Eight armed men pull four unarmed teenagers and a taxi driver out of a cab and shoot them at point-blank range. They go on to kick down the doors of three houses, and slaughter 19 people in their nightclothes, including children as young as three.
The evidence is strong that most of the victims were shot at close range, execution style. What do you call this act? An American military court calls it “negligent dereliction of duty.”
On March 25, 2005, an IED killed one member of a U.S. Marine squad on patrol in Haditha, Iraq, and injured two others. The squad commander, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, ordered his men to enter the closest buildings with grenades and assault rifles. Only two children survived the massacre. When the marines later took the bodies to a local hospital, they concocted a story that the dead were insurgents who had been killed in the bomb blast. Given that most of their wounds were from gunshot, the doctor didn’t buy that story.
The U.S. Marine Corp stood by its men, and made up a new story: the convoy had come under fire after the bomb blast. It was now insurgents who had killed the civilians. At least three officers, Lt.-Col. Jeffrey Chessani, Capt. Luke McConnell and Capt. James Kimber, colluded in this fiction. Eyewitness accounts and physical evidence proved they’d been falsifying evidence, and all three have left the service. None have faced criminal charges or military discipline.
Of the eight men who did the killing, six faced charges but had them dropped, one was found not guilty, and this week the eighth, Wuterich, plea-bargained down from premeditated murder to dereliction of duty. His punishment for leading the massacre will be a loss of pay and reduction in rank.
While U.S. military courts have classified the revenge killings of civilians as dereliction of duty, international law sees it differently. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, civilians are “protected persons,” and deliberately targeting them is a war crime, as is covering up such actions. As one former U.S. Marine Corps prosecutor commented, “When you have 24 dead bodies and you get dereliction of duty, that’s pretty good defence work.”
Wuterich’s slap-on-the-wrist conviction and sentence send a message to U.S. troops, who are still in combat in Afghanistan, where the rules of engagement are not dissimilar to those in Iraq. The Haditha story has already replayed itself in Afghanistan. In Nangahar in 2007, marines killed 19 civilians after their convoy was struck by an IED, and in Shinar that same year marines fleeing a car bomb attack fired indiscriminately at passing civilians, killing 19 and injuring 50.
You could read all this to suggest that the U.S. Marine Corps is inherently evil. Or you could see it as the natural result of placing groups of well-armed young men in a dangerous and terrifying situation day after day, among people they don’t know and have been taught not to trust. There is no way of telling an Afghan or Iraqi civilian from an insurgent, (though being three years old ought to be some kind of clue), and soldiers are taught, as Wuterich ordered his men that day, to “shoot first and ask questions later.”
When 24 civilians lie dead and one man suffers a pay-cut, it’s obvious the system is broken. But how much better would it have been if Wuterich had faced the death penalty? The polar opposite of impunity, executing Wuterich would have reminded the marines that even in a dirty war you can’t simply shoot anyone you feel like shooting no matter how angry you are. But it wouldn’t have changed the essential fact of their lives. They live under fire. They’re scared every day. They’re trained to absolute loyalty to their unit. They’re trained to kill. In short, they’re at war.
Modern war is less and less about battlefields and more and more about mighty powers in their mighty machines contending with resistance fighters without uniforms, who bury a bomb and go back to their day jobs. To throw soldiers into that situation is to court more Hadithas, more Nangahars and Shinars. This is what it means when politicians talk about a “robust foreign policy.” Ask this question, each and every time they fire up the military machine.
Is it worth it?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.