THE MEDIA COVERAGE of the killing of 24 Iraqis at Haditha has given rich new definition to the phrase "rush to judgment." The coverage, plus the reaction of antiwar politicians like Democratic representative John Murtha, amounts to a public verdict of guilty, rendered against a handful of Marines, before an investigation of the bloody incident is completed or a trial (if there is one) held.
An egregious example was MSNBC host Chris Matthews's interview with Murtha on May 17. Asked to "draw us a picture of what happened in Haditha," the congressman said he'd tell "exactly" what occurred. "One Marine was killed and the Marines just said we're going to take care. They don't know who the enemy is. The pressure was too much on them, so they went into houses and they actually killed civilians."
"Was this My Lai?" Matthews interjected, referring to the slaughter of more than 300 civilians by American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968. "Was this a case of--when you say cold blood, Congressman, a lot of people think you're basically saying you have got some civilians sitting in a room [or] out in a field and they're executed."
"That's exactly what happened," Murtha replied.
Murtha, of course, doesn't really know if the Haditha civilians were killed in cold blood. There's no way he could know. He's been briefed by Marine Commandant Michael Hagee, but so have other key members of Congress. Republican Duncan Hunter, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, talked to Hagee and did not conclude either that the case was all but closed or that 24 Iraqis had indeed been executed. Murtha, an ex-Marine, claims to have other Marine sources, but it's doubtful any of them were in Haditha on November 19, 2005, the day of the killings. So Murtha is winging it--and in a particularly shameful way.
But Murtha's accusation is only the worst example of prejudicing the case against the Marines. There are others:
* The press has repeatedly likened the Haditha killings to the My Lai massacre, an invidious comparison if there ever was one. Newsweek, for instance, wrote that Haditha "may turn out to be the worst massacre since My Lai." True, the magazine writes that "the scale" of Haditha "should not be exaggerated" and the 24 Iraqis killed are "a fraction of the 300-plus lined up and murdered at My Lai." But with the facts in Haditha so sketchy or in serious dispute, the mere association of Haditha with My Lai is, to say the least, tendentious.
* In breaking the Haditha story last March, Time relied heavily on statements from a 9-year-old girl, a self-styled human rights activist with credibility problems, and a doctor who has publicly expressed his hatred of America. Since then, Time has issued three corrections. A video of the 24 dead bodies and the places where the killings occurred was not taken by "a Haditha journalism student," as first reported, but by a 43-year-old Sunni Muslim who heads the two-person "Hammurabi Human Rights Group." Nor is that group associated with Human Rights Watch, the respectable if anti-American outfit, as the magazine had said. The magazine also allowed that it could not confirm that an alleged photo taken by a Marine, suggesting the killings were executions, even exists.
* The nastiest swipe at the Marines came in a cartoon in the Chicago Sun-Times by Jack Higgins. It showed dead men with their hands behind their backs. One had the word "Haditha" on his body. Underneath were the words, offered as an ironic counterpoint: "We will be greeted as liberators." The cartoon was based on a photo, not of the 24 slain civilians but of 19 Shiite fishermen executed by Iraqi insurgents in Haditha. The photo had appeared in the Times of London, which misidentified the dead as U.S. victims. To its credit, the Times promptly apologized, and so did the Sun-Times and Higgins. Another cartoon, this one in the Arizona Republic, showed the Marine emblem and said USMC stood for "United States Massacre Cover-Up." An investigation by an Army general later found there was no coverup in the case.
* 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