Rampage at Haditha: Aberrant or Endemic?

The Haditha massacre, however isolated, is destined to become a watchword for the perils of long-term occupation.

| Wed May 31, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Earlier this year, reporters from Time magazine approached a spokesman for the United States Marine Corps, to ask whether American troops were responsible for the massacre of some two dozen civilians last November, in the farming village of Haditha, along the Euphrates river, in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. The spokesman replied by reiterating what had been the military’s official explanation of the incident: that the civilians had perished in a blast from an Improvised Explosive Device.

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“I cannot believe you’re buying any of this,” he chided the reporters. “This falls into the same category of Al-Qaeda in Iraq propaganda.”

The spokesman was half right. Long before the broader American public had even heard the name Haditha, the alleged massacre that unfolded there represented a major public relations coup for insurgents in Iraq eager to portray U.S. forces as cowboy occupiers with contempt for Iraqi life. The morbid caricature of crazed American gunmen executing entire Iraqi families seems tailor-tailor made for the skilled propagandists who galvanize support across the Muslim world for violent Jihad, and erode America’s credibility in the broader international community. But in dismissing the reporters so hastily, the spokesman brushed aside the most damning—and for the insurgents, the most promising—aspect of these horrible allegations: the fact that they appear to be true.

Sources close to two concurrent military investigations into the incident at Haditha and the subsequent coverup, have suggested in recent days that several Marines from Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, were responsible for the killing of unarmed men, women and children—some of them infants—in three houses in Haditha. Two young American soldiers who were sent in to photograph and dispose of the bodies in the immediate aftermath of the rampage have spoken to the press about their ordeal. “They ranged from little babies to adult males and females,” Lance Cpl. Ryan Briones, 21, said of the victims. “I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood.”

Over the weekend Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that “we should not prejudge the outcome” of the investigations. It is indeed important to remember that the “fog of war” clouds the judgment not just of soldiers in battle, but also of observers, historians and tribunals endeavoring to assemble facts and assign blame in the aftermath of an armed debacle. Nevertheless, military investigators have reportedly obtained significant photographic evidence of children executed at close range, and as in Abu Ghraib, it may emerge that the ubiquitous digital cameras of our men and women in uniform furnish a smoking gun. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), himself a former Marine, was briefed by military officials about the investigations’ findings, and declared, “They killed innocent civilians in cold blood. And that’s what the report is going to tell.”

Some have already come forward to explain—if not to justify—the alleged acts of the young marines, with reference to the stress of a protracted counterinsurgent operation, the demoralization of seeing one’s comrades killed, and the difficulty of differentiating friend from foe in contemporary unconventional warfare. But the franc-tireurs defense—that enemies who wear civilian clothes make it difficult, in the heat of battle, to spare civilians—is unpersuasive in the face of Haditha victims who were as young as one and three. What are we to make of Safa Younis, 13, who was only spared, she says, because so much of her mother’s blood spilled onto her that the marines assumed she was already dead?

It may be tempting for U.S. forces to disassociate themselves from the massacre—to depict the men of Kilo Company as overzealous renegades; to designate scapegoats and prosecute them mercilessly. But when Briones and others were sent into Haditha they photographed and tagged each body, before dumping them unceremoniously, and without explanation, in front of an Iraqi hospital. A record of the incident was made, and, it would appear, covered up. Moreover, when the New York Times visited Camp Pendleton, CA, where Kilo Company is based, they were reminded that above all Marines are subject to the chain of command. “You just can't go clearing houses without the permission of higher-ups,” one said.

However isolated and aberrant it was, Haditha represents something endemic, and is destined to become a watchword for the headlong excess of the conflict in Iraq and the perils of long-term occupation. Even as the Marine Corps was claiming that the casualties were the result of an IED, the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq had obtained videotape of the carnage in Haditha and was sending copies to mosques in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, in an effort to lure recruits. Someone scrawled a message on the vacant house of one of the families: “Democracy assassinated the family that was here.”

Surely there will be opportunism in the insurgents’ use of the incident as a propaganda tool—Rep. Murtha, a staunch critic of the war, has already been accused of similar opportunism for his remarks—but there may be a grain of truth as well. The My Lai massacre is a better analog for this scandal than Abu Ghraib, because while there might be some hypothetically plausible utility in torturing and humiliating prisoners during interrogation, there is no strategic rationale whatsoever for killing a toddler. The damage wrought by the men of Kilo Company was not collateral to any nobler aim; the damage was the point. The sadism on display in Haditha is a symptom of a conflict gone devastatingly awry. Months before the massacre, Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter interviewed Marines stationed in Haditha and noted that the “intense psychological pressure” of their posting was beginning to take a toll. “I tell the guys not to lose their humanity over here, because it's easy to do,” Marine Capt. James Haunty, 27, told Lasseter. “I tell them not to turn into Colonel Kurtz.”

Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz was a symbol of the corrosive demoralization of imperial overstretch, and it is perhaps not inappropriate that a young Marine Captain at an outpost in the Sunni Triangle would invoke such a specter. Kurtz stands for what happens when “noble experiments” fail and turn perverse. Somewhere along the way, Kurtz’s civilizing mission curdled. He’s best known for the phrase, “The Horror.” But in this context, another might be even more apt, a line he scrawls in a fever of “intense psychological pressure,” with all the sadism and callous abandon of a man out of his depth: “Exterminate all the brutes.”

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