Dear Bloggers de Guerre,
Like most of you, I’ve been a civilian all my life. Most of what I know about war I learned from books and movies. If you’ve never served in the military or lived in an active war zone (New York City doesn’t count), all you know about war you learned from books and movies. You may not wish to admit this; some of you seem to think you have superior insight into martial matters bestowed upon you by ideological grace. But I doubt that’s true, even if you’ve seen a lot more war movies than I have.
Like most of you, I have enormous respect and appreciation for the U.S. military. I realize that most of you think liberals by definition hate the military, because you have encountered some liberals who hated the military, and since we’re all just alike we must all hate the military. But in fact it doesn’t work that way. I believe most of us, in fact, do not hate the military. I am personally acquainted with at least one sure-enough liberal who was a career army officer. Believe it, or not.
I want to talk to you about the allegations that U.S. Marines deliberately killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians last November 19. I take it most of you do not believe these allegations. Many of you are accusing Rep. John Murtha, who repeated the allegations on last night’s “Hardball” at MSNBC, of making wild accusations, of being anti-American, of engaging in a verdict first, trial later condemnation. Copious amounts of adjectives like “dishonorable,” “unconscionable” and “treasonous” are being heaped on Murtha’s name. Some of you concede there might be some truth in the allegations, but that Murtha should not have spoken out while investigations are ongoing.
Here’s what I say: As investigations are ongoing, we who were not there do not know what happened. OK, but that includes Murtha, you say. According to Drew Brown of Knight Ridder, however, Murtha said he learned what the investigation found from “military commanders and other sources.” He is known to be well connected to the career military guys in the Pentagon, so this is possible.
It can be argued that Murtha should not have spoken up until the investigation was complete. On the other hand, it’s possible that without some pressure on the Pentagon the results of the investigation will never be made public. Billmon:
I don’t know why Murtha went public (just as the right wingers don’t know) but I can make my own guess: He did it to try to prevent Rumsfeld’s toadies from classifying and then deep sixing the investigative report, as they tried to bury the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib. And if the past really is prologue, Murtha is probably speaking on behalf of some fairly senior Marine officers who either can’t abide a cover up, or who want to pin the blame on the people who created this mess, and left the jarheads in Haditha to deal with it, instead of on their beloved Corps.
Accounts of what happened on November 19 are heart-wrenching. This is from Nancy A. Youssef of Knight Ridder (April 8, 2006):
The Marines say they took heavy gunfire afterwards and thought it was coming from the area around Younes’ house. They went to investigate, and 23 people were killed.
Eight were from Younes’ family. The only survivor, Younes’ 13-year-old daughter, said her family wasn’t shooting at Marines or harboring extremists that morning. They were sleeping when the bomb exploded. And when the Marines entered their house, she said, they shot at everyone inside. …
… The events of last November have clearly taken their toll on Yaseen and his niece, Safa, who trembles visibly as she listens to Yaseen recount what she told him of the attack. She cannot bring herself to tell the tale herself.
Frightened, Safa fainted. She thought she had died. When she awoke, she remembered seeing her mother still lying in bed. Her head was blown open. She looked around and heard her 3-year-old brother, Mohammed, moan in pain. The blood was pouring out of his right arm.
“Come on, Mohammed. Get up so we can go to uncle’s house,” she told her brother. But he couldn’t.
In the same room where her mother, aunt and sisters lay dead, Safa grabbed the toddler, sat down and leaned his head against her shoulder. She put his arm against her chest and held it to try to stop the bleeding. She kept holding and talking to him until, like everyone else in the room, he too was silent. And then she ran next door.
Maybe Yaseen and Safa are lying. Maybe they’re confused. Maybe they aren’t.
I’m fond of reading about history, including military history. Incidents like those described by Yaseen and Safa happen in war. Exactly one century ago, in 1906, troops under the command of Gen. Leonard Wood massacred at least 900 (reported at the time as 600) Filipino Muslims on the island of Jolo. The dead included women and children, killed indiscriminately. Anti-imperlialists published pamphlets and distributed a photograph of the carnage.
The Filipinos of Jolo, fleeing gunfire, took shelter in the crater of a dormant volcano.
The Americans rigged a block and tackle to hoist their artillery up the last 300 feet, and, as the Moros fled over the lip, the Americans opened a barrage into the 50-foot-deep crater. With orders from Wood to â€œkill or capture the six hundred,â€ the American forces descended into the crater in an ever-shrinking circle. Wood wrote, â€œThe action resulted in the extinction of a band of outlaws.â€ Fifteen Americans were killed in the fighting; all six hundred Moros died.
Mark Twain’s comments on the episode are here.
There have been other massacres by U.S. troops, such as Wounded Knee in 1890 and My Lai in 1968. In fact, the history of warfare around the world, through history, is riddled with accounts of atrocities. We who have not been at war might like to imagine that such acts are aberrations or only committed by our enemies, not us. But I suspect we are being naive.
Two centuries ago, the historians tell us, wars in western society were mostly fought in discrete battles by soldiers in pretty uniforms. Battles were horrific — mostly bayonet work, close up and bloody — but most of the time battles would last a day or two, and the soldiers had days or weeks or months of relative safety until the next battle. But since the dawn of trench warfare — by most accounts, Grant’s siege of Petersburg, Va., 1864-65 — soldiers in war face unrelenting stress for days, weeks, months on end. And in these days of “asymmetrical warfare,” when combatants blend in with civilians and death can come even at the hands of children, the stress must be a great deal more than the human nervous system was designed to bear.
Some soldiers are going to break down. This happens. We don’t know if it happened in Iraq on November 19, but it could have happened. The allegations may or may not be true, but they are not “outrageous.” They are serious.
If this massacre did occur as Yaseen and Safa described it, suppressing discussion of it out of some misguided notion of national pride isn’t doing the war effort a damn bit of good. Even if Americans never hear the details, Iraqis have heard the details. The rest of the Muslim world has heard the details. They heard the details months ago, long before Jack Murtha spoke of them on television. Denying what they know — or believe — to be true doesn’t make us more trustworthy in their eyes. If even those who might want peace and democracy believe they cannot trust the U.S. and our troops, there isn’t much point in our remaining in Iraq, is there?
If it happens that the allegations are not true, and we can prove it, we need to get our proof in front of the world as soon as possible. If we learn that the allegations are not true, we should reprimand Rep. Murtha. But if they are true, we should thank him. You should thank him, if you are serious about accomplishing anything positive in Iraq.
But most of all, those of you who supported, and still support, the invasion of Iraq, should grow up and face the truth that atrocities will happen in war, even at the hands of U.S. troops, because we are asking troops to endure unbearable stress for prolonged periods of time. This is one of several reasons why war should be a solution of last resort. It’s easy for those of us who are safe and protected here at home to talk about what is “honorable” and what isn’t. But those who are bearing the burden you asked them to bear are human beings, not movie characters.
You helped send our troops into a war that didn’t have to be fought. If the allegations are true, you bear some of the blame. If the allegations are true, you owe both the Marines and little Safa an apology.
See also: ” Escalating the rhetoric.”