The Marine Corps and Haditha

This past NYT’s Week in Review has an informative piece by John Burns on Haditha. (Even though it doesn’t answer all the questions I have about what happened and why.) It contextualizes and historicizes the apparent war crime, and it does so without excusing them (unless you believe that to understand something is to excuse it). For that, it’s to be commended. I wonder if all those hawks who see in similar attempts to do the same with Al Qaeda will charge Burns with trying to let the soldiers off the hook with his talk of seeing their comrades killed, “growing pressures” and “resentment”. I doubt it.

Whatever emerges from the military investigations, the narrative of the Marines’ experiences in Iraq will have a central place for the brutalities associated with Haditha. Last summer, in two separate attacks over three days, Taliban-like insurgents operating from bases at mosques in the city killed 20 Marine reservists, including an enlisted man who was shown disemboweled on rebel videos that were sold afterward in Haditha’s central market.

Like other Marine battles, from Tripoli to Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh, the story of their battles in Iraq will center on themes of extraordinary hardship, endurance and loss, as well as a remorselessness in combat, that offer a context, though hardly any exoneration, for what survivors allege happened that November day.

They also offer a counterpoint to another theme at play here, one also learned with great bitterness in Vietnam: the hard cost to military intentions of killing innocent bystanders in a counterinsurgency. That is a lesson the Marines know well and accept as an institution. But in recent months in Iraq it has been recited largely by Army generals, and the distinction has begun to cause resentments between the two services as the Haditha investigations begin.

Privately, some marines say the killings at Haditha may have grown out of pressures that bore down from the moment in March 2004 when a Marine expeditionary force assumed responsibility for Anbar province, with Haditha and its 90,000 residents emerging as one of its most persistent trouble spots.