The Road to Haditha

How did the heroes of Fallujah come to kill civilians in Haditha? A Vietnam veteran who witnessed the battle of Fallujah says it's too soon to judge the marines—but not the high command

Time magazine broke the Haditha story in March and presented a balanced report. Then, on May 17, Representative John P. Murtha held a press conference and declared that the troops “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” As the leading advocate for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Murtha advanced his own agenda by acting as judge and jury.

After Murtha’s incendiary remarks, Haditha captured worldwide attention. Many commentators leaped to conclusions. The European press gloatingly linked Haditha to the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, but My Lai was on a much larger scale, with implications that the high command looked the other way. If in the coming months the press does transpose the killings at Haditha into a metaphor for the war—as happened with My Lai—the consequences will be tremendous, and misleading.

A central issue in the Haditha tragedy is whether the marines deliberately shot civilians, or whether they threw grenades into the room first, creating clouds of dust that obscured the presence of civilians. If the latter was the case, a further issue is whether the Rules of Engagement permitted such an action. Forty investigators have worked for months to determine what happened. It remains for the military justice system to sort through the chaos of battle and reach a conclusion about individual guilt or innocence.

Many more than a handful of young marines will be on trial as the Haditha killings are adjudicated. It is too soon to judge these men, but it is not too soon to judge the high command and the underlying policies governing the conduct of the war. As Americans, we have been fighting the war the wrong way. Haditha degenerated due to a lack of security manpower, both American and Iraqi. We didn’t have sufficient troops in Anbar province, and those we did have were shifted to fight a battle provoked by feckless senior leadership. The hardened veterans of Fallujah were sent into Haditha to operate in isolation from the Iraqis, rather than in combined units, as counterinsurgency doctrine demands. We left our squads to fight alone for too long on a treacherous battlefield.

Three years after the president declared victory, our military is struggling to keep a semblance of order, with scant ability to shape decisions in Washington or Baghdad. General Casey is directing a sound campaign to improve the Iraqi army, but the time has come for more radical change. When, in 1969, U.S. Army General Creighton Abrams directed a campaign to invigorate the South Vietnamese army, military skills did not prevail against political turmoil. Given the persistence of Sunni versus Shiite mass murders, military logic calls for martial law and for placing the untrustworthy police under the control of the Iraqi army. But Iraqi politicians prefer to keep the police under local control, shared with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, and President Bush has chosen to praise rather than to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Regardless of how the war began, we are now locked in a struggle to the death against fanatical murderers. We may yet prevail in Iraq by persistence and the weight of resources. But our military, singularly unimaginative in developing the right tactics to beat an insurgency it refused for over a year to recognize, has some hard thinking to do about how to fight the long war against Islamic extremists.

As the legal proceedings play out, we should have empathy for those young marines who were involved. Empathy should not cloud judgment or excuse wrongdoing. To consciously kill a child or, in a rage, execute unarmed men and women would be a criminal act meriting punishment and dishonor. But the world of an infantryman is unlike any other, and a soldier’s motivations in battle are hard to judge from the outside looking in.

President Bush initiated the war by authorizing a massive air strike against Dora Farms, outside Baghdad, because one CIA agent said Saddam was there. The civilians who were at Dora were injured and killed; Saddam was not there. In July, Israeli aircraft bombed a housing complex in Lebanon, because Hezbollah rockets were believed to be there. Thirty-seven children died in that bombing.

Civilian casualties are accepted as inevitable in high-tech, standoff warfare. The infantryman does not stand off. He opens the door, enters the house, and, like Sergeant Norwood, is often posthumously praised. The grunt must make instant, difficult choices in the heat of battle. He must keep his honor clean and resist the sin of wrath when fighting an enemy who hides among compliant civilians. Those of higher rank must resist the sin of pride, lest they act impulsively because they are removed from the gore of battle. And we must also be careful not to twist Haditha into a larger symbol that demeans the sacrifice of those very, very few who volunteer to be riflemen.

In his defining new book, War Made New, the military historian Max Boot has written that “the most important military unit in the emergence of modern states was the humble infantryman.” For two decades, the Pentagon has neglected the infantry, believing that high technology would win wars. Today, American forces have more combat aircraft than infantry squads, and more combat pilots than squad leaders. Fully 75 percent of our Army and Marine infantry leave the military after their four-year tour. They receive no pension, a tiny educational stipend, and no immediately transferable skills.

Of all those who serve our country, the humble foot soldiers sacrifice the most for the rest of us. They don’t see it that way, of course. They have each other; they are their own tribe. General Casey told me that he has talked to dozens of grunts about Haditha. “Universally,” he said, “they tell me, ‘We hope our brothers get a fair shake.’”

Presented by

Bing West

A Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, F. J. “Bing” West is the author of The Village, a Vietnam classic, and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, out in paperback in October.

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