Michael's Dispatches

Hijacking Haditha

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June 6, 2006

I had hired car and driver in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates and was heading to a camel market when we drove by this sign. I thought my eyes must be tired. Did that say, WRITING IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN? Then we passed another, and another, and another.

Few people know what happened last November in Haditha. I first heard about it when the Associated Press called to ask if I was present. The answer was “no.” But I do know how our troops typically act on counterinsurgency missions, how surprisingly honest they can be about mistakes they make in the field, and the lengths to which they go to avoid collateral civilian injuries when on patrol and conducting raids and ambushes. I also know about being on the business end of an accusatory finger, after having been wrongly accused of murder. I never denied the fistfight or that a man had died as a result. I admitted to it, but no murder was committed. I was nineteen at the time, and in the Army. That was an acute lesson on how bad press can chart a legal trajectory.

From these informed perspectives comes this collection of comments for consideration.

In the matter of Haditha, what we do know is that an investigation is underway. The results of that investigation have not been issued publicly and it is uncertain whether those results will include criminal charges. Because we have one of the only militaries on Earth that actually investigates its own troops so openly, at the end of the day, we can and do hold our people to very high standards. Granted, in this case, apparently it took a media pry-bar to crack the lid, but we also have one of the only militaries in the world where a writer—even one who is flagrantly anti-military—can embed with combat troops.

Foreign journalists often contact me for advice on how to get in with troops other than Americans in Iraq. American forces are easy to go out with. A journalist need only contact the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, and he or she can be getting shot at while dodging roadside bombs as early as next week. But it can be extremely difficult, unless the journalist in question is a known sympathizer, to go out with militaries of other nations.

In the absence of clear facts, most people know that a rush to judgment serves no one. What word, then, properly characterizes the recent media coverage of Haditha, when analysis stretches beyond shotgun conclusions to actually attributing motive and assigning blame? No rational process supports a statement like: “We don’t know what happened, but we know why it happened and whose fault it is.”

While rushing into judgment is a fast trip to nowhere, delay tactics and cover-ups will only make a bigger mess that is harder to clean up.

Practically every country on Earth censors free speech, but this seemed overboard.

I was recently a panelist on a Fred Friendly Ethics in Journalism seminar that will air on PBS later this year. On the panel was Max Cleland, a former senator who had been grievously wounded in war, and there was a retired general, two other military officers and a cast of media luminaries. The moderator posed a hypothetical situation in which a war crime occurred, and asked what I would do. My answer was that I would release the information, which clearly disturbed the general. But I would release it in context. There is a difference. That was hypothetical, but in real life I was present when our soldiers accidentally killed a taxi driver in Mosul. I wrote about it in a dispatch titled “Monday.”

Rolling out before sunrise, the initial fighting killed a taxi driver. The firing was brief and precise. A small amount of glass and glass-dust poofed into the air, and from what I saw, there is little doubt that the driver’s death was sudden and painless.

So far as local sources can tell, the driver might have been merely caught in the confusion and he was the only person killed at that time. The event depressed the mood of some of the men, although a few took the, “Man, that’s bad, but shit happens in war,” position. I kept asking American officers throughout the day, “Was he really a bad guy?” The soldiers could have said that the dead man was a terrorist, and that they had gotten him. There is so much going on that it would have been difficult for me to know the difference without checking with the hospital and others. But instead they told me, “We think we killed the wrong man.”

I said to the commander, “You know I will write about this, don’t you?”

He answered, “Mike, you can write about the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think we made a mistake, but you were there. You saw what happened. We are still not certain that he is not a cell-member, but we have no proof that he was and my gut tells me he was innocent. I think it was a bad target.”

I wrote about the death of the taxi cab driver in the context of the larger mission because that is how it happened—in the context of a larger mission.

The signs are clear, but without context they are essentially meaningless.

I was present on a day in Baquba when there was a controlled blast of some captured munitions, and somehow the guard towers had not been informed of the upcoming explosion. When the blast occurred, there were children playing near the perimeter, and they flushed and ran. A young guard fired on the children, killing one. He thought they had triggered the blast, something children had often done. I sat up in that same guard tower a day or so later. Soldiers will always talk during nighttime guard duty. The men in his platoon were very upset about the incident, as was the soldier himself. He made the wrong decision, but despite that he had not been warned about the explosion, and that Baquba was a dangerous place where we regularly were losing soldiers, he might never forgive himself.

What would happen if I took out my pen to write?

I’ve written often about soldiers and children and the bond between them that develops in the most unlikely situations, often with devastating consequences for both groups. In the dispatch Killing for God, the focus was on the trend among insurgents in Mosul to actually target children, using soldiers as bait.

An American soldier told me today that he has been telling kids to stay away from his unit so they won’t be killed. This is harder, on all parties, than it might seem to anyone who hasn’t seen firsthand how much the kids here love the soldiers. The sound of heavily armored trucks rumbling through the streets has the same effect on these kids as the tinkling bells of the “ice cream man” back home. Imagine having to tell kids to run the other way when they hear the ice cream truck on a summer afternoon.

It is hard to define the context in a place where the enemy regularly tortures and beheads people, and murders children on a daily basis, and this seems to raise scant ire. They can kill a dozen kids, or come to a classroom and murder a teacher in front of young students, and still be called “rebels,” or “freedom fighters.” I call them terrorists. A smart Australian recently told me during an interview that “terrorist” is not a subjective term; after all, terror is their principal weapon, and so the term is accurate.

Accuracy is important to defining context, but so is proportion. When a few of our rogue elements ran wild, creating the Abu Ghraib debacle that we cannot seem to outrun, the story, which is a horrible black mark on our military and our nation, seems to have been put on a permanent loop, albeit one that leaves out most of what might in fact be the most important news of all.

LTC Rodney Morris took me to a detention facility his soldiers operated in Tikrit. Prison and jail guards have told me many times there is one certainty with prisoners: they always complain. In fact, before going to Iraq, I met with a very experienced corrections chief in Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, and asked him what to look for when snooping out signs of prison abuse or mismanagement. What are the signs? Sheriff Hodgson gave me a long list, and when I visited the detainees in Tikrit, nothing tripped my alarms.

When the prisoners saw my camera (photography was forbidden in the facility), they wanted my undivided attention. And so, in front of American soldiers, those prisoners gave me an earful. Said they didn’t have enough blankets, were cold at night, and did not get enough food. Several of the men who complained about the food were fat. But what those prisoners really told me, indirectly, was that they saw journalists as potential liberators, and even more importantly, that they were not afraid to complain about the soldiers in front of the soldiers. The prisoners knew when I left they would not be taken out and shot. I was there for as long as I wished to stay, asking an interpreter to translate graffiti written on some cell walls. The prisoners had time and possibly even opportunity to slip me a note. None did. But they all complained, complained, complained.

The Abu Ghraib travesty was an example of a journalist picking up the scent trail and following it. It took moral courage to break that story, and yet that writer knew our military would not hunt him down afterwards. The incident was investigated, and perpetrators were charged, tried and punished for their actions. Conditions in the prison greatly improved and methods of training and supervising soldiers who guard detainees were revamped to preclude future incidents. Somehow those parts seem to get left out of most sentences that mention Abu Ghraib. Today, terrorists view Abu Ghraib as an R&R and training destination. Combined with the catch and release policy, the net result is increased danger for our soldiers and Iraqis. I saw a commander get shot down in front of me by a terrorist who had just been released from Abu Ghraib.

We are facing a savage, savage enemy. I have seen with my own eyes how they have murdered children. I have seen our soldiers risking their own lives to safeguard Iraqi children and adults many times. Two occasions leap to mind.

The enemy rammed a car bomb into a Deuce Four Stryker in Mosul while kids were all around. They could have just as easily attacked our men a few blocks away from the kids. Instead, they cruelly wounded fifteen children and killed two of them. I saw American soldiers furiously trying to save one little girl named Farah. One American officer, Major Mark Bieger, actually took Farah and her family in his Stryker and raced them all to the hospital. We needed that firepower at the scene in case of follow-on attack—we were in fact attacked there the next day—yet Major Bieger and his section, with permission from LTC Erik Kurilla who was on the scene, raced through the streets of Mosul to the hospital. Unfortunately, Farah died, and on that day some of our soldiers cried.

Much later one of our soldiers, SGT Ben Morton, who was there that day, died because his platoon was controlling their fire. On many missions when I tagged along, the commander would say things like, “Be careful about throwing flash-bangs [grenades without fragments] into rooms. Don’t throw them unless you really have to. Practically every Iraqi house has children, and flash-bangs can kill the small kids.”

There was hot intelligence that some terrorists were in a certain location. I watched part of the mission unfold from the TOC, but had left before Recon platoon hit the house. SGT Ben Morton from Wright, Kansas, who lived just next to me in Mosul, was a fine soldier, a highly respected young man who earned two Bronze Stars with V (for valor) and a Purple Heart. Ben’s Recon platoon was conducting the hasty raid in Mosul. The intelligence was correct.

Ben was the first up the stairs, and he took four bullets. Only then did his buddies throw flash-bangs and eventually shot down the terrorist who killed Ben. All the Iraqi kids were fine. But Ben Morton died. Soldiers cried that night.

The next day I stood where Ben died. He was killed the day after his first wedding anniversary. His beautiful bride Elaina was so heart-stricken that shortly thereafter she went to a deserted lake and wrote with a stick in the sand:

I love you SGT Ben Morton


Love Elaina

When I traveled to Kansas and stood where Elaina took her own life, I tried to fathom her pain. I visited Ben’s grandparents in Arizona and still correspond with them frequently, and I visited his fine parents in Wright, Kansas. I also visited Elaina’s wonderful parents near Kansas City. These are fine, fine people. Ben believed in the mission. He believed in America. But one of his final wishes was to be buried in his country clothes. He was considering making the Army a career, but he saw it as his job and his duty, and his reasoning was that a man should not be buried in his work clothes. When his casket arrived, Ben’s mother and bride changed him from his uniform into his country clothes, and he was buried in Wright, Kansas, where Elaina rests now by his side. They are together again. I visited their grave. We lost two fine Americans, and their parents lost their children, because our people are taught to control their fire.

In context: The signs were planted next to rock faces on a mountain. “Writing is Strictly Forbidden” means “no graffiti.”

We do not know if our Marines massacred those Iraqis. In war, things like this can and will sometimes happen, which is not to say it is acceptable. After almost four years of conflict, involving more than 100,000 military personnel, this clearly is not the norm or we would have heard about many such cases. But the difficulty of fighting a counterinsurgency mission in a shifting political environment is something about which our military leaders are mindful. Consider this important point raised in the recent memorandum that General Barry McCaffrey (ret) prepared for West Point summarizing his observations from his April 2006 assessment of Iraqi Freedom.

7th - We face a serious strategic dilemma. Are U.S. combat troops operating in a police action governed by the rule of Iraqi law? Or are they a Coalition Military Force supporting a counter-insurgency campaign in a nation with almost no functioning institutions? The situation must remain ambiguous until the Iraqi government is actually operating effectively. We currently have excellent rules of engagement (ROE) governing the use of lethal force. These rules are now morphing under the pressures of political sensitivity at tactical level. Many U.S. soldiers feel constrained not to use lethal force as the option of first instance against clearly identified and armed AIF terrorists—but instead follow essentially police procedures. Without question, we must clearly and dramatically rein in the use of lethal force—and zero out the collateral killing or wounding of innocent civilians trying to survive in this war zone. However, the tactical rules of engagement will need constant monitoring to maintain an appropriate balance.

All of these Marines have families back home whose lives will be impacted by this investigation. Eventually we will learn the truth, but until that time, justice is threatened by speculation. The media spotlight that will inevitably descend on this group of Marines and the November incident will be intense. The results of the investigation should be on the front page of every American newspaper no matter what the facts are, good or bad. Americans holding themselves accountable demands the attention of all citizens.

Yet, what the newspapers print, where it is placed and the length of days it runs as the lead story will be like those signs in Al Ain. To get the true context of how fairly any newspaper or media outlet is treating the military in general, and this war in particular, news consumers should consider how long it had been since that same source focused the same energy on the war. For some outlets, the last time the war really splashed was with Abu Ghraib. But if the reality of the war or the true nature of our military men and women were to be accurately represented in column inches, newspapers would be filled with the stories of Ben Morton, Walt Gaya, Brandon Huff, Sergeant Mesa, Mary Prophit, Tim Boggs, Mark Bieger, and Colonel Robert Brown, whose soldiers fought like hell for Mosul, and won. Amidst that kind of coverage, the Haditha story would find its true context.

Until the facts are released by the investigating authorities, we might benefit from a new sign:

Speculating is Strictly Forbidden—Violators Will be Fined



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