A major story of 2007 was the progressive unraveling of the case against the seven Marines and one Navy corpsman charged in connection with the Nov. 19, 2005, killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha during a day of intense action. To date, charges against four of the men have been dismissed altogether. Two men have been ordered to a court martial. Two cases are pending.
What a difference a year has made since charges came down at the end of 2006. The New York Times in October mourned -- I mean, noted -- the shift: "Last year, when accounts of the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha by a group of Marines came to light, it seemed that the Iraq war had produced its defining atrocity, just as the conflict in Vietnam had spawned the My Lai massacre a generation ago."
No "defining atrocity"? Gee, that's too bad. The Times went on to lament that the presiding military investigator recommended that murder charges against the ranking enlisted Marine, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, be dropped. And this, the newspaper bellyached, "may well have ended prosecutors' chances of winning any murder convictions in the killings."
No murder convictions? Well, boo -- the heck -- hoo.
This isn't to suggest that the four remaining Marines facing legal proceedings are in the clear. Quite the contrary. Consider the two cases going to military court. The court martial of Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, charged with aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, is scheduled for March 28. He could face up to 19 years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and loss of retirement benefits. The court martial of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, charged with failing to properly report and investigate a possible "law of war" violation, is scheduled for April 28. He could face more than two years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and loss of retirement benefits.
Having survived their war in Iraq, the lives of these American soldiers remain very much in jeopardy. But the most sensational charges against them have fallen apart. Who can forget the March 19, 2006, Time magazine story by Tim McGirk entitled "Collateral Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?" The story answered its own question by describing a vengeful, Marine "rampage."
On May 17, 2006, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., piled on to say what happened at Haditha was actually "much worse" than the Time story. Official investigations were still underway, but the ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee repeatedly condemned the Marines for having "killed innocent civilians in cold blood."
As if to underscore the point, on May 25, 2006, then-commandant of the Marine Corps Michael Hagee announced he would embark on a grand tour of Marine bases to "reinforce standards and core values." This didn't exactly come off as a vote of confidence in his men.
As 2008 begins, Haditha hysteria still blights the lives of all the men who were implicated, not just the soldiers remaining in legal limbo. But what about the accusers who trumpeted the worst of the charges? Are they accountable for tarnished reputations? Terminated careers? Legal bills? Outrage? Night sweats?
Dream on. McGirk has moved on to a plummy new assignment as Time Jerusalem bureau chief, even as Time has moved away from signal points in the initial report. Via subsequent "corrections," Time asserted that the identity of a key source was grossly misrepresented, and admitted that allegations about a photograph reported as "one of the most damning pieces of evidence investigators have" was based on information from a source who later said "he had no firsthand knowledge" of it.
Murtha refuses to comment on the matter publicly or otherwise; as a defendant in a civil libel suit filed by Staff Sgt. Wuterich, he's appealing a federal court order to be interviewed by Staff Sgt. Wuterich's attorneys.
Hagee, whom Murtha has ID'ed as his source (Hagee denies this), has retired.
End of story? Not necessarily. The week before Christmas, the North County Times of San Diego reported that lawyers for Tatum have asked the military court to order Murtha to submit to interviews about his comments. They also "want to force an interview with retired Marine Corps Commandant Michael Hagee about what Hagee may have said to Murtha or others about the Haditha killings."
The judge has yet to rule on this matter, but I, for one, hope he orders up the interviews. What is said may reveal that the Iraq war has indeed produced its "defining atrocity" -- against our own Marines.