Split-second decisions often lead to tragedy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Tribune staff

Part of military training consists of soldiers learning when to shoot and when not to shoot in certain quickly developing, potentially dangerous, situations.

If they make the wrong decision in a real-life setting,

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the result can be fatal to both soldiers and innocent bystanders. In reality, though, absolute certainty is non-existent - a split-second judgment may or may not be the best way to handle a situation.

Such was the case Monday when American soldiers made a judgment call and fired on a van that refused to stop at a checkpoint in southern Iraq. Just a few short days before - and only a few miles away - four U.S. soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in a taxi. Since then, troops have been ordered to be especially vigilant when dealing with vehicles refusing to stop or turn around at the checkpoints.

The soldiers, from the 3rd Infantry Division, reportedly could not see inside the van. They first fired warning shots and then into the vehicle's engine, none of which stopped the van. After they fired on the occupants, they found horror - 13 women and children, seven dead, two wounded and four unharmed

While the incident is a public relations nightmare for the coalition forces that are trying to gain the trust of the Iraqi people, it was not reckless. These soldiers had good reason to believe the approaching van could be dangerous.

These soldiers feel much remorse about the accident. They, too, are victims - victims of that suicide bomber and threats to send more suicide bombers and victims of Iraqi soldiers pretending to be civilians.

The killing of the women and children, however, will hurt attempts to bring some of the Iraqi people to the side of the "invaders." Others, though, will know the difference between a tragic accident and grotesque murder. They have endured years of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, and some reports even say Iraqi troops have been mowing down fleeing civilians during the war.

While the United States will continue to try to avoid civilian casualties, no one can expect that Saddam and his army will do the same.