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Haditha Incident an Aberration
Military.com  |  By David Axe  |  May 31, 2006

The Marines who reportedly killed as many as two dozen Iraqi civilians following a fatal attack on their unit in November are an "aberration" and do not represent the Corps or the U.S. military, according to current and former Marines. Senior officers in the Marine Corps training establishment say that the service's training and doctrine emphasize peaceful cooperation with foreign civilians and strict adherence to rule of engagement meant to protect innocent lives.

"The majority of the America military does what they need to do and they do it honorably and professionally," said Steve Smithson, a former Marine infantryman who served in Kuwait in 1991. Today Smithson is an officer at the American Legion, a national veterans' organization. "Things like this happen from time to time," Smithson added, referring to massacres such as that at My Lai during the Vietnam War and at No Gun Ri in Korea. "But right now, [regarding Haditha,] they're allegations and they need to be investigated. If they're true, the Marine Corps will take the proper action and make sure these people are punished."

"They don't represent the Marine Corps [if guilty]," Smithson said of the accused service members.

The Marine Corps has launched an investigation of the Haditha allegations. Calls to Central Command seeking comment on the investigation were not returned at this writing.

"In a counter-insurgency, you don't have a clear delineation of boundaries [between civilians and combatants], so the rules of engagement and the escalation of force a Marine needs to take ... we're emphasizing those more," said Lt. Col. Tracy Tafolla, head of Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Branch, U.S. Marine Corps Training and Education Command.

With three years of combat in xenophobic Afghanistan and crowded, restive Iraq under its belt, the Corps is stressing more than ever peaceful cooperation with the peoples of occupied countries, according to Tafolla.

"One of our most important lessons is [regarding] cultural training. We've incorporated [cultural] training across our training continuum. Marines are receiving that all the way from the School of Infantry to service-level exercises. ... We try to make sure we treat Iraqis fairly and with respect. We don't want to do anything to disrespect those who might be friendly to us. You must understand who you're dealing with, what are their ways. You keep those who are friendly, friendly."

"How to get along with the civilian population is at the core of [our cultural training]," said Maj. Gen. Keith Stalder, chief of Training and Education Command. "Marines get enough language training to be conversational, to be polite, sensitive and in fact to operate in a more coherent way in an insurgency environment. We stress the cultural interaction."

"Combat is very fluid, so you're not going to be able to anticipate every scenario that will come up," Smithson said. "But Marines are trained in rules of engagement and how to deal with crowds. Especially now, they're getting a lot of training in dealing with civilian populaces that in past wars we didn't have to deal with. Rules of engagement are hammered home on a daily basis."

"All U.S. military service members, Marines included, are trained to follow the specific requirements of the laws of war as well as the Uniform Code of Military Justice [the internal laws of the U.S. military]," said Baker Spring, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation. "If soldiers [or Marines] are acting inconsistently with these requirements, there's no doubt the military will take disciplinary action."

But the Haditha Marines are innocent until found guilty in court, Spring added. "It's always wrong to prejudge the outcome of this procedure."

"I know something about rushing to judgment," former Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano wrote in Saturday's The Washington Post. In 2005, Pantano was tried in a military court for allegedly murdering two Iraqi men during combat operations in Mahmudiyah in 2004. "My wife and mother sat in a Camp Lejeune courtroom for five days while prosecutors painted me as a monster; then autopsy evidence blew their case out of the water, and the Marine Corps dropped all charges against me."

"This thing needs to be fully investigated," Smithson said. "To prejudge beforehand is a great disservice to everybody involved."

"It could hurt our troops fighting in Iraq [by bolstering Iraqi resistance]," Smithson continued. "It could undermine what we're trying to do [in Iraq]. We need to focus on a lot of the good that we are doing and put an incident like this in context. It's an aberration."

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