Reports of the alleged execution of up to two dozen Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the city of Haditha last November have been floating around since February. Until recently, Haditha generated a disinterested murmur barely louder than those of all the other reports of U.S. killings of numbers of Iraqi civilians that have surfaced in the last three years, primarily in Arabic-language media, quickly forgotten. But a Time magazine report and a subsequent U.S. military investigation have suddenly turned Haditha into a major story.
And so it was that Pentagon ally and war critic Rep. Jack Murtha made headlines Sunday when he pronouced, on ABC's This Week, that Haditha had the potential to be "worse than Abu Ghraib" for its potential to undermine the U.S. war effort.
We're likely to hear variations on such statements quite a bit as this story unfolds. I'm not sure whether to weep, laugh hysterically (were the topic not so deadly serious), scream, throttle the speaker, or, well, cry s'more (pick five).
Let's set aside, for the moment, the most obvious response ("How can you undermine a complete disaster?"). Murtha's reasoning bugs me, a lot, for what it says about both the American public's idea of war and our rather patronizing idea of Iraqis.
We already know that nobody in Washington, Republican or Democrat, is judging the success of the war in Iraq by whether the American public supports it. So the basic logic of Murtha's assertion, and others like it, is a calculus of the impact of Haditha -- both the murders and the Pentagon cover-up -- on Iraqis' perception of whether the presence of U.S. troops is a worthwhile thing.
Every poll shows that a supermajority of the Iraqi public would like to see at least a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal, if not an immediate pullout. But somehow Murtha -- and for Rep. Murtha you may insert the thinking of most anyone among the Beltway political class -- is concerned that Haditha will sour the opinions of Iraqis already largely opposed to our presence.
But to suggest that the commission of an atrocity will all but doom the war effort is to suggest that the war effort was, from the inception, all but doomed. Atrocities happen in every war. It's the nature of war. Counter-insurgency wars are especially nasty. One should expect bad things to happen when one makes a decision to go to war. If Haditha means that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq in the future is unlikely to be productive, then what it means is that there was never any chance our soldiers' presence would be productive in the first place, because atrocities were all but inevitable. Which, I suspect, is not what Rep. Murtha was trying to say, although it may well be true. And in terms of "worse than Abu Ghraib," I get kinda fuzzy as to why the moral fallout from the actions of a dozen mostly low-ranking Marines would be worse than that of torture policies crafted and approved at the highest levels of U.S. government.
I'm also having a hard time understanding why the average Iraqi should care about the cold-blooded murders of a couple of dozen more civilians when somewhere between 40,000 and 200,000 civilians have already died as a result of this war. In modern warfare, 90 percent of casualties are civilian, and Iraq appears no different. Since U.S. soldiers and bombers have been responsible for a significant number of those deaths already -- and through our launching of the war we're responsible for all of them -- what's the difference between cold-blooded executions (if that in fact is what happened in Haditha) and soldiers that proceed despite the statistical certainty of massive "collateral damage"? The "oops, we weren't really aiming for them" defense might make our soldiers and a queasy American public feel better about civilian deaths we've caused halfway around the world, but to survivors, loved ones, and the Iraqi countrymen who will be the judges of whether U.S. soldiers' success has been "undermined," I doubt it makes much difference at all. Dead is dead. If it's at the hands of a foreign occupier, how inclined would you be to either take an uninvestigated claim of "that was an accident" at face value, or to forgive the perpetrators?
And then, there's the cover-up. This is even less of a shock than the original atrocity. From Abu Ghraib to white phosphorus to Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch, virtually every major story in the last three involving the battlefield has involved either fanciful storytelling or serious ass-covering by the Pentagon. The very language of the DoD and White House is one of lies and misperception: "collateral damage," "enemy combatants," and so on. And the invasion of Iraq itself was based on White House lies and continues to be sold with the same cabal's crudely delusional fantasies. The tone starts at the top, and oozes down the chain of command. Have Iraqis caught on to the fact that official America lies routinely? Sure they have. It's patronizing and insulting to think otherwise.
Should Iraqis be angry, and will they be angry, about what happened at Haditha? Of course. But I very much doubt they are surprised, and we shouldn't be, either. This is what war smells like. Iraqis are already well aware of what's been going on, even if we Americans choose to remain largely unconcerned and oblivious. That is why Iraqis' perceptions of whether the presence of U.S. troops is a worthwhile thing cannot be undermined much further. Turns out it really is difficult to undermine a complete disaster.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. Email to: email@example.com
© 2006 Working Assets