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Saturday, June 03, 2006

End Of The Innocence

Haditha Signals Beginning of End of Iraq War

Comparisons are being made between the alleged massacre — it's still being investigated — in the Iraqi town of Haditha of some 24 civilians by U.S. Marines with the killing of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in the village of Mai Lai in 1968 in the middle of the Vietnam War.

Those comparisons are invalid: What reportedly happened in Haditha is far worse.

Only in certain respects was Mai Lai worse. The deaths there totalled an incredible 400, rather than two dozen. Not a single shot was fired by any of the Vietnamese villagers at the U.S. soldiers who had descended on them from helicopters, while the Marine convoy of Humvees was hit by a car bomb as it approached Haditha. One Marine was killed and two others were wounded.

Yet two defining differences between the two terrible events mark Haditha as the worst atrocity by far.

What allegedly was done at Haditha was not done by raw draftees, or conscripts, but by elite professionals — that is, by highly trained and highly disciplined troops.

That the Marines would be edgy and angry at the death of a comrade is understandable. They didn't, though, then go on a rampage. Instead, their alleged killings were spaced out and deliberate.

First they apparently stopped a car with four students in it, ordered them out and shot all. Then, they entered three houses and killed almost everyone in it, of whatever sex and age.

The second critical differences between the two outrages is that the alleged crime in Haditha happened after Mai Lai took place.

This means that all the publicity about that earlier crime, and all the shame so many Americans then felt about it and expressed so clearly and loudly, and all the systems and controls instituted by the military to make sure it could never happened again, made not the slightest bit of difference.

Indeed, it appears that one new practice instituted by the U.S. military since the Mai Lai massacre amounts to a technique for covering up crimes like it. This relates to the way the cover story about the alleged Haditha massacre began to fall apart.

The killings happened last November. Once it was realized that some of those shot down could not have been insurgents — the dead included women and children, one as young as 2 years old — approval was given for cash payments to be given to survivors as compensation.

Some survivors, though, complained that they hadn't received any payments — in effect, "hush money" — as recompense for dead relatives.

Marine officers began to notice discrepancies in the numbers of the dead that they had been given and the numbers of those alleged to have been insurgents, as a consequence of which their relatives were ineligible for any compensation.

As with Mai Lai, the Marine chain of command was incredibly slow to gather the courage it took to accept that a massacre had almost certainly taken place and, therefore, to investigate aggressively. The actual turning point was the first media story on what had happened, in Time magazine last March.

Between Haditha, about which the White House has now gone into full damage control mode, and Mai Lai, there is one significant similarity.

What Mai Lai did was to turn American citizens against the Vietnam War by making them realize what the war was doing to their own troops. This was that it was demoralizing and debasing otherwise decent young Americans, out of fear, out of hatred, out of sheer despair at being trapped in an unwinnable war — because it involved, inevitably, killing many innocent citizens as well as actual insurgents or guerrillas.

The alleged Haditha massacre, once its full details are made public, will undoubtedly push American public opinion toward the same tipping point.

Abu Graib. Guantanamo. Haditha. And most probably many others which now will come to light. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Iraq war.

Richard Gwyn's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays.

© 2006 The Toronto Star


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