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Way beyond "usual combat"

By Jeff Emanuel

Jun 14, 2006

The events of November 19 in the terrorist stronghold of Haditha, Iraq have been rehashed ad nauseum in print, on television, and on radio since TIME magazine "broke" the story four months after its occurrence. What is clear is this: 24 Iraqis (of whom at least 15 appear to have been civilians) were killed by U.S. Marines after one of their own was "split in two," as a member of the patrol soberly put it, by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), or roadside bomb.

Less certain is whether some of the deaths were a result of the IED and others occurred during a firefight with insurgents (which recordings of radio traffic appear to support), or if the Marines simply, as anti-war Congressman John Murtha asserted, "murdered" the whole group "in cold blood."

With the exception of Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who has apparently gone off the deep end in his quest to ensure the defeat of the America he served, the charge to convict these Marines in the court of the media and public opinion has by and large been led by people who have never experienced anything even vaguely resembling a "combat situation." The stressful and dynamic nature of combat -- bullets flying, bombs exploding, and soldiers' lives literally in each other's hands -- is so far removed from what the average American, who is used to being stressed by school, family and the slightest changes in schedule, is used to that it is almost utterly and completely incomprehensible.

Barring the ability to empathize with the stresses of a combat situation, Americans must attempt to understand that what our troops are facing in Iraq goes far beyond what could be called "usual combat." No longer are our soldiers fighting a uniformed enemy, all of whom answer to a unified higher command, and all of whom 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 from behind which to attack. Today's enemies are just as happy to see their own countrymen killed as Americans. They willingly -- even purposely -- bomb their own churches and schools, and will gladly use and sacrifice any person available to help achieve their various goals.

The recent history of Haditha and its surrounding area bears this out. In the spring of 2003, Special Operations forces secured Haditha Dam, a giant complex on the Euphrates River, which, had it been successfully demolished by Saddam's forces, would have cut power to a large portion of west-central Iraq and unleashed 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 from which to deny terrorists the ability to freely travel east into more populous central Iraq.

In one particular incident, a car stopped at the checkpoint and a pregnant woman got out. As the Army Ranger captain in charge approached her she, in a trembling voice, asked him for some water. He complied and as he neared her car 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 (an innocent who quite likely had no desire to be used either as a suicide bomber or a "martyr").

Even while facing an enemy that has no qualms about staging such episodes, America and her military have been constantly striving to elevate and redefine war itself in recent years. Every soldier undergoes annual training on the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) to ensure that war crimes of any magnitude do not occur, and even more legal and sensitivity training appears to be in line for the troops after this recent incident. Rather than area bombing, today's air-to-ground operations are so precise that, with the assistance of Air Force tactical air controllers on the ground marking targets and providing target coordinates to planes, our bombs can not only hit a designated building but can be put into a specified window. Most of all -- and make no mistake about this -- America does not target civilians. All too many of our brave soldiers have died precisely because when the enemy was shooting from within a school or from behind women and children they did not accept the so-called "collateral damage" that would have resulted from firing through the innocents to kill the terrorists.

Take CNN reporter Arwa Damon's account for example:
I went on countless operations in 2005 up and down the Euphrates River Valley [with the Marines patrolling in the Haditha area.] I was pinned on rooftops with them...for hours taking incoming fire, and I've seen them not fire a shot back because they did not have positive identification on a target. I saw their horror when they thought that they finally had identified their target, fired a tank round that went through a wall and into a house filled with civilians.

They then rushed to help the wounded -- remarkably no one was killed. I was with [the Marines] they went house to house in an area where insurgents would booby-trap doors, or lie in wait behind closed doors with an AK-47, basically on suicide missions, just waiting for the Marines to come through and open fire. There were civilians in the city as well, and the Marines were always keenly aware of that fact. How they didn't fire at shadows, not knowing what was waiting in each house, I don't know. But they didn't.
This report is representative of the day-to-day operations of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere. In spite of what many anti-war and anti-American activists claim, our troops are among the most humane in the world and are fighting in this and other wars not for love of killing but because of a belief in the greater cause of freedom, and in America.

However, with its constant opposition to the war effort, the media appear to have seized on this as -- finally! -- the "war crime" they have been waiting so long for. It is a direct result of this that the story broken by TIME magazine, which has been getting poked fuller and fuller of holes in recent days as the media have backed away from several details of the original account, seemed at the time to be, as Clarice Feldman said in the American Thinker, "a story too good to be checked."

Americans and others can rest assured on one front: the Navy is meticulously investigating the incident. TIME magazine reported that 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 those guilty of wrongdoing; for evidence, refer to Abu Ghraib, a media-inflated scandal and an incident to which Haditha has been compared. One of the two soldiers portrayed in the majority of the Abu Ghraib photographs received ten years in jail; the other received three. Given that level of sentencing for an incident which, though hateful and malicious, did not result in civilian deaths, it is a no-brainer that these Marines, should they be guilty of the cold-blooded murder of innocents, will receive every bit of what they deserve, if not more, at the hands of the military.

The investigations into last November in Haditha will be completed and whatever guilty parties there may be (if any) will be brought to justice. Until then, it should not be too much to ask that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines - who have sacrificed their time, their comfort and even their lives and limbs for our safety, for our right to live free and for our ability to be stressed over our ordinary lives - be given the slightest benefit of the doubt.

Jeff Emanuel, a special operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a columnist and a director of conservative weblog

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