Haditha watch: Marines investigate their own atrocities

The morning of November 19, 2005, one Marine and 24 Iraqis were killed in the town of Haditha, in occupied Iraq.  Within hours, the Marines had claimed that the improvised explosive device that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas had also killed 15 civilians, while eight “insurgents” were killed in self-defense.  This description was a lie.  None of the Iraqis, 19 of whom died in their homes, were killed by the roadside bomb.  Among the men, four were killed in a house, while five – three students, a friend and their taxi driver – were either ordered or dragged from their car before being shot on the street. A balanced investigation of the morning by the German magazine Der Spiegel is online, as is the collaborative Wikipedia article on the Haditha killings.

Largely because the bedrooms of the 15 women and children who were killed that morning were recorded on video, and because that video made it into the American press, the marines involved are now on trial. One of them has turned state’s evidence, testifying that that not only did he shoot civilians of the orders of a superior officer, but he then proceeded to desecrate their freshly killed bodies. Meanwhile, apartheid rules of evidence are governing both the trial and the American press coverage. Iraqi eyewitness testimony and the conclusions of the medical examiner are being essentially discounted as either pleas for compensation money, or subject to nationalist bias.  The Marines are being held to a standard based on rules of engagement, rather than morality or law. Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, who “responded instinctively, assaulting into the room and emptying his pistol” into the house where four men were killed, was recommended for exoneration by the Marines on the grounds that,  “Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, LCpl Sharratt’s actions were in accord with the rules of engagement.”

You can expect that the assumption that any Military Aged Male in Iraq is an insurgent (see Juan Cole on the Rules of Engagement) will be upheld, or at least that any marine testifies that he thought such a person was armed will be backed up. this is especially chilling given the story of the men in the taxi (quoting Der Spiegel):

They were driving eastward into the morning sun, and the driver was probably momentarily blinded by the glare. By the time they had registered the scene unfolding in front of them, it was too late. What they saw signaled imminent danger: a wrecked Humvee, clouds of smoke, soldiers with drawn weapons. Normally they would have turned around immediately. But the soldiers motioned for them to stop. Anyone who attempted to continue driving at that point would come under fire. Those are the rules in Injun Country.

The Iraqis stopped. The Marines approached, signaling to the driver to turn off the engine. The Iraqis got out of the car. Up until this point, the various pieces of testimony coincide. The men and the vehicle had to be searched for weapons and explosives. When no weapons were found, it was clear that the five men posed no immediate danger. They were told to sit down with their hands behind their heads.

At some point the five men were shot.

The “Rules of Engagement” permit any Marine to kill without warning in the event of danger. This is especially applicable when it comes to so-called MAMs, or Military Age Males. Who were these five men? Were they scouts who had been sent to investigate how successful the attack had been?

The Marines must have known how unlikely this was. Only one man, not five, would have been needed to survey the scene. He would have hidden first or would have come from the River Road, on a motorcycle.

Did the five men try to run away? That was the way the accused Marines described it. Possible, but also unlikely. Most of all, it is unlikely that all five Iraqis would have pursued the same suicidal impulse. Besides, the Marines could have shot the Iraqis in the legs to prevent them from running away. However one paints the scenario, the key issue is that the men were unarmed.

Can these men get justice? A recent Editor & Publisher apology to Sharatt makes MAM status into a full explanation:

Unlike Sharratt, who was accused of killing three men who were between the ages of 24 and 41, Tatum is accused of killing women and children as young as 4 years old and as elderly as 76 years old.

For his part, Tatum is arguing “women and children can hurt you, too.” To make the entire situation more bleak, the man with the final decision on prosecution is none other than Lt. Gen. James Mattis, infamous for the following quote:

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.”

Mattis has just pronounced Sharatt “innocent” and exonerated Capt. Randy Stone for failures in reporting the incident (more on those here).  On Stone, Mattis stated yesterday, “his attentiveness to training the Marines in the law of war and rules of engagement and willingness to share their hardship to better appreciate the challenges facing them are notable. By patrolling alongside the infantrymen in his Battalion, he helped them embrace the imperative of ethical behavior in combat.”

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