Viewpoint: Breaking Haditha

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When I heard the news that four U.S. Marines were charged for their alleged role in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the western town of Haditha in Nov. 2005, it marked the end of a personal odyssey.

In January, at TIME's heavily fortified Baghdad bureau, I was shown a video by Iraqi human rights workers. In the first segment of the video, grieving Iraqi families were collecting bodies at a morgue. The second part showed the interior of two houses whose walls were spattered with blood and pitted with bullet holes. I asked who had carried out this savagery. I assumed it was part of the daily butchery that Sunni and Shiite extremists inflict on innocent Iraqis. The activist from the Hammurabi Human Rights groups replied: "It was done by you Americans. Marines."

At first, I didn't want to believe it. My father is an ex-Marine captain. At home I learned the Marine Corps Hymn before "Jingle Bells." In particular, I remembered the lyrics: "First to fight for right and freedom, And to keep our honor clean." In Afghanistan, I went out on patrol in the desert hills looking for Taliban with Marines; they were a solid bunch of guys, as steely, brave and as irreverently funny as my dad had led me to believe.

My investigation into the Haditha tragedy started with a simple Google search. I checked back to see what the U.S. Marines said had happened on Nov.19th. In a three-paragraph communiqué, the Marines claimed that a roadside bomb on a convoy of Humvees had killed one Marine, wounded two others and had also killed 15 Iraqi civilians.

This didn't make sense. In the video, the corpses I had seen, unzipped from the U.S.-issue body bags, were wearing pajamas. Iraqis are conservative; they don't wear their nightgowns and pajamas outdoors. The corpses also had bullet wounds, not the kind of gaping tears caused by roadside bombs. Also, most of the damage filmed inside the houses looked like it was from bullets, not from shrapnel blown in from a streetside bomb. In other words, it seemed pretty clear that these Iraqis had been shot dead inside their houses, and that the Marines involved were lying.

It took TIME six weeks to piece together our investigation — the clincher was an interview with a girl who survived a killing spree by Marines inside her home — and then we turned our evidence over to the U.S. military command in Baghdad. The military launched a full inquiry, which lasted 13 months, splitting into two separate investigations: the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians, and the failure of Marine superior officers to truthfully investigate and report what had happened. In other words, some of the Marines tried to cover up the slayings.

During the months after the Haditha story broke, I became the target of bloggers, self-proclaimed patriots, for supposedly dragging the fine reputation of the Marines through the mud. Nothing about this story made me feel good save for one thing: until TIME's investigation, one of the Marines — the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich — was in line to receive a medal for heroism for what he did that terrible day. According to press reports, the recommendation says that Wuterich, 26, displayed "calm and confident decisiveness that day and doubtlessly prevented further injury or death to fellow Marines and innocent civilians." Today, Wuterich faces 13 counts of unpremeditated murder. None of his victims were armed; most were the elderly, women and children.

I'm glad Wuterich didn't get his medal for "heroism." It would have been a grotesque travesty of justice, and against everything my father taught me was clean and honorable about the Marine Corps.