Monday, May 29, 2006

Haditha and Memorial Day

Six months ago, a terrible thing happened in Haditha, Iraq a city of 90,000 people  An American soldier was killed by an improvised exploding device (IED) and twenty four Iraqi civilians died shortly after the explosion.  The first reports indicated that the 15 Iraqis had died in the same explosion.  Sadly, that’s does not appear to be what happened.  It now looks like the surviving members of the 3rd Battalion of the USMC on the patrol began to open fire on any non-Americans who might have been in the vicinity of the explosion.  Several women and children were among the dead. Some reports claim that many of the victims were killed execution style.

Since Gulf War I, certain individuals in the American military-industrial establishment have argued that technology has made it possible to wage surgically precise war.  Allegedly, bombs can be so accurate that they only hit their targets and kill only military personnel.  Soldiers on the ground also are so well trained and equipped that they have become consummate military technicians, ever courageous and always respecting protocols.  

Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells us that Haditha was not typical of 99.9% of American soldiers in Iraq.  I assume that he’s right, but I also suspect that these weren’t atypical soliders at all.  

Three years ago, I had flown into a commercial airport in North Carolina that then still had security courtesy of National Guardsmen armed with m-16s.  Just as we went to get our luggage, a detachment of soldiers had just come off another plane.  Most were about nineteen years old or at least looked it.  I remembered the one year I had taught high school and how a handful of my students graduates and joined the service immediately thereafter.  Actually, one joined, completed his enlistment, and became an Elvis impersonator.

I was their senior U.S. Government teacher.  I had read their essays.  We had discussed various issues that faced America back then.  Truth, there are many extraordinarily well-iformed high school seniors.  There are also large numbers who even after having me as a teacher or more likely especially because they had me as a teacher, who wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to tell the difference between a “just war” and one based on false evidence.  There was something to like about all of them.

I think about the Marines that day in Haditha and I do not see young SS guards at Auschwitz or the detachment that slaughtered a village at My Lai.  I see instead those young faces in the airport and the handful of my own students who joined the service.

I don’t condone killing civilians under any circumstance.  I do, however, believe that ordinary people are quite capable of the most monstrous acts and had I been nineteen years old and frightened enough I might have well done the same thing.

As I sit here, peacefully typing away the last few minutes of Memorial Day 2006, I appreciate the sacrifices others made in wartime.  I also recognize that atrocities and war are less a function of evil armies and evil regimes than we like to believe.  We send young men to fight and there comes a point in combat when anything resembling compassion shuts down in favor of the survival instinct.  When that instinct goes off, some emerge heroes.  Others, especially when they wind up on the losing side, wind up being war criminals.

Over the next months, there’s going to be a lot said about how the third battalion of Marines turned into renegades, how their leadership failed, etc.  I agree completely when it comes to the cover up.  Had I been there that day, I have no idea what I would have done or not done.  Incidents like this happen in true wars of liberation and self-defense.  They happen in wars of oppression.  All wars have horrible incidents like this.  I suspect there are hundreds we don’t hear about for every one that is documented like Haditha.

I don’t mean to say that American soldiers have purposely killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, but I doubt that Haditha is an isolated incident.  There are any number of incidents in which Iraqis have done similar things or worse to other Iraqis and if anyone remembers Nicholas Berg, it’s clear that no side has a monopoly on cruelty.

I do believe that at least in theory there are such things as “necessary” wars.  I know even better that anyone who thinks that war will raise the moral level of either the “liberator” or the “liberated” is probably dangerously delusional.  Whatever the technology and training of the combatants, war will always be brutal.

How so much of our country ever came to trust anyone who proclaimed “Mission Accomplished”, I have no idea.  But I do know who some of the real war criminals are in this particular conflict.  Many of them aren’t named Saddam or Zarqawi.  The worst crimes in any war don’t generally happen in the wake of explosions.  They’re far more likely to take place on artificial lakes catching oversized perch, duck hunting, or mountain biking.  

Too often, we reserve Memorial day thoughts for those who die in a literal sense during a war.  I try to think about those who die in other ways and how many of them were sitting behind a desk in some high school classroom within the last two years, their entire lives ahead of them.    



At 5/30/2006 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what I would have done, either. I think it's easy to hear a loud explosion, see some of your fellow soldiers fall, and start shooting at anything that moves (or you think moves).

The last line is right on - I wonder what will happen to those 19-year-olds when they return.

At 5/31/2006 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for the comment. Apparently, though the reports aren't confirmed, it was something other than a hysterical or reflexive shoot at anyone in the vicinity thing. A squad wandered from house to house looking for the culprits and started killing anyone in the house. there was a little bit of a delay and it sounds somewhat more deliberate. (I'm still not sure how I would have reacted)
I tend to think we give too much credit and assign too much blame for the way individuals react in crises moments. We have much less control over ourselves than we'd like to think. I imagine the Iliad with the Gods guiding mens actions on the battlefield rather than the men themselves might be closer to the truth.
the 18th and 19th century seemed to produce this notion of poessessive individualism which becomes more or less the "romantic" movement that doesn't actually match our biology. We simply make fewer reasoned choices as individuals than we like to believe.

At 5/31/2006 10:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone was the teacher of all the unarmed people who were shot at close range in Haditha. If we're going to give 19-year-olds automatic guns, when they shoot people without guns, we have to keep them from being "overwhelmed" again.

How frightened were the gunless people? And apparently their crys for mercy were unheeded.

At 6/01/2006 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I'm more interested in those who ordered the incident covered up.

As I've said, no one should kill civilians, especially children, and it should be punished, but the truly guilty in this incident just as with Abu Ghraib are higher up the chain of command.


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