Sanctions for Evil

A tragic irony of the war in Iraq is that it is a Marine Corps unit that is suspected of the largest single atrocity so far reported there. For while the Marines have suffered a disproportionate number of casualties, they have also made an exemplary effort to treat Iraqi civilians with respect. They abandoned the protection of armored personnel carriers to walk about neighborhoods. They shared chocolate with children and played soccer with teens. In a fundamental gesture of respect, Marines have removed their sunglasses to make eye contact with the local residents. These were sound steps in counterinsurgency warfare; they were also indications of how seriously the Corps takes warrior honor, the heart of which is the immunity of civilians to attack.

Revelation of the deaths of 24 Iraqis in Haditha last Nov. 19 threatens to besmirch that honor. So seriously does the Corps take those responsibilities that in an extraordinary move, the Marine commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, flew to Iraq on May 26 to reinforce the ideals, values and standards of the Corps. There is a risk, Hagee said as he began his trip, of becoming indifferent to the loss of a human life, as well as bringing dishonor on ourselves.


The media focus will inevitably focus on the members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, and those senior officers who may have covered up or ignored reports of the massacre. Atrocities, however, do not occur in a vacuum. Individuals are responsible for their acts, but society as well as the military may either provide defenses against war crimes or offer signals that they will be permitted. In the wake of the massacre at My Lai in 1968, during the Vietnam War, social psychologists called such messages sanctions for evil. Failure to prosecute offenses, light penalties, talk from high places that demonizes the enemy, tolerance of harsh treatment of civilians, mass roundups of suspects, all can increase the risk of atrocity. In the case of Haditha, the contributing factors have been building for many years. Chief among them is the policy of force protection, the mentality that the overriding duty of officers and troops is to protect their own.

After My Lai, both the Army and the Marines took seriously the need to imbue their personnel with military standards. Soldiers and Marines understood they were forbidden to attack civilians. More than a decade ago, however, senior officers who had served in the Vietnam War were already becoming alarmed that among the post-Vietnam generation, inhibitions against harming noncombatants were coming unglued. Younger officers and some older ones as well, they found, increasingly shared the conviction that their first duty was to protect their own troops. One of this policy’s outcomes was the high-altitude bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, in which there were no U.S. casualties.

While force protection is certainly an officer’s responsibility, it does not trump the obligation to protect noncombatants. Writing about civilian immunity in their pastoral statement The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993), the U.S. bishops wrote, civilians may not be made the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians. As the philosopher Michael Walzer has pointed out, taking due care entails the military shouldering some risk, though not every risk, to avoid harm to civilians. Affirming that military personnel are expected to bear risks to protect noncombatants is one way to resist the degradation of standards in the name of force protection.

A still more important factor in creating the conditions for atrocity in Iraq was the commitment of the military itself to war-fighting over policing and peacekeeping. Led by Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), the military establishment disdained constabulary activities, which they felt could be left to the Canadians and Scandinavians. So, even if the Bush administration had not planned for an easy victory in Iraq, the U.S. military would have been ill prepared for the counterinsurgency warfare and peacekeeping required by the occupation of Iraq. Too late perhaps, the Army has learned its lesson. A new commander in Baghdad has been encouraging his forces to deal in more respectful ways with the Iraqi people. At the same time, troops training in the States are being educated in counterinsurgency warfare and constabulary-style policing techniques.

In the theater of crisis that will surround the expected courts marshal, it will be vital to acknowledge the fundamental lessons of these failures in military thinking. Excessive commitment to force protection and refusal to acknowledge the importance of policing and peacekeeping increased the likelihood of atrocities like Haditha. Let us not disparage Marines without sunglasses playing soccer in the street. In a guerrilla war, they can be an effective deterrent against attack.

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