The road to Haditha: changing face of war

August 22, 2006|By GEORGE J. BRYJAK

SAN DIEGO -- On Nov. 19, 2005, a unit of Marines arrived at the Iraqi village of Haditha to remove the bodies of civilians reportedly killed by a roadside blast. What they found were infants, women and children shot in the face and chest and the body of a wheelchair-bound elderly man riddled with bullets.

A group of Marines are under criminal investigation that could lead to murder charges in the slayings of 24 civilians in the western Iraqi village. Like Abu Ghraib, Haditha has become synonymous with war atrocities, in this case an alleged act of retribution for the roadside bombing death of a fellow Marine. If the Marines are charged, it will be for a military court to determine their guilt or innocence. But some already have sought to explain what can never be condoned.

"Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former Marine Corps officer, contended based on his discussions with military officials.

While stress may have been a factor in that particular incident, the changing nature of war and the American military's response to those changes provide a history and context for the challenges confronting U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere today.

In the midst of World War II, U.S. Army Col. S.L.A. Marshall was given the task of determining whether battlefield soldiers were performing their primary duty: killing enemy combatants. He conducted individual and group interviews with more than 400 military companies fighting in Europe and the Pacific. To his surprise - and the horror of Pentagon officials - on average, only 15 percent of soldiers fired their weapons during the course of a battle, even when their lives were threatened.

As a consequence of revised boot camp training, Colonel Marshall later discovered that 50 percent of Korean War soldiers attempted to kill the enemy. That number increased to more than 90 percent by the Vietnam War. Convincing young recruits they must kill without hesitation has become an integral component of basic training.

Killing is made easier when the enemy is dehumanized, a psychological tactic virtually all armies use. Undeserving of moral consideration, one's opponent no longer merits humane treatment and can be killed without remorse. Capt. Jason Kostal, a former commander at Fort Benning's sniper school, stated: "We don't talk about `Engage this person,' `Engage that guy.' It's always `Engage that target' ... You're not thinking, I wonder if that guy has three kids."

Dehumanization is easier when the enemy is of a different racial, ethnic, religious or cultural group. In Iraq, as was the case in Vietnam, our opponent differs on all of these counts.

Combat is stressful. However, in conventional conflicts such as World War II, the tension, anxiety, and mental fatigue of war are lessened somewhat between battles and by movement to relatively safe "behind-the-lines" zones. In Vietnam- and Iraq-type hostilities there are fewer safe zones. Enemy soldiers and combatants are elusive and often pose as civilians.

Military sociologist Charles Moskos notes that when insurgents are supported by the local populace, innocent civilians are likely to be viewed as the bad guys. "In these situations of extreme stress," he notes, "one can lose one's moral balance."

This is especially so when the next attack is unpredictable. And the prevalence of roadside bombs in the Iraq theater has enhanced the fight's unpredicatability.

The Marines charged in the Haditha killings have maintained that their actions fell within the rules of engagement. At one point, when the Marines believed they were under attack, they tossed grenades into a house and then entered firing, as they had been trained to do. That procedure makes sense in clearing bunkers on a traditional battlefield. But it's a highly questionable tactic if you're clearing houses in a village. Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army chief of staff, noted that although the United States fights "big wars" better than anyone, "we have no skills in counterinsurgency."

This lack of counterinsurgency prowess, coupled with a kind of on-the-job training needed to fight in Iraq, puts additional pressure on troops, increasing the likelihood of Haditha-type incidents.

For some, what occurred in Haditha was a tragic yet unavoidable consequence of the "fog of war." To a certain extent, this may be true. But individual responsibility for these deaths cannot be dismissed.

No matter how difficult the military objective, how chaotic the field of battle, the wholesale killing of civilians can never be justified or excused. To absolve military personnel of any responsibility for their behavior is to take the first step toward condoning war crimes.

George J. Bryjak, a former Marine, is a research associate in the department of sociology at the University of San Diego. His e-mail is

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