Why Are U.S. Troops Snapping?

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For the second time in a week, U.S. troops in Iraq have been charged with murder. Four U.S. soldiers have been charged with killing three detainees in Iraq's Salahuddin province last month. Yesterday, the Marines announced that seven Marines and one Navy corpsman had been charged with kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder of an Iraqi man last April. And there may be more to come: An ongoing criminal investigation into the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha last November, an alleged massacre first uncovered by TIME, may result in similar charges against several Marines.

Is the U.S. military "losing it" in Iraq? Critics, like Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, claim that the forces are severely stressed and we should bring them out. On the other hand, Pentagon leaders express confidence that these instances are isolated, vow that those found guilty will be punished, and note that they are instituting a new push to prevent such incidents. Lt. Gen. Peter Chiraelli, the ground commander in Iraq, has ordered U.S. troops to be more cautious in responding to perceived threats — for example, by delaying the firing of warning shots at approaching cars.

As troubling as these cases are — and no one has yet been convicted — they are still a relatively tiny number of instance where troops may have crossed a moral line, out of the hundreds of U.S. interactions with Iraqis every day of every week. It is a complex, confusing and brutal battlefield, where friend and foe are usually indistinguishable.

What's more, the U.S. is actually getting better at limiting limiting the number of civilian deaths, a constant on battlefields throughout history. In 2005, an average of one Iraqi civilian a day was being killed by U.S. troops in combat. That number is now down to one a week.

The so-called Rules of Engagement that every U.S. soldier lives under are constantly changing as the insurgents adopt new tactics. As one U.S. serviceman who served in Iraq explains, "The nature of the fight over there has widely expanded the definition of threat. Car drives too close to your convoy — suicide bomber or stupid driver? Male with a shovel on the side of a road at 2 a.m. — coming home late from work or digging an IED hole? On the roof of a house within line of sight of an IED explosion — trigger man, cameraman, or just enjoying an evening on the roof when he heard an explosion and came over to the edge to look?"

A former U.S. officer in Iraq suggests that there may be an increasing frustration level among the troops, who increasingly feel that they're dealing with a society that does not appear willing or able to help itself. "It would not surprise me a bit if the troops involved had a keen and strong understanding of the Iraqi culture," says the officer, "and finally got sickened to the point of snapping when much of that culture refuses to protect itself, refuses to take steps to provide for security in its neighborhoods and homes, and will, with full knowledge of the consequences, say nothing when they know full well that death is coming to their doorstep."

"It may very well be that the reason the Iraqi government was so late coming to the table to condemn the incident in Haditha, was because they really, culturally, don't understand what the big deal was. We can't accept those types of degraded values in our soldiers and Marines, and are outraged when we think they went over the line."