Haditha Is Arabic for My Lai

One day in November 2005, Marines in Haditha decided to take revenge for the death of one of their comrades from an IED by deliberately murdering 24 innocent, unarmed men, women, and children. They went into their houses and shot them at close range. Adults begged and pleaded and attempted to save their children by shielding them with their bodies, praying to the same god the soldiers pray to.

Afterward, the Marines lied to cover up their actions. The eight helpless men they slaughtered became “insurgents.” The other 15, necessarily “civilians” because of age or sex, they first claimed were also victims of the same IED; later, some were supposed to have been “collateral damage” of a supposed “exchange of gunfire” with said “insurgents.”

Unluckily for them, a journalism student had taken video of the bodies in the Haditha morgue, with images that showed victims shot in the head from close range in execution-style killings. According to Rep. John Murtha, speaking last week to the press and on Hardball with Chris Matthews, the military investigation of the incident will uphold the above claims.

Although Murtha was much more interested in making excuses for the Marines because of the stressful nature of the situation they were being put in than in talking about the actual incident, the old militarist deserves credit. When Matthews tried to spin the incident, Murtha calmly corrected him and said, no, there was no battle, no exchange of gunfire, no explosion – the troops killed 23 people “in cold blood.” When Matthews asked him if this was like My Lai, Murtha quite honestly said it was.

Indeed, the parallel to the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, where American soldiers slaughtered up to 500 Vietnamese civilians, lining men, women, and children up to be machine-gunned, is inescapable. The scale is smaller and most likely no women were raped this time, but the bestiality of the Haditha massacre is equivalent.

Now is not the time to bleat about our “support” for “the troops.” These particular depraved murderers deserve the best of medical care when they get home – but they should get it in prison.

Although for most Americans My Lai has somehow become a metonym for all American crimes in Vietnam, the truth is that My Lai was simply the tip of the iceberg. Smaller-scale massacres were common; in some areas, the indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese was standard operating procedure.

Haditha is also the tip of an iceberg. Two aspects of the incident suggest the possibility that there have been many more just like it. First, the attempted coverup, with stories about a firefight and collateral damage. Had it not been for video evidence that contradicted this, it’s very unlikely a military investigation would have been anything more than a rubber stamp.

Second, the attempt to pass off the eight men as insurgents. This, of course, encapsulates the logic of the U.S. military in the worst areas. During the second assault on Fallujah, for example, the operative principle was that any “military age male” in the city was presumptively a fighter and thus subject to attack. Plant a gun on a man you’ve killed, or, for that matter, a shovel, and instantly he’s an “insurgent.”

Haditha also connects organically to a whole series of different ways to kill civilians – checkpoint killings by trigger-happy soldiers, indiscriminate return fire in crowded civilian areas, use of area weapons like 2000-pound bombs on “suspected insurgents,” and a general “shoot first ask questions later” policy – that frequently amounts to, if not deliberate murder, a depraved indifference to Iraqi life. Then add on to that incidents like the two 2004 assaults on Fallujah, where civilian “collateral damage” is so widespread as to be a feature rather than a bug.

An innumerate and unempathetic American public was never able to comprehend the enormity of the crime that was the Vietnam War. To this day, people estimate that perhaps 100,000 Vietnamese – 3 to 5% of the actual number – were killed. While it was going on, the massive bombardment, the devastation of the ecosystem, the systematic destruction of life in certain rural areas, did not fully register with the vast majority of Americans. It was only the My Lai massacre that brought home to them the savage immorality of the war. Although Tet marked a turning point regarding winnability of the war, it was My Lai that turned the public morally against the war.

The time is ripe for a similar transformation regarding Iraq. So far, the brutality of parts of the insurgency on the one hand and the valorization of the troops on the other have made it difficult for any moral case against the war to be made (it’s hard mentally or emotionally to associate immoral acts with heroes and choirboys, let alone the heroic choirboys who are constantly presented to us). That must change now, and the Haditha massacre shows the way. Haditha is, indeed, Arabic for My Lai.

The Lessons We Learn

In the past several days, the Haditha massacre has been covered in depth by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and TIME magazine, as well as garnering some network news coverage. So far, local and regional papers have not followed suit.

When the results of the military investigation are released, supposedly next week, the level of media coverage should increase further.

John Murtha and even Republican John Warner of the Senate Armed Services Committee say that there was a coverup of the incident that quite clearly involved higher-up officers in the Marines. According to Murtha, “Until March, there was no serious investigation. There was an investigation right afterward, but then it was stifled.” Had it not been for the Iraqi journalism student’s video of the bodies, turned over by TIME magazine to military authorities, there would have been no investigation at all. Without further video evidence, like a Marine’s cell-phone picture of Iraqis kneeling before they were shot, the initial conclusion of the investigators, that the incident was a mere example of “collateral damage,” would likely have been sustained.

The U.S. news media effectively helped to keep the story under wraps. Although TIME, the Independent, and other foreign media had covered it months earlier, until Murtha spoke up at a May 17 press conference, essentially nobody else had picked up the story – even though a massacre of civilians by U.S. troops is unquestionably newsworthy.

Despite some consternation within official ranks over this story, there are already signs that an American public conditioned by longstanding prejudices to see the Iraq occupation as a savage bellum omnium contra omnes involving senseless Iraqis, with American troops trying vainly to impose order, will find it hard to process a story about atrocities committed by those same U.S. troops, much less one that suggests what an atrocity the whole occupation is. The predictable reprise of the Abu Ghraib – a few rotten apples – spin from the right wing, along with denunciations of John Murtha and others for attacking the troops will not help; neither, in turn, will Murtha’s and others’ constant protestations that they are not attacking the troops but supporting them nor their invocations of the great stress the Marines were under that forced them to go and shoot small children at point-blank range.

To understand the kind of intellectual and moral culture these revelations will fall into, one need look no further than Maureen Dowd’s last column. A sensitive humanist and liberal, she is clearly disturbed by the killings. And yet the upshot of her piece is this: the occupation of Iraq is making us become like them. We should not allow our contact with this particular heart of darkness to make us into them.

It is true that there are groups in Iraq that have distinguished themselves by phenomenal, senseless brutality. Even so, it is galling for America to invade a country, occupy it, destroy its social structures, cause the death of hundreds of thousands, kill tens of thousands itself, permanently destabilize the country, and even, occasionally, deliberately murder civilians, and have the only lesson be that we shouldn’t let Iraqi brutality contaminate us.

Two other stories will have to be covered in order for the American public to make sense of this story – in addition to the obvious one that Haditha is the tip of the iceberg. First, it is not true, as Murtha suggested, that lack of training has anything to do with this. On the contrary, U.S. military training makes such incidents inevitable. Soldiers march to chants like “Kill! Kill! Kill! Blood makes the grass grow.” This is not mindless sadism, but rather a specifically developed regimen designed to overcome the natural human aversion to killing another human. Soldiers are made into killing machines; a culture that will do this on the one hand and on the other constantly tout “humanitarian intervention,” where soldiers are supposed to safeguard the interests of a civilian population, is a culture in deep denial.

Second, racism and the peculiar brew of racialized militant nationalism and religion in the wake of 9/11. British officers have remarked numerous times on how U.S. interaction with Iraqis is characterized by racism. Remarking on the propensity of U.S. troops to use massive return fire in civilian areas, something it’s hard to imagine them doing in, say, Europe, one British officer said, “They don’t see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen.” This component has been ignored for too long.

Even My Lai, unfortunately, did not teach Americans lasting lessons of the kind they really need to learn. It is unquestionably up to the antiwar movement to try to ensure that Haditha does.

Rahul Mahajan http://www.empirenotes.org/

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