When something snaps

June 04, 2006

Here is how defense attorney George Latimer put it at the court-martial:

"These are the experiences just before they go in: a number of reconnaissance and sweep and destroy missions, without ever seeing an enemy; losses of buddies by mines and snipers; never any security from death for it always came from unseen and unknown sources. ... You never knew when your number was up, and you never knew when the next step might cost you a leg or your life. ... Women and children operating with your enemy, being used to help destroy your unit. That enemy was lethal, but it could not be seen. This is the type of warfare that fans hatred against any enemy and anyone who can aid the enemy, and when the fight starts, it is too late to reason why."

The court was not swayed, and it convicted Mr. Latimer's client, Lt. William J. Calley Jr., of premeditated murder for his role in the massacre at the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968.

Now, in another war, another criminal investigation is looking at the possibility that American fighting men murdered innocent civilians, this time in an Iraqi town called Haditha. At least one other incident is also under investigation. The same points that Mr. Latimer made have been raised again - and for good reason. Unrelenting stress and anxiety go without saying for soldiers in Iraq. The Marine unit that was in Haditha last November, when 24 civilians were killed, was on its third tour in Iraq and patrolling the implacably hostile Anbar province. In three years of fighting, Iraq has become a war with no end and no exit, much as Vietnam was.

Nothing excuses murder. War crimes are not inevitable. But no one should be surprised that they happen.

Haditha was not on the scale of My Lai, where as many as 500 villagers were killed over the course of an entire morning. The crimes at My Lai were compounded by an official cover-up (and the same may go for Haditha). Lieutenant Calley was the only man ever convicted in the My Lai case, and at the time, large majorities of Americans believed he had been unfairly singled out. Yet the news of My Lai worked its way into the national psyche; if people had ever believed that the war in Vietnam had been a noble or generous or just cause, My Lai testified to something quite different.

So far, the reaction to the Haditha killings has been muted, but maybe that's because Americans have already shed their illusions about Iraq. Most alarming has been the reaction among Iraqis themselves: They reportedly see Haditha as typical of American behavior in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shares this view. It may be exaggerated, it may be unfair - but it suggests that the United States has lost the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

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