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Was the Haditha massacre too little, too late?

Last November, a squad of U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton apparently went on a rampage in the Iraqi town of Haditha. According to local residents, the Marines became enraged after a roadside bomb killed one of their comrades, 20-year-old Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. Within minutes of the blast, witnesses say, Marines ran from house to house, guns blazing. They allegedly murdered 24 unarmed civilians, including an old man in a wheelchair, several women, and more than a dozen children and infants. The last four civilians who died were college students driving down the street in the midst of the massacre.

Afterward, the Marines in Haditha claimed the civilians had died in the bomb explosion or in the crossfire when insurgents shot at them. But the military also quietly authorized payments to the survivors, suggesting their initial review of the incident uncovered wrongdoing. In fact, no civilians died in the explosion nor was there any crossfire. The cover-up eventually fell apart thanks to eyewitnesses who spoke with reporters for Time Magazine,including a few lucky survivors who feigned death and a Marine injured in the roadside explosion who said the massacre was a spur-of-the-moment response by young men who lost control after seeing their comrade killed.

On June 1, Orange County Registerletter writer Steve Gick of Lake Forest responded to the tragedy. "I wonder if the 'rules of engagement' are partly to blame for the killings in Haditha," Gick said. "During the Vietnam war our military was hamstrung by the 'rules of engagement' forced on them by politicians. U.S. servicemen often had to wait until they were under fire before they could attack the enemy. The situation in Haditha sounds similar."

According to Gick, the Marines who went on a killing spree in Haditha can't be blamed for their actions because the town had obviously been "providing a refuge for terrorists, foreign infiltrators, and enemies of the Iraqi people and coalition forces." Gick acknowledged that it "is altogether possible that our Marines may have reached a breaking point and overreacted," but speculated that most "other governments and military forces would have leveled Haditha months ago"—which might be another way of saying the massacre was too little, too late. He ended his letter with a question that demands serious consideration: "Could it be that the situation in Haditha warranted a harsh response?" he asked.

Since the Register has a policy of not responding to readers, we thought we'd answer Gick's question. First of all, what happened in Haditha is a perfectly predictable consequence of sending heavily armed young soldiers into a hostile country full of insurgents who are often indistinguishable from the innocent civilians we're supposed to be liberating. In Iraq, U.S. firepower has so far resulted in tens of thousands of dead Iraqi non-combatants—some estimates place that figure upwards of 100,000, compared to less than 3,000 U.S. dead. In Vietnam, American planes dropped more bombs on South Vietnam than were used by all sides in World War II. We lost 58,000 troops and left behind 2 million dead Vietnamese civilians.

The "rules of engagement" to which Gick refers were mostly non-existent, except on paper. In fact, much of South Vietnam consisted of so-called "free-fire zones," where U.S. soldiers were free to shoot anybody they encountered. This resulted in countless murders of innocent civilians, most of which were covered up by the U.S. military, which simply included them in their increasingly inflated "body counts" of confirmed enemy kills. The most egregious case—one with eerie parallels to the Haditha massacre—concerned an elite U.S. Army outfit called Tiger Force, which committed the largest number of murders during the war. The unit's exploits were covered up by the Army and didn't become public until October 2003, when the Toledo Bladediscovered the Army's decades-old investigation of the unit and interviewed numerous Tiger Force veterans and Vietnamese massacre survivors.

Over several months in 1967, the U.S. Army sent the elite Tiger Force into the Song Ve Valley south of Da Nang and a patch of jungle near Tam Ky. Their job was to clear the areas of Viet Cong, and help the South Vietnamese government "resettle" local villagers into "strategic hamlets." The unit didn't see many Viet Cong during their mission, but they did run into lots of villagers who refused to leave. Out of frustration, Tiger Force soldiers began executing villagers, including—as in Haditha—unarmed elderly people, children and infants. While most of the killings were covered up, some soldiers refused to participate and were so sickened by what they saw that they informed their superiors.

But after realizing that hundreds of murders had taken place, the Army buried the Tiger Force's routine massacre of the Vietnamese. Nobody was ever charged with a crime. President Bush recently said he will make sure the Marines who killed people in Haditha will be punished—"if laws were broken."

Gick: you're right to question the rush to judge the actions of the young Marines who took part in the Haditha massacre. But save your scorn not for "the news media, especially Time Magazine" for "being quick to condemn," but for Bush himself. As the architect of the mess that is the war in Iraq, he bears far more responsibility for the Haditha massacre than his hapless henchmen, a bunch of scared kids who, like Tiger Force before them, surrendered to the impossibility of their mission and carried out an illegal, immoral and unwinnable war to its most logical and bloody conclusion.

 
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