Saturday, May 27, 2006

Victims of War

America’s war in Iraq has reached another gruesome milestone with the allegation that US Marines murdered 24 civilians, including women and children, in Haditha last November. Both Time Magazine and the New York Times report the incident. The Washington Post reports witness accounts.

That civilians were killed by Marines is not disputed nor is the fact that the incident was not part of a firefight after a Marine was killed by a roadside bomb as originally reported. Still in question is the nature of the Marines’ actions: either a rampage of revenge or an unfortunate episode of civilian casualties as the Marines overreacted in a difficult combat environment. The NYT article seems more definite that the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service will conclude that the civilian deaths were murder. Either way, it’s a gruesome story.

Regardless of the formal verdict, the incident reveals a disturbing facet of war, namely, that our humanity is a thin veneer all too easily breached. Anger, frustration and grief can combine with lethal firepower to perpetrate atrocities. That’s why military has a chain of command, to ensure that the men and women who wield this massive force are restrained within the laws of war. Usually it works but the system does break down with some regularity. My Lai and Wounded Knee are perhaps the most infamous American atrocities. Less well known are the massacres at No Gun Ri in the Korean War and the Civil War’s Fort Pillow Massacre. Although not a massacre, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is another example where command and control failed with disastrous results.

All this is the military’s version of Shit Happens. Killing another person requires a soldier to dehumanize the enemy. The problem is that once the enemy is no longer a fellow human entitled to life, it becomes very difficult for soldiers to maintain their own humanity in the fear, confusion and rage of combat. Even without massacres or other incidents, the simple fact that a soldier looks down a rifle barrel at another human and pulls the trigger will haunt him, and these days her, for the rest of their lives. No matter how justified the war may be, killing becomes part of the soldier’s psyche. A just war offers the soldier some balance for killing but the justification does not change the fact.

Haditha became a blind, murderous rage that swept away 24 Iraqis who had the misfortune to be in the way. The Marines lost it. Whether their actions are or are not murder is for investigators and courts to determine. What I can say now is that their actions were wrong. The Marines and their lawyers may offer explanations about intent and circumstances but killing civilians is wrong. Period. Not only the individual Marines are at fault. The Marine chain of command failed. America failed, too. We put those Marines in Haditha and it is our responsibility to ensure that they act within the rules of war. Apart from any questions about the legitimacy of any American military presence in Iraq, the actions of these Marines demonstrate the weakness of command and control. In war, that weakness is lethal.

And that’s the problem with Iraq. There was no good reason for this war. It was based on a lie. Now the only reason American forces remain in Iraq is that no good options exist for withdrawal. Our troops are stuck in Iraq without a real mission (and no, “staying the course” is not a real mission; it’s simply the default option because no one can think of anything better). Just as in Vietnam, soldiers and Marines find it difficult to take repeated casualties in the same areas day after day, tour after tour. The result is death and injury inflicted in the nearest available “representative” of the enemy. In the urban battlefields of Iraq, those representatives are often civilians.

Even if the investigation exonerates the Marines involved in the Haditha massacre, innocent women and children are dead by their hand. No matter how hardened they may be, they will bear that burden forever.

More victims of an unnecessary war.


For a depressingly long list of massacres, look here.


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