Massacre of Civilians Was Inevitable
by Eric Margolis
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and now a new name on the roster of shame, Haditha.
Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was patrolling the Iraqi town of Haditha last November when a roadside bomb killed one of its members. Kilo's men allegedly burst into the nearest house and gunned down 24 men, women and children cowering inside.
Accused of initially trying to cover up this killing (and other civilian killings in Iraq), the military last month began conducting a criminal investigation.
Many Americans are outraged and are demanding the Marines involved and superior officers face prosecution.
The U.S. military responded with sensitivity sessions about "core values." What a sick joke. Anyone who needs such instruction belongs in jail, not the armed forces.
If Kilo Company's men did murder 24 civilians, they must face trial for murder, and their superior officers for covering it up. But the soldiers' punishment should be mitigated by the fact they were sent into a dirty guerilla war fought in the middle of a largely hostile civilian population in which such atrocities are inevitable.
Iraq and the campaign in Afghanistan are just like typical 20th-century colonial guerilla wars. Faced with frequent sniping, mines, ambushes and treachery by supposed local "allies," even the best-trained occupation armies soon became brutalized, sadistic, cynical, then demoralized.
I have witnessed this same pattern in every guerilla war I covered or observed: Algeria, Vietnam, Kashmir, Angola, Namibia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Chechnya, Kurdistan, South Africa, Kosovo and the Palestinian territories.
Villages that sheltered rebels were destroyed, hostages shot. Civilians quickly became identified with the enemy and considered fair game for increasingly trigger-happy troops.
Murderous reprisals occur in all guerilla wars. German execution of French villagers in reprisals for Resistance ambushes were branded war crimes. When U.S. troops destroyed Vietnamese villages, or levelled a third of the Iraqi city of Fallujah to intimidate the resistance, it was termed "collateral damage."
Any army sent into a dirty guerilla war like Iraq or Afghanistan can be expected to become corrupted and slaughter civilians. The culture of mass reprisals, gratuitous killing, and torture will seep back into the higher military command structure, and then into the domestic security forces.
It seems just, but also unfair, to prosecute Kilo company when other U.S. forces have killed an estimated 38,000 Iraqi civilians (some say up to 100,000), wrecked much of what once was the Arab world's most advanced country, and hold more than 20,000 prisoners – more than Saddam Hussein.
The simple answer is that the U.S. Army and Marines should never have been sent to wage a neo-colonial war of pacification in Iraq – or Afghanistan. The longer U.S. forces stay there, the more they will become brutalized, undisciplined, and hated. Canadian forces in Afghanistan will inevitably face the same problems.
U.S. forces are trying to avoid killing civilians. But bombing and shelling, the primary cause of civilian deaths, are too often used to cow villages and tribes, or punish enemy ambushes. The rule: Bomb or shoot or shell first, check later. Dead civilians are generally labelled "suspected Iraqi terrorists."
The real blame for Haditha, of course, belongs to an administration that plunged the U.S. into an unnecessary, no-win war in Iraq, and with Pentagon brass. And with those senior Washington officials who spit on the Geneva Conventions and laws of war and telegraphed their contempt right down the line.
June 19, 2006
Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.