NEW YORK NEWSDAY
Putting the blame where it really lies
Architects of Iraq War policy are the ones who should be bearing the brunt of scrutiny
BY PETER MAGUIRE
Peter Maguire, who has taught at Columbia University and Bard College, is the author of “Law and War: An American Story.”
June 30, 2006
The comparison between the Marine killings of 24 civilians in Haditha last November and the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War is as wildly inaccurate as the strident claims that Haditha was an isolated event.
The report on the Haditha massacre investigation disclosed last week raised as many questions as it answered. Although it concluded that there was no knowing cover-up, it condemned the initial Marine reports as “conflicted, poorly vetted and forgotten once transmitted.” The real similarity between Haditha and My Lai will be in the Bush administration’s use of strategic legalism – using legal methods to further policy, irrespective of fact or law – as it attempts to paint these killings as “isolated events,” the work of “a few bad apples.”
As with Haditha, it was the press that forced the Nixon administration to take action after the March 1968 massacre of 300 to 400 Vietnamese civilians near the South Vietnamese village of My Lai. Although 25 officers and enlisted men were indicted in 1971, in the end only Lt. William Calley Jr. was convicted by the Fort Benning courts-martial.
The Calley case is a classic example of strategic legalism: The Nixon administration used judicial machinery to quell a political problem that threatened to undermine the larger objectives of American foreign policy. Although Calley was initially sentenced to life in prison, once the public was served its symbolic “justice,” post-trial mechanisms like pardon, clemency and parole were used to mitigate the original sentence and Calley was a free man by the end of 1974.
Like the Calley case, the numerous investigations and trials in the war on terror have been little more than strategic legalisms designed to keep the focus away from the policy makers and onto the perpetrators.
It is sadly ironic that as the U.S. military prepares to try seven Marines and a Navy corpsman for the killing April 26 of an Iraqi civilian in the village of Hamdania, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has proposed a national reconciliation plan that includes amnesty for members of Iraq’s “national resistance.” The laws of war are very clear on insurgents – their status is similar to that of spies. An insurgent “may be a hero, but if he engages in combat without observing the requirements, he violates the laws of war,” wrote a Nuremberg prosecutor, Gen. Telford Taylor. “He . . . is subject to punishment, which may be the death penalty.”
Like the American soldiers in Vietnam, our soldiers in Iraq are growing increasingly frustrated. A young Marine was recently forced to apologize after a performance of his song “Hadji Girl” was posted on the Internet. The song tells the story of a Marine lured into an ambush by an Iraqi girl: “I grabbed her little sister and put her in front of me/as the bullets began to fly, the blood sprayed from between her eyes/and then I laughed maniacally.”
These soldiers – our soldiers – are three years into a war of occupation that still lacks a clear political objective. Now, on their second and third combat tours, these young Americans are veterans of a brutal counter-insurgency war. Each day they are asked to patrol hostile areas where the line between soldier and civilian is unclear, and ambushes and explosive devices continue to kill and maim their comrades in arms.
Given that 2,500 Americans have been killed and another 18,000 wounded in the war on terror, it is no surprise that American soldiers are now quick to the trigger. Although U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks proclaimed early in the war, “We don’t do body counts (of Iraqi civilians),” the Baghdad morgue does not have this option. It recently estimated that at least 50,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s recent announcement of a crash course in “core warrior values” following the reports of the Haditha massacre will change nothing, and civilian casualties are par for the course.
To dismiss Haditha as an isolated event and to blame a handful of young Marines, now veterans of more combat than the entire senior staff of the Bush administration combined, is as Taylor once wrote about the Calley case, “a transparent effort, unworthy and futile, to sweep under the rug the question of our conduct … and its consequences.”