Why Haditha Happened

Army spokesmen are saying that the murders of 24 Iraqi civilians, most of them women and young children, at Haditha last November took place because the troops just weren’t well enough trained.

I don’t believe that, and neither should you.

The Defense Department is saying that it is going to initiate a huge training program that will keep such incidents from happening in the future.

I don’t believe that either, and neither should you.

It has been, admittedly, a long time, but I do not remember anyone ever during the whole time I was in the Marines telling us “It is a bad thing to shoot to death unarmed men, women and children who pose no threat to you and who have not done or even seemed to want to do you any harm.” Neither do I remember anybody ever during the whole time I was in the Marines telling us, “It is not okay to kill innocent civilians because you are pissed off because one of your guys got hurt earlier in the day someplace else.”

I do remember them telling us to keep mud out of the muzzles of our weapons, to take care of our feet, and not to salute indoors.

I remember lots of things from those years. But I cannot remember anyone of any rank telling us that we shouldn’t shoot to death unarmed little kids and women and working stiffs and old guys.

If anybody had said anything that stupid to us someone surely would have said what someone always said when somebody said something really, really, really stupid: “No shit?”

None of the interviewers on network and cable stations these past few weeks, however, has said that or anything close like it to any of the generals and Defense Department officials they’ve had on the air doing the administration’s damage control. Again and again, the brasshats or suits have talked about training failed or training needed, and not one interviewer from “Newshour” to the flacks at Fox has said, “No shit?”

The White House and Pentagon love the excuse of “inadequate training” because it makes atrocities the result of innocent procedural negligence or “a few bad apples” rather than the result and acknowledgement of the administration’s basic policy.

The excuse of “inadequate training” came up after Lt. William Calley’s platoon murdered as many as 500 old men, women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. There are other similarities in My Lai and Haditha. The secondary excuse for My Lai was that the platoon had earlier lost some members and the soldiers were pissed off; the Haditha Marines were, it is said, enraged because they’d lost a buddy some time earlier. The My Lai story only came out because it appeared on CBS and in the New Yorker, up to which time the military was doing everything it could to cover the murders up; the Haditha story came out because somebody leaked it to Time, which published a scathing article. Before the Time article, DoD had no public interest in the murders at Haditha at all.

“Inadequate training” was also the Defense Department’s primary excuse for its torture program at Abu Ghraib. That ugliness went public only because some idiot with a digital camera and laptop posted some of the atrocity photos on a website. The Defense Department worked very hard to play that one down, and it fought very hard to keep any more of the hundreds of other digital photographs from coming out, as if the evil we did not get to see would therefore be evil that never happened. (DoD continues to be, according to Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib story, successful in suppressing videos which are far more awful than any of the digital photographs.)

But Haditha was no more a function of “inadequate training” than was My Lai or Abu Ghraib. Each of them was a direct consequence of US policies at the highest levels, policies that said the US had the right to apply deadly force halfway around the world in pursuit of what its leaders had decided in secret were the country’s national interest. All three atrocities happened because the presidential administrations in power declared the lives of distant individuals trivial, disposable, theoretical.

In each of those events, the troops scorned for atrocities (Calley was the only one who got a sentence out of My Lai, and that was only house arrest for a few months; no officer went into the dock for Abu Ghraib, just a few enlisted losers) were in fact carrying out US policy without the window-dressing, without the bullshit. They performed what was in America’s heart of darkness. In My Lai, they were in a script written for them by Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara; in Iraq it has been a script crafted by George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Those dumb bastards at My Lai and Haitha pulled the triggers, but who put those guns in their hands, and to what end? Those thugs at Abu Ghraib performed those abominations, but who were their spiritual and moral leaders?

Were they evil, those torturers and murderers? What about the leaders who sent them there and who wrote their scripts? Who told Calley’s thugs that we had more right to tell Vietnamese what to do with their country than the Vietnamese? Who told the torturers at Abu Ghraib and the murderers at Haditha (and the killers and torturers at all those other places where the cover-ups worked as they were supposed to) we had more right to tell Iraqis what to do with their country than Iraqis? Who stood on the deck of a carrier in a flight suit with a padded crotch and told the world that our power was given to us by God but comes out of the muzzle of a gun and if you don’t like it watch what we do next?

Calley’s platoon of murderers, the torturers at Abu Ghraib, the Haditha killers who, in one family alone gunned down children of 14, 10, 5, 3 and 1: the problem isn’t that they weren’t sufficiently trained. The problem is that they were trained far too well.

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor at University at Buffalo and editor of the web journal BuffaloReport.com. Temple University Press will publish his book “Telling Stories” early next year.



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Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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