There are Calleys in every army. What makes them dangerous is the set of circumstances in which their homicidal aberrations can run amok.
Neil Sheehan, New York Times, Mar 28, 1971
Killing has its own, laboriously worked out taxonomy, with layers of meaning imposed on its occurrence. This is whether it is exculpated because of a recognised defense at law; whether it is justified under the broader ‘rules of engagement’ by military personnel, or whether it is simply deemed the necessary outcome of fighting the ‘just’ war.
These are the sorts of arguments and opinions that are being aired at the trial of Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the now infamous commander who, it is alleged, presided over the killing of 24 men, women and children on November 19, 2005 in Haditha. Wuterich faces nine counts of voluntary manslaughter, two accounts of assault with a dangerous weapon and three counts of dereliction of duty. He is the last of eight Marines who have faced charges over the killings in Haditha. The other seven escaped conviction, a situation that itself may imperil the case against the officer. In any case, such figures as Gen. Tom McInerney have long claimed that a fair trial of the men of Kilo Company would be out of the question.
The ingredients of psychological decay were noted on Friday – a war where clarity on targeting is all but guaranteed, and its agents despondent, confused, and furious. The formula is familiar. It began with a road side bomb that killed a fellow marine, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. A platoon commander at the time, First Lt. William Kallop, testified that his unit had been attacked during the deployment. ‘We were expecting resistance.’ Wuterich had made it clear that his ‘marines responded to the threats they faced in the manner that we had all been trained.’ Killing machines are hardly meant to be sentient.
Defense attorney Haytham Faraj has made the case that Wuterich’s squad were under the belief that an insurgent was in one of the homes, and proceeded to, as the euphemistic term goes, ‘clear it’ and other residences with grenades and fire. ‘It was the unfortunate result of the intent to do the right thing.’ But Faraj’s strategy has gone further, making the claim that the investigations themselves into the incident brought forth questionable evidence. A naval investigator, he claims, spent a mere nine minutes at the scene of the incident months after it took place. There were no autopsies. Only photographic evidence was adduced. The narratives of the soldiers involved were jigged to fit the version offered by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Lead prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon sees it differently. ‘The evidence will show that none of these victims were a threat. None of them had weapons and many of them were women and children – young children. The evidence will clearly show the accused understood the rules of engagement.’ The picture described by Gannon shows a rather vicious variant of how the rules of engagement operate – after finding Terrazas dead, Wuterich and his men allegedly gunned down five unarmed men who pulled off the road from a white car. The ‘operation’ to clear the houses thereby commenced with lethal effect.
With this trial, moral flashbacks are inevitable. Where are the lines of responsibility and how far do they go? Wuterich himself led a trigger happy unit who must be held to account. (That, it would seem, is not foremost in the mind of the jurors who acquitted the previous seven.) For Wuterich and his supporters, the argument remains the same – he was following laid down ‘rules of engagement’, and his rights have been violated. But ultimately, his very presence, with its moralizing fury, was the problem.
With the discovery of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, a host of excuses and justifications were trotted out by General Westmoreland and company as it why the deaths of some 500 unarmed civilians took place. Attempts were made to minimize its significance – this was not how America made war, encumbered as it was by a strict legal framework. The men of the Americal Division were errant cowboys, exceptional killers, far from representative of Uncle Sam’s civilized way of waging war.
Rep. Allard K. Lowenstein (D-N.Y.) preferred a more radical assessment, claiming that the atrocity at My Lai was an issue of collective responsibility seeping into every corner of America’s conscience. ‘I hope no American feels anything less than collective guilt’, he told the Association of Student Governments in November 1969. Knowledge of its occurrence and its causes would set the public free. As long as Americans insisted on staying in Vietnam, the nation should expect US forces ‘to at least occasionally commit acts we declared illegal at Nuremberg.’
The Wuterich trial is yet another footnote in the broader discussion of war criminality. The question posed by Neil Sheehan in the New York Times (Mar 28, 1971) on the issue of whether the United States needed to have war crimes trials remains relevant then as it does now. ‘Do we have to be Hitlerian to be a war criminal? Or can you qualify as a well-intentioned President of the United States?’
Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org