Twenty-four unarmed Iraqis, ranging in age from an infant to an elderly man in a wheelchair, were rounded up and shot in the face and chest at point blank range by three or four members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, after their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, killing Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old lance corporal. The Marines' actions, although reported to higher ups, were not investigated.
* * * * *There are lessons to be learned from what happened in Haditha. None of them forgive what happened. But they do help explain why it did happen:
LESSON ONE: It's a WarAs a veteran myself and as a journalist who has covered a war or three, I have no illusions that Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. There also were atrocities committed by Uncle Sam's finest in both world wars, as well as in Korea and Vietnam.
But unlike some other societies, we are able to recognize our occasional barbarity, as painful as that can be, and we have a free press (in this case Time magazine) to let us know when things go awry.
LESSON TWO: It's a Different Kind of WarThis is a war in which the enemy does not wear uniforms or fight in any traditional sense. It is not unlike the Vietnam War, but the lessons that should have been learned from the Big Muddy do not seem to have been applied in Iraq.
The cardinal rule of counterinsurgency warfare is to separate enemy combatants from the general population, but it seems clear that American troops have come to see Iraqis themselves as the enemy and a consequence is a predictable uptick in brutality that can lead to incidents like the Haditha massacre.
And for every Iraqi who is killed, justifiably or not, the American mission is further set back.
LESSON THREE: It's a Disproprtionately Fought WarOf all the armed services, the Marines have always been the most disciplined and had the strongest sense of comradiere. They also have done the brunt of the dirty work in Iraq -- and suffered a disproportionately higher number of casualties.
Roughly 40 percent of the nearly 2,500 American troops killed and 17,000 wounded are Marines, who at no time have comprised more than 25 percent of the total number of American troops.
Additionally, the Marines are being asked to fight a kind of war -- involving insurgents and urban combat -- that was never intended to be their primary mission.
LESSON FOUR: It's an Immoral WarWe are asking young men and women -- actually, many of them are kids -- to stay within moral bounds in an immoral war.
President Bush and his neocon cabal made the chances of a Haditha massacre occuring greater by deliberately blurring the rules of conduct. Under the Bush calculus, torture is officially sanctioned and the Geneva Convention is treated with disdain.
LESSON FIVE: It's a Failed OccupationHaditha is a vivid example of an occupation gone horribly wrong. The lid stayed on the city of 70,000 after the March 2003 invasion. Marines initially patrolled on foot and used a velvet glove approach with the locals. But U.S. promises to rebuild the region's infrastructure were never fulfilled, fueling a growing anger at the occupation as a whole that helped turn Haditha into a Sunni insurgent stronghold. This pattern has been repeated many other places in Iraq.
Marines responded to the insurgency by abandoning their make-nice strategy in Haditha. They isolated the city and blew up most of its bridges. They were driven out of Haditha, but later retook it. Haditha's only hospital was destroyed in the fighting. Some 20 Marines have been killed in and near the city in insurgent attacks primarily launched from mosques, including a Marine whose disemboweling was videotaped. Copies of the tape can be bought at Haditha's central market.
As a result of the occupation, Haditha is in worse shape today than it was when Saddam Hussein was still in power.
LESSON SIX: It's a Failed PresidencyGeorge Bush was elected to do a job. That job was being president of the United States. Unfortunately for him and us, there was a little dustup called 9/11. Instead of responding by putting the full weight of the U.S. behind a mission in Afghanistan, then the epicenter of radical Islamic terrorism and by far the greatest threat to America, he invaded Iraq.
The invasion went like clockwork. Mission Accomplished! But what has happened since has been an unrelenting nightmare in large part because the White House and Pentagon spent 59 minutes planning the war and 1 minute, if that, on planning the occupation. There is no more damning indictment of Bush's lack of leadership -- as president and commander in chief -- than the mess he has made in Iraq. He has failed America and he has failed our troops.
Bush has all but said that he will dump that mess on the next president, and it is an open secret that the administration's top priority is not to try to redeem its failed Iraq policy, let alone cobble together an exit strategy, but to retain power in Congress. Yet again, politics trumps policy.
LESSON SEVEN: The Iraqis Are to Blame, TooThe Iraqi people and their so-called leaders do not get a free pass. Righteously fanatical Iraqis routinely use women and children as human shields to prey on American troops. And don't forget that the Haditha massacre did not happen in a vacuum. It followed the death of Lance Corporal Terrazas in that roadside bombing.
Imposing democratic values at point of gun on a society where many people devalue human life and covet martyrdom was going to be problematic, so there is a hollowness to Iraqi leaders' condemnations of the Haditha massacre.
These leaders are complicitous in the massacre. They are good at nothing except bickering. They still have not been able to form a government with teeth. They have been incapable of pushing back against the orgy of sectarian violence that has overrun the country.
LESSON EIGHT: At Home, It's a War Unlike Any OtherThe Bush administration has gone to great lengths to mouth platitudes about Americans making sacrifices for the war while sanitizing its true impact. Other than the troops and their families and friends, no one is making any sacrifice. Except losing their civil liberties.
Times like these demand belt tightening, but Americans have been urged to spend and there have been tax cuts -- at least for the wealthy -- despite a war costing hundreds of billions of dollars that is feeding an enormous budget deficit that future generations will have to pay for.
LESSON NINE: It's a Cover-Up CultureThere has never been an administration more obsessed by secrecy and covering up its failures and bad behavior: The torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, the beating deaths of prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, constitutional abuses at Guantánamo Bay, the so-called extraordinary renditions of suspected terrorists from U.S. custody to countries that employ brutal interrogation techniques.
Following the Haditha massacre, a Marine spokesman said that 15 Iraqis had been killed in the roadside bombing and that the others who died were insurgents caught up in a subsequent firefight. There was no significant challenge to that account within the military until Time magazine broke the story.
The White House claims that even the most senior military ranks will not be protected in the Haditha investigation, but it is difficult to take that assertion seriously when the president and his own advisors refuse to be accountable themselves.
LESSON TEN: It's a Clueless Left WingThe antiwar left, with a pathetic puppet by the name of Cindy Sheehan as its poster girl, has been inept at fashioning a coherent message about the war. It certainly isn't one that I can grasp, let alone support.
The triumphalism and "baby killer" rhetoric of some of its members concerning the war in general and Haditha massacre in particular is deeply offensive. The war may be wrong, but blaming the kids sent to fight it is obscene.
* * * * *Goddammit! I do not forget for even a moment that Saddam Hussein is a very bad man. But I will not defend George Bush's war, which in all likelihood will have the perverse result of making Saddam a martyr in the eyes of many of the Iraqis that he once repressed.
But neither will I waver in my support of the men and women who are asked to fight the war.