Not surprisingly, Blogoslavia has been abuzz lately concerning the killing of up to 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last November by American marines. Equally unsurprisingly, the overwhelming bulk of commentary on the matter has been highly tendentious, with the American pro-war types doing their best to trivialize the issue, while the anti-war and anti-American elements have been quick to draw comparisons with the My Lai massacre. Given that the investigation is still underway, both claims are premature, to say the least.
It has been established that on the early morning of 19-Nov-2005, a column of four Humvees from K company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was on patrol in Haditha. As the marines encountered a white taxi, they signalled it to stop. Then, an IED hidden in the roadside went off, killing the driver of the rear Humvee, LCpl Miguel Terrazas, and wounding two others. The exact nature of what transpired next is as yet unclear. My surmise—and I must stress it is no more than that—is that the marines' immediate reaction was to reason that the IED was most likely detonated manually (since it struck the last vehicle in the column) and that therefore the insurgent who triggered it must be within line-of-sight. Likely, they also suspected that the taxi was part of the trap, intended to cause the patrol to slow down or, ideally, halt in the blast zone, thus making them easier targets. Accordingly, they ordered the taxi's five occupants to get out of the vehicle and lie on the ground. Instead, the five Iraqis attempted to run away and the marines, interpreting this as a sign of guilt, shot them; unfortunately, it is at least as likely that the five were innocent, and ran precisely because they were afraid the marines suspected them of collusion in the attack. Following the shooting, the marines set about searching houses nearby. Their reason for doing so was legitimate, namely to kill or capture insurgents involved in the bombing who might have taken up position in one of the houses, but in the process, anger got the better of adherence to the Rules of Engagement. Likely, they told themselves and each other that the occupants of the houses, even if not actively complicit, must have been aware of the insurgents installing the IED, and since they had not tried to warn the Americans, they wished harm upon Americans and were at least indirectly complicit in Terrazas' death, and accordingly no regard was given to their lives in the aggressive house-clearing. Tempting as this line of thought may be, those of us with the luxury of detachment might point out that, given the insurgents' disregard for non-combatants, the life of any civilian who tried to hamper an insurgent attack by warning the Americans would have been forfeit, along with those of his or her family. The bottom line is that I suspect the marines in question did indeed commit a series of violations of international humanitarian law. If so, this is inexcusable, but that does not, ipso facto, make Haditha into a latter-day My Lai.
Still, there is some purpose to be served by bringing up My Lai, even if only as an example of how armies should not handle possible violations of international humanitarian law by their own personnel. My Lai remains a stain on the reputation of the American armed forces in general, and the US Army in particular, not only because of the massacre itself, but because of its subsequent handling. In his book After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, Ronald Spector states:
For almost a year the truth of what happened at My Lai was effectively concealed by commanders and their staffs within the Americal Division. An official Army inquiry, headed by Lieutenant General William Peers, concluded that the coverup extended to every level of the division's command structure.
This included the battalion commander (Lt.-Col. Frank Barker), the brigade commander (Col. Oran Henderson) and the divisional commander (Maj.-Gen. Samuel Koster), all of whom bore command responsibility for the personnel involved in the massacre, and bore the duty to ensure the matter was properly investigated and those suspected of criminal behavior duly charged and court-martialled. By participating in the coverup, the officers in question made themselves accessories after the fact.
Dire as the situation was at this stage, the US Army still had the opportunity to salvage its reputation, namely by throwing the book at every man involved in the massacre and the coverup who were still subject to its jurisdiction*. This the Army singularly failed to do; six officers were actually court-martialled, only one of whom—Lt. William Calley—was actually convicted. Eleven other officers, including Maj.-Gen. Koster, were initially charged, but saw the charges against them dropped due to "lack of evidence." This was patently a whitewash, since it was beyond dispute that the massacre had taken place, that Koster bore command responsibility, and that nobody in the Americal division had been prosecuted for the crimes committed; these three facts alone should have been enough to convict Koster for "neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces" (Uniform Code of Military Justice, section 934, article 134). Instead, the US Army chose to demonstrate for all to see that it was unwilling to police the behavior of its troops, and that, more than anything, is why so much odium remains attached to the name.
The fact is that there isn't an army in the world which hasn't had to deal with criminal behavior on the part of some of its troops, just as there is no country which is free of criminal activity on the part of some of its citizens. As I pointed out three years ago, British troops have committed their share of nastiness, in Iraq, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. In the wake of Operation "Restore Hope" in Somalia, it was revealed that Belgian, Italian and Canadian soldiers had tortured, raped and murdered civilians while their officers turned a blind eye or even (in the case of the Italians) took part. Personnel from numerous other armies have been implicated in various malfeasances while on deployments under the flag of the UN or some other international organization. And in all too many of these cases, inquiries were hamstrung, or the perpetrators got off with a slap on the wrist while their superiors, who were supposed to be responsible for maintaining and enforcing discipline, never even faced trial. I might add that such malfeasances are not the fault of the UN Department of Peace-Keeping Operations; the DPKO has to work with what the member states will contribute, and has no authority to discipline contributed soldiers for any malfeasances they may commit. That responsibility the member states have reserved to themselves, and one to which all too often they fail to live up. The problem does not lie with the UN; it lies with the inability of the member states' armies to instil in their soldiers, lower ranks and officers alike, the elementary notion that it's not okay to rape, torture and/or murder civilians. The Canadian commision tasked with investigating "the Somalia Affair" concluded that the abuses had occurred not as a result of the wearing of blue berets, but because the Canadian armed forces were (and probably still are, given the lack of genuine reform in the interim) "rotten to the core."
Nobody has the right to be smug, to pretend that My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and perhaps Haditha are somehow inherently and uniquely American. However, I believe the measure of an army is not whether its soldiers commit violations of international humanitarian law, but whether the organization is willing and able to deal with such transgressions in the proper manner, subjecting the culpable and responsible parties to the appropriate justice. The Pentagon's demand that Haditha be properly investigated is a hopeful sign that the US is not repeating the mistakes of My Lai, and unless and until a whitewash takes place, I will not take seriously any claim that it is. The jury, as they say, is still out.
* - By the time the matter came to light in 1969, most of the enlisted men involved had been discharged, and under a Supreme Court ruling from 1955 (Toth v. Quarles) the armed forces could not themselves prosecute and try former servicemembers for crimes committed while serving in the armed forces (instead, the armed forces would have to turn the matter over to a federal prosecutor). Lt.-Col. Barker could no longer be prosecuted as he had died in a helicopter crash several weeks after the massacre took place.