On April 3rd, 2003, Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, led his troops into Najaf to pursue Fedayeen fighters. But as they approached the Imam Ali mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam, angry crowds took to the streets. Many feared that the mosque would be destroyed and that the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, under house arrest for 20 years by Saddam Hussein, would be captured or killed.
What happened next wasn't a massacre, but among the finest moments for the United States in the entire war. As the New Yorker reported:
At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture--almost Biblical. "Take a knee," the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses. The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armor and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw.CNN described the scene of Hughes' cultural empathy and heroic restraint that won over the crowd and prevented what seemed like a certain loss of life on a large scale:
He yelled to his troops: "Smile, relax." Then he commanded his soldiers to take a knee and point their weapons to the ground. Some Iraqis backed off and sat down. But many more continued to yell and block the road.Continued reading about the Najaf massacre that never happened below.
"We're going to withdraw out of this situation and let them defuse it themselves," he told his troops through a loudspeaker. "All vehicles turn around."
"In terms of scale of significance, that is the mosque that would have probably not just have caused every Shia in that country to rise up against the coalition," Hughes told CBS News three years later. "It probably would have at least brought in the Syrians, if not the Iranians."
That conflict with the Shiites of Najaf did not happen, at least not until the summer of 2004. With Iraq having descended into sectarian conflict in which American forces battled both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, U.S. Marines took on the Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada Al Sadr that August.
But that is a different story with lessons of its own. In April 2003, the headlines from USA Today ("At last, smiles greet U.S. troops as they enter holy city in Iraq"), the Telegraph ("Americans bow before holy shrine to deter protesters") and the Los Angeles Times ("Shrine Spared, Troops Hailed") told the tale of how Americans troops decided to take a knee so they didn't have to take casualties in Najaf.
The Missouri National Guard might consider doing the same in Ferguson.