Getting Used to War as Hell
THE story, as told by Iraqi survivors, is as bleak as any to emerge
from the American war in Iraq.
If the survivors' accounts are borne out by American military inquiries
now under way and, in time, by courts-martial, then what happened in the
early morning of Nov. 19, 2005, in the desert city of Haditha could
prove, like the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, a baleful marker in the
long and painful American story here.
According to the Haditha survivors, a small number of marines shot 24
civilians, in cold blood after a roadside bomb exploded as their platoon
left their isolated base in the city, killing a 20-year-old lance
corporal. Some accounts given to Western news organizations by survivors
and by those familiar with the military investigations say that the
killings extended over several hours, and involved several family homes
next to the site of the bombing. The victims included women and children.
Many were said to have died by gunshots to the head and torso.
Investigators are also probing whether the Marine chain of command
engaged in a cover-up, beginning with a statement shortly after the
episode claiming that 15 civilians were killed in the original blast, and
that the others who died were insurgents caught up in a firefight
afterward. There appears to have been no significant challenge to that
account within the military until Time magazine published the first
survivors' accounts in March.
Whatever emerges from the military investigations, the narrative of the
Marines' experiences in Iraq will have a central place for the
brutalities associated with Haditha. Last summer, in two separate attacks
over three days, Taliban-like insurgents operating from bases at mosques
in the city killed 20 Marine reservists, including an enlisted man who
was shown disemboweled on rebel videos that were sold afterward in
Haditha's central market.
Like other Marine battles, from Tripoli to Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh, the
story of their battles in Iraq will center on themes of extraordinary
hardship, endurance and loss, as well as a remorselessness in combat,
that offer a context, though hardly any exoneration, for what survivors
allege happened that November day.
They also offer a counterpoint to another theme at play here, one also
learned with great bitterness in Vietnam: the hard cost to military
intentions of killing innocent bystanders in a counterinsurgency. That is
a lesson the Marines know well and accept as an institution. But in
recent months in Iraq it has been recited largely by Army generals, and
the distinction has begun to cause resentments between the two services
as the Haditha investigations begin.
Privately, some marines say the killings at Haditha may have grown out of
pressures that bore down from the moment in March 2004 when a Marine
expeditionary force assumed responsibility for Anbar province, with
Haditha and its 90,000 residents emerging as one of its most persistent
trouble spots. Marine commanders vowed to use a tougher approach than the
Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which was responsible for Anbar for the
first year after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, by showing "both
the palm frond and the hammer."
They soon proved it with the crushing tactics they used, in an aborted
offensive in April and then decisively in November, when they regained
control of Falluja, an insurgent stronghold. In that eight-day battle, a
Marine-led force of about 10,000 Americans destroyed much of the city,
including, according to the city's compensation commissioner, about
36,000 of its 50,000 homes.
Just how tough a fight the Marines have had can be seen in casualty
statistics from 30 to 40 percent of the nearly 2,500 American troops
killed and 17,000 wounded, from a force that has never been more than 25
percent of the total.
For the Marines, it is a familiar story, echoing their disproportionately
large share of the 58,000 American troops who died in Vietnam. They have
drawn, in Anbar, responsibility for what is clearly the toughest patch
assigned to American troops in Iraq.
With barely 1.3 million residents on nearly a third of Iraq's territory,
Anbar is one of the most sparsely populated of Iraq's 18 provinces. But
in the insurgency, it has been ground zero, a place where the harsh
desert terrain, summer temperatures that hover near 130 degrees, and the
proud and stubborn character of its Sunni Arab people have combined to
give the Americans the fiercest resistance they have met
Anbar abuts Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, and that border of more than
600 miles has been, especially in Syria's case, the principal conduit for
volunteers from elsewhere in the Arab world who have been at the core of
the insurgency's Islamic militant wing and the perpetrators of many of
the suicide bombings and beheadings. Nor is that all. Although Saddam
Hussein was from the neighboring province, Salahuddin, the unshakable
bastion of the Sunni minority rule he represented was always
In a band of often violent cities strung out along the Euphrates River,
tribal sheiks and fundamentalist imams have cast themselves as the
vanguard of the Sunni Arab world. That has made the Anbar Sunnis the most
fervent opponents of the American plan to bring democracy to Iraq, and
with it, inescapably, Shiite majority rule.
To this combustible mix, the Marines have brought their own ethos of
uncompromising toughness on the battlefield, captured in the corps'
maxim, "No better friend, no worse enemy," a common refrain
whenever Marine commanders prepare their troops for battle in Anbar.
Together, these two cultures, the Anbaris and the Marines, have combined
to produce a catalogue of brutal confrontations.
But it is not the only clash of cultures figuring in the crisis over the
Haditha killings. There are also the differing cultures of the Army and
Marines. It was the Army's second-highest ranking officer in Iraq, Lt.
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, with operational control of all 135,000 American
troops here under the overall command of another Army commander, Gen.
George W. Casey Jr., who triggered the military's broad investigation
into the events at Haditha. This came after an initial probe by an Army
colonel revealed discrepancies in Marine accounts of the
Though it seems unlikely to have played any role in General Chiarelli's
decision to order the criminal inquiry, given the seriousness of the
Haditha allegations and his legal obligations, the general has gained a
reputation as an outspoken advocate of what was known in Vietnam as the
"hearts and minds" approach to fighting the war. Like other
terms that hark back to Vietnam, that has fallen out of favor among
American commanders here. They prefer to talk about "kinetic"
and "non-kinetic" forms of defeating the insurgency.
In this context, "kinetic" refers to the kill-and-capture
warfare that has been the Marines' traditional way of battle, and
"non-kinetic" to the efforts that Generals Chiarelli and Casey
have stressed to reach out to local leaders, help build civic
institutions, rebuild infrastructure and provide jobs, undermining the
General Casey tells American units that it is the military's non-kinetic
activity that will win the war, as much as or more than the kinetic. But
it is not a gospel that has found much favor nor, Marine commanders
might say, much relevance in the fight-to-the-death crucible of
Reporters who have spent time embedded with the Marines return, almost
invariably, with a strong sense of the comradeship that binds the units
and an admiration for the discipline and fitness drilled into the
fighting men, and, not least, for the lengths the corps is prepared to go
to get reporters to the battlefront and to protect them while they're
But the harsh Marine battle tactics make an impact, too. Reporters'
experiences with the Marines, even more than with the Army, show they
resort quickly to using heavy artillery or laser-guided bombs when
rooting out insurgents who have taken refuge among civilians, with
Among the Marines, there is a tendency, an eagerness even, to see
themselves as the stepchild of the American military effort, sent into
much of the hardest fighting, undermanned for the task, equipped with
Vietnam-era helicopters and amphibious armored vehicles that make
lumbering targets in the desert then criticized by Army commanders,
sometimes severely, for a lack of proportionality in the way they fight.
Something of this sense was suggested when a senior Army commander
involved in planning the Falluja offensive and convinced of its
necessity visited the city afterward alongside Marine commanders. He
expressed shock at the destruction, along with concern at the reaction of
200,000 residents whom the Americans had urged to flee beforehand.
"My God," the Army commander said, "what are the folks who
live here going to say when they see this?"
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company