After Haditha: What Makes Top Marines Worry

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It's a disorienting time for the U.S. Marine Corps in the wake of the alleged massacre of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha. One senior Marine officer, for example, is spending his days with grim reading, as Congress, the Pentagon and the press investigate charges that the Marines were responsible for the deaths of some two dozen Iraqi civilians. He has gone through Congressional reports about the My Lai massacre. He has read America in Vietnam by Guenter Lewy. He has a well-thumbed copy of The Rape of Nanking, a searing account of Japanese atrocities in that Chinese city during World War II. He is preparing for the worst. This officer knows that the entire Marine Corps will be hard hit if the Haditha allegations are true. "If 24 innocent civilians were killed by Marines, this will put a hole in the heart of every single Marine," says the officer.

The Corps is a remarkably, some say oddly, tightly knit and insular culture. At 179,000 it is less than half the size of any other service— but it usually takes on the toughest fights. Even more than other services, Marines pride themselves on their ability to fight — and live their lives — with honor.

That is why the apparent failure by at least a dozen Marines to come forward and tell the truth about what happened in Haditha has senior Corps commanders as worried about the incident as they are about the actions of the two or three Marines who allegedly did most of the killing. If the horrors of Haditha are borne out, and becomes the worst massacre in the 231-year history of the Corps, it will cause a shudder to the very top. Explains a former Marine officer, "We build a small Corps of men and women who truly believe that we are wearing white hats. We are a community that believes it adheres to a different, higher set of values and ethics. That in everything we do we are helping people. And our expeditionary culture takes us all over the world to do that. But when 'cowboys' lose their discipline — it convicts all those Marines who have served and all those that will serve."

For most Marines, it is the second investigation (the first is a criminal inquiry being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service), the one being done by Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, that is so crucial to the Corps. In early March, the Marine leadership, recognizing the potential impact of Haditha, recommended that an officer from a different service conduct an investigation into how the incident was reported. The Marines also asked for a two-star general to do the inquiry to ensure that it be able to go to the highest Marine levels in Iraq. In the military, a junior officer cannot investigate a senior one and the top Marine in Iraq is a two-star general.

The top Marine leaders also informed key members of Congress as soon as they were made aware that an Army colonel's preliminary inquiry had raised troubling questions. Those members have been kept up to date for months, and last week the entire Senate Armed Services Committee was briefed by the Corps.

The top-ranking officers, who will get the Bargewell report in the next few days, know they need to get it right the first time around. Members of Congress have also made clear to the Marines that if there are any gaps in the investigation, they will be made to go back to the drawing board immediately and answer every possible question to avoid a string of inquiries. The warning: "Don't make this Abu Ghraib. Do it right the first time." The prison scandal set off by Army reservists required repeated inquiries.

Haditha has caused the senior Marine officer, the one reading up on historical atrocities, to reexamine the concept of punishment in America, and it is here that he is resentful of the outside world, not just those who may have committed such acts. He was surprised by a passage in America in Vietnam which details how Americans traditionally think a soldier who commits a war crime should be put to death with little regard to the conditions or insight into the soldier himself. But a common murderer is treated more thoughtfully — his background, childhood, education and social circumstances are taken into consideration when looking at what punishment should be meted out. "Isn't it a strange turn of events that Marines are expected to be perfect under the stresses and brutality of a guerrilla war, but society says we need to uncover every mitigating circumstance that would possibly explain why street criminals kill?" Whether society is really that lenient towards street criminals seems open to debate. But what is not at issue is that Haditha has already begun to shake the leadership of the Marines at its core.