The Mystery of the Marine Massacre in Iraq - Updated

Last month, the details of a horrific atrocity emerged from Haditha, a town in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

In November, a roadside bomb killed Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a 20-year-old Texan, on a road not far from Haditha. According to Time magazine, "The next day a Marine communique from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi reported that Terrazas and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed by the blast and that 'gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire,' prompting the Marines to return fire, killing eight insurgents." Another military official later said the military command in Baghdad "knew of no civilian deaths in the engagement."

Marine officials have now confirmed that those accounts were false. What really happened, according to reports confirmed by the Pentagon, was this: A group of enraged Marines entered several homes in Haditha and murdered their occupants, including children, in cold blood. A video of the aftermath -- showing that the residents were unarmed when they were shot at point-blank range -- was obtained by Time. Some were still in their nightclothes.

Five Iraqis in a taxi were also killed. It remains unclear whether they were trying to flee on foot, or drive away from the scene, and the chronology of events hasn't been established. The military is conducting two separate investigations into the events that day.

According to MSNBC, the video was confirmed by the Marines' own investigation: "Military officials say Marine Corps photos taken immediately after the incident show many of the victims were shot at close range, in the head and chest, execution-style." Women and children were among the 24 civilians murdered: "One photo shows a mother and young child bent over on the floor as if in prayer, shot dead, said the officials. ..."

The scene was so grim, the two Marines who took the after-action photos are reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last week, Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., told reporters that "sources within the military" told him that "there was no firefight, there was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood."

According to the Marine Corps Times, up to a dozen soldiers face possible court-martial. Three officers were relieved of duty in April.

The Associated Press reported that Military officials expect Haditha to become a major scandal. On Saturday, Marine Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the top Marine official, headed to Iraq to admonish his troops to use deadly force "only when justified, proportional and, most importantly, lawful."

The media, hectored by the administration's charges that they don't report the illusory "good news" from Iraq, showed little stomach for the story until Murtha until Murtha's statement last week. Most of the reporting has focused on the Congressman, a former hawk who has become a vocal opponent of the war. It's a tidy storyline that reduces the horrific images of innocent children being blown away by vengeful Marines to a palpable and familiar partisan squabble.

But there's more going on than just the usual simplistic he said/she said reporting; the media's uncritical acceptance of the Iraq hawks' spin in the months leading up to the invasion -- with notable exceptions like Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau -- makes them complicit in crimes like those alleged in Haditha. They promised America a clean war; smart bombs would spare the innocent, a high-tech military would be finished in a fortnight and casualties on both sides would be limited. Now, the editors at places like the Washington Post and the New York Times have little interest in turning Haditha into the Iraq war's My Lai and exposing the lie behind their clean war narrative.

The storyline has provoked the expected reaction from the war's dwindling number of supporters. As writer Steve Benen, perusing the right-wing blogs, noted:

Some are calling Murtha "dishonorable." Others labeled him a 'traitor' and recommended that he be sent to "jail." Another added, "Murtha has no honor left, no dignity, and will never be considered as a Marine except by his liberal buddies, who would hate him for wearing that uniform in the first place."
The other wholly predictable reaction was voiced by Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who told reporters that the Haditha massacre was a case of a few bad apples, an isolated incident -- just as he had said after the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed. "I don't want the actions of one squad in one city on one morning to be used to symbolize or characterize or tar the actions of our great troops," he said.

But the truth is that the story is unique only in that the evidence that a terrible crime took place appears to be too great for "plausible deniability."

Consider just a few reports:

  • A team of eight Amnesty International staffers reported on a host of abuses by coalition forces, including the killing of two unarmed kids -- one 12 years old -- during house to house searches. "Many of the coalition soldiers and military police engaged in law enforcement do not have basic skills and tools in civilian policing," Curt Goering, a member of the Amnesty team in Iraq, noted.

  • The Associated Press reported that "Iraq's U.N. ambassador accused U.S. Marines of killing his unarmed young cousin in what appeared to be 'cold blood'" during another house search in Anbar province. The ambassador, Samir Sumaidaie, wrote that the troops had smiled after the "killing of an unarmed innocent civilian." He believed it was "a crime that may be repeated up and down Al-Anbar."

  • In early 2004, senior British commanders condemned "American military tactics in Iraq as heavy-handed and disproportionate." One officer told reporters "the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen." (The Brits have been accused of their own share of crimes in Iraq.)

  • In April of 2004, there were widespread reports -- in the foreign press -- that civilians were targeted during the "Siege of Fallujah." The Pentagon was outraged when journalists reported the number of civilians killed in the city. One report quoted Dr. Rafa Hayad al-Issawi, director of the city's main hospital, saying "the dead mostly included women, children and elderly." The Iraqi minister of health, Khudair Abbas, confirmed that U.S. forces had shot at ambulances -- in Fallujah and elsewhere -- and condemned the acts as possible war crimes. Snipers who served in Fallujah told the Los Angeles Times that "there might not have been such a 'target-rich' battlefield" since the World War II battle for Stalingrad.

  • In March, Knight-Ridder reported that senior Iraqi police officials had accused U.S. soldiers of executing 11 Iraqi civilians, including four children and a 6-month-old baby, in a raid near the city of Balad. The local police chief, Col. Farouq Hussein, said that the civilians had all been shot in the head. "It's a clear and perfect crime," he said.

Journalists like Dahr Jamail and Robert Fisk have all reported on other instances of civilians caught in the sites of American gunners. And those stories don't capture the "collateral damage" done by bombs and missiles. Jamail wrote: "while the media spotlight shines squarely on the Haditha massacre, countless atrocities continue daily, conveniently out of the awareness of the general public."

Incidents like those alleged in Haditha, Ramallah and Fallujah are entirely predictable. And while there's no excuse for the actions of the troops in Haditha -- according to military officials the atrocities were "methodically" carried out in an operation that lasted several hours -- ultimately, these crimes originated in the decision to go to war in the first place. These are, after all, members of the most highly trained military in the world who have been put into a situation where they're under constant threat in an environment where it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad. They've seen 20,000 of their buddies killed or injured, and, according to a recent poll almost 9 out of 10 soldiers think the war in Iraq is "retaliation for Saddam's role in 9/11." It's no surprise that there are itchy trigger-fingers among them.

Ultimately, after Iraq's civilian population, those troops will pay the price for this war. Paul Rockwell, who interviewed a number of U.S. soldiers who claim to have committed atrocities in Iraq for the book Ten Excellent Reasons Not To Join The Military, wrote that American troops are not only "expected to follow unlawful orders, they are also expected to bear life-long burdens of shame, guilt, and legal culpability for the arrogance of their own commanders -- who dispense life and death from an office computer."

The real moral tragedy is that while some number of soldiers may face prosecution, the real culprits won't be punished. There are just too many of them.

They include not only the Bush administration's hardliners who conjured up this war, but also the Democratic hawks that enabled them and the media that spun their glorious war narrative and convinced so many ordinary citizens to jump on board. It's the Tom Friedmans and Kenneth Pollacks and Peter Beinarts, who only realized this war was a mistake when its execution proved disastrous.

Those of us who said that the war would be hell on the Iraqis were called "pacifists" and "appeasers." The hawks got their war and now we know that it's not a video game and it's not just glowing green explosions on CNN; it's a bloody and uncontrolled mess and civilians are paying the price, as they always do.

This article has been updated to include new facts and reporting released since the article was first published.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.