Missing the point about atrocities

The president is “troubled” about the Haditha story, and reassures us, lapsing into his usual passive-voice departure from scenes he doesn’t enjoy, that “if laws were broken, there will be punishment.” This is a certainty, maybe even up to the E-8 level this time.

But that’s not what this story is about, or it shouldn’t be. The three elephants in this room are (i) none of this was on the scope at the White House until at least two months after the event, (ii) when it was, none of it was shared with the public until a couple of weeks ago, and by John Murtha, (iii) a whole chain of command up to the president obviously believed that the person above him did not want stuff like this passed along. (For example, how many people knew that $38,000 in compensation had been paid to victims officially reported killed by insurgents; even in Iraq, money like that changing hands generates all sorts of paper and forms. )

The last item is the devastating indictment of the commander-in-chief. After five years running a company, the corporate culture is your responsibility. It’s bad that a few desperate Marines lost it in the hot, scary, illegible, and hostile environment of Iraq. You and I would crack a lot sooner, but there’s no excuse for this and “not lose it” is exactly what the Marines are, and have to be, really good at, so these guys have to be punished. The big issue is not these wretched leathernecks but that Bush and Rumsfeld, by all their responses to bad news and the people who have tried to tell it to them, have created a culture of lying, coverup, and hoping stuff will go away that has obviously corrupted the culture of a proud service. I say obviously before all the evidence is in because it doesn’t matter if the Haditha case somehow comes up with everyone innocent after full investigation. It was a prima facie issue from the getgo, down in the high E and low O levels in November and needed to be managed as a crisis no matter what the investigation turned up.

This corruption will not be corrected by hanging enlisted Marines, nor by cashiering the odd lieutenant or even colonel where the story was found to have stopped. It will be corrected by asking everyone from there up, “how could your people possibly not have known that we expect stuff like this to be reported up and handled?” There’s no defense to this charge, of course, because “everyone knowing” stuff like that is the affirmative duty of management, using whatever it takes. Heads need to be introduced to civilian haberdashery if not rolled, way up the line, not for being in charge when a few troops went nuts, but for being in charge of an organization whose course-correction machinery was broken and left unrepaired.

Daniel Henninger in the WSJ today has a long rambling whine (behind the paywall) about Haditha that winds up at the wrong rotten apple theory (the one that excuses anything by saying “it’s only a few”…). Nope. Even if that model had any legitimacy, it’s not about the tiny percentage of troops who do bad when all the others are doing good; it’s about the high percentage of the management structure that’s learned to hide, lie, and cover up the work that needs doing, and the repeatedly, doggedly, incompetent leadership that made it that way.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

3 thoughts on “Missing the point about atrocities”

  1. Yes, yes and yes. But the obfuscatory prowess of this administration has been demonstrated time and again and I expect this will be much the same: a few leathernecks will get it in the neck and maybe an officer and management/command will carry on with the broken system.

  2. You are looking at it mainly from the cover-up angle, but what about the bigger issue, that of how the climate was created, from the President on down, that made this kind of atrocity inevitable?
    When you send people to fight a war on "terror" without defining the enemy, all the while appealing to their patriotism as well as fanning hatred for that undefined "enemy," you have planted all the seeds that are needed. What else did Bush and Rumsfeld expect?

  3. Michael,
    I ask in all serious whether you think this is likely to be the first case like this or only the first we've heard of. Isn't it quite obvious, from all of history, that this sort of thing _always_ happens _a lot_ in _all_ wars, and that only a fool would think that for some reason it would not happens with americans? (It happens all the time in Chechnya- while I hope the US troops are better trained and disciplined than the Russian ones, I don't think they are _that_ much better, all of them being human beings, after all.) This is in no way an excuess, and of course everyone should be punished who has done wrong. But surely this isn't the first and isn't the last case, and this sort of thing, that it surely will happen, has to be taken in to account in deciding to go to war, and is one very great reason why we should not go to war unless it's absolutely necessary, which obviously it wasn't in this case.

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