What illegitimate secrets lie hidden behind the word "classified"?

"The government is stalling us," Marguerite Hiken of the Military Law Task Force told me. "They're going to be embarrassed and they're scared to death of war crimes charges."

Could it be that some high-level secrets are that tawdry? Could it be that war is waged - not fought, but set into motion - by, well . . . cowards, who feel themselves entitled to protection from the consequences of their decisions? If so, I'm in favor of an anti-smoking-style campaign that deglamorizes militarism by showing the wizards behind the curtain in full CYA scramble.

For that reason, I'll be interested to see how the lawsuit that Hiken's organization recently filed against the U.S. Defense Department plays out. The Task Force, which is part of the National Lawyers Guild, has a simple question for the DoD, the answer to which it was unable to get through a Freedom of Information Act request: What were the rules of engagement for soldiers at Fallujah, the Cincinnati-sized city leveled in Operation Phantom Fury two years ago, and in the shooting of Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist who had written about Fallujah, whose car was riddled by bullets at a U.S. checkpoint in Iraq?

In other words, what acts are off-limits in this war? What casualty-limiting moral restraints are put on soldiers - or maybe I mean not taken away from them - as they are sent into battle? And why is this classified? Why is this a secret?

God knows, the answer seems apparent simply by looking at the results. But then again, only a small percentage of Americans are doing that, at least more than cursorily. Every American excess - a rape here, a wounded prisoner's brains blown out there - is isolated and contained. It's an aberration. We may be losing to the insurgents, whoever they are, but we're still the good guys.

Not only is this not the case, I submit, but it is crucial that the sustaining mythology of the notion be detonated with the truth, so that future ideologues don't have access to it when they try to launch the nation's next war of choice and profit - and so that, as we debate the future of George Bush's war, we know what "stay the course" actually means.

What the Military Law Task Force, which assists GIs with legal and other problems - and thus is on the front lines of the post-traumatic stress disorder churned up by this war - wants to know is whether the orders U.S. soldiers were given violated international law. And what the public needs to know is whether those orders turn the stomach.

Here are the voices of eyewitnesses:

"Something scatters across my hand, simultaneous with the crashing of a bullet through the ambulance, some plastic part dislodged, flying through the window," according to British anti-war activist Jo Wilding's account on

"We stop, turn off the siren, keep the blue light flashing, wait, eyes on the silhouettes of men in U.S. Marine uniforms on the corners of the buildings. Several shots come. We duck, get as low as possible and I can see tiny red lights whipping past the window, past my head. Some, it's hard to tell, are hitting the ambulance. . . . I'm outraged. We're trying to get to a woman who's giving birth without any medical attention, without electricity, in a city under siege, in a clearly marked ambulance, and you're shooting at us. How dare you?"

"A man named Khalil, who asked not to use his last name for fear of reprisals," wrote journalist Dahr Jamail, "said he had witnessed the shooting of civilians who were waving white flags while they tried to escape the city.

"'I watched them roll over wounded people in the street with tanks,' said Kassem Mohammed Ahmed, a resident of Fallujah. 'This happened so many times.'"

As far as I know, the civilian death toll from our two assaults on Fallujah in 2004 is unknown, but is well into the thousands. Journalist Sgrena wrote at the time that one problem with identifying the dead was that "many of the bodies were unrecognizable because they were so carbonized that the use of napalm was suspected." (The use of several napalm-like substances, including white phosphorous, was eventually confirmed.)

Sgrena was kidnapped by insurgents in early 2005 but released unharmed. However, as she, her driver and Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari drove slowly past a U.S. checkpoint following her release, U.S. soldiers opened fire, killing agent Calipari and wounding the others. There was an investigation, which concluded, inscrutably, that the shooting was justified.

Why was this shooting justified? What were the rules of engagement? Are journalists armed with independent pens considered legitimate targets? If such information is classified, it's only because the decision makers know how wrong they are and fear the wrath of a betrayed nation.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.