In a scathing report on the aftermath of the massacre at Haditha, an Army general has concluded that Marine Corps commanders in Iraq simply didn't value the lives of Iraqi civilians very highly. It took determination, the general pointed out, not to notice anything amiss about an encounter that ended in the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqis, including women and children killed in their beds.
Three enlisted Marines have been charged with murder in the notorious incident, which occurred in restive Anbar province Nov. 19, 2005. Four officers have been charged with dereliction of duty because of their strange incuriosity following the episode.
It seems likely that there will be more Hadithas. The Pentagon has placed American troops in a miserable position: in the crossfire of a civil war, in urban combat where jihadists fire from civilian quarters, in a protracted conflict where their tours of duty grow ever longer. It's no wonder some American soldiers are no longer careful to distinguish between friend and foe. (Similar strains are showing in Afghanistan, where Marines are likely to be charged with murder in the deaths of 10 civilians last month.)
In such settings, even well-trained troops are so stressed that anger and fear overcome their better selves. A critical ethic of the battlefield - don't injure civilians - is not only forgotten but also resented. Last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki complained that the killing of innocent Iraqis by U.S. troops had become a "daily phenomenon" because the troops "do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable."
The prime minister's anger seems justified given the conclusions of a report on the mental health of combat troops seeing action in Iraq, completed last fall but released just recently. (Oddly, the report was kept under wraps while President Bush proposed the so-called surge, which inevitably meant longer tours of duty.)
The report found, not surprisingly, that longer tours and multiple deployments increase and intensify psychological problems in combat troops. It also showed that more than a third of troops endorsed torture in some circumstances, and most said they would not turn in a fellow service member for mistreating a civilian. One telling statistic: Only 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.
That unsettling statistic underscores the folly of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. According to Army Gen. David Petraeus, who literally wrote the book on fighting insurgencies, our troops must be committed to treating civilians with dignity and respect. The new counterinsurgency manual used by the Army and Marine Corps, written under General Petraeus' supervision, says, "An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents."
Most U.S. combat troops would never deliberately kill civilians. But under pressure, they may fire indiscriminately at checkpoints and rain bombs down on houses with women and children inside. When soldiers and Marines are surrounded by insurgents who hide behind civilians, those tactics may seem necessary. But those tactics practically guarantee that survivors will hate U.S. troops and cooperate with those who want to harm them.
Petraeus' doctrine might well have worked had the United States invaded Iraq with enough troops to do the job. According to sound counterinsurgency theory, he'd need hundreds of thousands more troops to control the violence and enable his personnel to deal with Iraqi civilians more amiably.
But the Army and Marines are already stretched way too thin. And the Bush White House is just as much in denial as those Marine Corps commanders who refused to see a massacre.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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