The Hadithah Prosecution Unravels
In May of 2006, Time magazine reported that several Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division had killed more than 20 Iraqi civilians in the town of Hadithah in al-Anbar Province, in retaliation for the death of one of their comrades by a roadside bomb in November 2005. Almost immediately, opponents of the war seized on the allegations to criticize the war in Iraq. Despite the fact that an investigation of the alleged incident was just getting under way, the Marines were convicted in the press, especially Time magazine and, of course, the New York Times.
Soon thereafter, Rep. John Murtha, (D-PA), a vociferous critic of the war, jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that the Marines in Hadithah had “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” This incident, said Murtha, “shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day when they’re out in combat.” Appearing Sunday on This Week on ABC, Murtha went farther, claiming that the shootings in Haditha had been covered up. “Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long? We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.”
Shortly after the story broke, I wrote on this event in National Review Online, making the point that in Iraq, our opponents have chosen to deny us the ability to fight the sort of conventional war we would prefer and forced us to fight the one they want—an insurgency. Insurgents blend with the people making it hard to distinguish between combatant and noncombatant. A counterinsurgency always has to negotiate a fine line between too much and too little force. Indeed, it suits the insurgents’ goal when too much force is applied indiscriminately.
For insurgents, there is no more powerful propaganda tool than the claim that their adversaries are employing force in an indiscriminate manner. It is even better for the insurgents’ cause if they can credibly charge the forces of the counterinsurgency with the targeted killing of noncombatants. For many people even today, the entire Americans enterprise in Vietnam is discredited by the belief that the U.S. military committed atrocities and war crimes on a regular basis and as a matter of official policy [Thanks a lot, John Kerry]. But as Jim Webb has noted, stories of atrocious conduct, e.g. My Lai, “represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme.”
Now it turns out that the officer who has presided over a hearing into the charges against one of the Marines allegedly involved in the Hadithah incident, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, has recommended that the charges be dismissed and that there be no court martial.
During an Article 32 investigation—the military equivalent of a grand jury that determines whether a case should be referred to courts-martial–the the prosecution alleged that Sharratt and other members of his battalion carried out a revenge-motivated assault on Iraqi civilians that left 24 dead after a roadside bomb killed a fellow Marine nearby. Sharratt contended that the Iraqi men he confronted were insurgents and at least one was holding an AK-47 rifle when he fired at them.
As reported by breitbart.com.
The hearing officer, Lt. Col. Paul Ware, wrote in a report released by the defense Tuesday that those charges were based on unreliable witness accounts, insupportable forensic evidence and questionable legal theories. He also wrote that the case could have dangerous consequences on the battlefield, where soldiers might hesitate during critical moments when facing an enemy.
“The government version is unsupported by independent evidence,” Ware wrote in the 18-page report. “To believe the government version of facts is to disregard clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.”
“Whether this was a brave act of combat against the enemy or tragedy of misperception born out of conducting combat with an enemy that hides among innocents, Lance Corporal Sharratt’s actions were in accord with the rules of engagement and use of force,” Ware wrote.
He said further prosecution of Sharratt could set a “dangerous precedent that … may encourage others to bear false witness against Marines as a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and its mission in Iraq.”
“Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy,” he said.
The final decision still lies with the commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis, so Sharratt is not quite out of the woods. In addition, the case against the other Marines charged with murder might be stronger than the one against Sharratt—but I doubt it.
But the turn of events makes it clear that Murtha and the members of the press who are predisposed to believe such charges should be ashamed of themselves. Will they apologize if the charges are dropped? Don’t hold your breath. But at least the Hadithah Marines can be thankful that they didn’t play lacrosse.