Haditha: Warbloggers in denial

What happened at Haditha happened. It was very, very, bad. Cursing Jack Murtha and Time Magazine doesn’t change that.

There are two possibilities I’m having trouble disambiguating. Either the Haditha incident has driven the warbloggers morally insane, or it has driven them insane, period.

Here are the facts as now known:

Civilians in Haditha were killed by Marines last November after a Marine was killed by an IED.

The first investigation cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing, and found that the civilians had been killed by a bomb. A Marine spokesman called accounts of a massacre “aqi [al Qaeda Iraq] propaganda.”

Time Magazine got hold of a videotape of some of the events, and supplied it to the Defense Department in January. A second investigation found that the civilians had been killed by Marines, but as “collateral damage” rather than deliberately.

But discrepant testimony in that second investigation led to two more investigations, one of the incident itself and one of the after-action reporting process. Last month, Cong. Jack Murtha, a former Marine colonel, a Democrat, and now a critic of the war, spoke out about the incident, based apparently on information from the investigation. (Murtha is known to retain strong sources of information within the military.) He said that Marines had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

Time reports that in the course of the two current investigations, the Marines involved have changed their stories. Time also reports that there are incriminating photos, taken by the Marines in the incident but not supplied to the initial after-action reporting process.

The investigation into the incident has now issued a preliminary report, which was shown to several Senators and Representatives by DoD. Several of them have spoken in public about what the report says. None has contradicted Murtha on the substance, or criticized him for speaking out. Rep. John Kline, another retired Marine colonel, a Republican, and a supporter of the war told Time “This was a small number of Marines who fired directly on civilians and killed them.” He also said “There’s no doubt that the Marines allegedly involved in doing this—they lied about it,” and “They certainly tried to cover it up.”

In response, the warbloggers have been ranting, quibbling, and denouncing Murtha and the press. (James Joyner of Outside the Beltway, himself a hawk, documents and deplores some of the more hysterical terms thrown at Murtha, including “dishonorable” and “traitor.”) They have resolutely ignored the fact that none of the Republican hawks who have seen the report seems to share their viewpoint. Greyhawk at Mudville Gazette, to whom Glenn Reynolds links uncritically, says that it’s wrong to call the massacre an “unprovoked attack,” because the killing of the Marine was a provocation. So even if the killings were unjustified, they weren’t unprovoked. He then says (and this is where we enter clinical territory):

Let’s further illustrate this point. You and I are in a crowded room. Suddenly I throw a punch, and hit you quite squarely in the jaw. You go down but arise quickly, though quite shaken, and immediately throw a punch at me. I’m ready though, so I duck, and you light up the young lady standing behind me, sending her to the carpet.

No doubt at this point you are quite remorseful, but there’s no one in the room who could reasonably accuse you of having launched an unprovoked attack on the young lady in question. Yes, you punched her. Yes, you were acting in anger. Yes, you lost control. But as the guy who struck first then avoided your retaliation, sane people might think I deserve most of the blame.

Unless, of course, your response was the entire point of my actions in the first place. And if the room is full of my friends who are quite willing to go along, you had best start backing towards the door. Because you hit a girl, you sumbitch. One who had done absolutely nothing to you, so it was unprovoked.

Oh by the way, Jimmy says he heard her turn you down when you asked her for a date five minutes ago.

But of course the hypothetical party situation is analogous, not to massacre, but to genuine “collateral damage”: a bystander is hit by a punch intended for the aggressor in a fight. That has absolutely nothing to do with what seems to have actually happened: a Marine was killed, and some of his buddies lost it and went from house to house killing unresisting civilians.

Greyhawk then spends some more words and adrenaline ranting on about the use of “unprovoked,” and concludes with a violent fantasy concerning the “senior defense official” who talked to Time.

Reynolds also links to what he calls a “post-mortem on Haditha coverage” by Mary Katherine Ham of Townhall.com. Ham points out that Time got some details wrong in its account of the provenance of the videotape that re-started the investigation, and quotes the defense attorneys in the case and other sources sympathetic to the Marines likely to be facing trial, who alternate between casting doubt on the sequence of events and making excuses for the misconduct that didn’t occur.

What Reynolds and his linkees have in common is that they attribute all the accusations of misconduct to Murtha, to reporters, or to unnamed forces “who would reduce war crimes to mere partisan footballs.” They seem to be in some parallel universe, where not only is Jack Murtha anti-Marine but John Kline, the Republican hawk retired-Marine-colonel-turned-Congressman, simply doesn’t exist. If the military’s own investigation, as briefed to Congress, didn’t support Murtha’s remarks, isn’t it obvious that Kline, or one of the other Republicans who was briefed, might have said so?

And the accused Marines’ lawyers’ attempts to make the killings of civilians appear justified, or at least inadvertent, are going to run headlong into that Marine Corps press release claiming that the civilians were killed by a bomb. Just where did that story come from, if not from the Marines involved? And just precisely what is the relationship between the story they’re telling now and the story they told immediately after action, and then to the first two investigations?

The two key-phrases in the warbloggers’ campaign to shoot the bearers of bad tidings are “rush to judgment” and “presumption of innocence.” This confuses principles of legal procedure with principles of factual interpretation. As far as their trial by court-martial is concerned, of course the accused Marines are entitled to the presumption of innocence, and it would be wrong for the judges in those cases to prejudge the evidence. But here in the real world, we make judgments every day on evidence that hasn’t been presented to a court.

Who killed Nicole Simpson? A jury acquitted her husband. That means he can’t be criminally punished. But it doesn’t make him innocent in fact.

At the only trial Bill Clinton ever faced &#8212 his impeachment trial before the Senate &#8212 he was acquitted. That doesn’t make the blue dress disappear.


Murtha is excoriated for saying that the Marines involved killed “in cold blood.” I wouldn’t have used the phrase, because of its ambiguity. It can mean “coolly and calmly, with premeditation,” or it can mean simply “not in confusion or panic.”

In the heat of battle, civilians or captives are sometimes killed in ways that are unjustified, but are explicable, and partly excusable, because they were quick reactions in settings where there was no time to think clearly. If the reports that most of the victims were killed by shots to the back of the head are true, that doesn’t seem to have been the case at Haditha.

But the killings clearly weren’t “cold-blooded” in the Mafia-hit-man sense of the term. And Murtha never said they were. Here’s his complete quote:

Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.

The Marines were apparently physically and emotionally exhausted by extended service under high-stress conditions, and enraged by the killing of one of their comrades.

Those now either defending the indefensible or pretending that it didn’t happen have no such excuse.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Haditha: Warbloggers in denial”

  1. The better analogy, and one proving the dishonesty of the proffered analogy, is . . .
    "You and I are in a crowded room. Suddenly I throw a punch and hit you quite squarely in the jaw. You go down, then arise quickly, but I have already run out into another room. Though quite shaken, you immediately enter a room that I did not flee to, and that you have no real evidence to indicate that I fled to, and start hitting every person in sight, including all the women, despite the fact that you know you were hit by a man."

  2. I haven't been following closely the bloggy response to Haditha, but my own response is thus:
    We don't know what the facts are yet, and we won't until the DoD investigation is complete. "Facts" reported in the media regarding Iraq are quite often not factual, and the American media has been unable or unwilling to prevent itself from being used as propaganda tools by our enemies in Iraq; therefore anything appearing in the media is of suspect factual status. Reports in the NYT, etc., about Iraq have much truthiness to them.
    If indeed the reports that Marines killed civilans in cold blood, they should be punished, severely, and the punishment should be publicised in Iraq.
    Lastly, the fact that Americans, even Americans in uniform, can commit crimes, and can successfully cover up those crimes, does not reflect on the moral status of the United States, or of the military mission in which we are engaged in Iraq. If the military heirarchy was complicit in covering up the crimes, or the government refused to carry out punishment upon determining to some appropriate legal standard that a crime did in fact occur, *that* would be a reflection on the morality of the government, the military, and/or the war in Iraq.
    SO far, most lefty commentators on Haditha seem to assume that the existence of a small number of criminals in the Marines *does* reflect on the morality of the U.S. or the Marines or the War in Iraq. They're so wrong as to not be worth taking seriously. Those commentators also seem to assume that the responsible parties will not be punished even if there is legally convincing evidence of their crimes. That's also so wrong as to be not worth taking seriously.

  3. Anthony: "S[o] far, most lefty commentators on Haditha seem to assume that the existence of a small number of criminals in the Marines *does* reflect on the morality of the U.S. or the Marines or the War in Iraq."
    This is typical of the mendacity of many "Righties" who ignore the facts and continue to make up allegations against the "Left" in order to divert attention from the incompetencies, corruption, and immorality of the Bush administration.
    People on the left have said that the cover up by people in the chain of command reflects on the morality of the military command and the administration and that the failure of the Bush administration to take actions necessary to prevent or limit such incidents, by providing sufficient troops, training, psychological treatment, armament, and planning, rather than providing tax cuts for wealthy contributors, reflects on the morality of the Administration.
    It is a bald-faced lie to state that any significant number of "lefties", much less "most", have ever said or implied that the actions of a few rogue soldiers should be imputed to the country as a whole.
    This is yet another example of Righties using love of country and support of our troops in a as cover for and a diversion from the crimes and failings of the Bush administration.
    It is a shameful to take patriotism and concern for the welfare of our troops hostage for the purpose of protecting the partisan political fortunes of the Bush administration and deflecting legitimate criticism of the administration's planning and conduct of the war.
    You are, however, free to provide quotes and links to prove your point that "most lefty commentators [sic]" have stated that the mere actions of a few soldiers reflects on the morality of the country as a whole.
    We won't hold our breath.

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