Our War Crimes


I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of "administrative evil" — a term that describes how ordinary and decent people can end up committing horrific acts and oftentimes think they are doing the right thing as they commit them. I recall a concentration camp survivor who described his Nazi-saluting neighbors as regular Joes.

A frighteningly large percentage of the population in communist nations served as informers. The people who spied on their neighbors and had them sent to prison camps were doing what they thought to be their patriotic duty. Here on the editorial pages, we still talk about an interview we once had with an Israeli official who described the terrorist plotters he knew as rather normal people who "were nice to their pets."

The concept often is used to deal with issues of war crimes. So I ruminate on such matters as a variety of trials and news stories point to instances where American troops in Iraq may have behaved in troubling ways. There has been a conviction and some plea bargains in one incident, dropped charges and ongoing hearings in another one. Regardless of how all the cases play out, it’s worth wondering how normal young Americans can end up standing trial for war crimes.

In Haditha, U.S. Marines were accused of murdering 24 Iraqi civilians. The Marines’ superiors are accused of covering up these crimes by not investigating or reporting them until the media did. U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who received two Purple Hearts during his service as a Marine in Vietnam, accused these Kilo Company Marines of going on a murderous rampage in retaliation for the killing of a fellow Marine during a roadside bombing earlier in the day — something the Marines deny. Even if the Marine version is accurate, they still used an aggressive strategy that led to the death of women and young children. And there’s no question the military distorted the incident, initially reporting that the 24 people were killed as the result of an I.E.D.

This is from an Associated Press report regarding Lance Corp. Stephen Tatum, who is now facing a hearing to determine whether he deserves a full court martial: "A Marine charged with murdering two girls and killing several other Iraqis gave orders to shoot into a room full of children and young women before apparently doing the job himself, a squad member testified … . ‘I told (Tatum) there’s just women and kids in the room,’ [the squad member] said. ‘He replied, "Well, shoot them."’ Tatum argues that the killings were unintentional. Murder charges have recently been dropped against two other Marines.

As the military wrestled this month with the Haditha case, a jury of Iraq war veterans found Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III guilty of unpremeditated murder for his role in the kidnapping and killing of a middle-age Iraq man in Hamdania. The man allegedly was dragged out of his bed by Hutchins and his squad mates and then executed at point-blank range. Hutchins gets 15 years in prison, a fellow squad mate received a plea bargain of eight years, while the remaining six members of the squad received sentences ranging from demotion to short jail time. Reportedly, the squad members did not like the military’s "rules of engagement," which they believed put too many restraints on their ability to fight the war. So they abandoned the rules and took matters in their own hands.

There’s no surprise that awful things will happen during an awful war. Young people are placed in a dangerous and morally dubious situation, trained to kill, armed to the hilt and then sent onto the streets of a foreign country, where they have ended up policing a complex civil war rather than fighting an easily identifiable enemy. The troops in Haditha and Hamdania had experienced terrible things — the death of their comrades, attacks from snipers and roadside bombs. Yet even in war, there need to be rules, or else slaughters will take place. I’ve been disturbed at the degree to which average Americans have jumped to the defense of those who may have committed evil acts and have attacked those who reported on the incidents. The conservative NewsMax Web site has started a legal defense fund for the "Marine Heroes of Haditha."

The basic argument I hear: These troops are in a tough and potentially deadly situation, so it’s not fair to second-guess their decisions. The first part of that argument is undoubtedly true, but the Marines facing charges are not accused of accidentally killing people whom they thought to be enemy combatants. They are accused of murder or face charges related to a cover-up. They might ultimately be cleared of the charges, but it’s odd to hear normal people argue that Marines should not face criminal charges for anything done during the heat of war.

We often hear from war supporters how America is so much different from other countries, in that we abide by the rule of law and don’t sanction the sort of brutality that "less civilized" nations accept as standard procedure. Yet these same folks often tell me that our military needs to go into these countries and "kick butt." Which is it? Do Americans respect human rights or not? If we do, then it’s fine to boast about such things. But if you believe that Marines should be free to kill unarmed women and children, without facing a court martial for murder, then let’s no longer pretend that this nation is special in that it subscribes to the rule of law. The rule of law means that you can’t do such things even if you are a Marine and even if you are frustrated by the rules, and that if you do, you will face long prison terms or worse. Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, don’t they?

In its defense of Tatum, NewsMax argues that his "parents say Stephen has always had a positive attitude, and was well liked by his teachers and friends. Stephen, they told, is a religious person who enjoys going to church with family and friends."

I don’t doubt a word of that, but it only reinforces my point about the ordinariness of brutality, given the right circumstances. The fact that an ordinary kid from Oklahoma could, allegedly, do such things, and that ordinary Americans will defend him no matter what, helps explain why "administrative evil" will always be with us.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power.