Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Haditha note

Yet another stain on the pages of history now being written about the war in Iraq. An investigation is reported to be underway, although I suspect the bulk of what happened is already known by the people who need to know. What might happen to those involved remains to be seen. When the report broke the name Haditha rang a bell from last year. I did a search and turned up a post from last August -- a long, rambling collection of news detrius -- which included this...

The executions are carried out at dawn on Haqlania bridge, the entrance to Haditha. A small crowd usually turns up to watch even though the killings are filmed and made available on DVD in the market the same afternoon.

One of last week's victims was a young man in a black tracksuit. Like the others he was left on his belly by the blue iron railings at the bridge's southern end. His severed head rested on his back, facing Baghdad. Children cheered when they heard that the next day's spectacle would be a double bill: two decapitations. A man named Watban and his brother had been found guilty of spying.
The Guardian link is still active if the reader wants to read more.

A three-hour drive north from Baghdad, under the nose of an American base, it is a miniature Taliban-like state. Insurgents decide who lives and dies, which salaries get paid, what people wear, what they watch and listen to.

Haditha exposes the limitations of the Iraqi state and US power on the day when the political process is supposed to make a great leap - a draft constitution finalised and approved by midnight tonight.

For politicians and diplomats in Baghdad's fortified green zone the constitution is a means to stabilise Iraq and woo Sunni Arabs away from the rebellion. For Haditha, 140 miles north-west of the capital, whether a draft is agreed is irrelevant. Residents already have a set of laws and rules promulgated by insurgents.
There is no fighting here because there is no one to challenge the Islamists. The police station and municipal offices were destroyed last year and US marines make only fleeting visits every few months.

Two groups share power. Ansar al-Sunna is a largely homegrown organisation, though its leader in Haditha is said to be foreign. Al-Qaida in Iraq, known locally by its old name Tawhid al-Jihad, is led by the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was a rumour that Zarqawi, Washington's most wanted militant after Osama bin Laden, visited early last week. True or not, residents wanted to believe they had hosted such a celebrity.
Last year the US trumpeted its rehabilitation of a nearby power plant: "The incredible progress at Haditha is just one example of the huge strides made by the US army corps of engineers." Now insurgents earn praise from residents for allegedly pressuring managers to supply electricity almost 24 hours a day, a luxury denied the rest of Iraq.

The court caters solely for divorces and marriages. Alleged criminals are punished in the market. The Guardian witnessed a headmaster accused of adultery whipped 190 times with cables. Children laughed as he sobbed and his robe turned crimson.

Two men who robbed a foreign exchange shop were splayed on the ground. Masked men stood on their hands while others broke their arms with rocks. The shopkeeper offered the insurgents a reward but they declined.

DVDs of beheadings on the bridge are distributed free in the souk. Children prefer them to cartoons. "They should not watch such things," said one grandfather, but parents appeared not to object.

One DVD features a young, blond muscular man who had been disembowelled. He was said to have been a member of a six-strong US sniper team ambushed and killed on August 1. Residents said he had been paraded in town before being executed.

The US military denied that, saying six bodies were recovered and that all appeared to have died in combat. Shortly after the ambush three landmines killed 14 marines in a convoy which ventured from their base outside the town.

Twice in recent months marines backed by aircraft and armour swept into Haditha to flush out the rebels. In a pattern repeated across Anbar there were skirmishes, a few suspects killed or detained, and success was declared.

I put all this mess here to illustrate a simple point: There is a vast gulf separating what we are being told and what we are finding out. The word spin doesn't come close to what is happening to the news. If public acceptance of their circumstances is as openly tolerant in Haditha as this description suggests, even if there is an undercurrent of disapproval, the notion of marines "[sweeping in] to flush out the rebels" is truly bizarre. There is a grave disconnect here between what is described and what passes for an appropriate military intervention.

And "success was declared"! Huh...? What did I miss?

This report predates the Haditha incident now getting renewed attention, the same incident that Time Magazine featured in March. That was November 19, three months after the Guardian report linked above.

I don't know what to make of all this. For those of us who see war as an ugly and savage enterprise, carelessly wasting the lives and resources of all involved, sacrificing the innocent along with the guilty, this is sad but not shocking. The remarkable part is what appears to be an ongoing denial of these realities. The single comment left at my post is not unusual. He speaks the language of magical thinking that seems to be typical of many.

Mad Canuck has been following the story closely and doing workmanlike followups to news as it comes available. I don't have the patience to as he does, tracking down every report and trying to tie it up into a rational narrative. Those interested should go there or elsewhere to follow the story.

For my part, all I plan to do is complain, pray and occasionally link to the highlights. Stopping to focus on this or some other particular story is apt to put me into a fit of depression. Yesterday's LA Times story (linked, incidentally by Mad Canuck) is about all I can stomach.
...took photographs of the victims and helped carry their bodies out of their homes as part of the cleanup crew sent in late in the afternoon on the day of the killings.

"They ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart," Briones said.

He said he erased the digital photos he took at the scene after first providing them to the Haditha Marine command center. He said Navy investigators later interrogated him about the pictures and confiscated his camera.
...his team was assigned to mark the bodies of the victims by number and place them in body bags. He said a sergeant or a junior officer, he couldn't recall which, asked if any of the Marines carried personal cameras and that he and another Marine, whom he identified as Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright of Novato, said they did."You are going to be combat photographers," Briones said they were told.
...he took pictures of at least 15 bodies before his camera batteries died. He said he then helped other Marines remove the bodies and place them in body bags. He said his worst moment, and one that haunts him to this day, was picking up the body of a young girl who was shot in the head.

"I held her out like this," he said, demonstrating with his arms extended, "but her head was bobbing up and down and the insides fell on my legs."

But this young man's voice will not be heard by many. You see he is also one of the casualties. But not the kind that receive the honor and support that went along with yesterday's Memorial Day observances.

No, he came back with other problems, the kind that make people shake their heads and turn away.
In early April, less than 36 hours after his return from Iraq, Ryan Briones got into serious trouble in his hometown that he and his family say was related to stress from the Haditha incident.

Briones was charged with stealing a pickup truck, crashing it into a house, leaving the scene of the accident, driving under the influence and resisting arrest. A picture of the spectacular crash with a white Ford F-150 lodged in a Hanford living room appeared on the Hanford Sentinel's front page April 4.

Released from Kings County jail April 5 on $35,000 bond, Briones has a court date set in mid-June.

Am I the only one who thinks that his military duty may have something to do with who he has become?

Addendum, June 5

Here we are a week later and the story continues to ferment.
Steve G at Lawyers, Guns and Money looks at My Lai and Haditha in an inciteful essay.
Part of the reaction to My Lai was justified moral outrage. Part of it was the edge of the times. But part of it was the piercing of the John Wayne/noble warrior bubble. The disconnect between the romanticized image of battle and the reality on the ground finally became too overwhelmingly great to fit into all but the most double-jointed pro-war intellect...

But an interesting thing happened after Viet Nam. That evil, liberal Hollywood changed the way it made war movies. All of a sudden, we were seeing the horror. We were seeing the trauma. We were seeing the complexities.

At the same time, those on the right were largely convinced that the failure in Viet Nam was a result of the press. TV images of coffins and those bleeding hearts in the newsrooms. They did away with McCarthy and Nixon and they undermined support for the war. The war was not lost in Asia, it was lost on the TV at home. And so they came to realize that PR was every bit as much a part of the war effort as the infantry....

So the question is which PR campaign was the most successful?

Good comments. Worth reading.

The comment thread is a study in rhetoric -- looking at belly buttons versus looking elsewhere.

The most recent comment reads...
...arguing about Haditha is like arguing about a paper cut in an abbatoir. I really think this is more about Americans' maudlin, and generally unwarranted, conception of their nobility and innocence than it is about anything morally relevant, because if it was otherwise, we wouldn't be there. This is a war for oil, based on lies, being fought on a credit card to be paid for by future generations while Americans drive around on their fat asses bearing no sacrifices whatsoever. The immediate victims are of course Iraqis, who are paying by the thousands in their own blood. A more immoral enterprise could hardly be imagined. Whether their brains are being blown out by their occupiers intentionally or "collaterally" is, I daresay, of little consequence to them. And from what I can tell, Iraqi feelings are of little consequence to Americans either, who like their President are too busy regarding themselves in the mirror to consider the hell they are inflicting on another people every single day.


Mad Canuck said...

Hey Hootsbuddy,

Great post... and thanks for the link.

Yes, this whole story is depressing as hell. Based on the news stories over the past few days, I expect the final Haditha report will be even worse.

programmer craig said...

Hi Hootsbuddy,

Am I the only one who thinks that his military duty may have something to do with who he has become?

He is the only one responsible for who he has become. Just as I was the only one responsible for the way I reacted to seeing friends of mine murdered by a suicide bomber. I didn't handle it well. He's not handling it well. The majority of people can bounce back from real life major trauma. Some of us can't.

And as a child of the 60s, I'm sure you know that lots of people slide into a downward spiral without ever having actually experienced any real life trauma. I'm about 20 years younger than you. I grew up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Please don't do it again. You know what I'm talking about.

Hoots said...

MC, thanks again for your good work.


I have to remind myself occasionally that we don't have much control over what happens, but we have some control over our response. Easier said than done, of course, but it helps to know where and how to do something next.

You are right about "bouncing back" from trauma. Some simply don't or cannot. (And it's pointless to quibble over which -- can't or don't. The result is the same.) My own deep abhorance of war is probably a personal response to the Vietnam War.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Sometimes that can be helpful, not just to you but to others who read what you leave among the comments.