The Magazine

The My Lai Lie

Behind the coverage of Haditha.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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* Perhaps the worst part of the immediate coverage was the failure to provide anything more than minimal context for the Haditha incident. The New York Times gave a little in its lengthy June 17 article, noting that Haditha "had taken a heavy toll in Marines that spring and summer." Six from an Ohio reserve unit were killed, then 14 more by antitank mines, and four in a firefight. Haditha was a hotbed of Sunni insurgent activity and an enormously dangerous place for Marines. At least one resident said she knew about the planting of an improvised explosive device (IED) in the town's main road that killed a Marine in a convoy of Humvees. That explosion preceded the killing of the 24 civilians. A reporter for the British Guardian newspaper who spent three days in Haditha last year called it "an insurgent citadel." The town the Marines encountered was anything but a peaceful village.

In truth, we know very little with certainty about what really happened that November morning in Haditha. We know one Marine was killed. And we know his fellow Marines killed 24 civilians, an alarming number of victims. Whether the Hadithans were killed as Marines carried out their duties or whether they were murdered in retaliation for the death of the single Marine--that we don't know. And that's what a probe by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service, not yet finished, is supposed to determine.

For several months, the Marines took an unmitigated beating in the media. "But in recent days," Ed Pound noted in U.S. News & World Report last week, "another side of the story has begun to emerge, this one from defense attorneys who insist that their clients did not intentionally kill unarmed civilians. Instead they describe a harrowing house-to-house search for insurgents that ended in tragedy."

Through their lawyers, the Marines say they were following the official rules of engagement (ROE) or the warning of their officers "to be aggressive in taking care of themselves." It was in this manner, they claim, that they killed 5 Iraqi men as they fled and the other 19 in three houses. The Marines say they had been fired on from the area of the houses.

After the IED exploded, they spotted five men in a nearby car, men they assumed were insurgents. The Marines called to them, in Arabic, telling them to stay put. When the men tried to flee, they were shot dead. Inside the houses, the Marines claim they adhered to the ROE by first throwing a grenade in a room where they heard activity, then entering the room and spraying it with gunfire. This resulted, they say, in the accidental deaths of civilians. Given the town they were in, their story is at least plausible.

What's amazing is that so few questions have been raised about the witnesses against the Marines. Were they free to tell the truth about what happened, though the insurgents were likely to return? Or were they forced, on pain of death, to make up stories about a premeditated massacre? We don't know. And why did the "human rights activist" wait months before stepping forward with his tape? At this point, there are more questions than solid answers.

Congressman Hunter has wise advice on what we should do as the true story of Haditha unfolds. "We should slow down and let the military justice system work and let the chips fall where they may," he says. "The military system has integrity." Hundreds of Marines and Army soldiers have been punished, many severely, for abusing Iraqis. Eight Marines were charged last week with murdering an Iraqi man. Whatever occurred at Haditha, Hunter adds, "shouldn't reflect on the value of this mission." In World War II, he says, unarmed Germans were killed by American troops, but "we didn't stop the war." We shouldn't in Iraq either.

- Fred Barnes, for the Editors