the elite, army compounds, air bases and naval ports and even some of the regimeís former torture chambers and jails have been ransacked in the past week.


But UN officials said last night that such behavior was against the Geneva Convention and bred a dangerous mood of anarchy. ...


ìThe worry is that it doesnít stop here with government property alone and we are already seeing that. At the moment it appears to us that it is in danger of getting out of control and should be stoppedî.,,1-6047-635035,00.html




If the UN is right, do we all need imposed rules to force us to behave properly?


Yes and no.  Yes, in that without impersonal rules, everyone becomes a personal battle.  Rules actually make our life simpler - one less thing to be worried about. The ìrule of lawî is a critical principle of 21st century civil democracy and personal freedom.


But no, in the sense that without our own internal compass of right and wrong, we are lost.  Even then, our personal set of rules may well change by situation. 


In a natural disaster, we assume the ìsystemî will come to our aid.  After all, that is why we pay taxes.


In a civil disturbance, there is often looting and lawless behavior.  We are not so sure weíll get the help, but we expect it will turn up eventually, and then we all come together to make society ìcivilî again - sometime by just plain ignoring the reasons for the disturbance, and sometimes with a more active intervention.  At root, we just cannot cope with too much ambiguity in our society.


In war, unfortunately, almost anything goes, depending how threatened we feel. If there was an armed attack by a foreign power on Bath, what would I do?  Run? Fight? The issue is not really whether the attacker has a better system than mine - the issue is whether I feel personally under attack, and how best I can then help my family and friends. What ethical rules would I apply? It takes strong people to ìstick to the old rulesî in this situation.


In fact there would appear to be a hierarchy to how we respond to different kinds of crisis, virtually independent of our cultural backgrounds. A few examples:


Natural disaster: My family and I were caught right in the middle of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, in 1995.  A couple of things really impressed us.  The first was the calmness in the streets right after the quakes - an almost transcendental quiet.  The second was the fact that there was almost no looting, and what there was unfortunately seemed to be committed by western youths.


Does this make the Japanese culture in some sense superior?  Certainly it does show the power of collective responsibility, which is part of the culture. It could be argued that the affluence of the population led to this rather ìpositiveî response. But insurance companies rarely covered the losses, and many people lost family members and all of their physical possessions.  It was a massive quake, with terrible losses. But there was still no looting.


In the 1989 San Francisco quake there was only sporadic and minor looting, reflecting a similar civic duty, common sense attitude and personal affluence. And the recent responses to Hurricane disasters in the US and Caribbean show similarity to the 1989 quake - whilst there was some looting, it was fairly minor given the huge numbers of people involved. The same is true of other recent quakes, in Turkey and China.


By contrast there was rather extensive looting reported after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Perhaps we have all learned more civilized behaviors?


In any case, my conclusion is that extensive lawlessness is not a given for a natural disaster. In fact natural disasters often bring out the best in all of us. I would encourage readers to check the work of Henry Fischer, Millersville University on this issue.


Civil strife: The very nature of this beast leads to more violence. Many will recall the race riots which occurred a while back in the UK, where looting resulted.  We have seen the same in other countries, ranging from the USA to India, Indonesia to Peru. Does anger with the system make looting allowable, or does it simply provide a detonator of frustration?


Wasnít the root cause in many cases poverty and inequality?  Wasnít the system letting down some of its constituents?  I am not in any way excusing the behavior, but contrast this to our relatively benign approach to natural disasters. Ironically the total loss of control we have in an earthquake seems to lead to less lawlessness than a civil disturbance, which we can often just run away from.


Recall the Boston Tea Party? It was a combination of revolutionary and civil strife, depending on your viewpoint. But it was very much an example of tearing things down to rebuild things, and not an attempt at anarchy.


Here is an eyewitness account of what happened in December 1773:


 " ... there was a meeting of the citizens of the county of Suffolk .... At that meeting a committee was appointed to wait on Governor Hutchinson, and request him to inform them whether he would take any measures to satisfy the people on the object of the meeting.


... We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.


... In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.


We then quietly retired to our several places of residence.


During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets". 




There was looting at the Tea Party? Wow!

It was just small quantities of tea that were stolen, so it was all very genteel and controlled.  This was obviously no big deal ;-)


Whilst Basra is no Tea Party, there is one parallel.  Both events destroy the old, and usher in the new. And this disturbance in itself makes for some loss of law and order.


On the other hand, the Tea Party did not destroy law and order, although a revolution did follow.  One set of rules was replaced by another set of rules, and in a fairly seamless process, so anarchy did not prevail. The moral from both is obviously that you canít ìliberateî the average citizen if you loose law and order and they suffer needlessly.


Consider these words from ordinary Iraqi citizens:




April 8 2003: British distribute water in Basra; looting is rampant in Iraq's second largest city


By Tini Tran, Associated Press, as reported at


British troops began a massive effort Tuesday to distribute water to battle-weary residents of Basra but were unable to quell the spate of looting that erupted when the soldiers moved into Iraq's second largest city.


...''If they (the British) want to liberate Iraq, they must do so by giving us electricity, law and order. That's the only way to liberate Iraq,'' said a young Iraqi man standing in front of a water tanker who did not want to give his name.


''I want safety now. We want government, we want police. Now it's no good. Good people, honest people are afraid,'' said an engineer standing in front of the Sheraton Hotel.



So the civilians want law and order, and so does the military - but the timing seems to be different. When a soldier is being subjected to suicide bombing threats, it must be tough to be a friendly policeman.  And when a civilian has years of pent up poverty and anger, it must be tough to



As we noted, lawlessness increases as disaster moves along the continuum of natural - to civil - to military.  In retrospect, this is all common sense.  But in all of these processes of massive change, people can loose their moral compass unless we take the steps needed to reassure and if necessary police.


In Iraq, looting was unfortunately rather predictable.  This is a poor people who have been part of a police state, and now there are no police. Lawlessness was equally predictable. But surely this must have been part of the battle plan otherwise no real ìLiberationî is possible.  If it was part of the plan, then why couldnít our Leaders (both political and military) preempt the problem in a more timely fashion?  At minimum they could make much stronger statements up front about what will and will not be tolerated.


On a related tack, I would also offer a principle to apply as we strategize about such situations - inclusion.


  • Witness the way Genghis Khan dealt with his enemies - you die if you fight me, but you prosper if you donít and I will include you in the Empire (discussed elsewhere in LeaderValues).
  • Think of how Gandhi used inclusive appeal to Muslims and Hindus, and non-violence to achieve his goals, and in fact stopped his activities if he felt them to be ìunfairî to the British (also in LeaderValues)
  • Compare the Allies totally different reactions after World War 1 (heavy reparations) and World War 2 (nation building).
  • Consider the way most Nations today are trying to deal with the end of the Cold War, with inclusion and multilateral institution building. How many Nations want to join the European Union?


Happily inclusion does seem to be an increasingly learned characteristic of victors - maybe out of pure self interest, maybe because the world is just too complex - or perhaps it is actually an ìemergent propertyî of a civilized world (which complexity theorists would enjoy). 


Inclusion is a step forward for all concerned.  No more heads on pikestaffs at the town gates.


But inclusion also means accepting the responsibility of assuming leadership even in negative situations - no one will thank the US or the British for acting like real policemen and women - but they must if they are to preserve the society until a local civilian administration is in place.  And if we are paranoid about being ìwesternersî policing ìMuslimsî, then be sure to ask the Kuwaiti or Jordanian police to be there the minute they are needed. 


Witness Afghanistan. I offer no political perspective on that - but I do know that outside Kabul aid workers are less secure in carrying out their work today than they were under the Taliban.


So, let us now turn from Basra to Baghdad.




April 11: Instability plagues Baghdad. Law and order has broken down in Baghdad after US troops rolled into the heart of the Iraqi capital and seized control.


BBC Online


There have been serious incidents of looting across the city with two key Baghdad hospitals and many smaller ones being ransacked, International Red Cross officials said.


The BBC's Rageh Omaar in Baghdad says many Iraqis are barricading themselves in their homes for fear of looters and essential services have been crippled.


Looters sacked the German embassy and a French cultural centre in the capital, taking furniture, fridges and electrical equipment.


The luxurious homes of senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime, i

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