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Was Justice Served After Haditha Killings?

January 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
At his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the remaining Marine charged in the 2005 Haditha killings, expressed sorrow for the victims, and said he hadn't meant for his men to kill innocent Iraqis. Margaret Warner discusses his plea deal with two retired Marines, Lt. Col. Gary Solis and Capt. Bing West.

For more on the plea deal and the judge’s recommendation and likely sentence, we turn to two former Marines. Retired Lt. Col. Gary Solis was a lawyer in the Marine Corps and now teaches at both Georgetown and George Washington University law schools. And retired Captain Bing West, on active duty during the Vietnam War, later served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.

And welcome to you both.

The reason I made that comment at the end about likely sentences, this still has to go up one administrative level, as I understand it.

But, Colonel Solis, what is — here, you had 24 Iraqi civilians killed. All these cases went on and on. And basically no one served any time. What is your assessment of this judgment today?

LT. COL. GARY SOLIS (RET.), Georgetown University: This is a pathetic conclusion to an outrageously inept prosecution for a horrific act.

And no one can be pleased by the outcome. Certainly, the United States ends up looking terrible, not to mention 24 dead bodies and no time brig anywhere in the process.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor West, what is your assessment of this?

BING WEST, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense: Well, after seven years, it was time for the legal trials to come to an end.

This was an absolute tragedy. But the problem when you’re on the battlefield is that there’s so much chaos that trying later to determine and assess blame year after year is extraordinarily complicated.

I think the Marines did the right thing in starting at the top. They didn’t start with the sergeant. They started all the way up with the general and the regimental commander and issued letters of censure, changed the rules of engagement.

And when you finally get down to the Marines who were on scene, and when they lost one of their own and they believed that they were in hostile territory, for good reason, then you’re going to be in the chaos of battle. And I think it’s very, very difficult for those of us who aren’t in that chaos to render a judgment seven years later.


GARY SOLIS: I agree with Bing, who is an old acquaintance and friend.

But, like him, I was in Vietnam. And I wasn’t a lawyer then. And we tried many, many cases involving the murder of Vietnamese noncombatants, and got convictions. We tried them both in Vietnam and in the United States. It can be done and it should have been done.

After all, there were four investigations here. The NCIS investigation alone ran to 3,500 pages.

MARGARET WARNER: And before I get back to Bing West, let me just ask you, because you followed the case very closely, how do you explain that they finally get this man to trial, and then halfway through the trial, they suddenly call a halt and negotiate a plea? What happened?

GARY SOLIS: The government had a weak case going in. And they knew it.

But when they called their prosecution witnesses, the witnesses turned out to be more favorable to the defense than they were to the government.


GARY SOLIS: Well, after. . .

MARGARET WARNER: Just one example.

GARY SOLIS: One example would be Lt. Kallop, who was on the scene and was granted immunity initially.

And he testified for the government, but he said that he thought that the Marines had taken down the house — the houses in a correct way, in conformance with their rules of engagement. And that’s not the kind of testimony that the prosecution was going to want.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why didn’t the prosecution know this going in? Why take it to trial? I mean, they have had six years to prepare this.

GARY SOLIS: Good question. I can’t account for that.

Obviously, before you take somebody in, put somebody on the stand, you preview their testimony. And they should have known what was going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Bing West, go back to the point that Gary Solis made just before, that, in Vietnam, people — you certainly had the fog and smoke of war there, and yet men were prosecuted — and successfully so — for slaying civilians.

BING WEST: Absolutely.

And I think that makes the point that I want to make with Gary. Gary used the word murder. And as I looked at this — and I was with this unit in Fallujah, where they were fighting house to house. Then they were sent to Haditha. And I went to Haditha. I went to the houses where these killings occurred.

It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to believe that in any way these Marines had the intention before the fight of killing civilians, whereas many times we did occasions in Vietnam when that was the case. I think this was absolutely poor leadership, bad orders leading to a terrible tragedy. But it wasn’t like they were calculating this ahead of time.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, to be fair, they weren’t actually charged with murder. They were charged with manslaughter. So they weren’t charged with having an intent in advance.

But, in our remaining time, Gary Solis, let me ask you to pick up on a point that Bing West made about rules of engagement. When this Sgt. Wuterich said — he admitted he said shoot first and ask questions later, but then said today he never meant to have them kill civilians. That sounds pretty confusing.

Were the rules of engagement different than they are now, and were they changed as a result of this?

GARY SOLIS: The rules of engagement is a term that is very loosely used, and often they’re not rules of engagement, so much as they are instructions in how you will proceed in combat.

And, so, yes, the rules of engagement were changed to close possible loopholes and prevent possible recurrences of similar events. But I don’t believe that the rules of engagement would have allowed the kind of conduct that obviously went on in Haditha.

But, as Bing says, they didn’t go in, in advance, planning to kill people. But the fact is, they did kill people.

MARGARET WARNER: And, as I understand it, Bing West, briefly, the rules of engagement were changed so that now they have a more affirmative duty to decide whether civilians in front of them are combatants or noncombatants? Is that right?

BING WEST: Absolutely.

And, in fact, they’ve gotten so tough in Afghanistan, I think we have to be very careful that we haven’t gotten too far with this, and you end up with events like you had at Ganjgal in Afghanistan, where some of our own were killed.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what do you think of these new rules of engagement?

GARY SOLIS: I agree with Bing. I think that we may have gone too far.

But it’s always a very close call. When does force protection turn into risks for civilian noncombatants? And you can never purposely target civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, this is certainly an ugly case that illustrates all those conflicts.

Gary Solis and Bing West, thank you both.