Don't Become Them
Saturday 27 May 2006
When I started in newspapers, I shied away from police brutality stories, letting other reporters cover them.
I knew there were cops who had no right to be cops. But I also knew, because my dad was a detective, the sort of blistering pressure men and women in uniform were under as they made snap life-and-death decisions. I'd cringed at the 60's refrain that the military and the police were "pigs."
After my dad killed a robber in self-defense - the man had tried to shoot him point-blank in the face, but that chamber of the gun was empty - he told a police psychologist that he could not swallow or eat because he felt as though he had fish bones in his throat.
So I felt sickened to hear about the marines who allegedly snapped in Haditha, Iraq, and wantonly killed two dozen civilians - including two families full of women and children, among them a 3-year-old girl. Nine-year-old Eman Waleed told Time that she'd watched the marines go in to execute her father as he read the Koran, and then shoot her grandfather and grandmother, still in their nightclothes. Other members of her family, including her mother, were shot dead; she said that she and her younger brother had been wounded but survived because they were shielded by adults who died.
It's a My Lai acid flashback. The force that sacked Saddam to stop him from killing innocents is now accused of killing innocents. Under pressure from the president to restore law, but making little progress, marines from Camp Pendleton, many deployed in Iraq for the third time, reportedly resorted to lawlessness themselves.
The investigation indicates that members of the Third Battalion, First Marines, lost it after one of their men was killed by a roadside bomb, going on a vengeful killing spree over about five hours, shooting five men who had been riding in a taxi and mowing down the residents of two nearby houses.
They blew off the Geneva Conventions, following the lead of the president's lawyer.
It was inevitable. Marines are trained to take the hill and destroy the enemy. It is not their forte to be policemen while battling a ghostly foe, suicide bombers, ever more ingenious explosive devices, insurgents embedded among civilians, and rifle blasts fired from behind closed doors and minarets. They don't know who the enemy is. Is it a pregnant woman? A child? An Iraqi policeman? They don't know how to win, or what a win would entail.
Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, who has flown to Iraq to talk to his troops about "core values" in the wake of Haditha and a second incident being investigated, noted that the effect of this combat "can be numbing."
A new A&E documentary chronicles the searing story of the marines of Lima Company, 184 Ohio reservists who won 59 Purple Hearts, 23 posthumously. Sgt. Guy Zierk recounts kicking in a door after an insurgent attack.
Enraged over the death of his pals, he says he nearly killed two women and a 16-year-old boy. "I am so close, so close to shooting, but I don't." he says. "It would make me no better than the people we're trying to fight."
Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, one of those who called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, told Chris Matthews that blame for Haditha and Abu Ghraib lay with "the incredible strain bad decisions and bad judgment is putting on our incredible military."
While it was nice to hear President Bush admit he had made mistakes, he was talking mostly about mistakes of tone.
Saying he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" would have been O.K. if he had acted on it, rather than letting Osama go at Tora Bora and diverting the Army to Iraq.
At his news conference with a tired-looking Tony Blair, Mr. Bush seemed chastened by Iraq, at least. But he continued to have the same hallucination about how to get out: turning things over to the Iraqi security forces after achieving total victory over insurgents and terrorists.
Stories in The Times this week show that Iraqi security forces are so infiltrated by Shiite militias, Sunni militias, death squads and officers with ties to insurgents that the idea of entrusting anything to them is ludicrous.
By ignoring predictions of an insurgency and refusing to do homework before charging into Iraq on trumped-up pretenses, W. left our troops undermanned, inadequately armored and psychologically unprepared.
It was maddening to see the prime minister of Britain - of all places - express surprise at the difficulty of imposing a democracy on a country that has had a complex and ferocious tribal culture since the Gardens of Babylon were still hanging.