World

Why Was No One Punished for America's "My Lai" in Iraq?

The U.S. military presence in Iraq was marked by the callous American attitude toward civilians, and the thorough lack of accountability in the military justice system.

The plea bargain in the last Haditha massacre case handed down in January is a fitting end to the Iraq war. In the most notorious case of U.S. culpability in Iraqi civilian deaths, no one will pay a price. And that is emblematic of the entire war and its hundreds of thousands of dead and millions displaced.

Sergeant Frank Wuterich, the squad leader who encouraged and led his marines to kill 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha in November 2005, was the last of eight originally charged in the massacre. The others were let off on technicalities, or to help the prosecution. One officer, not involved in the killing but the coverup, was acquitted in a military trial.

The responsibility for these killings came down to Wuterich’s role, but he never actually went through a full trial. The military prosecutor opted for the slap-on-the-wrist of demotion to private for the 24 civilian deaths. Wuterich, who admitted to much more in a “60 Minutes” interview in 2007—including rolling grenades into a house filled with civilians without attempting to make an identification—copped only to “dereliction of duty.”

The episode was often compared with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which some 400 civilians were executed by Lieutenant William Calley and some of his army unit in 1967. While the scale and circumstances are quite different, they do bear one striking similarity, and that is the reaction of officials and the American public alike.

The My Lai massacre was uncovered by an enterprising journalist, Seymour Hersh, who had to overcome official disavowals to get the story. When Hersh managed to publish via a small wire service, the story exploded, with many Americans expressing horror and outrage that something like that could be done by American troops.

But as the months passed, another reaction set in. A rally-round-the-troops surge began to take over the news cycle. Conservatives in particular insisted that the soldiers were only following orders. Calley became a kind of folk hero, and eventually he was found guilty but only served three years under house arrest. No one else was convicted for these 400 murders.

The public, which is broadly indifferent to the deaths of civilians in U.S. wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq, simply does not want to come to terms with the horror of these atrocities. “The memories that endure within American public culture,” wrote British scholar Kendrick Oliver in a cultural study of the My Lai massacre, “tend to be more compatible with the interests of power than those of events, like My Lai, which disrupt the identification of the nation with perpetual historical virtue.”

As Oliver points out, a pattern was established during the My Lai episode: public exposure by a journalist, official denials that, when no longer sufficient, give way to an official investigation and perhaps a trial. Vocal segments of the public cry out on behalf of the accused soldiers, pointing to the fog of war, the rules of engagement, and the much greater evils perpetrated by the enemy. In the end, few if any American soldiers are held accountable.

The pattern held not only for My Lai, but for the belated discovery of a large-scale massacre in 1950 at No Gun Ri during the Korean War. Uncovered in 1999 by Charles Hanley and his colleagues at the Associated Press, this massacre—perhaps as many as 300 or 400 South Korean civilians gunned down by a U.S. army unit—also led to an investigation and an acknowledgement that some Korean civilians had been killed, but not an apology. The discoveries also met with a fierce backlash.

The Haditha massacre fits this pattern. There was a coverup by the U.S. Marine Corps, which insisted that 15 Iraqis had been killed by an IED. When reporter Tim McKirk of Time magazine was alerted to the massacre by an Iraqi human-rights group, his reporting sparked a firestorm of attention. Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Vietnam veteran who was a reliable supporter of the military, called the massacre “cold blooded murder” and decried the pressure being put on our troops, pressure that could result in tragedies of this kind.

The military felt compelled to investigate. The investigations, never made public, were reportedly very critical of failures up the chain of command. Testimony in the investigation, still classified, was found by reporters in late 2011 and confirmed the accounts of showing little if any regard for Iraqi civilians.

Supporters of the Iraq invasion, most prominently right-wing bloggers, rallied to Wuterich’s defense and were particularly harsh on Murtha and McKirk. Military prosecutors eventually let off most of the original defendants, and then after dithering for years offered Wuterich the plea bargain. Even though he admitted that the basic rule governing escalation of force—the identification of hostile intent—was entirely absent in the incident, the military prosecutor would not carry a manslaughter case to trial. Like the My Lai massacre, no one will really pay for the Haditha deaths.

The case is important because much of the world closely watches this exercise in military justice. The reaction in Iraq to the plea bargain was predictably outraged. They saw the Blackwater rampage that took 17 civilians without any penalty, among other atrocities like Abu Ghraib, and see this lack of punishment as another example of American arrogance. "Was this Marine charged with dereliction of duty because he didn't kill more?” one Baghdad resident asked a reporter. “Is Iraqi blood so cheap?" The Iraqi government has said that it will seek justice, though the U.S. is essentially beyond their reach.

A number of Arabs, among others, see this case as evidence of American hypocrisy—the U.S. preaches human rights but does little to rein in their own human-rights abusers. "This has contributed significantly to the cynicisms of people in the region about America's rhetoric — about America standing for principles,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “When push comes to shove, when it comes to looking at the misconduct of their own soldiers, there is no accountability."

It’s a fitting end for the war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. It was Haditha and other cases like it that compelled the Iraqi government to deny any more immunity for U.S. personnel. The U.S. military presence in Iraq, as a result, was ended in effect by the Haditha massacre, the callous American attitude toward civilians, and the thorough lack of accountability in the military justice system—a fitting end indeed.
 

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies. His new book, "The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars," was released July 7, 2011 by Oxford Press.
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