No Scapegoating

What is the moral difference between killing a man with a rifle bullet, with a bomb and with an artillery shell? The answer is, there is none. Killing is killing, whether you do it with a bullet or an explosive, from up close or from far away.

Therefore, everyone who supports the troops should write the commandant of the Marine Corps and the president and warn them not to make a scapegoat of a young Marine shown killing an unarmed Iraqi prisoner on national television.

In calm, rational circumstances, what the young man did was murder. But he was not acting in calm or rational circumstances. He was acting in the feverish fog and madness of war, where the old phrase "the quick and the dead" means exactly that. He thought the wounded prisoner was faking it and was about to attack, so he shot him. In war, the wounded often conceal grenades or other weapons, and even the dead are often booby-trapped.

The real villain in this incident is the NBC cameraman Kevin Sites, who was embedded with that unit. He did the journalistically correct thing, but I personally never believed that being a good journalist trumps being a human being. These young Marines had been protecting him. He should have had a "camera malfunction" and erased the tape. That’s what I would have done. And I would have told anybody who asked that I was fiddling with the camera and didn’t see what happened.

This will no doubt outrage my fellow journalists. As I said, Sites did what a journalist should do. He will probably get a pay raise and maybe a prize. He is certainly brave and quite likely a completely decent man. But I personally would not ruin a young man’s life just so a bunch of couch potatoes back home can be mildly excited for a minute or two.

My feeling has nothing to do with kowtowing to the Marine Corps or the U.S. government. I’m against this war and have been from the beginning. If there are any war criminals, they are sitting safely in Washington, D.C., not walking the dangerous streets and alleys of Fallujah. And if I were with a group of Marines and they were protecting me, I would feel a personal obligation toward them. I’ve never been able to live in the abstract.

That tape, now released worldwide, will do more damage than the young Marine’s bullet. Arab television is already playing it, probably around the clock. Insurgents will probably be less likely to surrender, resulting in more deaths on both sides. There will be a lot of pressure to make a scapegoat of the young Marine. Today’s officer corps is very short on loyalty to the men below them. Let a demagogic lynch mob develop in Washington, and the officer corps will be only too happy to toss the mob some enlisted guy or junior officer and claim he is an aberration.

Who are they kidding? Nobody in Washington gives a rat’s toenail about the lives of individual Iraqis. We’ve killed hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed Iraqis with our bombs, artillery fire and rockets, including women and children. Some international group claims that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died directly or indirectly as a result of this war. A United Nations organization estimated that just the sanctions prior to the war were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. Play with those numbers any way you want, but there is no doubt we’ve killed unarmed civilians and passed it off as "collateral damage." Well, no sane person can say that killing groups of unarmed civilians is OK, but shooting one unarmed guerrilla fighter in the heat of battle is murder.

If you saw the video, you might have formed a negative impression of the young Marine, who is profane, aggressive and seemingly calloused. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t train men to be aggressive warriors and expect them to act like philosophers or missionaries.

Americans have always been schizophrenic about the military. We call our war department a defense department even though we haven’t fought a defensive war since 1945. We’re not fighting a defensive war in Iraq, nor are those young men "fighting for freedom." They are there killing Iraqis because they were ordered to go there and kill Iraqis by their commander in chief. That’s all there is to it.

Sometimes I don’t know if it’s our policy I object to or the fact that our policy is always buried under layers of hypocrisy and bull manure.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.