On November 19, Marines from Kilo Co., 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines were patrolling the town of Haditha in western Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded. Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, was killed.
"Everybody agrees agrees that this was the triggering event," lawyer Paul Hackett told The Washington Post. "The question is, what happened afterward?"
The Marine Corps reported that one Marine and 15 civilians were killed in the bombing. The Post and The New York Times quote witnesses saying that only Terrazas died in the bombing, and that enraged Marines stormed several houses and killed as many as two dozen innocent Iraqi civilians in retaliation. Sen. John Warner (R-Vir.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which is investigating the incident, insists there was no cover-up.
I don't know what happened in Haditha that day. But I do know this: the U.S. Marine Corps trains its people to respect rules of engagement and to protect innocent lives on the battlefield.
"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," Lt. Col. Tracy Tafolla, head of Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Branch, U.S. Marine Corps Training and Education Command, told me recently. He continued:
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, to the point where we have Arabic-speakers as role-players [in exercises], giving us good feedback. The role-players responses to the Marines and their actions -- that is something that we've tried to make sure our Marines understand. Something we as Marines don't think twice about may be an offense to people over there [in Iraq]. 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.
There has been no resistance to the training. As a matter of fact, the information we get back [from Marines] is good. If we're missing the mark, its critical that the Marines tell us what we need to do. Across the board, Marines are glad to get the training.
Maj. Gen. Keith Stalder, chief of Training and Education Command chimed in too:
How to get along with the civilian population is at the core of [our cultural training]. 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. We use what we call vignettes where we challenge units to react properly given a very very challenging problem.
Consider Haditha the most challenging problem ever. You've just been blown up. Your buddy is dead. You're angry. You feel vulnerable. You have great power at the end of your trigger finger, power to lash out, punish someone -- anyone -- for the pain you've suffered.
What do you do?
What do you do?
These Haditha allegations have the potential to cause great harm to the U.S. war effort and to the U.S. Marine Corps. We should not shrug from the truth. Nor should we forget that a few bad Marines do not represent the entire Marine Corps or the entire U.S. military.