Haditha was bad news: not so much because some soldiers went out of control, but because there was no internal system in place to keep them from covering it up and getting away with it. The Powers-that-Be seemed content to ride along with the false story until they knew that Time had a videotape.
The atrocity at Mahmudiya — a young woman raped, and the woman, her sister, and their parents murdered as part of the coverup — reflect much less excusable behavior on the part of the soldiers. If the facts are as charged, this wasn’t a combat operation gone wrong: this was simply a crime. (Reportedly the incident was the culmination of a pattern of sexual harrassment directed at the rape victim by U.S. soldiers as she passed through a checkpoint.)
But in this case, the military seems to have been aggressive in ferreting out the truth. The original report that atrocity had been committed by insurgents passed mostly unchallenged, but when two members of the unit in question spilled to the beans in psychological counselling sessions, the alarm bells went off just as they should have.
It might be too optimistic to read this as systemic change for the better, perhaps as a result of organizational learning from the Haditha fiasco. Still, the indications are that the mistakes of Haditha aren’t being repeated.
Any occupation, especially in the face of an insurgency and with a big cultural gap between the occupiers and the occupied, is going to generate some atrocious behavior. All we can reasonably ask from our military is that crimes against civilians be treated as crimes, not excused with some version of “boys will be boys.” That seems to have been the case this time.
It’s as good a way as I can think of for the military to celebrate the Fourth of July, and as good a reason as I can think of for the rest of us to celebrate it, too.
This country was founded on the twin ideas of human equality and human rights. Every time we show that we mean it, we reaffirm that foundation. Every time we show we don’t mean it, by treating other human beings the way no decent human being would treat an animal or by justifying such treatment with the cowardly plea of necessity, we proclaim that the men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to those twin propositions were a pack of fools. To a patriot, desecrating the Declaration ought to be much more offensive than burning the Flag.
Update This post was previously misattributed to Mike O’Hare, since I posted it from his computer.