Monday, June 05, 2006

Haditha Massacre

I just wanted to write a few thoughts on the Haditha massacre. I don’t want to simply assume the Marines committed this atrocity before a court martial finds them guilty or not guilty. However, the facts seem to point that way, and more importantly, the Iraqis seem to feel that way. To send a message that we are sincere in our investigations and punishment of war crimes I think we should turn the Marines in question over to the Iraqi courts. Let them investigate and prosecute the crime committed on their own soil. It only seems just.

I know this idea will offensive to many people. For one thing, it’s traditional that the U.S. tries to protect its citizens from prosecution in foreign countries. Still, when it comes to serious crimes such as murder, or mass murder, the U.S. is often obliged to let the host nation take charge of the investigation and come to its own conclusions. I see no reason why this case should be any different. It would show the new Iraqi government that we have faith in them and that we’re willing to punish all war crimes, not just the ones that Saddam committed.

As reasonable as this seems to me, I know that it’s not likely to happen. What is happening, however, is one of the silliest things I’ve heard of in a long time. The top brass announced a few days ago that all military members in Iraq would go through “ethics training” in the next 30 days. Ethics training? This is there answer to a massacre?

Everyone soldier I’ve talked to is offended, incensed even. We are just as disgusted as anyone with what the handful of Marines might have done in Haditha. The Pentagon’s response seems to blame every military member in Iraq for what happened. As if the massacre was the result of a general moral decay among the troops that could be remedied by ethics training.

And what would this training be exactly? A multiple-choice quiz: Should you shoot a three-year-old girl? A. yes B. no C. Yes, but not with a .50-caliber machine gun because it’s against the Geneva Convention.

Yup, when you get down to thinking about it, the “ethics training” response is ridiculous. The reason it’s being given any credence is that it ignores a particularly uncomfortable truth. The so-called heroes, who are supposedly spreading freedom and democracy, are not always good people. Sometimes they’re murderers. And, a morally ambiguous war, such as this one, almost encourages your men and women to become such.

It’s also interesting to note that this massacre is not the first of its kind. Let’s say, for instance, that the Marines killed the insurgent who set of the bomb and then in their psychopathic rage killed the twenty plus other people. The twenty people are collateral damage for getting the one insurgent. How is this different from the bombing we’ve been doing since the start of the war? How many families has the U.S. massacred because they lived to close to an insurgent target? These Marines, if they committed the crime, are perhaps more culpable because their act was more malicious at heart. However, to the people of Iraq, the result is the same.

All this is all the more tragic because I still believe that Americans, by and large, have good intentions over here. The vast majority of military members I talk to want nothing more than to help the people of Iraq. It’s a tragedy in every sense.

Road Trip Iraq 2006 - Day Four

Camp Diamond -back is one of the only U.S. bases in Iraq to be inside a city. From the edge of the base you can see the houses and streets of Mosul. The ancient city of Nineveh is on the northern outskirts of Mosul as well as what might be Jonah’s grave. I think Jonah, the reluctant mouthpiece of God, might be one of my favorite prophets of the Old Testament. I laugh every time I look up at the hills east of Nineveh and think of how Old Jonah went up there to watch the Lord destroy the people Nineveh and how disappointed he was when the Lord forgave them instead.

But Jonah’s tale isn’t the only funny story about Mosul. Today there are much more interesting ones. For instance, rumor has it that a Turkish restaurant on the base closed down because it was the center of a prostitution ring. This was hard to imagine since the only ladies I ever saw there were old Turkish grandmas. Nevertheless, the restaurant was gone.

But the best story I heard in Mosul was about two soldiers who decided to beat the snot out of each other with fire extinguishers. They thought that if they could break a bone or two, they could go back to the States. Unfortunately, the MPs didn’t buy the story that they were randomly attacked by fire-extinguisher-wielding insurgents. Whatever happens to them, I’m sure their punishment will be less painful then their crime.

Camp Diamondback is one of my favorite bases in Iraq and Sgt. Powell and I didn’t want to leave. We were exhausted and wanted at least a day to recover. Capt. Andrews, however, tempted us once again with stories of snow capped mountains and friendly locals. We hooked up with another convoy and soon found ourselves driving down the nocturnally deserted streets of Mosul. It was beautiful. Because of the curfew, we rode quickly and quietly through all the intersections and bypasses without seeing a soul.

We passed a few hours without any problems and then, just before we reached the mountain pass to go into Zakho, a convoy coming in the opposite direction had an accident. A third country national truck driver rolled an oil tanker. We pulled security and waited for the medical evacuation to arrive. I wasn’t able to find out if the driver was OK. Oil was all over the road. A few days later, I would find out just how precious oil really is in Iraq, but I’ll tell you more about that later.

Finally we drove into Zakho, the northern most major city in Iraq. Capt. Andrews was right. It was already more than I expected. We passed two travel plazas, the kind of luxury truck stops you see on the highways in Nebraska and Iowa. We even saw a Toyota dealership that looked every bit as modern and clean as a car dealership in the U.S.

The streets were empty, not because of a curfew, but because it was early in the morning and it was still raining hard. We passed a Kurdish soldier guarding a gate to a four-storey marble building that the local government had loaned to the Army. We ran in from the rain and put our bags on bunk beds set up for the soldiers who run the convoys. Then we climbed the stairs to find what looked like a nice little restaurant with small tables and red tablecloths. The cooks had stayed up for us and dinner was still hot.

It took us four days of grueling and dangerous night convoys to get there, but I could already tell that it was worth it. It was, as Capt. Andrews promised, a different world. Unfortunately, I would soon find out that it was a different world complete with its own wars and its own hate. Peaceful Zakho isn’t peaceful for all.

Photo: Sgt. Powell peaks around the corner on the roof of one of Saddam's former palaces during an earlier trip to Mosul. The Army now uses these palaces for their offices in Mosul. Somehow, I think that using these decadent buildings, which are inextricably tied with oppression, might have been a bad move for the U.S. We wanted them to see us as liberators, but now were just he new guys in the castles.