Our Honor Requires Withdrawal
January 22, 2007
David MacMichael served in the Korean War, in which he was seriously wounded. After almost a year in Bethesda Naval Hospital, he became professor of history at the University of Oregon and then a CIA analyst. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
The news that the Navy Criminal Investigative Service has recommended that murder charges be filed against four marines for killing 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha in 2005 saddens and angers this Marine officer and, I am sure, other Marine combat veterans.
We would like to believe that, as the Marine Corps Hymn declares, “We fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean,” and that what happened at Haditha was an aberration. Even if squad leader Staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich did order five unarmed men from a taxicab, shoot and kill them at point blank range and then order his men to storm into two nearby homes throwing grenades and firing at the unarmed inhabitants—including small children—killing 19 of them, we want to find excuses for him and the others who have been charged.
Look, we tell ourselves, this was a squad that had just had one of its members killed by an IED. They were angry and they were scared. We know what close combat is like; you can’t afford to take chances. Those guys who got out of the cab might have been armed; shots might have come from those houses; and these marines were trained in urban warfare to routinely kick open doors and toss in grenades before entering. How can we judge them? What would we have done in their situation? War, after all, is hell, and people who fight in one often do infernal things.
Besides, even if these men did violate the norms currently regulating combat in Iraq, you can be sure that other incidents like this have happened dozens of times there—and in other wars as well. The torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib is only one example. Remember My Lai in Vietnam? Why should these four young marines face murder charges when others who have done the same thing will not? More to the point, why should they face murder charges when those who ordered them into the situation—beginning with their platoon and company commanders will not?
Sure, their immediate and even higher level superiors, including Second Marine Division commander, Major-General Richard A. Huck, might receive reprimands for dereliction of duty in failing to supervise Sergeant Wuterich’s squad or to investigate the incident adequately. But murder charges? Most certainly not.
While the Haditha incident has grabbed the headlines, three soldiers from another elite unit, the 101st Airborne, are also facing murder charges. On May 9, 2006, Staff Sergeant Raymond L. Girouand, Specialist William Hunsaker and Private First Class Casey Claggett raided a hut on an island north of Baghdad and captured two unarmed Iraqi men.
Girouand first put plastic handcuffs on the men, then took them outside and removed the handcuffs and ordered them to run. As they ran, he ordered Hunsaker and Claggett to shoot them. One was killed instantly; the other fell mortally wounded. Girouand then ordered another squad member to kill him. He then punched Hunsaker in the face and used his knife to make cuts on Claggett. This was to support the story they all agreed to tell that the two Iraqis had broken loose and attacked them so that they had had to fire in self-defense. During the post-action investigation that led to the charges of murder, the fourth soldier, who had given the wounded Iraqi the coup de grace, confessed to what had happened.
Claggett’s court-martial began on January 15. He and his fellow defendants, Girouand and Hunsaker, claim they were only following orders from their brigade commander, Colonel Michael Steele, “to kill all military age males.”
It is encouraging that military justice is going forward in these two cases. On the other hand, countless Iraqis—and many returning veterans—report that random killings by U.S. troops without regard for the laws of war are routine and rarely reported, let alone investigated. Collateral damage remains a convenient explanation for the killing of non-combatants and destruction of property. And it is irrelevant to excuse this on the grounds that Iraqi “insurgents”—mingling with the civilian population and employing roadside bombs and suicide attacks—are not fighting fair, or that their internecine sectarian violence and brutality render them less than human and ineligible for even the meager protections of the rules of combat.
The fact remains that Sergeant Wuterich and his men killed 24 Iraqis under conditions so blatantly wrong that military authorities have filed murder charges against them. They are entitled to be presumed innocent until found guilty in a properly constituted court martial. I am sure that many fellow Marines, after trying the aforementioned excuses on for size and telling ourselves that there, but for the grace of God, go I, join me in a strong sense of shame for the Marine Corps in which we so proudly served.
More than that, I am ashamed for my country and for its elected (sort of) leaders who—violating the Constitution of the United States to which we Marines swear an oath, and the system of international law for which we have fought—sent Sergeant Wuterich and Sergeant Girouand to Iraq on the basis of deliberate lies, and keep their comrades there today waging an unprovoked, unwinnable war. I am ashamed and angry, because it seems highly unlikely that any of those officeholders will ever be brought before a court of law to answer for the death, devastation and corruption resulting from their cynical and ruthless misuse of our sons and daughters in uniform.
I can only hope that the new Congress, elected by the huge majority of the American people who want a speedy end to the war in Iraq, gives very careful thought to President George W. Bush’s plans for a “surge” in the number of our troops in Iraq. Let members of House and Senate reflect on Sergeant Wuterich and Sergeant Girouand and the troops they commanded, the 3000 American dead, and the 20 times as many dead Iraqis. And all for reasons long since proven to have been false—reasons adduced to trick Congress itself out of its constitutional prerogative to authorize war. And all for the achievement of objectives that bear no relation to the security of our country and whose pursuit has seriously damaged that security.
This is one old Marine Corps captain who respectfully but most fervently asks that this Congress deny President Bush any public funds to send additional troops to Iraq, and that it fully investigate and reveal the decision-making process, including the manipulation of intelligence used to “justify” our war of aggression on Iraq. Moreover, Congress must use its power of the purse to force the administration to bring American troops home, beginning now. I don’t want any more of them coming home in body bags or facing courts-martial for making wrong decisions in situations in which they should never have been placed.