"What we have here is (a) failure to communicate."
That famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman classic, "Cool Hand Luke," might well apply to Iraq today, and specifically, to Haditha, where U.S. Marines are alleged to have massacred innocent Iraqi civilians last November.
Not only do we not know what happened in Haditha, but we've failed to communicate effectively to the rest of the world what we do know: that our Marines always deserve the benefit of the doubt. And that if something did go terribly wrong in Haditha, it was a rare exception to the rule.
Instead of launching an aggressive PR campaign to debunk the growing impression that such incidents, if true, are par for American forces, we get a presumption of guilt and an ethics course to fix a problem that isn't a problem. The failure to communicate responsibly and strategically in this case, coupled with the rush to judgment in the international court of public opinion, has hurt not only the Marines under investigation, but also all our military men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The drill is too familiar by now. The action begins with someone (apparently anyone will do) making an accusation; next come the cameras and the media saturation; and, Voila: we have a conviction before we have a formal charge. Whether the alleged perpetrators are prison guards at Abu Ghraib, lacrosse players at Duke University or Marines in Haditha, we are predisposed to assume guilt.
In Iraq, we might add to our failure to communicate a failure of confidence in ourselves and of faith in our own. Given that Haditha is dense with insurgents whose tactics do not come from the Marine Corps playbook, is it possible that they, not we, killed the civilians, or that they used them as human shields? Killing civilians, after all, is the rule among those who seek to drive the U.S. from Iraq.
Is it also possible that some of our Marines lost control and did the worst? Of course. Prolonged exposure to combat takes a toll on the human psyche. In 1946, following a study of World War II veterans, John W. Apple and Gilbert W. Beebe wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association:
"Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare."
Even so, today's Marines are as well trained and disciplined as any fighting force in human history. What is alleged to have happened simply doesn't jibe with what we know about the Corps in general and about Haditha in particular.