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Emanuel: Marines deserve some benefit of doubt

Story updated at 1:06 AM on Sunday, June 11, 2006

The murky events of Nov. 19, 2005, in the terrorist stronghold of Haditha, Iraq currently are the subject of multiple investigations. What is clear is that as many as 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. Marines after one of their own was killed by an improvised roadside bomb. Less certain is whether the deaths occurred during a firefight (which recordings of radio traffic appear to support), or if the Marines simply, as anti-war U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., asserted, "murdered" the civilians "in cold blood."

It's difficult enough for the average American to understand the stresses of combat, with bullets flying and soldiers' lives literally in each other's hands. Even more important is that Americans understand that what our troops are facing in Iraq goes far beyond usual "combat." No longer are our soldiers fighting a uniformed enemy, all who answer to a unified higher command, and all who have a similar or identical objective in mind. Instead, they are fighting enemies that dress like civilians, use churches and schools as a base of operations and, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, grab the nearest woman or child to use as a shield. Today's enemies are just as happy to see their own countrymen killed as Americans, and will gladly use and sacrifice any person available to help achieve their various goals.

Haditha's recent history bears this out. In spring 2003, Special Operations forces secured Haditha Dam, a giant complex on the Euphrates River which, had it been successfully demolished by Saddam Hussein's forces, would have cut power to a large portion of west-central Iraq, along with unleashing devastating flooding on downriver cities. After being successfully defended against a five-day mortar and artillery barrage from the town, the dam was used as a checkpoint to deny terrorists the ability to freely travel east into more populous central Iraq.

In one incident, a car stopped at the checkpoint and a pregnant woman got out. As the Army Ranger captain at the checkpoint approached her, she, in a trembling voice, asked him for some water. He complied and, as he approached with a canteen, the vehicle exploded. He and another Ranger were killed instantly; a third suffered such serious burns that he died shortly after - all because of their willingness to aid, rather than harm, a civilian woman.

Even while facing an enemy which has no qualms about staging such episodes, every American soldier undergoes annual training on the laws of armed conflict, to ensure that no war crimes - of any magnitude - occur.

Most of all - and make no mistake about this - America does not target civilians. Too many brave soldiers have died precisely because, when the enemy was shooting from within a school or behind women and children, they would not accept the so-called "collateral damage" that would have been caused by firing through the innocents. In spite of what many who oppose the war in Iraq like to claim, our soldiers are among the most humane in the world, and are doing what they do, not for love of killing, but because of a belief in the greater cause of freedom, and in America.

As to the Haditha situation, Americans and others can rest assured the U.S. Navy is meticulously investigating the incident. As Time magazine reported, Haditha residents have been "gratified by (the) thoroughness" of the investigation.

If there was wrongdoing, and if it was covered up, all of those responsible will be appropriately punished.

The U.S. military severely punishes wrongdoers. For evidence, refer to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse incident, a media-inflated scandal - The New York Times had 32 consecutive days of front-page stories on the subject - to which the Haditha incident has been compared. The two soldiers portrayed in the majority of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison received three years and 10 years in jail, respectively.

Given that level of sentencing for an incident which, though hateful and malicious, did not result in civilian deaths, it's a no-brainer that the Marines at Haditha, should they be guilty of the cold-blooded murder of innocents, will receive every bit of punishment they deserve.

The investigations into last November's incident in Haditha will be completed, and whatever guilty parties there may be will be brought to justice. Until then, it should not be too much to ask that our soldiers - who have sacrificed their time, their comfort, and even life and limb for our right to live free - be given at least a slight benefit of the doubt.

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a senior at the University of Georgia. He serves as public-relations director for the UGA College Republicans, the largest student political organization in the country. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the UGA College Republicans.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 061106

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