Don’t Scapegoat the Haditha Marines

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on August 3rd, 2006

In November of 2005, US Marines in Haditha, Iraq, killed 24 civilians in retaliation for the roadside bombing of 20-year-old Corporal Miguel Terrazas, a popular member of their unit. President Bush pledged to “get to the bottom of this.” The top US general in Iraq ordered all US troops to attend a course on “the importance of adhering to legal, moral, and ethical standards on the battlefield.” For many, a thorough investigation, the punishment of guilty parties, and an institutional effort to improve military ethics are adequate responses, but are they fair to the Haditha Marines? I think not.

Most people imagine war as a contest in which equal combatants meet on a field of honor wherein justice prevails. Certain actions are acceptable while others are not. Veering from the rules of war, like cheating in sports, upsets the validity of the outcome. Duelists use similar weapons fired simultaneously from equal distance. Boxers are only put in the ring with opponents in their weight category. Soccer and baseball teams have a set number of players with similar equipment. There is honor in winning such a fair contest.

Unfortunately, real war has never been about having a fair fight. No one wants to meet their enemy without an advantage. For thousands of years, generals have tried to strike their foes in the rear or on a flank rather than face to face. Rules of warfare are adhered to only in so far as they present a benefit. When a convention, like wearing uniforms. weakens one side’s chances of defeating the other, it will be disregarded. The red-coated Brirish soldiers, who were sniped at by colonists hiding behind rocks and trees during the American Revolution, could fume all they wanted about such tactics being cowardly without persuading a single American general to line up the militia in rows to be massacred.

The history of warfare is about the struggle to gain an absolute advantage over one’s adversaries. Burly fist-fighting champions were cut down by lesser men with bronze swords, who in turn were defeated by those with weapons of iron or men on horseback, in chariots, with catapults, muskets, cannons. rifles, machine guns, artillery, tanks, flame-throwers, poison gas, bombers, or nuclear weapons. Military tactics that horrify humanity at one juncture become standard practice at another. Alfred Nobel believed his invention of dynamite was so terrible that it would lead to the end of all war rather than the dramatic escalation in lethality which actually occurred. The German bombing of Coventry shocked the same world which scarcely noticed the later Allied bombings of German and Japanese cities. The fact is: generals use whatever weapons are available and whatever tactics they consider necessary to defeat their enemies. Period. The notion of ethically limited warfare is a victors’ luxury. The Just War Theory has more to do with making war palatable at home than with actually influencing military tactics.

Into this cauldron of legitimized slaughter, young men, and now women, are thrust. They are trained to substitute their natural aversion to killing with obedience to commands. They’ve probably never heard anyone tell them that war is morally wrong. Quite the contrary, many Christian leaders identify soldiers on the battlefield with Christ Himself. Despite overwhelming evidence that the current wars are unjust, virtually no one counselled soldiers to lay down their arms; not after the fire-bombing of Kandahar, Afghanistan, the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, the torture at Abu Ghraib, or the killing of civilians at Haditha. No matter how the war is conducted, the “Support Our Troops” mantra is echoed by church and state. Our soldiers are, by definition, always heroes.

In that morally permissive milieu, the Marines were sent to Haditha. Most of them were on their second tour in Iraq. They had seen heavy combat in Fallujah, where they were ambushed by insurgents armed with machine guns and hand grenades. One of their men was killed and others wounded. Although they entered Haditha as part of a 9OO-strong force, only 160 of them were left to “pacify” the city of 90,000. According to the June 12, 2006 issue of TIME Magazine:

During its daily weapons sweeps and vehicle checks, the unit found dozens of improvised explosive devices rigged to blow up allover the town.

Despite this pressure, Lucian Reed, a free-lance photographer who spent 13 months in Iraq, described their unit as “most human” and “never abusive.” Nonetheless, the killing of corporal Terrazas pushed them too far.

As someone who has been in five war zones, I can imagine how soldiers feel. Anywhere they walk might be a mine field. Anyone they meet might be an insurgent. Any vista they see might hide a sniper. Death haunts them from moment to moment, and, when it takes a friend, someone with whom they have bonded in combat, they might very well start shooting indiscriminately. If they are lucky, their rage takes the lives of the approved enemy and they will go on to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, as Audie Murphy did for killing 240 Germans in WWII. If they are unlucky, their rampage will be against civilians and thet might be labeled war criminals.

It makes no difference that at least 30,000 Iraqi civilians have already been killed by American air power or artillery without anyone getting so much as a reprimand. The 24 dead in Haditha are bemoaned by generals and politicians who approved a thousand Hadithas. Nothing new here. The US held war crimes trials for the Japanese in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lt. William Calley participation in the My Lai Massacre was nothing compared to President Nixon’s Christmas day bombing of Hanoi, but Calley went to jail and Nixon lived out his days as an elder statesman. The hypocrisy is all too apparent to veterans and to me as well.

Haditha brings to mind the film “Breaker Morant,” the true story of three Australian soldiers charged with killing prisoners during the Boer War in South
Africa. The Australians were part of a special “commando” unit designed to fight in remote areas against the Dutch/German Boers who had previously been beating the British via brutal hit and run attacks. After the mutilated body of their commanding officer was discovered, the Australians ambushed the likely Boer perpetrators and executed those who surrendered. This harsh tactic had been a standing ordel verbally approved by Lord Kitchner as part of what one officer called “a new war for new century.” Although the tactic had never been challenged before, due to prospective peace negotiations, three Australians were court-martialled for it Two of the men, including Harry Morant, were executed.

On the night before his execution by firing squad, Morant recited this poem by Lord Byron:

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knocked on the head for his labors.
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hanged, you’ll get knighted.

What happened in Haditha is part and parcel of war. On May 31, US soldiers shot and killed a woman in labor and on her way to the hospital. (Until 2005, American soldiers killed, on average, eight civilians a week at checkpoints.) By June 4, nine Americans had already been convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in eight different incidents. On June 19, three US soldiers were charged with executing three detainees. On June 21, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged with premeditated murder and kidnapping of an unarmed Iraqi civilian. After Haditha, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri aI-Maliki described American attacks on civilians as a “daily phenomenon.” This seems unbelievable, but the Pentagon now admits that, from 2003-2004, it paid $24 million dollars in $250-$2,500 “condolence payments” to Iraqi families for loved ones killed or maimed by US troops. These tens of thousands of payments were only made for the killing of women, children, and elderly men. The Pentagon considers all military age Iraqi men combatants. Independent observers put the actual total of civilian casualties as high as 50,000 or even 100,000. Censorship and propaganda dull awareness on the homefront, but cannot hide reality from our troops. By order, accident, or individual design, vast numbers of soldiers violate the rules of war. Even larger numbers witness atrocities without reporting them. All are affected.

This is not just a product of “bad” wars like Iraq or Vietnam. Roscoe Blunt, Jr., in his book Inside the Battle of the Bulge: A Private Comes of Age says that, in 1944, the driver of

a jeep with two German prisoners perched on the front fenders, their hands clasped behind their heads, . . . offered me a lift. . . .The driver nodded casually to his front seat passenger and, without a word, they each pulled out their Colt .45s and simultaneously fired single shots into the back of each prisoner’s head. The impact of the slugs made them jerk upright convulsively in spasms as chunks of flesh, bone, and blood spewed from their skulls. The two lifeless forms slumped off the fenders and bounced onto the mud-slick road. I glanced back at them—the POWs’ legs were still twitching. Other GIs walking along the road ignored them.

The 18-year-old Blunt later discovered a German ambulance “prominently marked with the Red Cross insignia” riddled with machine gun fire and filled with the corpses of medics and patients. After months of “almost constant death all around me gnawing away at my sensibilities,” BIunt writes,

. . . I worried about the killing lust that had built up inside me . . . . I tried to convince myself that I was only impartially doing the job I had been trained to do, but still, I was experiencing troubled emotions . . . . Circumstances had forced me into a life over which I had no control, but still I was concerned that I wasn’t even trying to control it, just going along with it—and even, distressingly, sometimes enjoying it.

When we send soldiers to war, we put them in this position.

The TIME Magazine photographs from Haditha are almost unbearable. For a brief interlude, bloody corpses of Iraqi women and children have bumped the smiling faces of Angelina Jolie and her baby from magazine covers. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes policy makers, intent on occupying Iraq forever, very uncomfortable. So, a few low-ranking soldiers will be scapegoated for Haditha in a theater of the absurd to shore up the pretence that murder can be distinguished from war. This is as dishonest as it is wrong.

[The Just War Theory] is a boat that has slipped its moorings and is now floating off in mid-ocean a thousand miles from the facts.
–Thomas Merton

First published in The Catholic Radical, August/September 2006.

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On December 18, 2009 at 20:44 hal said:

    FYI, though the gist remains, you mangled Byron’s poem pretty thoroughly, as Morant decidedly did not in the film. It wouldn’t take much trouble to get it right–

  2. On December 19, 2009 at 12:14 Mike said:

    [Ed. note: Thanks for pointing out the error. I’ve corrected it to what might be the right version.]

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