Duty, honor, investigation

IF IT IS ESTABLISHED THAT U.S. Marines wantonly killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians last November and then tried to cover up the massacre, expect commentators of the left, right and center to discern “larger lessons” from the affair. Actually, some pundits already have. They cite the alleged atrocity as one more reason to bring the troops home, or proof that the war in Iraq has dragged on too long, or that too few service members have been forced to shoulder its burdens, or that atrocities are inevitable in a conflict in which combatants are hard to distinguish from civilians.

First things first. If Marines “avenged” the killing of a comrade by terrorizing and killing innocent Iraqis, they disgraced their uniform and must be punished. The same is true of anyone higher in the chain of command who helped conceal what happened on Nov. 19, 2005, in Haditha in western Iraq. Villagers have told journalists that Marines incensed by the killing of a lance corporal went house to house and shot men, women and children at close range.

“They ranged from little babies to adult males and females,” Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones of Hanford, Calif., told a reporter for The Times. “I’ll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart.” Briones said he took digital photographs of the victims that he later erased, assuming that they had been downloaded.

Initially, a Marine spokesman described the dead Iraqis as victims of a roadside bomb or an exchange of gunfire. That story began to come unstuck in January, however, when Time magazine supplied military officials in Baghdad with contrary accounts of the incident from Iraqis. The carnage in Haditha is being investigated by Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell and will be the subject of hearings by the House Armed Services Committee and possibly other congressional panels.


If the allegations of a massacre are corroborated -- and a full disclosure is overdue -- the debate about the wisdom of the U.S. mission in Iraq inevitably will become even more inflamed. But in Iraq, as in Vietnam, larger “explanations” for atrocities cannot be regarded as excuses. Even Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), the leading advocate in Congress for disengagement from Iraq, is adamant that service members must be held accountable.

“I understand the fog of war and the confusion of battle,” Murtha, a decorated combat veteran, said the other day. But no amount of fog, and no level of confusion, can obscure the fact that this is a nation of laws, and when the U.S. condones the deliberate murder of civilians it becomes, as Murtha said, no better than its enemy.