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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

We Cannot Accept Loss of Innocents

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Bush administration had envisioned a different kind of invasion in Iraq, one that would flood the Arab world with pictures of American soldiers feeding hungry people and giving medical attention to sick children. Instead, billions around the globe are seeing and hearing reports that women and children were gunned down Monday while riding in a civilian van at an American checkpoint.

This is just what the Iraqi commanders have in mind when they send soldiers disguised as noncombatants to fire on unsuspecting American troops. The killing of the soldiers is an incidental benefit. Iraqi commanders' real goal is to turn the Americans against Iraqi civilians and cause them to behave like a hostile occupying army rather than the friendly liberators we had envisioned.

It happens all the time when troops are fighting in areas full of civilians, mixed in with terrorist insurgents.

The My Lai massacre in Vietnam was not the result of bad intentions, but of the fury of frightened young American men who were no longer able to distinguish between innocent civilians and hostile forces.

The great hatreds between common people and military authority that existed for so long in Northern Ireland, and that exist now in the West Bank, have all been fanned by the same phenomenon.

When troops wonder whether a man standing in his own doorway is harboring a sniper, or if a van full of women and children is a van full of suicide bombers, each side quickly learns to distrust, fear and finally hate the other.

Monday in southern Iraq, American soldiers fired into a van filled with women and children, killing seven. The van was approaching a military checkpoint near an area where a car bomb had recently exploded, killing four soldiers.

The authorities said that the van had ignored all the soldiers' attempts to bring it to a halt, and that the shooting had been justified. They promised to investigate.

Those reassurances are important to Americans but will mean very little in the Arab world, particularly if such scenes become routine. If that happens, the political war for Iraq could be lost even before the military one is won.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The New York Times.