04 February, 2008

Another Perspective on Haditha

This weekend, The North County Times published a calm, rational look at the infamous Haditha charges, now that the dust is beginning to settle. It's a hefty dose of perspective and a good summation of the years-long story, so I've included the entire thing here:

Another perspective on Haditha

By: THAD COAKLEY - Commentary

Publication of Time magazine's "One Morning in Haditha" (March 2006) thrust an otherwise nondescript Euphrates River town into the American, then international, consciousness. Those who have served in combat, more specifically with Marine battalions in Haditha or elsewhere in the al-Anbar Province, knew immediately that the article was based on many assumptions clearly questionable absent further corroboration. Buried deep within the article was the significant caveat: "The available evidence does not provide conclusive proof the Marines deliberately killed innocents."

But editorialized reporting of beliefs over facts gave the greater emphasis to seemingly unquestioned acceptance of murder allegations and a culpable U.S. military. Descriptors such as "execution," "massacre," and "cover-up" were guaranteed to seize and shape public interest. They did.

At the nadir of support for continuing American presence in Iraq, Time's report galvanized anyone then seeking justifications to end U.S. military efforts in that country. The pronouncements of some of these persons were unsurprising; others should have known better but simply put political gamesmanship over integrity and fairness.

Scant attention was paid to distilling real truth from allegation and innuendo or the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Circumspection was notably lacking from the likes of Representative Jack Murtha, D-Pa., himself a former Marine and sitting member of Congress who had briefly toured a Marine base in Haditha in 2005. Ignoring yet-to-be concluded inquiries and taking a colossal leap in logic that their acts somehow resulted from presidential mismanagement of the war, he repeatedly cited Time magazine to publicly damn the Marines as coldblooded murderers.

From such speciousness, Haditha has been used to presumptively establish U.S. military personnel and policy as inherently criminal. Based on Time's Haditha article and a few other substantiated and unsubstantiated incidents, false dispersions have been ignorantly cast before the world.

Seymour Hersh lectured college students that "there has never been an American army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq." Films such as "Redacted" and "Battle for Haditha" sacrifice objectivity and accuracy for apparent agendas that, despite loosely claiming to be quasi-documentary or "based on real events," disregard context and consequence alike.

Purveyors of the myth that "baby-killing Marines are the result of Bush's war" immediately gave rise to the equally vociferous "kill 'em all and let Allah sort 'em out" crowd. Both practiced dismissive, biased advocacy lacking any appreciation of military procedure, counterinsurgency operations, and the ethical and moral training of Marines ---- not to mention actual knowledge of what really happened in Haditha.

More appropriately, the Marine Corps took the measured approach. Allegations were simply claims that needed further inquiry. If inquiry indicated evidence of misconduct in Haditha, those implicated should be given a fair hearing and, if found guilty, held accountable. If evidence of misconduct was insufficient or nonexistent, the Haditha Marines and officers should be fully exonerated.

More than two years since an IED (improvised explosive device) triggered this now-global event, investigations and hearings have exhaustively delved into what happened in Haditha. These processes have not been uncomplicated but in the main have greatly deflated the original hyperbole. Final determinations of the much-reduced misconduct allegations will be forthcoming in the four courts-martial to be convened.

Of all the allegations reported by Time and accepted by others, Haditha represents two distinct and separate issues arising from squad actions and command oversight. Two squad members are charged with causing the civilian deaths without attempting to distinguish between insurgents and innocent noncombatants. Two officers are charged with judgment failures in after-action reporting and inquiries. These independent events are a decidedly far cry from the furor raised by the initial avowals of deliberate execution and command cover-up.

Without knowing all that is to be presented by both the prosecution and the defense at the trials, a few conclusions and lessons are apparent from Haditha's aftermath:

Haditha is not a case of Marines carrying out purposeful murder by summary execution. The oft-made comparison between Haditha and My Lai is categorically unsupportable except by those who ignore the differences in mission, context, numbers, and manner of deaths in their zeal to define an atrocity in support of their views. The courts-martial will conclude whether the two Marine shooters made unreasonable judgments in responding to an initial attack, identifying hostile actors, and using appropriate force in self-defense.

Haditha is not an unveiling of widespread troop behavior or of any overall military policy or training purposefully dismissive of civilians. Considering the multitude of instantaneous life-and-death decisions made in Iraq, the U.S. military has exercised remarkable restraint and concern for the civilian populace ---- a key component of mission accomplishment in a counterinsurgency campaign.

The Washington Post's recent statistic ---- of all the allegations of service members related to Iraqi civilian deaths, only 69 have been charged with, and only 22 convicted, of murder, negligent homicide or voluntary manslaughter ---- reflects the American forces' commitment and level of professionalism in behavior, training and operation. Adjudicated misconduct is outside the norm and has been punished accordingly.

Haditha is not a debate platform for rashly criticizing the rules of engagement and what those rules "could" or "should" have been. The self-defense ROE in effect at the time are the authorities under which the two squad members' use of force will be evaluated. Because these ROE require judgment calls, they are subjectively applied. Only facts known to a Marine when he makes the decision to engage can be considered; those reviewing his actions must see the scene through his eyes at the time.

Even if a Marine was later shown to be mistaken, but reasonably perceived and engaged a hostile threat, his use of force is authorized under the ROE. This subjectivity inures to the benefit of the Marine and has already resulted in the dismissal of charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, another Haditha squad member.

Haditha need not have a chilling effect on Marines' decisions to use force in self-defense. Where frustration or incidents such as Haditha are blamed for hesitation under fire, closer discussion reveals misunderstandings are caused by improper instruction and the vagaries inherent in counterinsurgency distinct operations. Clear guidance as to the authorizations ROE provide, training, experience and positive after-action reinforcement ensure confidence in ROE application. Commanders, small-unit leaders and individual operators use these methods on a constant basis, even before Haditha.

How might the incident have played out if only a few more questions had been asked at the time? What circumstances could have been identified, verified or refuted if determined at the time when evidence, memories and facts were fresh and available? Could all of the squad members have been fully exonerated as having acted with the ROE? Could charges of dereliction have been precluded? Would the chain of command have had information sufficient to belie the subsequent insinuations of cover-up?

We may never know the answers to those questions. While resolution has been prolonged by some initial oversight failures for which several senior officers, who gave this nation long and meritorious service, have been censored, the vast majority of Haditha's participants have been found to have acted reasonably under trying combat conditions. Exoneration or accountability for the remaining four Marines will be resolved by peer review. What will be said of those who pre-emptively rushed to judgment?

Thad Coakley is a former Marine Corps judge advocate and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, including a tour with an infantry battalion in the Hit-Haditha Corridor of al-Anbar Province during which he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon. His comments are made in his personal capacity and are not intended to represent any official statement by either the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.