Politics & Policy

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Revisting Hadithah.

In May of 2006, the Marine Corps charged a number of Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division of killing more than 20 Iraqi civilians in the town of Hadithah in retaliation for the death of one of their comrades by a roadside bomb in November, 2005. At the time, I addressed the Hadithah allegations on National Review Online; I observed then that:

In Iraq, our opponents have chosen to deny us the ability to fight the sort of conventional war we would prefer and forced us to fight the one they want — an insurgency. Insurgents blend with the people making it hard to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant. A counterinsurgency always has to negotiate a fine line between too much and too little force. Indeed, it suits the insurgents’ goal when too much force is applied indiscriminately.

For insurgents, there is no more powerful propaganda tool than the claim that their adversaries are employing force in an indiscriminate manner. It is even better for the insurgents’ cause if they can credibly charge the forces of the counterinsurgency with the targeted killing of noncombatants. For many people even today, the entire Americans enterprise in Vietnam is discredited by the belief that the US military committed atrocities and war crimes on a regular basis and as a matter of official policy [thank you, John Kerry]. But as Jim Webb has noted, stories of atrocious conduct, e.g. My Lai, “represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme.”

In the quest for its own My Lai, the anti-Iraq war faction in this country has had to settle for Abu Ghraib, by far the most hyped stories of the war. But now, allegations of multiple murders in the town of Hadithah, an insurgent stronghold in al Anbar Province, may provide them with the incident they need.

Although the investigation had hardly begun, opponents of the war immediately pounced on the alleged incident to advance their agenda. The Marines were immediately convicted in the press, especially Time magazine, which broke the story, and the New York Times. The odious Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) went even further, publicly claiming that the Marines had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” This incident, said Murtha, “shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day when they’re out in combat.” Appearing on This Week on ABC, Murtha contended that the shootings in Hadithah had been covered up. “Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long? We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.”

The investigation has resulted in murder charges against three Marines. During the Article 32 investigation — the military justice system’s version of a grand jury, which determines whether or not to refer the case to courts-martial — of the first charged Marine, Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, the prosecution alleged that he and other members of his battalion carried out a revenge-motivated assault on Iraqi civilians that left 24 dead after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine nearby. Sharratt contended that the Iraqi men he and his comrades confronted were insurgents and at least one of them was holding an AK-47 rifle when he fired at them.

Now news reports indicate that the presiding officer in Sharratt’s Article 32 hearing has argued that the prosecution’s arguments aren’t supported by forensic and other evidence and has recommended against proceeding to court martial.

According to the Associated Press:

The hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, wrote in a report released by the defense Tuesday that those charges were based on unreliable witness accounts, insupportable forensic evidence and questionable legal theories. He also wrote that the case could have dangerous consequences on the battlefield, where soldiers might hesitate during critical moments when facing an enemy.

“The government version is unsupported by independent evidence,” Ware wrote in the 18-page report. “To believe the government version of facts is to disregard clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.”

“Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, Lance Corporal Sharratt’s actions were in accord with the rules of engagement and use of force,” Ware wrote.

[Ware] said further prosecution of Sharratt could set a “dangerous precedent that … may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and its mission in Iraq.”

“Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy,” he said.

For the charges against Sharratt to be dropped, Ware’s recommendations must still be accepted by the commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), Lt. Gen. James Mattis.

The cases against the other Marines may be stronger than the one against Sharratt. If any of the charged Marines did commit cold-blooded murder against unarmed civilians, they committed a war crime that must be punished. But even atrocities must be placed in context. As I have remarked regarding My Lai, atrocities during an insurgency are more likely to result from confusion than from cold-blooded intent.

Anyone who has been in combat understands the thin line between permissible acts and atrocity. The first and potentially most powerful emotion in combat is fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation. But in soldiers, fear is overcome by what the Greeks called thumos—spiritedness and righteous anger. In the Iliad, thumos, awakened in Achilles by the death of his comrade Patroclus, leads him to quit sulking in his tent and wade into the Trojans.

But unchecked, thumos can engender rage and frenzy. It is the role of leadership, which provides strategic context for killing and enforces discipline, to prevent this outcome. Such leadership was not in evidence at My Lai. We’ll have to see if this was the problem at Hadithah.

Under the stress of war, unchecked thumos can push a decent man over the threshold. That’s a fact. But to use Hadithah to discredit the efforts of hundreds of thousands of American and Coalition servicemen in Iraq, is as wrong as it was to use My Lai to discredit our sacrifices in Vietnam.

Will Murtha and the editors of the New York Times apologize to Sharratt if the charges are dropped? Don’t count on it. But at least these Marines didn’t play lacrosse.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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