What is the significance of the Haditha Massacre?

What happened in Haditha?


The best account I have found appeared in the Washington Post on June 3, in an article by Ellen Knickmeyer, who has been responsible (together with anonymous Iraqi partners) for some of the best investigative journalism coming out of Iraq. According to her account, the event can be simply summarized. Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine regiment was patrolling in a very unfriendly part of Haditha, scene two days earlier of a deadly IED, when another roadside bomb went off, killing Miguel Terrazas, third generation marine from El Paso Texas.


His comrades, stressed out by the constant tension of these patrols, lost it — or, at least, they did not follow correct procedure. They entered the nearest house to the bombing and killed all the residents they could find, then entered two other houses and killed all the residents they could find in them (a few survived by acting dead or hiding). At some point during this slaughter, a cab drove up, bringing four students home from university. When the cab saw the soldiers, it tried to get away and all occupants were killed with machine gun fire. That’s it. There is some dispute about how long all this took — as much as four hours.


So what is the significance of all this?


Let’s start with what it is not:


First, this is not the typical way that Americans kill Iraqi civilians. These sorts of retaliation attacks — even if there have been a few each week for the duration of the war (not at all impossible, but probably less common, in my judgment) — would account for perhaps 5000 deaths a year. That would account for — believe it or not — only about 20% of all deaths caused directly by the American military.


How can that be? Because the U.S. kills about 30,000 Iraqis each year. The more common methods are firing into occupied houses, ordering artillery and tank attacks against occupied houses, and calling in air attacks on occupied houses. (For the gruesome details, see my earlier commentaries on U.S. military policy and the impact of air power).


Second, this is not the typical response of American soldiers to ambushes by the Iraqi resistance. In fact, it is quite rare in the larger scheme of things. Most American soldiers — as Bush defenders argue — do not succumb to the temptation to engage in this sort of revenge killing. There are over 1500 (!!!) attacks against American soldiers each month (yes, 1500 — and some months it has been well over 2000); and in 50 or so of these attacks, American soldiers are killed. No one knows how often the Ameican soldiers engage in this sort of deadly retaliation, but even if there have been hundreds of these actions (not at all impossible), they are still relatively rare, compared to the number of “provocations.”


Third, it is not U.S. military policy to undertake such revenge killings. When (and if) the U.S. prosecutes those responsible for this, they will be accused of breaking the law, because revenge killings of civilians are a clearcut breach of the “rules of engagement,” the military orders that determine what soldiers can and cannot do in the field of battle. This illegality is why the soldiers involved and their commanding officers undertook a cover-up of what really happened.


Fourth, this does not exempt the military leadership from primary responsibility for this slaughter and others like it. The soldiers who committed this atrocity were in technical violation of the rules of engagement, but in all substantive ways they were doing the same thing that day as they had legally done so many other times in the past — knowingly slaughter Iraqi civilians in their homes. In this sense they are being prosecuted — if they are eventually prosecuted — on a technicality; and — more horribly — they could easily have escaped prosecution if they had accomplished the same goal in a slightly different way.


The best way to see how all this works — and to appreciate the larger significance of the mayhem at Haditha, is to consider yet another story that made the papers on Sunday, June 4 — under the headline (in the Washington Post ) of “Military cleared in raid on Iraq House.” This was another, almost identical, situation in which residents of the village of Ishaqi accused American soldiers of entering a house and executing the family inside. There was even a video, broadcast by the BBC, which seemed to show that the eleven men, women, and children killed had been shot from inside the building.


The American inquiry, however, exonerated the American soldiers. The investigating officer, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, concluded that “the ground force commander ‘properly followed the rules of engagement as he necessarily escalated the use of force until the threat was eliminated.’”


The incident, as reported by General Caldwell, began with a “coordinated raid” seeking to apprehend a bomb maker and a recruiter for the insurgency. This is a typical sort of activity undertaken by American patrols: they receive intelligence about various people being part of the resistance, and then set out to capture or kill them. This sort of mission is what typically brings them into hostile neighborhoods of Iraqi cities, and these patrols are the typical target of Iraqi resistance fighters, who seek to explode IEDs and/or fire on the patrols in order to stop them from successfully apprehending their targets. In this case, according to General Caldwell’s report:


“The troops took direct fire from the building[where the bombmaker was supposed to be] upon their arrival…. They responded first with small arms and then by calling in helicopters and, later, close air-support, essentially destroying the structure, Caldwell said in the statement. Troops then entered the building and found the Iraqi bombmaker’s body, along with three dead ‘noncombatants’ and an estimated nine ‘collateral deaths.’


“‘Allegations that the troops executed a family living in this safe house, then hid the alleged crimes by directing an air strike, are absolutely false,’ Caldwell said.”


We need not sort out whether this account — in contrast to the one given by local residents to the BBC — is accurate. In a way, it is far more instructive if General Caldwell is right, and the family died as “collateral damage” and were not “executed” by the troops.


Consider what the rules of engagement are: that if a unit receives fire from a building, they are permitted to respond with automatic weapons, escalating to helicopters and finally air strikes if they are needed complete the mission. We should add that they permitted to take exactly the same measures even without receiving gunfire if an insurgent (say someone spotted trying to bury or detonate an IED) takes refuge in (or is thought to be hiding in) a nearby building. That is, they are permitted to fire first, rather than give the enemy a chance to escape or set an ambush. The presence of civilians is a factor in decided what approach to take, but it is not the key determinant. The key factors to consider are the capture (or killing) of the insurgent and the safety of the American troops.


To understand the logic of this policy, we need to begin with the fact that the American troops are not “forced” to fight in these situations. They could decide that there is too much chance of killing civilians and simply retreat, abandoning their effort, in the Ishaqi case, to capture the bomb maker. Or they could surround the house and tell the bombmaker to “come out with his hands up,” as so many police do in American TV shows, running the risk, of course, that the target will escape into the back alleys of the city. These strategies are exactly what is done when the civilian lives are deemed more important than apprehending the culprit, as is the case in most urban police settings.


And let’s be fair here: many, many times — probably the overwhelming majority of the time — this is exactly what American soldiers do in Iraq. In fact, CNN reporter Arwa Damon was with the accused unit in Haditha “a month before the alleged killings,” and repeatedly witnessed exactly this sort of forbearance. She saw repeatedly them “taking incoming fire” and “not fire a shot back because they did not have positive identification on a target,” or because they were “keenly aware” of the civilian presence. And


“I saw their horror when they thought that they finally had identified their target, fired a tank round that went through a wall and into a house filled with civilians. They then rushed to help the wounded — remarkably no one was killed.”


But this forbearance by so many soldiers in so many circumstances does not alter the fact that they could have legally fired into those houses under the “rules of engagement,” to suppress enemy fire and/or to capture an enemy combatant (or suspected enemy combatant) who took refuge there. And it does not alter the fact that the troops that regretted firing into a house “filled with civilians” did not breach the rules of engagement, and would have been defended had the affected civilians complained.


And the existence of tens of thousands of cases of forbearance — reported and unreported — when American troops did not fire into occupied houses, does not alter the fact that American troops do, in fact, fire regularly into occupied homes — many times a day across Iraq, hundreds of times a month, and thousands of times a year. And that many times there are deaths and/or injuries — to men women and children. And that in virtually all cases, these incidents are not only legal, they are not only prescribed under the rules of engagement, they are the linchpin of the American strategy pacifying Iraq.


The saddest part of the situation: if the U.S. never fired into occupied homes, they would not be able to fight the war at all, since it would soon become rigorous insurgent policy to take refuge in occupied dwellings. Resistance fighters would find refuge because the virtually all residents in Sunni communities not only want the U.S. forces to leave, but also, according to even an American-sponsored poll, 88% approve of “attacks on US-led forces.”


If the U.S. did not fire into occupied dwellings, they could not fight the war because virtually all U.S. offensive actions take place (and must take place) in people’s homes: resistance fighters usually retreat into occupied homes after they set or detonate IEDs (as the American soldiers believed in Haditha); American patrols go to suspected insurgents’ homes to capture or kill them (as they did in the Ishaqi case); and — most of all — most residents are willing to actively “harbor” insurgents, because they are anxious to protect fighters in a cause they support and who are their friends, neighbors, fathers, sons, and brothers. Both Haditha and Ishaqi — and virtually all the other places where the U.S. fights the insurgents — are “hotbeds” of support for the resistance (there are hardly any areas of Sunni Iraq that are not).


Driven by this logic, the American military leadership has given its soldiers orders to fire on occupied dwellings, and they justify it with reference to the fact that the local residents are, in fact, “harboring” the insurgents. During the battle of Falluja, a high Pentagon official explained the underlying logic of this strategy to New York Times reporters Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt: “If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision. Do they want to harbor the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that, or do they want to get rid of the insurgents and have the benefits of not having them there?” Killing civilians, then, is not just “collateral damage,” but a positive aspect of the strategy.


This exact attitude was expressed — in somewhat cruder terms — by soldiers assigned to suppress the insurgency in Haditha, only a couple of months before the mayhem that has triggered this controversy. The marines were patrolling a nearby town (Haqlaniyah) in search of resistance fighters who had ambushed and killed six marines in Haditha in late July of 2005. Sgt. Marcio Vargas Estrada, speaking to his squad from Lima company, expressed what embedded Knight Ridder report Tom Lasseter characterized as a “sense of urgency” about capturing or killing the offenders:


“‘If somebody shoots at you, you waste them,’ said Estrada, 32, of Kearny, N.J. ‘When you go back to Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina), these will be the good old days, when you brought … death and destruction to — what is this place called?’


“A Marine answered in the darkness: ‘Haqlaniyah.’


“Estrada continued: ‘Haqlaniyah, yeah, that. And then we will take death and destruction to Haditha. Hopefully, we’ll stay until December so we can bring death and destruction to half of Iraq.’


“The flatbed truck erupted in a storm of ‘Hoo-ahs.’”


Later that day, Lasseter was in the midst of the fighting as marines brought “death and destruction” to Haqlaniyah, using 50 caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers while American attack helicopters “zoomed across the rooftops,” and “at least two 500-pound bombs” were dropped on the “border” of the city.


Keep in mind that all this “death and destruction” did not violate any of the American rules of engagement, since the technical targets were the perpetrators of the attacks on the marines and/or snipers encountered while searching for them. If one or five or fifty civilians were killed, they would technically be “collateral damage,” even though the soldiers — and their commanders — fully understood that these attacks were reprisals for support given to the insurgents by the residents of Haqlaniyah and Haditha.


And there you have it. The underlying justification for these rules of engagement is to punish the Iraqis for “harboring” insurgents; if they commit this crime of “harboring,” they will have to be ready to “suffer the consequences:” U.S. troops attacking “with small arms and then … calling in helicopters and, later, close air-support, essentially destroying the structure.”


Consider this situation as “crime and punishment.” The “crime,” in this case, is offering succor to the enemy, a non-violent act that, if illegal at all (after all the U.S. is invading their country, and resistance should be legal) might not be more than a misdemeanor. But the “punishment” is death in many cases, and in some cases, it is worse than death, since killing someone’s children as a sentence for their misdeeds may be the most “cruel and unusual” of all punishments.


This is the context into which we should place the terrible slaughter in Haditha. Certainly, the deliberate and calculated execution of whole families is different from calling in air strikes that annihilate a building and kill whole families. Deliberate and cold blooded executions involve a cruelty and barbarism that is simply not present when air power annihilates a structure.


But in a larger sense they are not so different. When Corporal Terrazas died that morning, the soldiers in his platoon were certainly convinced that the residents of this neighborhood — one in which they had experienced many casualties before — were sympathetic to and sheltering the culprits. And they were almost certainly correct in their assumption. They could have chosen to fire automatic weapons into the house nearest the explosion, telling themselves and anyone who asked that they spotted or suspected that the insurgents who detonated the blast had taken shelter there. If they had done this, their actions would have been entirely consistent with the rules of engagement, a proper application of U.S. military strategy, and any investigatory commission would have completely exonerated them. Then, if they had called in helicopter gunships and, finally, air strikes, any investigation would have concluded that their commanding officer “properly followed the rules of engagement as he necessarily escalated the use of force until the threat was eliminated.” In the end, the same buildings, and perhaps several more, might have been attacked; and the same people (and perhaps more) might have been killed. And it all would have been “legal.”


Whether the local residents died through bullets delivered at close range by avenging soldiers or through the destruction and collapse of their homes by 500 pound bombs, of retribution and collective punishment, as enunciated by the high Pentagon official, would still be at work: “If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision. Do they want to harbor the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that, or do they want to get rid of the insurgents and have the benefits of not having them there?


So the soldiers involved in Haditha do not see much difference between calling in air strikes or killing the residents at close range. Both accomplish the same purposes — retribution as well as a warning to others that they must “get rid of the insurgents” or suffer the (deadly) “consequences.”


There are two very large conclusions to draw from this agonizing situation.


First, there is a single word that defines what the U.S. did in both Ishaqi and Haditha: terrorism. A reasonable definition of terrorism is the use of violence against civilians in order to influence their behavior. This, for example, was the logic of the 9-11 attacks — to terrorize the American people into demanding a change in U.S. policy in the Middle East; and the Madrid and London subway attacks — to terrorize the Spanish and British people into demanding withdrawal from Iraq.


These attacks on the homes of civilians in Iraq follows that logic perfectly — they are designed to terrorize Iraqis into opposing the insurgency. Since the main activity of the occupation military in Iraq is to patrol hostile cities looking for a firefight, or enter homes to capture suspected insurgents, the policy of firing into people’s homes is the centerpiece of that policy. Sadly, terrorism is the linchpin of U.S. military policy in Iraq.


Second, this sort of state terrorism is an inevitable part of imperial occupations. Once the U.S. set out to impose its rule on Iraq, and once the Iraqis began systematically resisting, it was inevitable that the U.S. would arrive at state terrorism as its principle strategy of pacification. If an armed resistance movement has the support of the local population, then the enterprise of “rooting out” the enemy inevitably devolves into attacking civilians to force them to abandon the insurgency. In every war fought against guerrillas supported by the local population, the occupying power discovers the same logic that the American occupation authorities have discovered: they cannot “root out” the guerrillas without attacking their civilian support. That is, they must engage in wholesale terrorism in an attempt in convince the population not to “harbor” the guerrillas. And history is littered with the atrocities that derived from these efforts: The French in Algeria, the Russians in Chechnya and Afghanistan, the Israelis in the occupied West Bank, the Americans in the Philippines and Vietnam, the British in myriad locations around the empire, and the Nazis in virtually every country they invaded.


The horrifying logic of U.S. terrorism in Iraq has even bled its way into the mainstream media. In an extraordinary article on June 4 under the headline “War’s Risks Include Toll on Training Values,” New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti commented on the near-impossible requirement that the U.S. occupation “separate enemy fighters from the local population from which they draw strength,” and the inevitable consequence that “some American troops have come to see the population itself as the enemy.”


In discussing the various strategies designed to accomplish this “separation,” Mazzetti discusses the shifts in American policy between more and less punitive approaches to the dilemma. He then offers what is intended to be a reassuring comparison with other imperial efforts:


“Compared with campaigns like the French war in Algeria and the Russian operation in Chechnya, the American-led war in Iraq has been one of the least brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in recent memory.”


And even Mazzetti is not fully comforted by this comparison, since he then adds that “The longer a guerrilla campaign drags on, military experts say, the more a war’s brutality tends to increase. That is exactly what commanders in Iraq are concerned about now.” That is, the U.S. may yet overtake the French and Russians.


It is not clear how Mazzetti reached his conclusions about the relative brutality of counterinsurgency campaigns. But the very logic of comparing the brutality of the French, Russian and American occupations is sufficient to demonstrate that the U.S. effort to subjugate Iraq is an act of unvarnished brutality.


The real lesson of Haditha is that as long as the Bush Administration pursues its goal of pacifying Iraq, it will pursue a terrorist policy that involves killing tens thousands of Iraqi civilians.



Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on ZNet and TomDispatch, and in Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). He can be reached at [email protected].

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