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The Haditha Story

By Jed Babbin

The accelerating media feeding frenzy over the alleged killings of twenty-four Iraqi civilians in Haditha by US Marines last November is about to overwhelm American politics. Propelled by their most irresponsible war critics, the left will try use Haditha as it used My Lai thirty years ago: as a political tool to take apart America's support for the war and to shatter the legitimacy of our cause and the morale of our troops.

We don't know what happened in Haditha, an insurgent stronghold in Anbar Province. Unverified press accounts allege that members of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, First Marines, were hit by an improvised explosive device and one of them was killed. Others, according to these reports, went on an hours-long killing spree to revenge their comrade's death, leaving about twenty-four men, women and children dead. Navy and Marine Corps investigators are at work, and other reports indicate that at least three Marine officers, including the battalion and company commanders, have been relieved of duty. It's also reported that more than one enlisted man has been detained pending charges about to be brought.

No matter how quickly military investigators work, and no matter how firmly any crimes are punished, the anti-war left won't be satisfied unless Haditha becomes the lever that pushes President Bush to admit the war was wrong and set a time to withdraw from Iraq. My Lai - the March 16, 1968 massacre of about 500 Vietnamese by US soldiers - was first covered up and then exploded in headlines, courts-martial and congressional hearings. (Maureen Dowd, one of the New York Times's hyperliberal columnists, has already labeled Haditha a "My Lai acid flashback.") Screamed about by protesters, shown endlessly on television news, My Lai and the court-martial of one of the perpetrators, Lt. William Calley, provided the final political nail in the coffin of American involvement in Vietnam. We withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, abandoning our allies and hanging our heads in shame. This is the political result the left wants from Haditha, and we cannot allow it to happen for one very big reason. The Vietnam War ended in Vietnam, leaving America incapable of taking action in defense of itself or its allies for decades. The end of the war against the terrorist nations won't occur in Iraq, and we must be prepared - psychologically and politically - to continue the fight. When we lost Vietnam the enemy didn't follow us home. Radical Islamists will. If they win, we will literally lose America.

If it were up to Cong. John Murtha, Duke University rape case prosecutor Mike Nifong would be transferred to the Haditha case. Fortunately for both the victim and the accused, the military justice system doesn't satisfy media hunger for the bread and circuses of civilian criminal trials. Those who may be charged with war crimes won't be arrested after dramatic chases down Los Angeles highways, nor will we be subjected to judges and lawyers preening before the television cameras during the trial. But because the military justice system moves much slower than politics, and because of the opportunity it poses for the antiwar crowd, the Haditha incident will create three lasting effects that will carry through to November and beyond.

First, the left will use every tool at their disposal to ensure that the Haditha incident becomes synonymous with the entire Iraq war. Abu Ghraib proved a propaganda bonanza for the terrorists and nations such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia that want us to withdraw from Iraq in defeat. Haditha - regardless of what the facts may turn out to be - will be used ceaselessly and purposefully to eliminate American support for the Iraq war and to demonize anyone who still supports it. Haditha will become the Orwellian centerpiece of the Democrats' claim that they support the troops. "They've been there too long," Murtha and his ilk will cry. "We have to bring them home before they kill more babies." And then the Dems, feigning concern for our soldiers, will offer them psychological counseling when they return. The political fallout will be enormous, and it will damage both the ongoing war efforts and our troops' morale.

On Tuesday, CNN -- eagerly anticipating the political impact -- reported that, "Some members of Congress have been told to brace for the fallout from potential charges of murder and cover-up..." The media will take up Murtha's charge that there is a cover-up because it fits neatly into their theory that President Bush lied us into that war. If Bush lied then, who wouldn't believe the Pentagon isn't lying now, and the Marines trying to cover up the massacre of innocents?

It will be easy for the left to drive this story into a frothing political rage because they will have the field to themselves. If anyone in the military chain of command (including civilian leaders such as Secretary Rumsfeld) says anything about the case that could be interpreted as prejudging it or attempting to influence the outcome, the charges could be dismissed under the military law doctrine that prohibits "command influence." So the Pentagon is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't. Neither the press nor the libs in Congress would be satisfied if Rumsfeld promised summary execution of any malefactors. But if he did, and the charges were then dismissed for command influence, the same critics would be demanding his resignation for blowing the opportunity to punish anyone responsible for the alleged crimes. The fact that Rumsfeld and others won't say more will only fuel more political demands for his head - and others -- to roll.

The investigation may be completed as early as next month, but in a case such as this the decision to court-martial anyone will likely not be made for weeks or months. And in that time, all the John Murthas, the Maureen Dowds, and the Seymour Hershes of the world will be screaming in print and on the air, convicting the Marines, their leaders and every American who wants to win this war before any court-martial hears a single charge. They've already begun.

Murtha, on ABC's "This Week," said, "Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long?" He's not only ready to condemn the Marines, but all their leaders. He said, "We don't know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command." Baloney. It's quite likely that some of the Marines involved, even their immediate superiors, tried to cover up the Haditha incident. But once the Time Magazine videotape was viewed by the staff of Lt.Gen. Peter Chiarelli - the multinational corps commander -a no-holds-barred investigation was begun. No one - among the military's senior leaders or civilian bosses - ever participated or tolerated any such cover-up. Murtha's accusations are as specious as they are cheaply political.

Second, it's no accident that Al-Jazeera was headlining Murtha's accusations more prominently than other media. The Al-J headline read, "US troops killed Iraqis in cold blood." Because of the media hype here and around the world, Haditha could become a synonym for American brutality equal to My Lai and will damage our ability to fight radical Islam around the world. And third, if as now appears likely, Marines are convicted of war crimes, Haditha could be a major blow to the morale of American troops everywhere.

We have thousands of troops in harm's way around the world. We cannot allow them to believe - as their fathers in Vietnam came to believe - that Americans regard them with the same scorn as those who may have murdered innocents in Haditha. Though he didn't say so, Marine General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may have had Haditha on his mind when he spoke at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers on Memorial Day. Speaking from personal experience under fire, Pace tried to explain how a soldier carries on with death staring him in the face: "It is the fear of not doing our nation's duty that overrides the physical fear," he said. "That somehow our actions will not live up to the legacy of those who've gone before. That somehow our performance in battle (will) leave the Marine or soldier on our left or our right in harm's way."

Just as the few disgraced the many at Abu Ghraib, the very few who may have committed murder in Haditha will place a burden on the shoulders of every soldier, sailor, airman, marine and coast guardsman fighting terrorism. Each of us has a duty to not add to that burden, and to help relieve it as well. If those few Marines killed innocents in Haditha, their conduct is an aberration, not the norm. It is up to each one of us to ensure that the events of Haditha do not tarnish the brave and selfless service of the many who came before, or any who come after. Except for the aberrant few, the Marines are always faithful to America. In times such as this, we cannot fail to be faithful to them.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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