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My Lai, Iraq

The Few, the Proud, the Murderers

by PIERRE TRISTAM

Of course the first line of defense, for those craven enough to defend atrocities just because Americans commit them, is to say that Iraqis do worse. And in fact the U.S. military, after lying about the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last year, then lying about the number of Iraqis killed, then covering up the massacre until a Time magazine article made it impossible to keep lying, attempted that very line of defense: As Time reported in March, "Lieut. Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing, spokeswoman for the Multi-National Force-Iraq, told Time the involvement of [military investigators] does not mean that a crime occurred. And she says the fault for the civilian deaths lies squarely with the insurgents, who "placed noncombatants in the line of fire as the M! arines responded to defend themselves.’" All lies, of course. There were no insurgents hiding among civilians. There w as no crossfire. The Marines weren’t defending themselves. They were out on a rampage, murdering at point-blank leisure, logding bullets in the heads of women and children, My Lai-style.

There is one buried quarter truth in Michelle Martin’s official story (odd, how her name rhymes with the name of that most craven of right-wing bloggers, to whom apologizing for brutality, as long as it’s camouflaged in stars and stripes, is a back-seat shtick), though it doesn’t justify what happened in Haditha: When you train men not only to kill but to become sub-human drones who dehumanize their enemy in turn, and when you place them in situations where they want to see nothing but sub-human creatures, you can’t expect them not to act the part they’ve been trained to act! .

I keep remembering that Bob Herbert column in the Times last May, relating the story of Aidan Delgado, a U.S. soldier who served in Iraq: "He wasn’t happy when, even before his unit left the states," Herbert wrote, "a top officer made wisecracks about the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans. "He laughed,’ Mr. Delgado said, "and everybody in the unit laughed with him.’ The officer’s comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that, according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers on ordinary Iraqis. He said: "Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.’ He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. "I said to them: "What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?’ And they responded ju! st comp letely openly. They said: "Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.” "Haji’ is the troops’ term of choice for an Iraqi. It’s used the way "gook’ or "Charlie’ was used in Vietnam. Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong." The banality of evil doesn’t have to rise to the level of genocide to find its stage. To the contrary. Evil at its most routi ne is localized affair, the more debased for being either completely out of sight and accountability, or for being tacitly, happily condoned by its execut ioner’s posse. The Haditha massacre stands out only because in its case someone was there to report it. But who doubts that these atrocities aren’t routine, or that a soldier’s swift kick in the chest of a six year old boy is any less of an atrocity, considering what that soldier would do to an adult if can be such a brute toward children?

What’s almost as repulsive, though in this case only ink is being spilled, not blood, is the way the subsequent reporting about the massacre is being laid out. The New York Times this morning, with its usual, but in this case nauseating, restraint in balance’s name, pulls a classic example of mitigating atrocity with qualifiers. The lead paragraph refers to a small number of marines carrying out "extensive, unprovoked killings of civilians," establishing right away the rogue-soldier theory that was attempted in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. The downplaying of U.S. torture as an institutional rather than ! an exce ptional strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan was successful, at least in the public’s mind.

The evidence suggests otherw ise. It does so as well when it comes to wanton killings, whether it’s the trigger-happy soldiering at Iraqi checkpoints or the killing of civilians in allegedly collateral circumstances. Yet you can see the Haditha massacre’s dowplaying game already in full swing. The Times has the story over two columns above the fold, but to the left of a four-column spread about the Enron verdict. Enron is news. It isn’t bigger news than the massacre of twenty-four Iraqis at the hands of U.S. marines. Not by any stretch of journalistic calibration. But such are the tastes for news in the United States that business porn will always outplay patriotism’s barbarity. Americans don’t want to know what their soldiers are doing in their name in Iraq. The cost to Iraqis is immense. It’s more devastating, especially in human terms, than anything Enron ever did. But it’s safer to focus on old-fashioned homegrown corruption and malfeasance. In that sense Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are doing the American public a favor, in distractions and entertainment, and the public is grateful. They may be bad guys, but they’re our bad guys, and they! ‘re pro v iding cover for what our supposedly good guys, our supposedly heroic soldiers, under the leadership and don’t-mess-with-Texas-encouragement of their apologist-in-chief, are doing in Iraq.

For the record, the Los Angeles Times’ lead about the massacre had none of the New York Times’ daintiness. It was to the point: "Marines from Camp Pendleton wantonly killed unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and then tried to cover up the slayings in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, military investigations have found." One more point about the Times story. The very last paragraph raises the prospect of yet another massacre, though it reads like an afterthought: "The Marines also disclosed this week that a preliminary inquiry had found "sufficient information’ to recommend a criminal probe into the killing of an Iraqi civilian on April 26 near Hamandiyah, a village west of B! aghdad. " But isn’t the uncovering of atrocity always an afterthought, if even that?

PIERRE TRISTAM is a columnist and editorial writer at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, and editor of Candide’s Notebooks, a Web site. Reach him at ptristam@att.net.