Fighting Words

The Hell of War

Why Haditha isn’t My Lai.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at U.S. House of Representatives

Unjust though the assumption may prove to be, let us imagine that the Marines of Kilo Company did indeed crack up and cut loose in Haditha that day. Something like this has certainly been waiting to happen. I wrote in this space almost a year ago about a warning delivered to the U.S. commanders in Iraq by their British counterpart Gen. Michael Jackson. He told them that their “zero tolerance” force-protection measures, which allow for the use of deadly fire if anyone comes too close, ran a serious risk of losing Iraq. (Recent clumsy skirmishes in Kabul, though they do not involve any allegation of deliberate murder, make the same point in a different way.)

It’s thus a bit harder than one might like to argue that a Haditha-type incident would have been an “isolated” one. The combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is overwhelmingly political, and there is no soldier who doesn’t know that it’s imperative for this reason—to say nothing of any moral objections—to use his or her firepower with exact discrimination. If this principle is not being meticulously observed, then it means that there is a rupture in training and discipline, which would be a serious enough story in its own right.

However, all the glib talk about My Lai is so much propaganda and hot air. In Vietnam, the rules of engagement were such as to make an atrocity—the slaughter of the My Lai villagers took almost a day rather than a white-hot few minutes—overwhelmingly probable. The ghastliness was only stopped by a brave officer who prepared his chopper-gunner to fire. In those days there were no precision-guided missiles, but there were “free-fire zones,” and “body counts,” and other virtual incitements to psycho officers such as Capt. Medina and Lt. Calley. As a consequence, a training film about My Lai—”if anything like this happens, you have really, truly screwed up”—has been in use for U.S. soldiers for some time.

The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples’ army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us. These depraved elements are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge. They have two methods of warfare. One is the use of random murder to create a sectarian and ethnic civil war—perhaps the most evil combination of tactics and strategy it is possible to imagine. The other is the attempt to alienate coalition soldiers from the population.

Even before the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Saddam’s foreign minister, Naji Sabry, wrote a memo about how to combat the increasing fraternization between advancing Americans and Iraqi civilians. Send some suicide bombers to the scene, he recommended, and force a wedge between the two. The Americans would then learn to distrust anyone who approached. As with the foul policy above, the awful thing about this charming policy is that it works. Which leads us to one very important conclusion: Any coalition soldier who relieves his rage by discharging a clip is by definition doing Zarqawi’s work for him, and even in a way obeying his orders. If anything justifies a court-martial, then surely that does.

It’s not amusing to see fascist killers hiding behind human shields and then releasing obscene videos of the work that they do. Nor is it rewarding to clean up the remains of a comrade who has been charred and shredded by a roadside bomb. To be taunted while doing so must be unbearable. The humane George Orwell, writing of his life as a colonial policeman in Burma in Shooting an Elephant, told his readers that there were days when “I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” But he did not, in fact, succumb to this temptation. And the British were unwanted colonial occupiers in Burma, while the coalition forces are—until further notice—the guests of Iraq’s first-ever elected government and the executors of a U.N.-mandated plan for the salvage and reconstruction of the country.

There is no respectable way of having this both ways. Those who say that the rioters in Baghdad in the early days should have been put down more forcefully are accepting the chance that a mob might have had to be fired on to protect the National Museum. Those who now wish there had been more troops are also demanding that there should have been more targets and thus more body bags. The lawyers at Centcom who refused to give permission to strike Mullah Omar’s fleeing convoy in Afghanistan—lest it by any chance be the wrong convoy of SUVs speeding from Kabul to Kandahar under cover of night—are partly responsible for the deaths of dozens of Afghan teachers and international aid workers who have since been murdered by those who were allowed to get away. If Iraq had been stuffed with WMD warehouses and stiff with al-Qaida training camps, there would still have been an Abu Ghraib. Only pacifists—not those who compare the Iraqi killers to the Minutemen—have the right to object to every casualty of war. And if the pacifists had been heeded, then Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein would all still be in power—hardly a humanitarian outcome. People like to go on about the “fog” of war as well as the “hell” of it. Hell it most certainly is—but not always so foggy. Indeed, many of the dilemmas posed by combat can be highly clarifying, once the tone of righteous sententiousness is dropped.