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 Writer's Desk 

June 21, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 10


Haditha is no anomaly

By Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

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For this Writer’s Desk, I had planned to write about the tender art of black and white photography, its capacity to unveil the holiness of a person, its ability to reveal how light delineates form.

But musings on the aesthetic value of the camera elude me right now because my mind is fixated on some grainy, color snapshots from the Iraqi town of Haditha. The photos, published in the June 12 issue of Time magazine, are stills from a videotape made by an aspiring Iraqi journalist, Taher Thabet, the morning after U.S. Marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians.

Thabet, a Haditha resident and a co-founder of the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights, told Time he could “only stand and watch” as he saw Marines run into his neighbors’ homes and then heard gunfire and screaming. The next morning, armed with his video camera, he went into those homes and the morgue and recorded everything he saw. His video became the primary source for the Time’s story, published last March that has sparked two military investigations and a spate of media coverage.

A number of details about the episode at Haditha are now well-known. From official accounts, we know that on the morning of Nov. 19, 2005, an IED, or improvised explosive device, buried in the road, exploded under the last vehicle of a four Humvee Marine convoy, instantly killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazzo and seriously wounding two others. Within hours of Terrazzo’s death Marines raided several houses within the vicinity of the detonation, ultimately killing 24 people, according to Marine officials. Among the dead were pajama-clad women and children shot in the head; an elderly man in a wheelchair shot nine times; a group of girls 1 to 14 years old; and four young men and a driver, who, evidence suggests, were either shot while in their car or executed just outside the vehicle. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating to determine whether criminal wrongdoing occurred.

The coverage of Haditha in the American mainstream media has been curious, full of carefully documented details and questions: How did this happen? Who is responsible? U.S. troops have killed Iraqi civilians many times but what offends us here is the intimate way in which the Marines did their killing, shooting their victims at close range while they slept.

“They actually went into houses and killed women and children,” said Representative John Murtha, D-Pa., who said he was briefed by Marine commanders. With an interview with the Washington Post Vaughan Taylor, a former military prosecutor and instructor in criminal law at the Army’s school for military lawyers, called the episode at Haditha “My Lai all over again.”

This is war all over again and Haditha is no anomaly. It is just one brutal episode among thousands of brutal episodes played out on either side of the battlefield. What happened in Haditha is the inevitable consequence of our choice for war. We may take offense at the deliberate manner in which the Marines did their killing, but the bombs and cluster munitions used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq yield the same results. They crush the heads of sleeping toddlers, shatter the bones of children, generate a heat so severe that sometimes bodies fuse together and you cannot tell which limb belongs to which head.

While news of Haditha broke, the Western mainstream press began reporting other allegations of U.S. attacks on Iraqi civilians: The March shootings of 11 family members in the town of Ishaqi. The April abduction and execution of an Iraqi man in the town of Hamandiyah. Coalition attacks on civilians have become a “regular occurrence” said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a charge Time called “startling.”

Here in America, we have this delusion that war is a contained venture, waged primarily by professional soldiers who are trained to thoughtfully snuff out the bad guys while a grateful civilian population cheers them on. Theological arguments help sustain our delusion (Wars can be just, the priests say); so too does our language. Invasions are “operations,” weapons are “surgical,” dead civilians “collateral damage.” No matter how many times civilians are “accidentally” killed by bombs, by checkpoints gone awry, by all the countless catastrophes that inevitably occur when weapons abound, we exempt ourselves from the moral consequences of our warmaking by saying, “We didn’t mean to kill the innocent.”

In an Ipsos poll taken June 5-7, 63 percent of American adults surveyed said they thought the killing of civilians by U.S. troops only happened in “isolated incidents.” Sixty-one percent believed U.S. troops were doing all they could to prevent the targeting of civilians.

Marines absolutely know right from wrong, said one military commander when questioned by the press about Haditha. No doubt they do. But war is a place where everyone is caught up in a great wrong and even the hardiest conscience struggles to keep a moral compass. As the fighting drags on, atrocities increase and the “rules of engagement” keep changing. What the Marines did in Haditha pales in comparison to how insurgents in Iraq kill their victims. They behead them, drill holes in their heads, whip them with cables, drag them from their beds and execute them.

In the months before that morning in November, the Marines stationed in Haditha suffered high casualties. Fourteen were killed in one day when their amphibious truck ran over anti-tank mines stacked three high. Four died during a firefight inside a hospital where insurgents hid behind the patients.

“Saying who’s a civilian or a muj in Iraq, you really can’t,” one Marine told The New York Times. “That’s how wishy-washy it was. This town didn’t want us there at all.”

As their defense for the raid in Haditha, the Marines said they acted in accordance with their rules of engagement which permitted using lethal force against those who, they believed, were responsible for a roadside bomb that killed their buddy. (Didn’t our policy makers use the same rationale for the bombing of Aghanistan?) Those “rules” allow sticking a weapon into a room and spraying it with gunfire, before checking for sleeping babies.

I am not suggesting we excuse the Marines for the immorality of their actions but that we consider context. The crime in Haditha was collectively committed and we must own our part in it. We tolerated the speeches that proclaimed this war necessary for democracy. We packed our young people up with weapons that kill indiscriminately, asked them to implement an invasion that was illegal, based on lies, and according to many Catholic leaders, immoral. Is it fair to scapegoat a few soldiers for killing against the rules?

As photographs go, Thabet’s video stills are of poor quality, grainy and blurred. They show iconic war images: A large swatch of blood on a linoleum floor. A small, curly-haired child, being zipped into a body bag. Men standing in a morgue, one of them weeping. They are not the pictures we would choose to view but the ones to bear in mind whenever the politicians tell us, as Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., did yesterday, that what we are achieving in Iraq is “a greater victory for mankind.”

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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