Some words are synonymous with military disgrace. Abu Ghraib. My Lai. And now, perhaps Haditha — the Iraqi town where two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians allegedly were murdered by U.S. Marines.
Still under investigation, the episode could firm rising American opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq, just as the 1968 My Lai killings helped turn the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War.
President Bush promised Wednesday that, if an investigation turns up evidence of wrongdoing, “those who violated the law, if they did, will be punished.”
The case just added to the administration’s many Iraq woes. Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, they do.
“When something like Haditha happens, it gives the impression that Americans can’t be trusted to provide security, which is the most important thing to Iraqis on a day-to-day level,” said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It tends to confirm all of the worst interpretations of the United States, and not simply in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and in the region,” Cordesman said.
Reaction at home, abroad
The disclosure of the allegedly unprovoked killings of civilians in the Iraqi town comes with the war looming large in this year’s congressional elections, and with the administration still struggling to explain the American treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Haditha is an insurgent stronghold 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. The alleged massacre last November has drawn expressions of outrage from anti-war critics in the United States and from officials of the new Iraqi government.
“Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” said Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., even though the case is still under investigation and no charges have been filed.
Military investigators have evidence that points toward unprovoked murders by Marines, a senior defense official said last week.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, Thursday ordered American commanders to conduct core values training with all troops on moral and ethical standards on the battlefield.
“This is just a reminder — for troops in Iraq or throughout our military — that there are high standards expected of them and that there are strong rules of engagement,” Bush said Thursday.
Comparisons to My Lai massacre
Many analysts have compared the Haditha incident to the March 16, 1968, My Lai massacre, although the Vietnam killings were on a far larger scale. Then, hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot to death by a U.S. unit led by former Army Lt. William Calley Jr. The village was thought to be a Viet Cong stronghold.
The Vietnamese government set the death toll at more than 500. Calley was convicted in a 1971 court-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment, but President Nixon reduced his sentence and he served three years of house arrest.
Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, compared Haditha to My Lai “on a smaller scale.”
“My Lai symbolized the wanton reckless use of force that was associated with B-52 bombings, and the use of napalm, and the screaming children with their clothes burned off their skin by American incendiaries,” O’Hanlon said.
And, while U.S. use of force in Iraq is on a far lower order of magnitude, “these sort of things do reverberate,” he said. “And, yes, Iraqis do pay attention to the media, and they watch TV. Their overall impression of the U.S. is not very favorable, and this will make it a little worse.”
First reported by Time magazine, the Marines allegedly went on a killing spree after one of the men driving a Humvee was killed by a roadside bomb. “If the allegations turn out to be valid, then of course there will be charges,” vowed Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Damage already done?
Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham acknowledged the allegations could further tarnish the U.S. image. “Allegations such as this, regardless of how they are borne out by the facts, can have an effect on the ability of U.S. forces to continue to operate,” Ham, a former commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told reporters Wednesday.
In the 1950 No Gun Ri killings, American soldiers from the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment killed dozens of South Korean refugees over a three-day period, although the number slain varies according to the witnesses. U.S. soldiers’ estimates ranged from under 100 to “hundreds” dead; Korean survivors say about 400, mostly women and children, were killed at the village 100 miles southeast of Seoul.
The No Gun Ri killings were documented in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by The Associated Press in 1999, which prompted a 16-month Pentagon inquiry. The Pentagon concluded that the No Gun Ri shootings were “an unfortunate tragedy” but “not a deliberate killing.”
The Haditha killings, if confirmed, show vividly that “war is very dangerous and dehumanizing,” said Stephen Wayne a Georgetown University political science professor. “It can take good people, like these Marines, and it can turn them into something that goes against the human rights and the liberty and all the things we’re fighting for.”