Tuesday, May 30, 2006


If you read just one story about what happened in Haditha, it should be the Washington Post's article "In Haditha, Memories of a Massacre", by Ellen Knickmeyer. As the Haditha situation plays out, we're going to see the usual talking heads going on about chains of command and rules of engagement, quibbling over each comma and semicolon in the applicable rules and regulations, and speculating over who knew what, and when. I know this will happen, because it always does. We'd much rather argue over bloodless technicalities and dry legalisms than over right and wrong, so that's what we'll do. After a few 24-hour news cycles of this, we all get numb to the situation, it becomes the "new normal", the media proclaims it stale news, and we can all go back to fluffy celebrity gossip.

The Knickmeyer article is the antidote to this, for a terribly simple reason: It names the victims. They weren't generic "evildoers", fiendish cartoon Arabs with outlandish facial hair and nothing but murder on their minds. They weren't abstract statistics. Each one had a name, and each had a life story. Each of these lives was cut short on November 19th, 2005. In our name, with our tax dollars.

We'll see a lot of the "few bad apples" argument over the next few days and weeks, like we did with Abu Ghraib. And there's a kernel of truth to the argument, in that massacres of civilians are not standard operating procedure. If it was standard practice, we surely would have heard about it before now. The Bad Apple argument is fundamentally a defensive one. It lets the focus stay on alleged rogue elements at the bottom rungs of the chain of command, shielding higher-ups from any responsibility. By demonizing the direct perpetrators, it also lets us avoid the uncomfortable possibility that they were simply ordinary people pushed to the breaking point. We're lucky we'll never know just how many people would behave the same way under those circumstances.

Another thing we'll hear a lot about is the coverup angle. Ever since 1973, the very first thing you learn in journalism school is that it's never the action itself that's important, it's the coverup. It's always all about the coverup. It would be impossible to count all the generic coverup stories hitting the media since 1973, most tagged with the inevitable "-gate" suffix (lesson #2 in journalism school). If the initial scandal is something mundane like fooling around with an intern, or hiding bribe cash in your freezer, sure, go ahead, focus on the coverup if you like. But the lessons of journo school don't hold in this case. Any coverup would just be the panicked reaction of timid bureaucrats. The killings are the real scandal. Period.

If we're going to look at people higher up the military hierarchy (which is highly unlikely), the question shouldn't be how far up the coverup went, but how far up approval of the killings went.

What happens now? I'm a cynic, of course, but I think the answer will be "nothing". Everyone who has the capacity for outrage has been outraged nonstop for years now, and it hasn't helped yet. The 29-percenters out there will offer all sorts of lame excuses for what happened, and hold everyone blameless (except maybe a few token enlisted guys who'll take the fall). They'll harp on the ongoing investigation and demand that we reserve judgment and not dare to form an opinion until... well, until it all blows over, basically. They'll get on TV and explain how the only wrongdoers here are the liberal media types who made the story public, because everything's peachy keen so long as it all stays top secret. We'll also hear the refrain "the insurgents do this all the time", which I guess is supposed to make it all OK. If Zarqawi does it, it's fine for us to do it too, apparently. I guess I've got this crazy, funny, archaic idea that Marines ought to be held to a higher standard than that. I'm just weird that way, I guess.

Some hardcore chickenhawk types will go further and cheerfully approve of the massacre, probably on "they all look alike" or "they're all terrorists" grounds. Yes, they mean all of them are terrorists, and they all deserve the ol' Haditha treatment, especially cute little kids. What, you thought I was exaggerating? See here for more fun examples. I sure hope Shelby Steele and David Usher are happy now. If this isn't the red-blooded savagery they had in mind, I can't imagine what they must have meant. Something even worse, maybe?

Our Glorious Leader, in his cherished role as commander in chief, bears ultimate responsibility for the soldiers' conduct, although he can't actually be court-martialled for it. He's responsible in a formal sense, but he also bears responsibility because he fostered a situation where the ordinary rules don't always apply. Sometimes the Geneva Conventions are applied, and other times they aren't, and no clear guidelines are given about when the rules are really rules. Sometimes they apply, and sometimes they don't, and there's no guidance given so the average grunt can determine which is which. Bush openly scorns the notion of any kind of international standards of basic civilized behavior. He's pushed "terrorism" as the universal loophole, getting you out of any obligation you'd rather not comply with. He's encouraged people to wrongly blame Iraqis, and Muslims in general, for 9/11. If you demonize the "enemy" population, and incite US public opinion against them, atrocities of this kind are inevitable.


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