Writing about Haditha, thinking about Haditha
I haven't written about Haditha yet.
I know that we don't yet know what happened there, or why. So all we can do is speculate, and to me the speculation seems rather obvious: if innocent civilians were murdered by the Marines there, and if the situation did not involve well-motivated and understandable mistaken identity of some sort, then it was a war crime and should (and will) be deplored by all right-thinking (and I mean that in the moral, not the political, sense) people, including myself. And it should, and will, be prosecuted as such, to the fullest extent of the law.
Those things are so obvious to me that they almost go without saying. But I'm saying them anyway, just to be clear.
But this is a post not so much about Haditha itself but about the current speculation about Haditha, and what that might mean. I've noticed that Haditha follows certain patterns that seem familiar. I wrote about those patterns back in late April, in this post about My Lai and the press:
The massacre at My Lai was a turning point in America's perception of itself. It represented a loss of innocence about the military, who until then had been thought incapable of the kind of atrocity that occurred there. It also made Americans more cynical towards the military command and its ability to investigate its own wrongdoings. And lastly, the press was seen in the role of heroes bent on publicizing the truth.
These three elements are still in play today. Whether or not Haditha ends up proving to be in the mold of My Lai, My Lai remains the template, the frame for all subsequent events that might fall into the category of possible American war crimes.
My Lai itself was a war crime, and there's no doubt the initial internal military field investigation was a coverup:
The facts of My Lai were sensational, and they make shocking reading today, even in our far more jaded age. I've written about My Lai before, here. It was an event of great complexity, and I highly recommend this must-read teaching case study on the subject, which comes as close to explaining what happened there--and why it happened--as I think anything ever could.
I want to reiterate the must-read status of the teaching case. Even if you think you know all about My Lai and what happened there--and especially why it happened--please think again, and read it if you haven't already done so.
There's an old saying to the effect that the military is always fighting the previous war rather than the present one. That's another way of saying it's hard to foresee what will happen, and much easier (although still surprisingly difficult) to know what already has happened, and that institutions have a tendency to become hidebound in their thinking processes. Creativity is needed, although creativity is risky--but it's just as risky to lack it.
The military seems to be a bit better nowadays at thinking ahead, although far from perfect. But it's the press that seems stuck in fighting previous wars--especially the previous war in which the press believes itself to have been the hero, Vietnam. Haditha fits quite well into that vision; it may indeed be the My Lai the press has long been expecting, or it may not (and please, read Belmont Club on the subject of press coverage of Haditha so far).
Is a new set of rules emerging under which modern warfare must be waged by the West? Here are those rules, as best I can determine them (with only a little bit of exaggeration):
(1) Wars cannot last more than a few weeks.
(2) In the "hot" stage of the war, no civilians can die.
(3) In the aftermath of a war, no civilians can die.
(4) All military investigations of possible war crimes and atrocities must be treated by the press as though they are already coverups. The accused are guilty until proven innocent. And, of course, since the military always lies and covers up, the accused can never really be proven innocent by a military court.
What would these rules do? They would set up war as an impossible to execute but morally black and white situation in which we keep our hands impeccably clean (see here for my previous essay on that subject.)
Yes indeed, the goal is to be perfect--to never commit a war crime, to never have an innocent civilian die. But realistically, that goal will never be reached. The best we--or any nation--can do is to train our troops as well as possible in order to reduce the number of such incidents to almost nothing, and to ruthlessly investigate and prosecute them whenever they do occur.
Because the truth is that in wars innocent civilians will always be killed, and always tragically--whether it be in targeted and precision bombing raids gone awry in the "hot" segment of the war, or even in true war crimes during the later "assymetrical guerilla and/or terrorist warfare" stage.
Some would say that the best way to remain morally pure--if that is our interest--is to never wage war. But that ignores the price of inaction and passivity. Back in November I wrote the following, which still seems relevant:
Yes, indeed, there's enough blood to go around. There always is in war; wars involve blood on everyone's hands, including pacifists, who are responsible for some of the blood involved in feeding the crocodile.
Of course, the price that inaction would have cost is always speculative--and therefore deniable--if action has been taken instead. And the price of an action taken is relatively real and quantifiable. It's only if inaction has been followed that we can know its true consequences.
Take your choice of which price you would like to pay. Please remember that neither can be known in advance, that all decisions must be made based on incomplete and possibly flawed information, and that hindsight is always 20/20.