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 anywhere.

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 Anbar.

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 killings.

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 insurgency's appeal.

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 Anbar.

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 there.

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 inevitable results.

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