a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Too late for Haditha

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 8th, 2006

…General Casey and his folks are putting a lot of pressure on the terrorists and on the enemies of the government. I — we frequently call them insurgents. I’m a little reluctant to for some reason.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, November 29, 2005

“They didn’t even want to say the ‘i’ word,” one officer in Iraq told me. “It was the spectre of Vietnam. They did not want to say the ‘insurgency’ word, because the next word you say is ‘quagmire.’ The next thing you say is ‘the only war America has lost.’ And the next thing you conclude is that certain people’s vision of war is wrong.” […]

The refusal of Washington’s leaders to acknowledge the true character of the war in Iraq had serious consequences on the battlefield: in the first eighteen months, the United States government failed to organize a strategic response to the insurgency. Captain Jesse Sellars, a troop commander in the 3rd A.C.R. [Armored Calvary Regiment — ed.], who fought in some of the most violent parts of western Iraq in 2003 and 2004, told me about a general who visited his unit and announced, “This is not an insurgency.” Sellars recalled thinking, “Well, if you could tell us what it is, that’d be awesome.”
— from “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” George Packer, New Yorker, April 2006

The refusal to recognize the conflict for what it was meant that established doctrines about fighting insurgencies — roughly, invest most of your effort in political work and establishing local ties, and much less in military operations — were not followed systematically. Instead, different units adopted different improvised approaches. Packer:

In the absence of guidance, the 3rd A.C.R. adopted a heavy-handed approach, conducting frequent raids that were often based on bad information. The regiment was constantly moved around, so that officers were never able to form relationships with local people or learn from mistakes. Eventually, the regiment became responsible for vast tracts of Anbar province, with hundreds of miles bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria; it had far too few men to secure any area.

Gladiators versus Hajis
Haditha does not appear to have been a model of counterinsurgency work, either, to put it mildly. And the combat experience, strain, and mind-set of the company involved did not bode well.

In advance of Falluja, according to Newsweek magazine, men of Kilo Company – the one in Haditha – held a chariot race. They rounded up local horses, wore togas, played heavy metal music and made a “ball and chain studded with M-16 bullets.”

A company commander shouted a line from the film Gladiator in which the Romans declared before battle against the barbarians: “What you do here echoes in eternity.”

Now there is nothing new about warriors psyching themselves up for war. The issue is whether such attitudes became a mind-set for the marines fighting a less intensive, drawn-out and increasingly frustrating anti-guerrilla war. Some were on their third tour in as many years.

The wife of one unnamed sergeant in the unit has said there was “total breakdown” in discipline, with “drugs, alcohol, hazing [initiation ceremonies], you name it”. An American soldier jailed for refusing to return to Iraq has said that Iraqis were routinely called “Hajis” as the Vietnamese were called “gooks”.

Such a breakdown (of the “soldiers snap in battle” type) might explain an action by a particular unit, but it does not adequately put into context what appears to have been a lack of a proper counter-insurgency philosophy among the US Marine Corps. There was a vacuum in which such incidents were more likely to happen.
Haditha blow to new doctrine, Paul Williams, BBC (emphasis added)

It may seem odd and off-putting to dwell on a choice of military doctrine, of all things, after a sickening event like this one. There is much more than this that should be said about Haditha, and others already have: the human loss, the moral failure, the added stain on our country’s reputation. But the Haditha Kilo Company mind-set — seemingly similar to a street gang’s creed: revenge for the fallen brother — may also fit within the story of the hubris and incompetence of this war’s civilian leadership: their refusal to see their war for what it would be.

“It’s impossible to believe they didn’t know”
The other day I was asked why I hadn’t written about Haditha yet, given all my past posts about Abu Ghraib. The answer was partly that I hadn’t figured out how to think about what had happened. Unlike Abu Ghraib, there seems no evidence of specific policies leading to the (alleged) crime, at least not yet, as far as I know. (Barring the specific policy of invading Iraq in the first place, of course.)

On the other hand, the military’s response to Haditha now appears to have been lackadaisical at best, and a coverup at worst. And that is very similar to the glacial progress in investigating and punishing prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib to Bagram to Gardez. There’s no interest in it, because there’s no future in it. That’s ominous, of course, because it means there may well be other Hadithas out there, initially buried in reports as “collateral damage” or “firefights with terrorists,” relying on the lack of interest back home. Indeed, reports of similar alleged crimes are now surfacing, e.g., the Ishaqi incident.

Speaking to the New York Times, an anonymous Marine general familiar with the investigation said of some officers in the chain of command, “It’s impossible to believe they didn’t know… You’d have to know this thing stunk.” As Michael O’Hare (“Reality Based Community”) points out,

…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.

Fixing failure
The failure to understand the kind of conflict we were fighting might be a fundamental cause of the shame of Haditha. If just saying the word “insurgency” was a no-no, then it wasn’t likely many officers would lead and train units to properly fight a counterinsurgency, instead of leaving individual units to figure out their own methods — or just relying on firepower and getting even. Reporting the truth about the enemy, their tactics, and our own soldiers’ mind-sets could easily seem useless at best, when those issues were recognized at all. After all, some officers in the Haditha chain of command may have also shared the street gang mind-set of Kilo Company — or the “insurgency? what insurgency?” mind-set of their civilian leadership.

Packer writes that American combat officers are now learning how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, despite the slow start their superiors in the Pentagon gave them. That’s good, I guess; better a sensible approach than a random or senseless one, barring getting out altogether.

The question is whether it’s good enough. The subtitle to Packer’s New Yorker article is “Is it too late for the Administration to correct its course in Iraq?” If that’s supposed to mean “correct the course to fight and win in Iraq,” I suspect the answer is yes, it’s too late.

But I’m sure it’s too late for Haditha.

NOTES: “impossible to believe” quote via Mark Kleiman; “similar alleged crimes” leads to Gary Farber’s valuable weekend roundup of Haditha/Ishaqi/related news.

2 Responses to “Too late for Haditha”

  1. eRobin Says:

    When I think of Haditha and Ishaqi, I want to set all the specifics aside because they distract from the main point, which is that this stuff routinely happens in war no matter how careful an army is. Wanting to use the gun in your hand is natural. Wanting to cover-up for the soldiers who succombed to that impulse is natural. This is war. That’s what anyone who’s been through it will tell you. Then the lowest people possible on the totem pole will pay the price, because someone will have to pay the price.
    I want to talk about how we all knew that Hadithas would happen all along. And how BushCo bought all of them and more when he lied this country into this war. I want America to wake up but the story of Haditha will be told exactly in a way to put us all back to sleep like a parent does for a child who wakes up from a nightmare.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    That’s another way of looking at it, certainly. I think cluelessness in the leadership can translate into exhaustion, anger, and lack of discipline among some troops, too, above and beyond what one might expect otherwise.

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