Sunday, May 20, 2007

Haditha check-in

The New York Times' Paul von Zielbauer is on the Marine atrocity beat. He's the author of the surprisingly analytical article I blogged a few posts ago. His recent follow-up, on the Haditha hearings, is a return to media normalcy -- 'Lawyers on Haditha Panel Peer into Fog of War':
...the seven-day hearing opened a rare public window onto a debate about how the Marine Corps is fighting in Iraq against a ruthless insurgency that uses civilians as cover and disregards the laws of conflict taught in the United States.
As a description of what happened on November 19, 2005 in Haditha, that's just bizarre.

A roadside bomb exploded as a convoy went by, killing a marine in the gruesome way that such weapons do. The squad leader went berserk, ordering five unarmed men out of a nearby taxi and shooting them on the spot, after which another sergeant pissed on their bodies. Then a lieutenant arrived and ordered the unit to "take" a nearby house. They proceeded over the next several hours to kill nineteen men, women, and children in four houses with fragmentation grenades and machine guns.

Who disregarded the laws of conflict here? Where in this episode are insurgents using civilians as cover?

Von Zielbauer lets this exchange go by without a word of correction:

“If there had been 150 bodies [of noncombatants killed in action] that day,” Major McCann asked, ... “where would we be, in your mind?”

Captain Dinsmore, a 21-year veteran testifying by telephone from Iraq, offered a relatively impassioned response. He said the Iraq war rarely provided clear lines between combatants and civilians. The marines in Haditha that day, under small-arms fire in a profoundly hostile Sunni Arab region, could either abide by the laws of war and risk being killed, or could take aggressive steps to protect themselves and their squad members, and risk committing a war crime.

The clarification that the reporter fails to mention: The investigation that finally took place (after Time published the story of the massacre four months later) found no forensic evidence that the unit took any fire at all, small arms or otherwise. All the bulletholes in the area were from the marines' weapons. The witnesses and participants tell wildly different stories about who was being shot at. And the only weapon found in the four houses where the residents were killed was one pistol, which had not been fired.

But who's counting? Fog of war, man, fog of war.

Update: 21 May 3:30 am - Somehow I missed until today William Langewiesche's 'Rules of Engagement', an eminently worthwhile piece on the Haditha incident that appeared last November. I don't remember anyone linking to it or discussing it at the time, but the pointers to his just-out article on nuclear proliferation all mention and praise 'RoE'. Rightly so; reading it has, among other things, helped me take a more generous view of von Zielbauer's article in the Times. But I wish that Langewiesche had stuck with the story, because I'd be very interested in his response to a number of points that have come out since he finished writing.

For now, though, just wanted to note a passage that answers some of my questions about the immunity deal offered to the lying little weasel Lt. William Kallop:
Like other lieutenants in Kilo Company, Kallop was junior in all but rank to the senior enlisted men, to whom he naturally deferred. He had a reputation of being a little soft, a little lost. He was the pleasant son of a wealthy New York family, who had joined the Marine Corps, it was believed in Kilo Company, to prove something to himself before returning to a life of comfort. As a soldier he was said to be average.

When the allegations against Kilo Company surfaced in the spring of 2006, his parents vigorously reacted. They hired a New York public-relations firm that specializes in legal cases, and then engaged a defense attorney who is a former Marine general and was once one of the top lawyers in the Corps. The implicit warning may have had some effect. While McConnell and Chessani were humiliated and relieved of their commands, and Wuterich was fingered in public, Kallop was left untouched, though technically upon his arrival at Route Chestnut on November 19 he had become the commander on the scene.
Image: Sgt. Frank Wuterich by Lucian Read in Haditha, fall 2005.



At 8:30 AM, May 21, 2007, Blogger Donald said...

To me one of the most interesting points about the William L (I can't remember how to spell his name) account and others is the little glimpse it gives into US-inflicted civilian casualties. The defense the Marines at Haditha give is that the civilians were killed in the normal course of military operations, and while the evidence may not support that claim, it apparently has some initial plausibility because, according to William L and others, civilian casualties caused by the US in the counterinsurgency war are quite common. But I at least see very little about them in the press.

At 11:32 AM, May 21, 2007, Blogger Nell said...

Langewiesche's point is that the rules of engagement themselves are the crime. The most valuable parts of his article are his discussion of calling in airstrikes on buildings, which another squad did that day in a different part of Haditha. The interview with L. that accompanies the article goes into that a bit more.

I was immediately reminded of the very similar and apparently somewhat routine incident in Isahaqi, near Balad, which happened the same week that Time's article about Haditha appeared (it was also the third anniversary of the invasion).

Bruce Rolston, the Canadian military blogger whom I respect a great deal, points to data showing that there is much less bombing than war critics have claimed. I believe his figures show there's less bombing from fixed-wing aircraft, but one hell of a lot of helicopter missile-firing and artillery strikes on houses known or reasonably suspected to contain noncombatants.


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