Why We Should Be Glad the Haditha Massacre Marine Got No Jail Time

The staff sergeant's light sentence for his role in a terrible 2005 incident may be disappointing, especially to the victims' families, but the integrity of our justice system won out

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U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich leaves the courtroom on Tuesday after his sentencing at Camp Pendleton / Reuters

When Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich was handed a suspended sentence of three months on Wednesday for his role as squad leader of a group that massacred 24 unarmed Iraqis in Haditha six years ago, it naturally sparked an outrage. To many here in the U.S., in Iraq, and in the Muslim world writ large, this will likely be seen as the U.S. military excusing a heinous crime. But we should instead look at this, even if it is difficult to do so, as the price we pay for a justice system that prioritizes the rights of the accused over a desire to punish criminals.

Wuterich was the last remaining Haditha Marine still in criminal jeopardy and thus the last hope for Iraqis and others seeking justice for the victims. Khalid Salma, a Haditha city councilor and lawyer for the victims declared the light sentence "an assault on the blood of Iraqis." Reasonably, he said he believes that a three month sentence might be appropriate for "small crimes." But killing 24 innocent people, and only receiving a punishment of three months? This is an assault on humanity."

Though he was sentenced to three months confinement -- along with reduction in rank to private -- Wuterich will actually serve no jail time at all as part of his arrangement. He pled guilty only to dereliction of duty and has issued a public statement apologizing to the victims' families for their loss but denying that he ever fired a shot or intended for any civilians to be killed.

The November 19, 2005, incident sparked bitter controversy here in the United States. Early media reports and a preliminary military investigation portrayed the incident as a premeditated murder spree in retribution for the death of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who was killed by an IED. Democratic Representative Frank Murtha, himself a retired Marine Reserve colonel, called the incident "cold-blooded murder" and accused military brass of and "covering up" the incident.

Eight marines were charged in December 2006 for the incident but a formal Article 32 investigation -- a hearing to determine whether a court martial is appropriate -- found that there was no grand plan to murder innocents or for execution-style killings. Rather, a group of angry, exhausted, and frightened Marines simply did not care whether the people they were killing were combatants. Charges were eventually dropped against six defendants. A seventh, First Lieutenant Andrew Grayson, who was charged with covering up the incident after the fact, was acquitted. That left only Wunderich, the immediate leader of the men who killed the victims, who was charged with negligent homicide.

A December 2011 New York Times investigation, based on some 400 pages of interrogations -- many classified and which had for some reason been left behind in an Iraqi junkyard when American troops departed the country -- only added fuel to the outrage. They portrayed a culture where the killing of civilians became routine, described as "a cost of doing business" by Marine Major General Steve Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar Province at the time. So much so that the initial reports of 24 civilians killed by his Marines was considered neither surprising nor cause for investigation by higher-ups in -heater, who shrugged it off as another day in the war.

Brian Rooney, the attorney for Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, the highest-ranking Marine charged in the case declared before his charges were dropped, "If it's a grey area, fog-of-war, you can't put yourself in a Marine's situation where he's legitimately trying to do the best he can." It's a popular view in this country and long has been; the same sentiments were prevalent during the war in Vietnam, when many back home viewed incidents like the My Lai massacre as terrible but understandable.

The Iraq War, even more so than Vietnam, pitted American forces against unconventional combatants who at times gladly used civilians -- including women and children -- to carry out attacks. James Mattis, now the four-star head of Central Command and then the two-star commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force, noted in dismissing the charges against two of the accused that the country was "fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians."

Presented by

James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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