The Magazine

Haditha Handwringing

The last thing we need in response to Haditha is hand-wringing liberalism.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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U.S. MARINES are under investigation for alleged misconduct in the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The inquiry into the events at Haditha last November 19 is ongoing--but the Nation's editors already know what happened: A U.S. "war crime"! A military "massacre"! A "cover-up"! (And also a "willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis"--something a cover-up would seem to make more difficult.) The anti-American left can barely be bothered to conceal its glee.

As for the pro-American left, they write more in sorrow than in anger. Here's The New Republic's Peter Beinart:

Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That's how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don't just assert it. We prove it. That's the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it's what we need right now in response to this horror.

No, it isn't. The last thing we need in response to Haditha is hand-wringing liberalism. The war against the jihadists, a war Beinart supports, is not a metaphorical one. Liberals may want to win a war on terror without fighting, and are shocked that in a war, crimes and abuses occur. But here's the hard, Trumanesque truth: In war, terrible things happen, including crimes and abuses and cover-ups.

Let's be clear: Crimes and cover-ups cannot be excused or tolerated. They must be investigated, and the individuals involved, and their commanders, must be held accountable and punished. As the Marine Corps commandant points out, the Marine Hymn pledges that we "keep our honor clean." This is happening. All nations' soldiers commit crimes, and decent nations punish them. But it is not true that "what makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world" is that we recognize we can be barbaric and that we punish barbarism.

What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don't need to "prove" we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this "proves" nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to "prove" that we are "different from the jihadists." The idea would be offensive if it were not ludicrous.

What we do have to prove is that we are strong enough to fight this war, and intelligent enough to win it. Our political and military leadership has to be serious enough to reconsider failing tactics and strategy, and capable enough to do what it takes to win.

Supporters of the war have engaged in a vigorous debate, in these pages and elsewhere, about how better to fight this war. It would be encouraging if more people at senior levels of the military seemed to be engaged in this kind of serious thinking and rethinking. It would be encouraging if more civilians high up in the Pentagon were engaged in such a debate. It would be encouraging if a single person in the White House seemed to be engaged in a real effort to learn from mistakes, so as to adjust our policy to make success more likely.

The American people understand we are at war. They will support what has to be done. The remarkable men and women in uniform will do their jobs in an exemplary way. The military leadership seems competent--and can be shaken up if it is not. The question is whether our political leadership is strong and able enough. And the buck stops with the president.

Does the president really believe, as he said at his recent press conference with Prime Minister Blair, that the Iraq war's greatest mistake was Abu Ghraib? Or was this just a way of ducking the question? After all, the damage done to the war effort by Abu Ghraib pales beside the damage done by not having enough troops in theater, by refusing to send additional troops, by wasting a year before beginning seriously to build up the Iraqi army, by the April 2004 aborted battle for Falluja, and the like.

Obviously the president wasn't going to say this. Fine. But does he understand it? Perhaps. It is heartening that he met last week, in private, with a group of diverse experts on Iraq, in order to get fresh points of view about the situation there. The president understands that this war isn't going to be won unless he ensures that it gets won. It won't get won if the president doesn't aggressively defend the honor of our soldiers and Marines. And it won't get won if we succumb to liberal hand-wringing, or indulge in conservative happy talk. But it must get won. Winning the wars this nation commits to is also the way we keep our honor clean.

--William Kristol