Nothing in the human experience is more physically exhausting, mentally challenging, and emotionally rattling than ground combat, particularly that which is fought in tooth-to-eyeball proximity to the enemy. It does things to soldiers that people who have never experienced it will never truly comprehend.
“Everyone in ground combat is in a constant state of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, high strung emotions and nervous tension. All are anticipating the next action,” says retired U.S. Marine Col. John W. Ripley.
He should know: As the legendary leatherneck who almost single-handedly blunted the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive in 1972 by blowing up the Dong-Ha bridge while under heavy enemy fire, Ripley would testify 20 years later before a Presidential Commission on the very subject of ground combat. He described it as an “overt, aggressive, purposely violent act where violence has an advantageous role.”
In a conversation earlier this week, Ripley told me, “Marines are always alert and prepared to react in combat. The responsibility then falls to the leader to prevent them from overreacting, and often it is not easy.”
For those tasked with engaging the enemy in violent ground combat, the potential for overreaction is a variable that simply never goes away.
What Happened in Haditha?
Which brings us to the remote town of Haditha, in Iraq’s notorious Al Anbar Province. There on November 19, 2005, a handful of U.S. Marines allegedly killed some two-dozen Iraqi civilians, some said to be women and children.
Though the facts are not yet known, the killings are alleged to be the result of an emotionally charged retaliation for the ambush killing of Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee on patrol when the vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED).
According to preliminary reports, after Terrazas was killed, his fellow Marines raided two or three houses suspected of harboring insurgents. There was shooting, and people died.
Today, it seems most anyone on either side of the political fence–whether supportive of our efforts in Iraq or not–would agree that someone is probably going to be charged. Whether or not they will be convicted, and of what, is another matter entirely.
Now, I’m not excusing what may–with “may” being the optimum word here–prove to be a shameful day in the history of our Marine Corps. But it benefits no one if we do not attempt to understand the men involved and the dynamics of the system, and how it all could have temporarily broken down, if it did. Nor is there any justifiable reason to publicly convict the Marines–as we have seen in the rhetoric of Congressman John Murtha (D., Penn)–before those Marines have had their day in court.
Murtha contends the Marines killed civilians in “cold blood.” But based on my understanding of killing in “cold blood”–which is “deliberate” and with “a complete lack of emotion”–that would have been impossible under the circumstances. And any former Marine like Murtha should know better.
Of course we will not know the specifics of what happened until all of the investigations and hearings have been completed. Even then, we may not know everything, much of it having been lost in the proverbial fog of war and the so-often under-appreciated reality of combat and combat stress.
Guilty or not, what these young riflemen go through day-in and day-out must be considered if we are to fully understand what went so terribly wrong at Haditha and why.
A Typical Attack
Let’s consider a frequent and typical attack on a Marine or Army patrol as an example: When a Humvee is hit by a mine or an IED, the result is nothing like what one might see in a movie. It’s not simply a blast and people are dead. No chest-clutching John Wayne departures with inspirational music. There is no glory. No adventure. It’s just the worst sort of human drama imaginable.
The vehicle, if close enough to the blast, flips into the air, snapping necks and spinal cords. Heads and limbs are torn from bodies. Gasoline ignites and ammunition cooks off, burning any survivors to a crisp.
Those soldiers and Marines (many of whom are still teenagers) who witness the action are instantly shocked, physically sickened, grief-stricken, and enraged over the horror of having watched buddies–who have become closer than any sibling might ever hope to be–torn to pieces. Badly wounded buddies are screaming in agony. Yet the ones uninjured or with minor injuries have to respond as trained. They are dismounting from vehicles, simultaneously removing safeties from weapons and racing for cover or assaulting in the direction of the ambush where seen or unseen forces are shooting at them. The counterattack often requires the instant establishment of a base of fire by one group while an enveloping force prepares to overwhelm the enemy. Blood-pressure is peaking. Adrenaline is pumping.
Surviving officers and NCOs (most of whom are in their twenties) are even busier. They are reporting their position, calling for supporting fires (if needed) and medical assistance. They also are shouting commands, directing troops, and generally trying to maintain order in the midst of chaos, and attempting to simplify what has in an instant become extraordinarily complex.
Making matters worse, the closer the action becomes, the greater the chances that something dark might take place. In his book, On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (a military-science professor and foremost authority on ground combat) writes, “In order to fight at close range one must deny the humanity of one’s enemy.”
Yet, the killing must be controlled, and that’s almost impossible without superb leadership. Fortunately for American infantry forces, the leaders are so well-trained and the men so well-versed in instant obedience to orders that battlefield atrocities are indeed a rarity. Still there is the human factor and the extreme stress for young infantrymen, who the previous year might have only been concerned with grades, girlfriends, and football tryouts.
The Unpredictable Effects of Stress
Retired Marine Col. Wayne V. Morris, who 30-plus-years-ago commanded Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (the same company that is today under investigation for the Haditha killings), tells NRO there is more to the story than the public knows. “Since I am a former company commander for 3 / 1, I am on the inside of this issue,” he says. “There is much more to come out on this that the media is not reporting,” and that includes “issues that will play to the amount of stress the folks were under.”
According to Morris, the issue of combat stress “is huge, and the confounding aspect to it is that it affects different people in different ways.”
All combatants manage or mismanage it differently, he says. The manifestations of combat stress are not always immediate nor are they obvious, and anyone who served in combat will tell you they have been permanently changed by the experience.
“We all suffer some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome,” says Morris. “And given a certain stressor, we all could fall prey to some sort of unexplained reaction that would not be normally associated with our demeanor.”
Morris, who also served as a young lieutenant in a Marine Force Recon unit (deep reconnaissance and special operations), adds, “It’s difficult to determine who will perform best under fire. I’ve seen what many would consider a ‘Marvin Milquetoast’ turn into a tiger, and watched what some would consider the epitome of a Marine come apart: both individuals during the same combat action. I’ve also seen a person seemingly weather a very severe action at one given time, and then come-apart during a subsequent and sometimes not nearly as severe action.”
Retired Marine Major Frank C. Stolz Jr. agrees. “Some who are heroic one day can become incapable of performing their duties the next and vice versa,” says Stolz who, like Morris, commanded a Marine rifle company in Vietnam. “Whenever a member of one’s unit is harmed by the enemy in whatever fashion, there is an immediate desire for revenge, as well as one of fear and sometimes of incomprehension. I have more than a few times had to re-instruct my own men that they cannot take out their desire for vengeance on the very innocents that we came to protect.”
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Alex Lee, who commanded “special operations elements” in Vietnam, tells NRO that though the stress of combat will always affect the performance of combatants, it does not result in prisoners or civilians being “routinely” killed.
“It does however mean that fear levels are raised to nearly unbearable intensities, and unless the junior leaders live by their training and the core values of Marines, incidents could occur,” he says, adding, “Rage at the loss of comrades causes many to seek some way to exact revenge. I have seen this on many occasions, and when you combine confusion with rage it takes hard-nosed leaders to keep emotions in check, otherwise villages get burned and the inhabitants will be killed.”
Complicity, Confusion, and Disgust
John Temple Ligon, a former Army Ranger officer and artillery forward observer in Vietnam, says that, while he does not condone the killing of 24 civilians, he cannot condemn the Marines, either. “Chances are, whenever a roadside bomb kills a Marine or a soldier, there are nearby civilians who saw the installation of the bomb and the concealment of the bomb, and the civilians operated at a safe distance when the Marines rolled by,” Ligon tells NRO. “In South Vietnam, I saw soldiers lose their feet, legs, and lives as they walked over land mines hidden in the rice paddy berms. The civilians were planting rice at the time nearby, but never near the mines when the soldiers walked by. They, too, knew exactly where the mines lay.”
So, as Ligon explains, just as there are no hard-and-fast frontlines in the war on terror, there also is no absolute determinant as to who is and is not the enemy. That’s tough for a 19-year-old to process when somebody is trying to kill him every time he shoulders his weapon and walks down the street.
Additionally, some troops on the ground say they are increasingly coming under fire by armed children: a sign of desperation and recruiting woes for the terrorists, but an additional challenge for infantry and special operations units who must confront them.
“This is not new, in war or the Middle East, but seems to be a new trend in Iraq,” says former Marine infantryman Robert L. Rohrer, who claims to have seen “several statements” indicating there is much more to the Haditha story than has been released.
Much more indeed, and we will learn a great deal more about it in the coming weeks, which is why the investigations continue.
Are Marine infantrymen, by virtue of the nature of their work, “cold-blooded” killers?
On the contrary: It is because of the nature of their work–usually performed under extreme stress and fatigue–that Marines truly have to be some of the most moral men on the planet if they are going to be effective warriors. That doesn’t mean they are flawless.
“[A Marine] lives on the razor’s edge of fury and retribution, along with disgust for what he sees, i.e., how the enemy treats their own people,” Col. Ripley says. “He is gripped with emotion when he sees children, many the same ages as his own brothers and sisters, and especially when he sees the mothers trying to protect them from the line of fire. He will put himself in great danger, exposing himself to that same fire just in an attempt to remove non-combatants from this danger.”
He adds, “a Marine is disgusted when he sees how the enemy treat their own people by putting them in situations where they will assuredly become casualties, for the obvious reason that they can blame it on the Americans.”
So it would be unfair and foolish to pass judgment on these Marines, without first finding what exactly happened at Haditha.
—A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflicts in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of five books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.