An Old Dilemma
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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern

An Old Dilemma

Inside Urim there is death, outside it there is death. Inside it we are to be finished off by famine. Outside it we are to be finished off by Elamite weapons. In Urim the enemy oppresses us, oh, we are finished.

The Lament for Sumer and Urim, lines 389-402 (ETCSL 2.2.3)

Industrial Age

More than 140 civilians have been killed in less than a week while trying to flee western Mosul, according to military sources [among the besiegers], as the Iraqi army seeks to close in on fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the armed group’s last stronghold in Iraq.

According to the [besieging] military on Thursday, most of the fatalities were women and children.

“Mosul battle: At least 142 civilians killed in six days”

Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq.

Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.

Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.

“Iraq Deserves Heroes, but Has Only Monsters,”

Iron Age

But those who were blockaded at Alesia , the day being past, on which they had expected auxiliaries from their countrymen, and all their corn being consumed …, convened an assembly and deliberated on the exigency of their situation. … When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town … The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted.

Caesar, Gallic War, 7.77-78

I believe that Richard the Lion Heart responded the same way to this gambit, but my books on medieval history are still in the old country.

Further Reading: Steve Muhlberger, “The Toronto Morality Play”

Edit 2022-03-17: converted to block edit and fixed formatting broken when block editor was introduced

Edit 2023-11-24: see now Murray Brewster, “Former soldiers say they fear Iraqi trainees committed war crimes with allies’ weapons,” CBC News, 24 November 2023

Canada not only trained suspected Iraqi war criminals in 2018, it distributed Western-made weapons and protective equipment to them — likely coming from U.S. stockpiles — says a former soldier who was among the first to blow the whistle on videos that implicate the trainees in atrocities.

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0 thoughts on “An Old Dilemma

  1. Prufrock says:

    Apposite juxtapositions. Not pleasant,but certainly apposite.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks Prufrock. I hope that we live to see a day when people in the Near East don’t have to chose which set of soldiers to be brutalized by, or whether to die from hunger or bullets …

  2. Pen Name says:

    History is often written by the Victors. The remarkable thing today is that they had no problem recording what they did in many cases. They even seem to be boasting.

    After Reading “The Marriot Cell” by Mohamed Fahmy I an reluctant to put much faith in anything reported by Al Jazeera. It seems more like a state funded propaganda organisation than an objective news organisation.

    There may well be some truth to the Al Jazeera stories you posted. On the other hand they may belong with the stories of Kuwaiti babies being ripped out of incubators and thrown on the floor by Iraqi troops.

    Fahmy writes that footage he recorded in Egypt for the Al Jazeera English channel ended up being used in Arab Language broadcasts, out of context and putting his life and liberty at risk, despite repeated assurances from Al Jazeera that they would stop doing that.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi, I don’t have time for a full reply, especially because I don’t read Arabic or have contacts in Arab Iraq. Al Jazeera and its place in Arab politics are complicated for sure.

      I think it was Jona Lendering who said that ancient kings and generals usually boasted of their atrocities, whereas in the last hundred years governments usually try to hide them.

      People with strong stomachs can see some of the videos and photos which Ali Arkady collected at

      You can find an Amnesty International report on the siege of Mosul at
      and an Amnesty International report on the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, some of which are well known for abducting, torturing, and killing civilians, at

      Its not too hard to find hints in English-language media which are very pro-Baghdad that many Iraqi civilians are terrified of these militias. So I don’t find Arkady’s words too much out of line with the facts as declared from Baghdad.

      1. Pen Name says:

        The recent controversy about the Edward Cornwallis Statue in Halifax and Confederate Monuments in the Southern USA brings up some of the same Issues.

        Cornwallis repeated avoided engaging when prospects of success were low, and “followed orders” such as

        “plunder, burn and destroy through all the west part of Invernesshire called Lochaber”

        “You have positive orders to bring no more prisoners to the camp”

        “Cornwallis’s soldiers used rape and mass murder to intimidate Jacobites from further rebellion”

        when Scotland and Ireland were the unhappy English Colonies closest to home.

        Tattrie, Jon (2013). Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax

        Twin brother Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered English Forces at the end of the American Revolutionary war.

        Hessian Mercenaries hired by England reputedly had no use for prisoners and viewed Bayonets as faster than a noose and cheaper than bullets and powder for executing prisoners.

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