Put Away the Broad Brushes

June 5, 2006

Where are O.J. Simpson’s and Bill Clinton’s defenders to complain about the “rush to judgment” concerning the alleged Marine atrocities in Haditha? Why are their sympathies free flowing for criminal defendants, but nowhere to be seen when military personnel are accused of wrongdoing?

What has been reported about the Haditha tragedy is that a terrorist improvised explosive device (IED) blew a Marine in half, literally, and wounded several others. Afterward, our soldiers responded to the attack, killing 24 men, women and children.

We don’t know for sure yet if the killings were indiscriminate or even if those killed were victims, as opposed to being armed, hostile and threatening to our soldiers.

We do have reports that Haditha is a terrorist hotbed — referred to by some as a miniature Taliban-like state — in which the terrorists rule with an iron fist and perform daily executions of those not sufficiently obedient to their rule, or Sharia law, or who knows what else. We are told that Haditha citizens live in fear and may prefer to cooperate with the terrorists purely for self-preservation.

Reportedly, a preliminary military inquiry found evidence that the attacks were unprovoked and that earlier statements by certain Marines that the civilians were killed by a roadside bomb rather than gunfire have been discredited.

Admittedly, the allegations are highly troubling, as is the initial finding that some Marines may have made false statements in their initial reports. But we must remember that at this point, they are just allegations.

While much of this seems damning, there are anomalies in the reports that point toward mitigation of the Marines’ conduct. There is evidence, not yet conclusive, that Marines received small arms fire from the houses nearby and returned it. Sometime thereafter, the Marines rushed the houses and killed those inside. Previous media reports on Haditha have told of civilian complicity in attacks against U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. A 12-year-old survivor admitted that she knew in advance of the plot to ambush the Marine convoy with an IED detonation. If she knew, how likely is it that her parents, other family members and neighbors were unaware of the plan?

Let me be clear. If our soldiers killed unarmed, non-hostile, innocent bystander-type civilians, even if in a rage over the murder of their colleague, they deserve to be punished in accordance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice. No nation holds its soldiers to higher account than the United States and that will certainly be true in this case.

But unlike some others, I prefer to operate with a presumption that it is unlikely, but far from impossible, that our troops would behave that way. While an enraged group mentality could have overcome them, it is hard to see how the indiscriminate slaughter of wholly innocent noncombatants would quench any thirst they may have had for revenge.

We must be wary of those who insist they support the troops yet are eager to believe the worst about them before we have even heard their side of the story.

We must be especially resistant to efforts to extrapolate from this isolated incident the conclusion that a climate conducive to atrocities permeates the entirety of our fighting forces, as happened with Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. The overwhelming majority of our soldiers are honorable, decent and good people who would not and do not participate in such behavior. They are also engaged in a noble and necessary mission, though the longer the war lasts, the more that fact becomes obscured.

The anti-war left has already tried and convicted the accused soldiers. The media have called it a war crime, a massacre and an intentional act to send a message to Iraqis. How they know these things is impossible to divine.

Congressman John Murtha (D-Pa.), who is apparently entitled to make any outrageous statement against the war with impunity because of his military record, is somehow sure — without the benefit of admissions from alleged perpetrators, and certainly not a trial — that the incident was “much worse than reported in Time magazine. … Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

Murtha conveniently expressed his findings in his May 17 press conference, in which, for the umpteenth time, he called for the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Other anti-war politicians and activists will throw circumspection to the wind and exploit this tragedy, perhaps not out of genuine humanitarian concerns, but to discredit the war. It would be nice to believe otherwise, but their track record of accentuating and exaggerating events to smear the entire U.S. military and its mission is consistent, long and reprehensible.

No matter how this turns out, let’s remember the true character of the overwhelming majority of our soldiers.