Thursday, June 1, 2006


Based on the information currently in the public record, it sounds like some of the Marines in Haditha committed a serious and unjusitified crime.  I've linked several news articles at the end of this post.

Before saying more about this, first, a few quotes from various commentators.  Molly Ivins, Lurching into the ludicrous 06/01/06:

So, Haditha becomes another of the names at which we wince, along with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and My Lai. Tell you what: Let's not use the "stress of combat" excuse this time. According to neighbors, the girls in the family of Younis Khafif - the one who kept pleading in English: "I am a friend. I am good" - were 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1. What are they going to say? "Under stress of combat, we thought the baby was 2"?

"We have a Haditha every day," said Muhanned Jasim, an Iraqi merchant. "Were (those killed in Haditha) the first Iraqis to be killed for no reason?" asked Ghasan Jayih, a pharmacist. Well no, but we Americans don't count collateral damage unless we're forced to. We prefer to ignore collateral damage, especially if they're under 5.

Someone else with a greater taste for the ironies of technology will have to explain why it's funny that this "Haditha" was uncovered in part by a solider taking photos with his cell phone. Good work by Time magazine and Col. Gregory Watt. Apologies are owed by any on the right to Rep. John Murtha, who warned of Haditha early, though none of us is holding a breath. The attacks on Murtha's patriotism were despicable. When will that tactic wear out?

St. Petersburg Times editiorial, Death in Haditha 05/31/06:

Two investigations of the Haditha incident are under way, and members of Congress reportedly have been told to expect that some Marines will be charged with crimes as serious as murder. "This is going to be an ugly story,'' U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., a former Marine, told Time.

Ugly things inevitably happen in times of war, and even disciplined, humane soldiers may break under the extreme conditions U.S. forces face in hot spots such as Haditha. Great democracies distinguish themselves from their adversaries by training their troops according to the highest standards of military discipline. They hold those troops and their superiors accountable when those standards are violated. If any good is to come from the ugliness of Haditha, it will start with an investigation that shows the world America's commitment to the rule of law, even in an environment that forces our troops to invent the rules of survival every day.

Bob Bateman at Eric Alterman's Altercation 05/31/06:

If events occurred as they are currently reported to have occurred, then there is nothing more to say than, “It is wrong.”

Yet at the same time I cannot help but note that those who might be inclined to trumpet these events may themselves do well to maintain some perspective.  War, in short, is savage.  All wars, bar none.  It has always been savage, and it will always be savage.  No matter how “Good” the war is, how completely altruistic the motives of the civilians who send us to this conflict or that one may be, no matter how necessary a war may be, at the level of the Soldier, War is Savage.  Professionals know this, and it is one of the very real reasons that we are (somewhat ironically, for those who do not know us or our morals) so often opposed to the use of force.  In other words, we have an informed idea of what rests inside Pandora’s Box, and this colors our thoughts when considering force.

At the most basic level, the role of the professional military officer is to control and direct the use of violence.  It is to confine the savage, but you cannot prevent it entirely.  You can train for a lifetime, devote vast resources to the creation of a professional force, and emplace institutional checks to reduce the incidence of misdirected violence…but you will never, ever, stop it entirely.  Please keep this in mind.

Bateman's entire post is well worth reading.

William Arkin was, surprisingly, still willing to credit a less incriminating version of the massacre story on 05/30/06 in Let's Be Honest About the Marines in Haditha:

Although he writes, "Sadly, I believe the charges," he nevertheless gives this version:

I believe it because this is war, frightening, frustrating, and most important, completely disconnected anymore  from humanity.

Last November 19, while out on patrol in the Euphrates River town of Hadithah, northwest of Baghdad, a U.S. Marine convoy was attacked in the Subhani district, either by an improvised explosive device (IED) on the road and/or by insurgent snipers.  One Marine lance corporal was killed in the attack.

Evidently in retaliation, but certainly in defense, the Marines opened fire, shooing and killing civilian bystanders in a taxi and two nearby homes.  Some two dozen civilians have been reported as being killed that day.  A Marine later on the scene said the bodies showed execution-style killings, including gunshots to the head.  The dead "ranged from little babies to adult males and females," he told The Los Angeles Times.

News reports of the incident allege that the Marines killed unarmed civilians without provocation.

But if his description that the Marines "in retaliation, but certainly in defense, the Marines opened fire, shooing and killing civilian bystanders in a taxi and two nearby homes", then the court martial may well dismiss the charges for lack of evidence.  Because the events described in those "news reports" have the Marines bursting into the two houses and shooting everyone in sight.  Even the 1-year-old.

He concludes with an observation that is not quite the "stress of combat" excuse Ivins  rejects, but it makes a point I think is important:

This is not to say that I am excusing what happened in Hadithah in any way.  Bu Hadithah happened as much because war never follows the predictable script, and war can never be fully controlled.  No matter how grave the justification for war, no matter how grand the experiment, the unleashing of human beings to justifiably kill other human beings exposes an animal instinct so basic and horrifying that training and leadership and uniforms can only tentatively arbitrate.

When killing in war become murder, we can delude ourselves into thinking that a few bad apples have stepped out of the "uniform" code and need to be punished.  Right now thoug[h], we should be honest with ourselves and admit the hopelessness of our endeavor and the impossible situation we have created for our soldiers.

He clarifies his position in his post of 06/01/06, Haditha Can't Be Blamed for a Lost War:

Haditha either represents an exceptional incident perpetrated by the rage of a platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines and as such does not necessitate a sensitivity class for the American military at large or it represents a hidden side of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where civilian deaths are all too common and accountability on a day-to-day basis doesn't exist.

My guess is that it is a little bit of both, a gross act of premeditated murder and soldiers and Marines who can't help but be mightily influenced by the assumption that the nature of the enemy and the war in Iraq makes it "difficult" to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant.

The most compassionate explanation I have heard over the past few days for what drives men and women over the edge to do horrible things is futility.

He also observes that the administration will likely soon be blaming the Haditha incident for screwing things up in Iraq just when things were going so well (in the alternative universe of FOX News) and try to use it as an alibi for their own failures.

Unfortunately, in that post he does wind up essentially making a "stress of war" excuse by advancing the argument that there isessentially no laws of war in Iraq because the war doesn't have the level of public support as the Second World War did in the US.  (Support for that war was so great that incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt won the popular vote by only a tiny percentage.)

I've often quoted Arkin's military analyses and he has some great insights and information.  But this argument that somehow the laws of war are in effect void in the Iraq War is downright bizarre.  Despite the neocons' arrogance, despite Dick Cheney's "Unitary Executive" theory of dictatorial Presidential power, despite the contempt of so many rightwing Republicans (especially the Christian Right) for international law, there are laws of war.   And there are rules of engagement in the Iraq War.  There are American laws that apply to the situation and there are international laws that apply to the Americans in that situation.  And, no, whether the US is a member of the International Criminal Court does not affect whether the relevant treaties and "customary laws of war" apply to Americans.

This argument of his - very uncharacteristically - hardly even makes sense, apart from being totally misguided:

Don't you see the contradiction?  There can only be war crimes where there are war laws.  An atrocity by its very definition connotes an act of cruelty committed in defiance of established rules.  Crimes against humanity accept that there is humanity with behavior that defines human interactions, even in war.

In other words, war exists and over centuries an established and accepted code of behavior has emerged to govern its conduct.  Central to that code is the requirement of combatants *on both sides* to distinguish between military and civilian, to take whatever steps they can, at the platoon level all the way up to strategic planning, to safeguard the civilian population.   (my emphasis)

No, this is absolutely false.  The fact that Iraqi insurgents may not wear military insignia does not change the fact that the laws of war apply to American soldiers.  It doesn't not make it all right in any level for soldiers to just bust into homes and gun down the unarmed civilians inside.

To be fair, Arkin seems conflicted on the whole case, as his comments following that illustrate.  But I'm very surprised that he would make statements like that.  Because the laws of war most certainly do apply to Americans and that is true no matter how many times someone on the other side may violate them.  That's just the way it is.  If people want to argue that such deliberate murders should be legally permissable, then argue for the right to murder.  Note: I do no mean to imply that's what Arkin himself is doing.)  Don't pretend that that it's legal now because it's not.

And there are good reasons the world has developed laws of war over the centuries.  Former Nuremberg prosecutor Telford Taylor wrote in Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (1970):

What, then, are the "laws of war"? They are of ancient origin, and followed two main streams of development The first flowed from medieval notions of knightly chivalry. Over the course of the centuries the stream has thinned to a trickle; it had a brief spurt during the days of single-handed aerial combat, and survives today in rules (often violated) prohibiting various deceptions such as the use of the enemy's uniforms or battle insignia, or the launching of a war without fair warning by formal declaration.

The second and far more important concept is that the ravages of war should be mitigated as far as possible by prohibiting needless cruelties, and other acts that spread death and destruction and are not reasonably related to the conduct of hostilities. The seeds of such a principle must be nearly as old as human society, and ancient literature abounds with condemnation of pillage and massacre. In more recent times, both religious humanitarianism and the opposition of merchants to unnecessary disruptions of commerce have furnished the motivation for restricting customs and understandings.  (my emphasis)

And he further explained in rejecting the spurious argument that if wars were as horrible as possible, there would be fewer of them so why have laws of war:

It is only necessary to consider the rules on taking prisoners in the setting of the Second World War to realize the enormous saving of life which they have  been responsible.  Millions of French, British, German and Italian soldierss captured in Western Europe and Africa were treated in general compliance with The Hague and Geneva requirements, and returned home at the end of the war. German and Russian prisoners taken on the eastern front did not fare nearly so well and died in captivity by the millions, but many survived. Today there is surely much to criticize about the handling of prisoners on both sides of the Vietnam war, but at least many of them are alive, and that is because the belligerents are reluctant to flout the laws war too openly.  (my emphasis)

Well, they were until George Bush and Dick Cheney and Rummy camealong to realize how "quaint" those Geneva provisions are.  Taylor also wrote:

Another and, to my mind, even more important basis of the laws of war is that they are necessary to diminish the corrosive effect of mortal combat on the participants. War does not confer a license to kill for personal reasons - to gratify perverse impulses, or to put out of the way anyone who appears obnoxious, or to whose welfare the soldier is indifferent.  War is not a license at all, but an obligation to kill for reasons of state; it does not countenance the infliction of suffering for its own sake or for revenge.  (my emphasis)

The Marines who are likely to be charged with crime in connection with the Haditha killings will get a court martial with their rights protected by law and with competent defense attorneys to represent them.  It's likely that with the trial and further investigations, we will know with a very high degree of confidence what actually happened.

But the idea that somehow these soldiers should be relieved of the responsibility for criminal acts of the kind alleged due to combat stress, or the nature of the war, is just dead wrong.

Having said that, both critics and supporters of the Iraq War have been pointing out for some time that the particular conditions in the Iraq conflict create what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls "atrocity-producing situations".  Those who are capable of using words of more than two syllables each are also capable of recognizing that an awareness of "atrocity-producing situations" does not mean that we have to join the Bush administration's architects of preventive war and torture in dismissing the laws against murder and needless cruelty as "quaint".

Lipton addressedthe "atrocity-producing situation" at Abu Ghuraib at the time of the criminal, sadistic tortures that have become so infamous in Conditions of Atrocity The Nation 05/13/06:

The Iraq military environment is quite different from that of Vietnam, but there are some striking parallels. Iraq is also a counterinsurgency war in which US soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment, and in which higher-ranking officers and war planners feel frustrated by the greatdifficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy. The exaggerated focus on interrogation, including the humiliation of detainees as a "softening-up" process, reflects that frustration.

We can thus speak of a three-tier dynamic. Foot soldiers - in this case MPs and civilian contractors - do the dirty work, as either orchestrated or at least sanctioned by military intelligence officers in charge of interrogation procedures. The latter in turn act on pressure from higher-ups to extract information that will identify "insurgents" and possibly lead to hidden weapons.

What ultimately drives the dynamic is an ideological vision that equates Iraqi fighters with "terrorists" and seeks to further justify the invasion. All this is part of the amorphous, even apocalyptic, "war on terrorism," as is the practice of denying the human rights of detainees labeled as terrorists, a further stimulus for abuse. Grotesque improvisations can occur at different levels--whether in the form of interrogators' ideas about inflicting sexual humiliation or in foot soldiers' methods of carrying out those instructions or responding to more indirect messages from above.  (my emphasis)

Finally, it occurs to me that one aspect of the Haditha massacre will pop up in future years in the revisionist history and accusations of those taking a stab-in-the-back view of how The Liberals and the Liberal Press were responsible for the debacle in Iraq.  One of the favorite lines of those who take that view of the Vietnam War is to accuse antiwar activists of calling Vietnam veterans "baby-killers".

In the Haditha case, the most vivid image is that of the mother holding her one-year-old baby and begging for her own life and her child's and being brutally shot down.  Whoever did that literally was a baby-killer.

But, for those of us in the reality-based community, let's try to bookmark this in our memories.  The general public, other soldiers, the US Marine Corps, war critics, family members of soldiers, pretty much anyone who is capable of making the most minimal moral and rational distinctions - and even our sad excuse for a "press corps"! - are distiguishing between normal soldiers and the American soldiers inIraq as a group, on the one hand, and those who are accused of being literal baby-killers in this case, on the other.

The only people who are equating the soldiers in general with the literal baby-killers of this case are those who try to alibi the perpetrators by saying that they were just being good soldiers. 

That's worth repeating:  The only people who are equating the soldiers in general with the literal baby-killers of this case are those who try to alibi the perpetrators by saying that they were just being good soldiers. 

Yes, let's remember this moment, when everyone but rightwing war lovers from OxyContinLand were the only people who equated all our soldiers in Iraq with "baby-killers".  Because those same people will lie like hell about it in years to come.

I've posted a number of times on related topics, including:

William Calley and the My Lai massacre 08/26/04
Vietnam War:  How did people see it then? 08/23/04

News reports on the Haditha massacre:

Iraqi police report details civilians' deaths at hands of U.S. troops by Matthew Schofield, Knight Ridder 03/19/06
Multiple wounds mark bodies of Iraqis killed in disputed U.S. raid by Matthew Schofield, Knight Ridder 03/21/06
Probe Finds Marines Killed Unarmed Iraqi Civilians by Tony Perry Los Angeles Times 05/26/06
Lawmakers Suspect Cover-Up by Senior Officers by Peter Spiegel Los Angeles Times 05/29/06
Bloody Scenes Haunt a Marine by Rone Tempest Los Angeles Times 05/29/06
Probe Into Iraq Deaths Finds False Reports by Thomas Ricks Washington Post 06/01/06
Haditha May Become U.S. Military Disgrace by Tom Raum San Francisco Chronicle/AP 06/01/06
Iraq demands apology from U.S. for civilian deaths at Haditha by Nancy Youssef, Knight Ridder 06/01/06
War atrocities: awareness grows, tolerance drops by Brad Knickerbocker Christian Science Monitor 06/02/06

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