Friday, May 26, 2006

A modern My Lai?

This report has been expected for a while, but it's still not pleasant to read about.

Marines from Camp Pendleton wantonly killed unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and then tried to cover up the slayings in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, military investigations have found.

Officials who have seen the findings of the investigations said the filing of criminal charges, including some murder counts, was expected, which would make the Nov. 19 incident the most serious case of alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq....

First, let's note that the military appears to be handling this appropriately. You can't always stop people from behaving badly, but you can punish them afterwards.

The details:

A roadside bomb explosion killed a fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. Looking for insurgents, the Marines entered several homes and began firing their weapons, according to the report.

In its initial statement to the media, the Marine Corps said the Iraqi civilians were killed either by an insurgent bomb or by crossfire between Marines and insurgents.

But after Time magazine obtained pictures showing dead women and children and quoted Iraqis who said the attack was unprovoked, the Marine Corps backtracked on its explanation and called for an investigation.

This is a good example of the media performing a vital role: uncovering an unpleasant truth that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It's not pleasant to face our dark sides, but the fact that we do so makes our society stronger in the long run. Covering up wrongdoing does nothing but guarantee more wrongdoing. And the victims aren't fooled: If U.S. soldiers get away with massacres, the Iraqi people will know and it will undermine everything we claim to be doing in Iraq. If we punish the perpetrators, on the other hand, it builds trust.

The killings will evoke comparisons to Vietnam's My Lai massacre, and the parallels are there: Frustrated troops fighting an elusive enemy taking their frustration out on innocent villagers. But there are differences: the scale (hundreds died at My Lai), the level of command involvement (the troops at My Lai were practically invited to kill civilians) and the response (My Lai was covered up for a year before an investigation began, and then for another six months while charges were prepared).

So be wary about going too far down the road suggested by the headline on this post. Incidents like these should not be used to tar all service members. Most serve honorably, often in extremely trying circumstances. U.S. soldiers are among the most well-disciplined in the world. Unless there is evidence of widespread wrongdoing, this case should be treated as what it appears to be: an isolated tragedy that should be investigated fully and addressed swiftly and fairly. And as a cautionary tale of the dehumanizing effects of warfare, and why it should be considered an option of last resort in our foreign policy.

Update: The New York Times has a much better story on the subject.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not as QUICK as you are to condemn the Marines as "cold blooded murderers." But I do know that there has NEVER been a war where there wasn't unfortunate atrocities on each side. Think about it: you've just watched your buddy blown to bits by an IED that you believe came from the people inside the houses.....or at a minimum they condoned it. Kids and women: unfortunate. But we don't know the whole story. I've seen quite a few pictures and video of little 9 year old boys in Iraq with military gear and guns strapped to them. In war time a lot of awful stuff goes on. On both sides.

But cold bloody murderers? I don't think so.
JP5

5/26/2006 9:37 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Uh, where did I condemn them as "cold-blooded murderers?"

5/26/2006 9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry. I thought I had just read that in one of your linked articles. Instead I had just read it in an MSNBC article....

"there was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood." John Murtha

http://msnbc.msn.com/id/12838343/

So...no, you didn't say it. A U.S. Democrat Congressman did. Even worse.
JP5

5/27/2006 10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is what Murtha is saying inaccurate? If you go into houses where no one is armed and shoot everyone there, how is that not cold-blooded murder? A strong argument can be made that it was an understandable response to combat stress, and Murtha strongly supports that position, but to call it anything other than murder is to stand as an apologist and a hypocrite. While on a much smaller scale, this IS similar to My Lai, and it's deeply worrisome.

I respect your commitment to the "middle ground", but to just sort of shrug and say "this sort of sh-- happens in war" is weak. Yes, this one incident is a sad tragedy (and very likely a war crime), but there's a deeper issue.

You acknowledge that the sickness within the U.S. military that produced the My Lai massacre was widespread. Many incidents similar to My Lai were rumored and widely assumed to have occurred. The fact that only this one case entered the media spotlight and resulted in court martial, this does not mean that it was the only such incident. Hell, things were so chaotic that it was widely rumored that enlisted men were "fragging" their CO's.

In the past year there have been numerous reports of U.S. attacks targeting civilians or of firefights with very high numbers of collateral deaths. Our position is generally that people were sheltering insurgents or that U.S. soldiers came under fire first. These statements are often challenged, but we generally dismiss these challenges as the propaganda of a devious enemy. But in this case it strongly appears that Marines deliberately killed civilians and then tried to cover it up by claiming that they came under fire from these homes first. If that video didn't exist and if Time hadn't run with it, would we even be talking about it now?

I'm not anywhere close to saying that the majority or even a partiocular large number of our fighting forces are pulling sh-- like this. But to pretend this is the only case, to pretend that this is not indicative of a systemic problem, is willfully naive.

5/29/2006 6:31 AM  

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