Haditha And The Decay
Of Judgment In War

By Terrell E. Arnold

Last November, so the story unfolds, several hours after losing a comrade in a roadside bombing US Marines marched into two homes in the Sunni Arab town of Haditha and killed 20 people including women, children and elders. What actually happened there is being investigated, but indications are the killings were execution style revenge.  Indications are also that several people, including commanding officers, were aware of what actually had happened but did not report the facts or suggest any investigation of the facts. Rather, several commentators have noted, in light of Haditha, that the urge to find good things to say about soldiers in war is so strong that the sheer brutality of the Iraqi engagement gets glossed over, while true crimes against humanity go unreported.  That, says Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, has become virtually a daily commonplace.  One can argue that he exaggerates, but does he?
It is easy to fall into the indifference of conflict. Writers who look for ways to make such mayhem explicable have noted that perhaps 50 million people died in World War II. Most of them, according to the prevailing term of art, were "collateral damage". But many, if not most, were deliberately murdered in carpet bombings of cities such as Dresden and London.
Is it murder most foul when a bombardier or a missile launcher presses a button and never sees the victims?  How is that different from a warrior who knowingly points and shoots a victim in his direct line of sight?  In truth there is no difference if the victims in both cases are non-combatants.  There is cold comfort, and no moral highground, in the assertion that: "My intent was to kill someone else, but you got in the way, and your death is collateral damage."
However, the mindset is different.  Maureen Doud writes in a New York Times story of May 27 about a Sergeant who says he nearly killed two women and a boy, but he didn't do that, he said, because "It would make me no better than the people we are trying to fight."
The Sergeant has just stated the polite form of the combat mindset. The case-hardened Vietnam version of it was the enemies are "gooks". Such a term also served in Korea and in the Pacific islands of World War II.  Its full meaning always is the enemy is less than we are, because he lacks our values, our purposes, our skin color, our language, or our morality.  In sum, the enemy is a lesser person.
That is the initial mindset for wanton killing.  If you know--or admit--that the enemy is your equal, your peer, you can no longer kill with a clear conscience. "No better than the people we are trying to fight" simply puts the enemy in a killable category.  One of the earliest casualties of war is the decay of any moral sense of the equality of all mortals.  Warriors sent repeatedly into harm's way are the ones most likely to lose their way on this.
Theoretical notions of proportionality in combat--no more force than needed to prevail--are easy enough to state, but they are hard to retain through repeated exposure to life threatening encounters, or even lesser degrees of hostility and danger.  Thus, sending even the most stable of forces into repeated combat situations risks the very thing that happened at Haditha, the decay or loss of judgment under stress. And a corollary of such repeated exposure is a growing hate and loss of respect for the enemy.
Maintaining an armed force that is barely large enough for Iraqi engagement is the ultimate culprit.  The perpetrators of the Haditha killings may indeed be guilty of multiple crimes.  But there is still another crime involved in fighting a pointless war and doing so under conditions that undermine proper husbandry and discipline of human resources.
This war is a growing abuse of the ability of our troops to cope.  Their judgment, as well as the judgment of their command superiors has been faltering for some time.  If al Maliki is right about the frequency of Haditha like incidents, both our troops and their commanders are suffering from increasingly impaired combat judgment.  Those impairments are being reinforced by political pressure to "stay the course", when the "course" actually was lost some time back. At this stage, not only are we unable to replace or properly rotate our troops, their fatigue is deepening the disrespect they hold for their enemies.  Iraqis are increasingly dehumanized. That condition is more serious than the personal "combat fatigue" of individuals. If we do not get our troops out of this situation, the Iraqi people face a mounting wave of Hadithas.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on  He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counterterrorism, and as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College.  He will welcome comment at




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