Does Haditha Sound Familiar?

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There is a curiously triumphant story line emerging in the neocon blogosphere regarding the Haditha killings. It is curious because their story line begins by implying that the unarmed Iraqi men, women and children who died in the Haditha incident were not killed in cold blood, and that their killers were innocent because military Court Martial charges were being dropped in case after case. But each article daintily dances around the fact that the Iraqi victims were in fact innocent and unarmed, and each article winds up by implying, "so what? — after all, Iraq is a dangerous place, and sometimes you have to kill innocent, unarmed civilians to bring democracy to the Middle East."

In the first article, a WorldNetDaily headline charges that Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), a Marine and a Viet Nam veteran, "fueled the case by declaring the men cold-blooded killers." WND begins by calling Murtha’s charges a "smear," but ends with a defense lawyer admitting that terrible things happen, and that, yes, Americans do them, but they should not be blamed for them because the Iraqis are such bad people: "In a horrible and very complex environment, when you have an enemy that’s using women and children as shields, you should always give the benefit of the doubt to the Marine or soldier," said Rooney. “You should never bring him back and put him in front of a court martial."

I find that a rather underwhelming stretch. It hardly constitutes an exoneration — in fact, it’s a tacit admission of guilt combined with a call for absolute immunity for every man and woman in Iraq who wears a uniform.

In the second case, my old housemate Mac Owens complains that Iraqis won’t play by our rules, and that makes it tough on our soldiers and Marines: "Insurgents blend in with the people, making it hard to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant. A counterinsurgency always has to negotiate a fine line between too much and too little force. Indeed, it suits the insurgents’ goal when too much force is applied." Again, hardly an exoneration — more like a confirmation.

In the final analysis, though, both "defenses" are actually admissions: that killings in cold blood did occur, but argue that they do not rise to the level of murder because the men were just following orders and hey, it was a bad day all around. Thus, in describing the actions of one Lance Corporal, Owens writes approvingly that his "actions were in accord with the rules of engagement and use of force," and assumes that that is enough to exonerate him.

And it was. In fact, the killers don’t even deny what they did. "u2018I fired because I had been told the house was hostile and I was following my training that all individuals in a hostile house are to be shot,’ Mendoza told investigators. The Marines then entered the house and tossed grenades before firing into a back bedroom, which they later found was filled with women and children."

"Just following orders." Doesn’t that sound familiar? But WND and Mac Owens never inquire into the wisdom of the orders, or the training, or the government behind them.

War is hell, said General Sherman, who was no stranger to visiting hell on defeated civilian populations. But for 60 years the "I was just following orders" routine has been called the "Nuremberg Defense" for good reason. Whatever one might think of the Nuremberg Trials, it is indeed curious that, when it suits their agenda, the neocons — who used to call Saddam "another Hitler" (apparently a sign of opprobrium) — would applaud the "just following orders" defense employed by Hitler’s surviving henchmen who were condemned at Nuremberg.

Let’s face it — the neocons are not doing their war any favors by inviting the notion that American troops in Iraq are on the same moral level as the Nazis. In fact, a primary purpose of the Nuremberg Trials was to trumpet the moral superiority of the Allies and to justify their right to sit in judgment of the defeated Nazis — even though FDR’s allies, the Soviets, sat there in judgment too, with Iona Nikitchenko, who had presided over some of Stalin’s most notorious show trials, as chief judge during the first Nuremberg session. This coronation-as-capitulation announced to the world a colossal symbolic moral victory for Stalin — his regime had now been proclaimed legitimate — he had received the moral "seal of approval" of the victorious West. As Hitler said at Obersalzberg, "the world believes only in success." FDR, Churchill, and Stalin proved Hitler right.

And the Soviets had indeed succeeded — with the indispensable assistance and seal of approval of Roosevelt and Churchill, the undisputed postwar leaders of what was left of Christendom.

Clearly, while the Nuremberg Trials are still a subject of heated debate, the Nuremberg "just following orders" defense is not. It is a loser. One wonders: given its unlovely provenance in Nuremberg, how is it that the Haditha Defense can be successfully employed in today’s postmodern world, where the very word "Hitler" conjures up virtually the only universally-accepted standard of evil itself? Is this a dialectical master-stroke by the neocons? Or is it the only one left?

Is the Haditha Defense an axiomatic self-exoneration, the neocons’ last gasp in their chaotic fall from grace and power, as they all blame one another, blame the Iraqis, blame the stars, blame anyone but themselves for their Iraq disaster? Is the Nuremberg defense really the core fallacy of the neocon dialectic? Could this really be what they mean when they insist that we "support the troops"?

Wrapping themselves in the flag and the uniform of a dutiful Lance Corporal, they proclaim both their triumph and their innocence of the blood and disaster that they have wrought for the past six years. By definition, they proclaim themselves innocent, and victorious.

It’s breathtaking, really. Lenin would indeed be proud.

All this is especially curious because the fundamental ingredient of the neocon effort to remake the world is the assumption that they — and any country they can manipulate or dominate — are morally superior to the rest of the word that is, by definition, in need of reform — by them, of course. This is certainly in harmony with their Trotskyite foundations — as is the masterful, profound contradiction that serves as the foundation for their argument about Haditha and every other murder committed in the name of the morally superior state — to wit:

"Saddam was another Hitler. We proved in World War II that we are morally superior to Hitler. We condemned Hitler’s henchmen who claimed to be u2018just following orders’ because those orders were given by a morally inferior power, whom we defeated. But war is hell, and, because we are morally superior to Hitler (and to Saddam), our orders are morally superior to those of Hitler. Hence our invocation of the Nuremberg Defense at Haditha is qualitatively different from how the Nazis employed it at Nuremberg. The Nazis were losers. We are winners. Thus it is not a crime for our soldiers and Marines to be "just following orders" when they kill innocent, unarmed civilians in Iraq. Why not? Because we gave the orders, and they are therefore, by definition, good."

The world believes only in success. Q.E.D.

May I suggest a different approach? For instance, one view (one of many, I dare say), explaining "why the United States has botched this war," is reflected in a 2006 article by Dr. Andrew Bacevich. Unlike the neocons, Bacevich actually inquires rationally into the wisdom and morality behind those "orders" that were (and are) "just being followed." Bacevich is a West Point grad, Viet Nam veteran, and Professor of International Relations at Boston University (whose son was killed in Iraq in May 2007).

For my own part, I might be old-fashioned, but allow me to refer to a different incident in the fog of a different war, in which a classmate of mine died in Viet Nam. Set aside your views of that war (I have long since changed my own), and compare Gordon Yntema’s actions with those of the Haditha killers.

And then draw your own conclusions.

Christopher Manion Archives

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