Rules of Engagement

The Media Coverage of Haditha

Journalists, Marines and lawyers for the accused assess Time magazine's initial report, the often sensationalized coverage that followed and the muted response to the investigations and trials which raised deeper questions about what happened that day.

Tim McGirk
Time Magazine Baghdad Correspondent, 2005-2006; first reported Haditha story

mcgirk

How did you first start reporting about this incident?

I was in Baghdad in January 2006, and we decided to look into the whole business of how many civilian casualties there had been since the war in Iraq started, because President Bush had made some statements saying that about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed. …

I contacted an Iraqi human rights group that I'd worked with before on other stories … called the Hammurabi Human Rights Group. They had very good contacts in the Sunni areas where there was a lot of the fighting [against] the insurgents. ... And what they showed us was this raw, unedited footage that had been taken by a neighbor in Haditha. ...

What did the video show?

It was incredibly grisly. It opened up with the first segment, which was a scene in the morgue in Haditha and relatives coming to claim the victims that were being unzipped from body bags. ...

The second segment showed the inside of one or two houses. And what it clearly showed was that the walls were peppered with what looked like bullet holes. There was blood on the floor. And then there was an exterior of the house and the exterior showed that there had been smoke billowing out, disfiguring the outside of the house.

I looked at this, and I said, "Well, who did this? This is terrible." I sort of figured it was the usual sort of butchery that goes on between Sunnis and Shi'as. And they said, "No. It was the U.S. Marines based in Haditha that carried this out."

And what was your reaction when they said that?

I was stunned and I didn't believe it. I mean, personally, my dad was a Marine and I'd always heard the best things about Marines. I'd been embedded with Marines in Afghanistan and I didn't think that they were capable of carrying this thing out.

So the next thing I did is I just did a simple Google search ... [to] find out what the U.S. Marine Corps had said about the events of Nov. 19. And what it was was just a very simple three-paragraph press communiqué ... that said one U.S. Marine had been killed and several wounded when a roadside bomb was set off by insurgents. And it also happened to kill 15 civilians.

So I thought back and I remembered several things. I remembered, first of all, the bodies of the people, the women and children, they were in their pajamas. And Iraq, it's a very traditional society; people don't go wandering around on the streets in their pajamas to get hit by an IED [improvised explosive device].

The second thing is that there were bullet holes inside the houses. There weren't shrapnel holes; there weren't great gouges out of the walls. And there was also the fact that the smoke was coming from the inside of the house. And there were no shrapnel marks on the outside of the house at all. Whatever had happened had happened inside the house.

And yet the press communiqué by the Marines was saying that it was an IED in the road, and that all these people were killed in the road. So there was a real serious disconnect there. ...

How comfortable were you with the degree of the Marine perspective that was in the story?

I was comfortable with it. I think the story as printed, the Marine version was incomplete. … But I think that we gave the Marines a fair chance to tell their story. We waited before we published. We waited until we'd presented them with all of the evidence that we had. We didn't jump to print before that. We gave them the evidence. We gave them, the Marines, a chance to carry out their own investigation before we decided that we'd go ahead and tell the story.

And we only went ahead with the story after it was clear that the initial facts that were given to us by the Marines didn't match up with what everybody else was hearing. And by everybody else at this point I mean the Army and Navy investigators who followed afterwards. ...

You've got Marines, ... you've got the NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] investigating. ... Why is it necessary for you to do an investigation on this?

In this case, there wouldn't have been any investigation by the NCIS, by the military, if we hadn't have started digging around in the first place. ... I think it's kind of an indication of what a messy war is happening in Iraq -- there's so many civilian casualties; there's so much action that's going on; there are so many IEDs that are blowing up all over the place -- that stories like this go unreported and unchecked and uninvestigated unless somebody raises some protest and somebody digs a little bit deeper into what goes on beyond the military communiqués that come out. …

Something wrong happened in Haditha. And I think that if you look at the entire war effort, you have to convince the Iraqis that the American way of doing things is the right way, and it's the honest way, and it's the democratic way.

And if they see that the American military has committed something like this, and that they turn around and devote so many resources into investigating wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing by U.S. military, then I think it's something that helps to win the Iraqis over to their side.

Brian Rooney
Attorney for Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani

rooney

The myth of Haditha, started from Time magazine, is that the men were hit by an IED, they went berserk, and because one of their brothers was killed they just decided to go into these homes and kill everybody they saw. The reality is that these men were hit by an IED, small-arms fire from both sides of the road ensued, and these men acted professionally, the way they were trained. ...

This [Marine] press release came out [on Nov. 20, 2005] saying along the lines that 15 civilians killed, one Marine also killed, in an IED attack. And then much was made of that press release. Can you talk about how that came out?

I think about that press release quite often because I wonder sometimes if that press release wasn't so inartfully done whether we would be sitting here today. Because the press release was written by now a major in the division, ... and he took the initial report from the battalion through the regiment, ... and it said that 15 civilians were killed from IED and small-arms fire and subsequent small-arms fire. What he interpreted that to mean is that 15 civilians were killed as a result of this IED. So to simplify it, he said, "Fifteen civilians killed by IED." ...

So this inartfully drafted press release that this public affairs officer released up at division started this whole firestorm because it was picked up by people like Time magazine, and they said that the Marine Corps is trying to cover something up. And it's very distressing when you read this particular public affairs officer's statement because he said, "I understood that from the get-go. I just wanted to simplify it so that the press wouldn't get confused." And that's exactly what happened: The press got confused, and then people like Tim McGirk thought that there's this huge cover-up. ...

I think ultimately, when you have people shooting at you and you're taught how to defend yourself, you can't expect Marines to react any differently than the way they're taught and the way they're trained. ... So it's a difficult question, and there's no easy answer to it. That's why you have this concept of the fog of war, and why I think this case especially has resonated with the American people.

You have a disconnect between the press and then the majority of the populace that I come in contact with daily, where they're very supportive of the Marines and [what] they did, because Americans intuitively know that it's a very difficult situation that these men and women are sent over to deal with.

And yet the press especially wants the Marines to be able to pick out the bad guys wherever and only kill them, which is an impossible task to do when you're fighting in a civilian population of 30 million people, if not more. So it's a difficult way of prosecuting war, but they're doing a heroic job.

Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt
Kilo Company, 3/1 USMC, 2004-2006; charges dismissed for role in Haditha

What [was your take on] the initial [news] reports, the Time magazine report and the kind of flood of media coverage?

At that time, the investigation was already kicked off most likely, and there was just nothing we can do. Yes, it upset us, but there was absolutely nothing we can do. The news was going to report this the way they wanted to. They didn't care what actually happened. They just wanted to get the bad side. ...

We thought that the insurgents might have finally gotten smarter to where, instead of just hurting us physically, they were going to start to get the politics and get them against us by setting up a situation like this, ... knowing that our news television channels would put this on the news, put this on national television for the reason to make us look bad, ... to make it look like the war in Iraq is a waste of time, in my opinion. ...

... What's the general attitude among Marines toward the media?

Most Marines, we despise the media, because the media has a tendency to report bad things instead of the good things. ...

Gary Myers
Attorney for Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt

myers

The absence of coverage of the exoneration of Justin Sharratt is reflective of a media that is looking for sensational bad news. Now, I'm no media basher, but when I compare what was done in mere allegation compared to what was done based upon evidence [introduced in] a courtroom, it is not something that would suggest that we have a fair and balanced press in that setting.

Why that is the case I don't know, because the news that our Marines comported themselves in a fashion that is consistent with their long tradition should be news that every American should cheer and accept. ...

Do you think that charges would have been brought were it not for Time magazine?

Were it not for Time magazine I doubt seriously that there would have been charges -- not because there was a cover-up but because there wasn't a crime. Let me be clear with you: Civilians die every day at the hands of United States troops. I want that to be understood. It happens. It happens, and it is not murder. ...

Here we are in an unpopular war. And we've got this notion of a massacre, just as in My Lai. And those who have an interest in seeing the war come to an end most assuredly want to use it for political purposes to demonstrate the bankrupt nature of the American policy. ...

What has been of interest to me has been how much it has drifted off the radar screen over time, largely because I think those elements of the press who wanted to use it to demonstrate the bankrupt nature of the war found themselves in a posture where they were simply wrong. And if the Marine Corps admits no wrong, I can assure you that the press corps follows very closely behind.

Gen. James Conway
Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps

Could you talk in more detail about the coverage of Haditha in the American media?

Well, I can say that I think there was some -- what's the right term? -- some sensationalism involved. Our media has a responsibility as a fourth estate to present factual information on what's taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan so our fellow Americans can make good decisions. I think that there's too much editorializing, too much sensationalism in certain instances where you have large, unfortunate events take place, and no small amount of politics that are being played in some of the reporting.

That Haditha occurred -- some used it to say, "Well, the troops are tired; the troops are brought to this level of a sort of tenacity by events that take place there that they then must seek revenge for."

I don't agree with any of that. I think that an event happened. I think that the investigations are going to tell us what actually happened. What we're seeing, in fact, on the West Coast is that a number of Marines have either received lesser charges or have been found not guilty for the things that initially people were willing to condemn them for.

We just need patience in this whole process. There is a finite process that needs to work out here. It's called military justice. People will be charged; people will be held accountable. That's the way we work as Marines. We just need to be given that chance before people jump to conclusions about guilt or innocence.

Bing West
Author, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah; Marine (Ret.)

west

I hope that any reporter or any journalist, any member of Congress who happens to be looking at this will ponder what I'm about to say. I believe that bad tactics and negligence were used at the low level in this situation, which was a tragedy. But at the political level and the policy level, I think it is a disgrace that the press deliberately manipulated this incident because they believed that this would become a metaphor for a war they opposed.

And people like Congressman [John] Murtha [D-Pa.], because they opposed the war, rushed to a judgment and called something cold-blooded murder which was not. And that was wrong, and it did a disservice to the United States of America. And it did a disservice to the credibility of our press. And what happened later, when we discovered that none of these charges were substantiated, I haven't seen Congressman Murtha and I have not seen the press put anywhere near the emphasis upon saying, "Sorry, we were wrong." ...

I believe that the press and the Congress, we all have an obligation to keep balance in what we're doing when we're reporting or talking about a war. Because the war is for all of us; none of us are just going to walk away from it. And when you consider who's fighting that war for us, it's a bunch of volunteers who are grunts. And what they want to be known for more than anything else is their courage.

And in the past, we balanced reports in World War II, etc., so that you knew an Audie Murphy, [the most decorated U.S. combat solider of World War II] you heard of a Sgt. [Alvin] York [a conscientious objector turned war hero]. Well, in this particular case, here you have Sgt. Maj. Brad Kasal, who was in the "house from hell" [in Fallujah] with Kilo Company -- the same group. He's a legend in the Marine Corp.

If you go on Google for "Sgt. Brad Kasal," there are 13,000 hits; if you go on Google for "Haditha killings," there are 700,000 hits. That's not balanced. We've gotten so that we're putting 60 times more emphasis on something that goes wrong and is a tragedy, and we're not doing anything to indicate the courage of our troops.

And I think there's long-term consequence for that, because you need this thin red line out there. And the only thing they want to be known for is what they've done courageously and done their duty. And when they're slighted in that and instead you end up with enormous, overblown, wrong reporting of Haditha, then you have to ask five years from now, 10 years from now, who volunteers to become a grunt? Who volunteers to become our infantrymen and serve us? ...

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posted february 19, 2008

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