I don't consider myself naive about war, but then I've never been in the military and certain childish notions die harder than others. So when I read more confirmations of the apparent U.S. Marines' massacre of 24 civilians in Iraq, I felt as though one last childhood and journalistic illusion had been shattered.
My illusion was simply this: that the Marines were somehow a cut above the other service branches -- tougher, more aggressive, maybe even more violent, but above all more self-disciplined. It was the Army, after all, that got caught at My Lai, not only in the perpetration of the massacre but also in the subsequent cover-up. In Vietnam, I assumed, the Army was where the greatest breakdowns in discipline occurred -- the most pot smoking as well as the most "fragging" of overly ambitious second lieutenants who unnecessarily placed their platoons in harm's way.
A friend of mine who used to cover wars for a living tells me I'm foolish to be so influenced by Marine Corps propaganda. Contemporary Marines are, if anything, more dangerous to civilians than the Army, because of the way they're juiced up in basic training (see Jarhead, the book or movie). He said he always found Army troops more laid back, less on edge. But such distinctions are academic, particularly in a guerrilla war such as Vietnam or Iraq. All soldiers under constant unpredictable fire will tend toward animal instinct and vengefulness. It's bad enough being shot at and blown up by people you can't identify -- even worse not to be able to vent your frustration and shoot back at your assailants.
Of course, you don't need to have been in combat to know that all wars are massacres, more or less, in which large numbers of noncombatants get killed. Revenge killings against innocents are the inevitable excess that comes with the territory -- particularly when the territory is full of hostile people who don't wear uniforms.
Indeed, it may be inaccurate even to call the Haditha massacre an atrocity. As Phillip Knightley wrote, in his essential book on war reporting, The First Casualty, My Lai was nothing special, "at least, if it is argued that an atrocity is taken to be something freakish, something quite apart from the normal events coming before and after it. My Lai, on the contrary, was an unusually pure example of the nature of the war in Vietnam, and departed little -- if at all -- from common American practice."
Now the Marines seem to have their own My Lai, and I'll bargain that the murders in Haditha were unexceptional events in the dirty war we're fighting in Iraq. What was the "retaking" of Fallujah but a massacre, in which civilian bystanders were killed in the name of public order but really to avenge the murder and torching of the Blackwater contract mercenaries working for the U.S. military.
And what of the Marine shooters themselves? How are we to judge them? Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones has described the bloody aftermath in Haditha, but he hasn't provided much insight into the mood of the killers other than that "a lot of people were mad" about the hideous death by roadside bomb of their Marine comrade Miguel Terrazas. We'll probably never know why this particular killing, rather than some other horror, set off the members of Kilo Company, but we can understand why such things happen. Just because the Marines' behavior is inexcusable doesn't mean we can't empathize with them in their miserable predicament.
A more thoughtful source on this subject is Ted Morgan, whose new book, My Battle of Algiers, recounts the dirty war, so similar to Iraq, that was fought by the French against Arab guerrillas -- and by the Arabs against the French -- in the late 1950s in colonial Algeria.
At one point, Morgan, who was a French conscript soldier, recalls his killing of a defenseless guerrilla suspect "strung up with his wrists tied over a horizontal beam, so that his feet didn't touch the ground." Ordered by his commander to punch the recalcitrant man repeatedly in the stomach to make him talk, Morgan writes, "something happened to me. I started to lose it. I was in an altered state, where my mental processes broke down."
Horrified at the man's death, Morgan asked to be arrested.
"Don't be ridiculous," replied the officer. "When you go to the [steam bath] you sweat, and in war there are losses. It's the logic of things."
Morgan notes that "young men are sent out to fight wars and are placed in situations they are not prepared to deal with." But though he "was deeply ashamed of [the killing,] . . . at the same time I did not recognize the right to be criticized by those who had not been put in harm's way. It's a little too easy to sit in one's living room and watch TV and be horrified by the reprehensible acts committed by men in combat."
I don't agree that "only those who have been there" have the right to judge soldiers, but I know what Morgan is driving at. The Marines who did the killing at Haditha will no doubt be scapegoated -- like Lynnde England, of Abu Ghraib -- for an unjustifiable and unwinnable war, created by venal politicians. If we're to punish anyone for Haditha, we should start with President Bush and the congressmen, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who sent Roel Briones and Kilo Company on a murder-suicide mission in which there can be no justice.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2006 The Providence Journal