Military and legal experts analyze the lessons being drawn from the Nov. 19, 2005 killings in Haditha, one of the most notorious events of the Iraq war.
Can you put the Haditha case in historical context? How does it compare with other war crime trials in U.S. history?
Haditha took on a huge life of its own outside any historical comparison. There were so many more incidents of this type in World War II and in Vietnam that it's almost as though it's the exception that proves the rule, which is that our forces … are more disciplined than we were in the past. That's just a fact. And so there were many fewer of these kinds of incidents where there are killings of civilians than there have been in past wars.
But no one has put it into that kind of context at all. They've just left it dangling out there as though it were proving something as a metaphor about Iraq. And it didn't prove anything of the sort. …
What do you think of the comparisons of Haditha to My Lai?
To compare Haditha to My Lai is egregious. There is no comparison. None. In the My Lai case, you had a lieutenant in a group who was systematically just walking around shooting people. In Haditha you had two or three isolated incidents where it is manifest from all the evidence and from the investigations and the investigating officer that there was not any intent to murder. None. …
When you look at the Haditha case, it's really a microcosm of the Iraq war in a lot of ways. And I think that's in part why it got a lot of attention. …
In Haditha, you had Marines who were sent out to do a routine mission of bringing people from one place to another and coming back. In the course of that, they were thrust into the middle of a battle that was very complex, confusing and going on all around them. But unlike a conventional war, where what your enemy looks like and where they might be and they're easy to identify -- in this case, it was almost impossible to identify who the enemy was. Those troops, those Marines, made a decision to attack what they thought was the threat. And that decision is a decision that U.S. forces have to make constantly in Iraq. And it's one that is very difficult for commanders to deal with because of that desire to protect the local population.
So in Haditha you have those two things really butting heads, the desire to destroy the enemy and the desire to protect the innocent. And in waging this war, unfortunately, innocent people will die. The question is, how can the United States military do its best to reduce the number of civilians who die as a result of U.S. action? …
So what do we as a country take away from this? What are our lessons learned?
… I think that both the Marine Corps and the Army and the top leadership in Iraq have looked at Haditha as a cautionary tale, as a concern to make sure that the U.S. troops are doing the right thing. … I think most people can agree that going after the enemy is an important part of what the United States is doing in Iraq.
But I think most people will also agree that protecting Iraqi civilians is also just as important, if not more important, than going after the enemy. The Marine Corps, the Army, they've enforced ethics training. They've enforced rules of engagement. They're making sure that everyone knows exactly how they can and how they should operate.
Interestingly, we haven't seen another Haditha. Now it doesn't necessarily mean that there haven't been other incidents that have been investigated or that there shouldn't be investigations of other incidents. But we haven't seen a mass civilian casualty like in that case since. And it's been now more than two years.
Gen. James Conway
Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps
Can you talk about the impact that the Haditha incident has had on the Marine Corps?
Well, it's not just Haditha. Haditha is one in a series of three or four incidents where we may have Marines who have violated the rules of engagement [ROE]. I say "may" because these incidents are either under investigation or they're ongoing trial, and therefore I cannot or will not talk about them specifically.
But in the aggregate, it's, again, caused us to take a look at how we are conducting our training, how we are emphasizing ROE, how we prepare a battalion to go into combat. And it's caused us to specifically examine the cultural knowledge and the values aspect of dealing with the citizens of Iraq and the citizens of Afghanistan.
What is this going to mean at the end of the day?
This case is going to mean different things to different people, depending on what they want it to mean. If you were against the whole concept of going to war in Iraq, this case is going to be emblematic of what can happen. As Gen. [Colin] Powell said, "If you break it, you buy it." …
There's going to be another segment of the population that's going to believe that this is just something that happens in wartime. I can't tell you how many thousands of e-mails I've received from people outraged that these Marines are being criminally charged and prosecuted because, they say, bad things happen in war. And with the decision to go to war comes the notion that some innocent people are going to suffer. …
And so, I don't think there's going to be one emblematic message that comes from the Haditha case. It's certainly the most complex and most serious case that we've seen in recent memory in the Marine Corps. The My Lai situation that some people try to compare this to was an Army case. So when you talk about Marine Corps military justice history, this may be the most serious case that has ever come around.
But I think what it's going to show is that the Marine Corps is serious about investigating wrongdoing. They're serious about discipline. They're serious about good order and discipline and people following the rules and regulations.
And I believe that the Marine Corps will be just as satisfied with a verdict of acquittal of these Marines as anything else because the facts will be out. A jury will have decided the outcome. And there will be no sense that the Marine Corps tried to cover up for its Marines. They aired all the facts and circumstances. It's just simply that the training and the scenario that presented itself that day resulted in the unfortunate loss of life.
What's at stake in this case? …
… What's at issue here is whether or not Marines who make decisions in combat are going to have to be second-guessed and brought up on criminal charges if the results of their decisions turn out badly.
Marines should be allowed to make tactical decisions that they need to make to accomplish the mission and to protect their own lives without fear that a bad outcome on any given day is going to produce a criminal prosecution.
What message was the Marine Corps trying to send with this? I don't know. The message that I take away from it comes full circle to Lt. Gen. [James] Mattis' letter [dismissing charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt]. There's no way that any Marine commander could read that letter and come away with anything other than a belief that the law is applied to these situations, is entirely embracing and protective of our young Marines. That is clear. …
The focus on the command response and the investigation after the shooting may have an effect upon future Marine leaders that will cause them to more thoroughly or more aggressively, if you will, investigate these types of shootings. I think that is a clear outcome. …
[Is that] a good thing?
… Whether or not that's a good thing I think is going to be entirely dependent upon how such post-shooting inquiries and investigations are conducted. If they're conducted as a criminally focused investigation against our young warriors, I think that in and of itself is criminal negligence on the part of our leadership. …
If, on the other hand, they do an administrative investigation and treat it as a line-of-duty shooting to ascertain the facts and determine whether or not these shootings and uses of force are reasonable, I have no problem with that. In fact, I would encourage that. …
Certainly in my situation as a law enforcement officer, knowing that a homicide investigation looked at what I did and determined it to be reasonable let me sleep a little better at night. Knowing that even though in my heart of hearts I knew the use-of-force situation was reasonable, hearing someone else say it helps. It really does.
[What do you think Haditha means?]
I don't know what it means. But I know what the impact has been. The impact is that the American forces in Iraq are much more careful now about dealing with civilian populations.
I think this has been one of the things that Gen. [David] Petraeus has been so adept at kind of retooling. The whole emphasis of the surge in American troops now is that you just can't go into a town and start shooting people. You have to be much more careful about picking out the enemy that uses the civilian population as its shield.
I think that after the events in Haditha, what we've seen is that with the Marines and the Army, that they're much more strict, first of all about documenting in the after-action reports what actually happened, and also at making sure that their men act responsibly in situations of war. ... They realize the dangers of sending troops out there who've been through several rotations in Iraq and just the wear and tear on these troops and how things can go horribly wrong.
One complaint that we've heard from Marines and from others coming out of this is … these guys are saying, "Gosh, these investigations going on, this is going to make me hesitate, make me second-guess myself." …
I think that's a legitimate worry. But, on the other hand, if you don't second-guess yourself, you end up with 24 dead civilians. And you've turned the entire population of Haditha against you. These are things that you have to weigh in the actual moment of combat. These aren't easy decisions. And I don't envy any Marine or Army officer that has to make these decisions on the spot. They're tough.
The thing that always sort of stands out in my mind the most about it all is that you have Fallujah and you have Haditha. And you have this unit that was in both places. ... It gets down to the same company, basically, the same platoon, and almost down to the same squad of guys who were, in one hand, held up as the epitome of the bravery of the Marine Corps in one instance, were showered with medals.
And then … almost a year to the day, you have these same guys who were involved in another incident, where now they're under accusation for massacring civilians. So how do you get from one place to the other? And why is it that on one hand they're heroes and another hand they're criminals? And what does that say about the war? And what does that say about young men? And what does that say about Iraq? It's always been pretty remarkable to me.
Is it in some way an emblematic case? Or what does it say about the Iraq war to you?
I think it's fair to say that it's probably emblematic of the war that these guys are under tremendous pressure, especially the Marines. They've sort of been forced to learn how to fight this kind of war. These young guys got into it for Fallujah. They joined up to be in Fallujah. They didn't join up to be in Haditha.
And so, when you put them in a situation which is the situation they always [expected] to find themselves in, which is the situation they trained to be in, which is the situation that they all want to be in, you're going to get the best out of them.
When you put them in a situation that they're not trained for, that they don't want to be in, that they don't particularly care about -- it has no glory, has no honor, has no bravery; it's just about not getting killed every day -- you're not going to get heroism out of them. You're going to get them trying to save their own lives and save the lives of their buddies and just sort of scrape through and get out. I think that's a lesson we should try to learn from this experience.
Haditha, in my opinion, is a very significant case because of its international significance. Because of the fact that it's known internationally, Haditha reflects America's determination to abide by the law of armed conflict and observe international humanitarian law to the extent that we can. God knows that we've seen too many cases where human rights, international humanitarian law, has been overlooked or insufficiently observed.
Haditha represents a significant effort to not only find justice, but to let the world see that we are sincere in our desire and determination to reach justice, to protect human rights of those on the battlefield. An insurgency is the worst kind of war because every person, car, object in the street, can be the means of your death. And it leads to an erosion of respect for the civilians.
Marines and soldiers see the civilians as knowing what's coming and yet failing to warn. And that's very often true. And that, in turn, leads to a lack of respect for civilians. And that lack of respect can lead to bad things.
We have to let our soldiers and Marines know that you've got to observe the law of armed conflict. And we've got to tell noncommissioned officers and officers that you have a responsibility to see that your juniors do so. In turn, this will let the international community know that all our posturing, all our comments, all our talk about international humanitarian law and law of war are not just words, although too often it would seem so.
We've seen charges being dropped already. What will it mean in terms of that international importance if no one is punished for what happened?
Inevitably the critics of America will say, "See? Everybody walked." But criminal proceedings are not brought on that basis. The Marine Corps saw what it thought was a wrong. It cast a wide net in charging those seen as being involved in that wrong. Verdicts can't be ordered. You can only charge in good faith and let the legal chips fall where they may.