Some Thoughts on Haditha

As the news stories and reports about Haditha pile up, as Judge & Jury Murtha declares that it was cold—blooded murder, and as the worst possible outcome seems to be inevitable, remember: We Don't Know What Really Happened.

If the worst did occur then those Marines from K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines must and will be punished. I was thinking why this particular episode has affected  many of us so deeply and decided it was because of all of our armed forces, we Americans love and respect our Marines, hold up them up as exemplars of valor, of perseverance, of honor.  Semper Fi is much, much more than a motto. 

During their previous tour 3/1 Marines participated in some of the heaviest fighting in Fallujah.  It was one of their members who was involved in the controversial incident involving the shooting of a terrorist inside a mosque.  As I wrote in an AT article a year and a half ago, 

'Let's look first at what the rules of engagement were for Marines fighting in Fallujah... we do know that Marines were authorized the use of force if confronted with hostile act or hostile intent.' 

The previous day, the Marine in question had been wounded in the face and a fellow Marine killed by a grenade that a wounded terrorist had detonated as the two approached because the terrorist was crying out for help and for a doctor.  Confronted the following day by a wounded terrorist in a mosque, the Marine killed him because, based on what had happened the previous day, he represented hostile intent.  There was also the matter of self—defense and protecting fellow Marines. The Corps did not bring any charges against him.  

I mention this because we do not know what the rules of engagement for Haditha were.  I'm not implying here that they would allow the murder of innocents, I am only trying to supply some context and perspective. 

About the same time that news of Haditha became a big story A&E aired its combat diary documentary about Columbus, Ohio—based L Co. 3/25th Marines.  The only reason the 3/25th became 'newsworthy' was because they'd had so many killed in action, not because of their solid achievements, their skill and courage.  The documentary was  powerful stuff:  young Marines looking right into the camera, talking calmly about missions and everyday activities, their words spliced in with video footage of some of combat, goofing around with buddies, heart—rending scenes of young widows back home. 

Their operating area included Haditha.  One Marine talked about a mission  in a town not long after 14 members of his company, some good buddies, had been reduced to charred body parts by a horrific IED blast.  He had three Iraqis, two women and a 16 year old male, hauled out of their house. The women might be terrorist sympathizers, the young man could be a terrorist. The Marine was mad as hell and looking for revenge.  But as he explained it, 'if I do this I'm no better than the terrorists we're fighting.'  And he pulled himself back from the edge of that abyss. 

Paraphrasing Joint Chiefs chairman, General Peter Pace, in 99.9% of such cases, Marines will find the training—instilled discipline not to pull that trigger though the temptation to do so is very powerful.  When 3/25th Marines  returned home they were replaced by the 3/1 Marines, on their third tour in Iraq.

Haditha is in Al Anbar province, area of operations for Maj. Gen. Stephen T. Johnson's 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. Units from 2nd MEF, along with Iraqi and some US Army forces have carried out a succession of operations aimed at rooting out Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists and foreign fighters that have filtered across the Syrian border.  They have been very successful, bringing increasing levels of security and stability to the region as witnessed, among other things, by large voter turnouts in recent elections. 

Marine Major Ben Connable operates out of Camp Blue Diamond in the Al Anbar town of Ramadi.  I wrote about him in a January 26, 2006 AT article that carried his 'ground truths' about what is really going on there.  Here is an excerpt: 

'Local city councils are springing up in places previously under the control of the insurgents.  We're seeing a growing effort by Sunni tribal leaders, technocrats and bureaucrats to inject themselves into the political process before it's too late...Fallujah is far from perfect but it's a miracle compared to 2004. 

'I can't believe the meeting reports coming out of the city council.  The people are energized about the elections and generally happy about the way things are going.  There's a local paper that really tells the story from the Fallujan perspective.... 

'The young men are signing up for the Iraqi Army and police in droves It's not like the last time when they were sullen, looking for a quick buck and not too keen on risking their lives against the insurgents.  We now see energized, motivated young guys who want to protect their families and regain some dignity. When a suicide bomber blew himself up at the recruiting station across the river from our base on January 5, killing over 40 people, most of the recruits who were not wounded got right back into line...

...what strikes me most is the way tribal leaders and local elites are talking.  Whereas before their focus was our being responsible for all their problems, now they seem intently focused on themselves and on improving the Iraqi government. They talk about economic issues and getting rid of foreign fighters, about making the Baghdad government work for them...thing are of course far from perfect.

'This is still going to cost time, money and lives...still a chance this could all go to hell in a handbasket.  But that chance diminishes a little bit every day.... I wish there was some way to convey how incredible it is to witness first—hand this struggle to emerge from 30 years of dictatorship, lies and fear.'

Another proof that the situation in Al Anbar has improved is that there has been a 27% decrease in terrorist attacks.  Iraqi forces are assuming more operational responsibility.  And along the way, the lives of Iraqi citizens have improved, schools and hospitals have been repaired or improved, water lines fixed and roads built.  But of course the drive—by media will never tell you about anything positive achieved by US forces in Iraq.

Today in Baghdad Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander, Multi—National Corps, Iraq issued a statement which read in part

'Of the nearly 150,000 Coalition forces presently in Iraq , 99.9 percent of them perform their jobs magnificently every day. They do their duty with honor under difficult circumstances. They exhibit sound judgment, honesty and integrity. They display patience, professionalism and restraint in the face of a treacherous enemy. And they do the right thing even when no one is watching. Unfortunately, there are a few individuals who sometimes choose the wrong path.'

We do not know yet if a few Marines chose that wrong path in Haditha.  But if it turns out they did, we must not, we cannot allow that to erode our support for the Marines, US forces in Iraq, or for the war effort. If we do, then the terrorists and the anti—war, Bush—hating crowd wins.  No, we must remain resolute and firm in our determination to see the war in Iraq, the war on terror, through to victory.  Like our beloved Marines we must be Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian and a frequent contributor.

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