When is a Soldier a Murderer?

| Mon Aug. 28, 2006 3:16 AM EDT

Not very often in Iraq, according to the military justice system: "Though experts estimate that thousands of Iraqi civilians have died at the hands of U.S. forces," reports the Washington Post in an excellent piece, only 20 of those killings have resulted in formal charges, and only 12 service members served prison time in connection with those cases. To make up your mind (or not) about what this means, you really have to go read the story, which makes it clear that many Iraq veterans are convinced that crimes do happen, and that they go unpunished in part because prosecution is entirely at local commanders' discretion. Most of all, though, what you come away with is a deepened sense of dread and regret for both the troops we're sending over there and the Iraqis unlucky enough to run into them at the wrong place or the wrong time:

The cases highlight the sometimes fine line between a criminal allegation and the bloodshed that is a part of war. Spec. Nathan Lynn, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman, shot and killed a man in the darkness of a Ramadi neighborhood in February. Lynn said he considered the man a threat and believes he did nothing wrong.

The man was not armed, and Lynn was charged with voluntary manslaughter. But a military investigator agreed that Lynn acted properly in a difficult situation, and the charges were dropped.

"I was extremely surprised when I was charged because it was clear the shooting fell within the guidelines of my rules of engagement," Lynn said. "This is a war. It's not a police action."