The incident at Haditha--or the massacre, as it is often called--is due for a wholesale rethinking. The allegations are that in 2005 U.S. Marines went on a killing spree and deliberately executed 24 Iraqi civilians. The casualties have drawn an extraordinary amount of political attention, becoming an emblem for everything critics say is wrong with the Iraq war--in the common telling, another My Lai.
Thus Congressman Jack Murtha, a decorated combat veteran, made accusations of war crimes and said the Marines had killed "in cold blood." These are serious charges; and military justice continues to deal with them seriously, though thankfully at a slower pace than politics. Now the prosecutions have mostly unraveled. It seems Haditha, though tragic, was exploited politically, and the allegations were exaggerated, if not unfounded.
The first imperative is to understand the complex, asymmetrical combat conditions in Iraq. The Marines were (and are) facing a determined enemy who dress as civilians and use homes, schools, hospitals and mosques as their bases of operation. They try to goad killings among the civilian population because it foments domestic opposition against U.S. troops while undermining them with elite international opinion.
In this environment, accusations of U.S. atrocities against civilians occur after almost every military operation. That partly explains why the Marines did not immediately investigate the Haditha killings. They viewed some Iraqi claims as part of insurgent "information operations" and did not suspect any misconduct. That day also saw citywide violence and multiple combat actions, and the killings seemed, regrettably but realistically, routine.
At Haditha, did the Marines act reasonably and appropriately based on their training? They were in a hostile combat situation where deadly force was authorized against suspected triggermen for the IED, and were ordered to assault a suspected insurgent hideout. In retrospect, the men in the car had no weapons or explosives; in retrospect, the people in the house were not insurgents. No one knew at the time.
Innocents were killed at Haditha, as they inevitably are in all wars--though that does not excuse or justify wrongdoing. Yet neither was Haditha the atrocity or "massacre" that many assumed--though errors in judgment may well have been committed. And while some violent crimes have been visited on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, overall the highly disciplined U.S. military has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion. When there have been aberrations, the services have typically held themselves accountable.
The same cannot be said of the political and media classes. Many, including Members of Congress, were looking for another moral bonfire to discredit the cause in Iraq, and they found a pretext in Haditha. The critics rushed to judgment; facts and evidence were discarded to fit the antiwar template.
Most despicably, they created and stoked a political atmosphere that exposes American soldiers in the line of duty, risking and often losing their lives, to criminal liability for the chaos of war. This is the deepest shame of Haditha, and the one for which apologies ought to be made.
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