On May 27, President George W. Bush delivered a speech at the graduation ceremonies of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He spoke about the military actions that U.S. forces are currently conducting in the Middle East and elsewhere. Drawing an analogy between the Cold War and “the long war with Islamic radicalism” that, he promised the cadets, “will be the focus of much of your military careers,” the president used the occasion to review the actions he and his subordinates have taken during the past five years and to vow that “we will not rest until the promise of liberty reaches every people and every nation.”
As the president was speaking, newspapers around the world were reporting on an investigation of the massacre of at least two dozen Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha on November 19, 2005. The killings had been falsely reported initially by the men involved, and, as the Washington Post reported, only “after Time magazine presented military officials in Baghdad this year with the findings of its own investigation, based on accounts of survivors and on a videotape shot by an Iraqi journalism student at Haditha’s hospital and inside victims’ houses” did the U.S. military launch its own investigation, which is still ongoing.
The president’s speech employed, as such speeches usually do, an abstract, high-flown rhetoric intended to stir the listeners’ patriotic juices and to place U.S. actions in the purest possible light. The reports of the massacre at Haditha, however, shine a different light on the war. To illustrate the differences between the two views of the war, presented to the public on the same day, I have compiled a few verbatim quotations, as follows. Inasmuch as these passages speak for themselves, I make no attempt to state my own views until I come to the final paragraphs of this article.
1. GWB: In this new war, we have set a clear doctrine. After the attacks of September the 11th, I told a joint session of Congress: America makes no distinction between the terrorists and the countries that harbor them. If you harbor a terrorist, you are just as guilty as the terrorists and you’re an anemy of the United States of America. (Applause.) In the months that followed, I also made clear the principles that will guide us in this new war: America will not wait to be attacked again. We will confront threats before they fully materialize. We will stay on the offensive against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home. (Applause.)
1a. Sunday Times: Photographs taken by American military intelligence have provided crucial evidence that up to 24 Iraqis were massacred by marines in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold on the banks of the Euphrates. One portrays an Iraqi mother and young child, kneeling on the floor, as if in prayer. They have been shot dead at close range. The pictures show other victims, shot execution-style in the head and chest in their homes. An American government official said they revealed that the marines involved had “suffered a total breakdown in morality and leadership.”
2. GWB: [H]istory has once again called America to great responsibilities, and we’re answering history’s call with confidence.
2a. Sunday Times: Up to a dozen marines may face criminal charges including murder, which carries the death penalty, dereliction of duty and filing a false report. Three marine commanders were suspended last month.
3. GWB: In this new war, we have helped transform old adversaries into democratic allies.
3a. Washington Post: The remains of the 24 lie today in a cemetery called Martyrs’ Graveyard. Stray dogs scrounge in the deserted homes. “Democracy assassinated the family that was here,” graffiti on one of the houses declared.
4. GWB: Decades of excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe. (Applause.) So long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place where terrorists foment resentment and threaten American security.
4a. Washington Post: The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq said it sent copies of the journalism student’s videotape to mosques in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, using the killings of the women and children to recruit fighters.
5. GWB: So we are pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. I believe the desire for liberty is universal — and by standing with democratic reformers across a troubled region, we will extend freedom to millions who have not known it — and lay the foundation of peace for generations to come. (Applause.)
5a. Sunday Times: It is clear the marines lied by blaming the deaths of 15 civilians [as described in their report] on the roadside bomb and alleging that a further eight Iraqis were insurgents who died in a gun battle. Asked last week how many Iraqis were killed by the roadside bomb, a Pentagon official said: “Zero.” The marines never came under hostile fire, a spokesman added. Investigators have established that the killings unfolded over three to five hours. “This was not a burst of fire, but a sustained operation,” a Pentagon official said.
6. GWB: We have seen jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets, holding up ink-stained fingers, celebrating their freedom.
6a. Washington Post: Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who said he watched and listened from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families, recalled hearing his neighbor across the street, Younis Salim Khafif, plead in English for his life and the lives of his family members. “I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: ‘I am a friend. I am good,’” Fahmi said. “But they killed him, and his wife and daughters.”
7. GWB: America will fight the terrorists on every battlefront, and we will not rest until this threat to our country has been removed. (Applause.)
7a. Washington Post: It was the home of 76-year-old Abdul Hamid Hassan Ali. . . . [He] had used a wheelchair since diabetes forced a leg amputation years ago. . . . In the house with Ali and his 66-year-old wife, Khamisa Tuma Ali, were three of the middle-aged male members of their family, at least one daughter-in-law and four children — 4-year-old Abdullah, 8-year-old Iman, 5-year-old Abdul Rahman and 2-month-old Asia. Marines entered shooting, witnesses recalled. Most of the shots — in Ali’s house and two others — were fired at such close range that they went through the bodies of the family members and plowed into walls or the floor, physicians at Haditha’s hospital said. A daughter-in-law, identified as Hibbah, escaped with Asia, survivors and neighbors said. Iman and Abdul Rahman were shot but survived. Four-year-old Abdullah, Ali and the rest died. Ali took nine rounds in the chest and abdomen, leaving his intestines spilling out of the exit wounds in his back, according to his death certificate.
8. GWB: Our strategy to protect America is based on a clear premise: The security of our nation depends on the advance of liberty in other nations.
8a. Washington Post: After Haditha leaders complained, the Marines paid compensation put variously by townspeople at $1,500 or $2,500 for each of the 15 men, women and children killed in the first two houses. They refused to pay for the nine other men killed, insisting that they were insurgents. Officials familiar with the investigation said it is now believed that the nine were innocent victims. By some accounts, a 25th person, the father of the four brothers killed together, was also killed.
9. GWB: [O]ur enemies are dismissive of free peoples, claiming the men and women who live in liberty are weak and lack the resolve to defend our way of life… [O]ur enemies believe that the innocent can be murdered to serve a political vision.
9a. Washington Post: In Haditha, families of those killed keep an ear cocked to a foreign station, Radio Monte Carlo, waiting for any news of a trial of the Marines. “They are waiting for the sentence — although they are convinced that the sentence will be like one for someone who killed a dog in the United States,” said Waleed Mohammed, a lawyer preparing a file for Iraqi courts and the United Nations, if the U.S. trial disappoints. “Because Iraqis have become like dogs in the eyes of Americans.”
My sources for the preceding statements are: “President Delivers Commencement Address at the United States Military Academy at West Point“; Sarah Baxter, Hala Jaber, and Ali Rifat, “Revealed: how US marines massacred 24,” The Sunday Times, May 28, 2006; and Ellen Knickmeyer, “In Haditha, Memories of a Massacre: Iraqi Townspeople Describe Slaying of 24 Civilians by Marines in Nov. 19 Incident,” Washington Post, May 27, 2006.
The merest child knows how the investigation and the prosecution of those charged with these killings will proceed, sparing all senior officers and punishing only the grunts who pulled the triggers, and how the massacre at Haditha on November 19, 2005, will be represented by every U.S. official and by the American media in general — as a uniquely wicked but wholly aberrant occurrence. In its essence, however, it was neither unique nor aberrant. Anyone who has bothered to follow the reports of the war, especially in the foreign press, knows that wanton murders have occurred repeatedly, often from the air, owing in part to the use of high-explosive bombs and rockets in densely populated areas, but often at checkpoints and in connection with patrols, especially after roadside bombs have exploded near U.S. forces or other hostile action has triggered their indiscriminate attacks on the people at hand. Of the countless reported episodes of this kind, some are discussed in detail in my book Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis since 9/11 (Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute, 2005), Part VII, “Slaughtering the Innocent,” pp. 153—96.
In a more fundamental sense, however, every person the U.S. forces have killed in Iraq is the victim of a murder, because the U.S. forces had no just grounds for invading and occupying the country in the first place — this war is a textbook case of unprovoked aggression — and the Iraqis and their friends have a just right of self-defense against these violent foreign invaders.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.