- Last November, so the story unfolds,
several hours after losing a comrade in a roadside bombing US Marines marched
into two homes in the Sunni Arab town of Haditha and killed 20 people including
women, children and elders. What actually happened there is being investigated,
but indications are the killings were execution style revenge. Indications
are also that several people, including commanding officers, were aware
of what actually had happened but did not report the facts or suggest any
investigation of the facts. Rather, several commentators have noted, in
light of Haditha, that the urge to find good things to say about soldiers
in war is so strong that the sheer brutality of the Iraqi engagement gets
glossed over, while true crimes against humanity go unreported. That,
says Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, has become virtually a daily
commonplace. One can argue that he exaggerates, but does he?
- It is easy to fall into the indifference
of conflict. Writers who look for ways to make such mayhem explicable have
noted that perhaps 50 million people died in World War II. Most of them,
according to the prevailing term of art, were "collateral damage".
But many, if not most, were deliberately murdered in carpet bombings of
cities such as Dresden and London.
- Is it murder most foul when a bombardier
or a missile launcher presses a button and never sees the victims?
How is that different from a warrior who knowingly points and shoots a
victim in his direct line of sight? In truth there is no difference
if the victims in both cases are non-combatants. There is cold comfort,
and no moral highground, in the assertion that: "My intent was to
kill someone else, but you got in the way, and your death is collateral
- However, the mindset is different.
Maureen Doud writes in a New York Times story of May 27 about a Sergeant
who says he nearly killed two women and a boy, but he didn't do that, he
said, because "It would make me no better than the people we are trying
- The Sergeant has just stated the polite
form of the combat mindset. The case-hardened Vietnam version of it was
the enemies are "gooks". Such a term also served in Korea and
in the Pacific islands of World War II. Its full meaning always is
the enemy is less than we are, because he lacks our values, our purposes,
our skin color, our language, or our morality. In sum, the enemy
is a lesser person.
- That is the initial mindset for wanton
killing. If you know--or admit--that the enemy is your equal, your
peer, you can no longer kill with a clear conscience. "No better than
the people we are trying to fight" simply puts the enemy in a killable
category. One of the earliest casualties of war is the decay of any
moral sense of the equality of all mortals. Warriors sent repeatedly
into harm's way are the ones most likely to lose their way on this.
- Theoretical notions of proportionality
in combat--no more force than needed to prevail--are easy enough to state,
but they are hard to retain through repeated exposure to life threatening
encounters, or even lesser degrees of hostility and danger. Thus,
sending even the most stable of forces into repeated combat situations
risks the very thing that happened at Haditha, the decay or loss of judgment
under stress. And a corollary of such repeated exposure is a growing hate
and loss of respect for the enemy.
- Maintaining an armed force that is barely
large enough for Iraqi engagement is the ultimate culprit. The perpetrators
of the Haditha killings may indeed be guilty of multiple crimes.
But there is still another crime involved in fighting a pointless war and
doing so under conditions that undermine proper husbandry and discipline
of human resources.
- This war is a growing abuse of the ability
of our troops to cope. Their judgment, as well as the judgment of
their command superiors has been faltering for some time. If al Maliki
is right about the frequency of Haditha like incidents, both our troops
and their commanders are suffering from increasingly impaired combat judgment.
Those impairments are being reinforced by political pressure to "stay
the course", when the "course" actually was lost some time
back. At this stage, not only are we unable to replace or properly rotate
our troops, their fatigue is deepening the disrespect they hold for their
enemies. Iraqis are increasingly dehumanized. That condition is more
serious than the personal "combat fatigue" of individuals. If
we do not get our troops out of this situation, the Iraqi people face a
mounting wave of Hadithas.
- The writer is the author of the recently
published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a
regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service
Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions
were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as
Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War
College. He will welcome comment at email@example.com.