The case of the Marine shooting in Fallujah pits a young warrior in the clutch of terror and nanosecond judgment against the Monday-morning quarterbacking of theoretical second-guessers. War truly is hell.
At issue is whether the shooting of a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent by a young Marine during the siege of Fallujah qualifies as a war crime. On the surface, shooting anyone who is unarmed seems to fit the definition of a war crime.
But if judging a domestic shooting is nuanced and complex, requiring careful analysis of circumstances and intent, surely a wartime shooting is a Byzantine calculation that can't be judged by usual standards.
Strident voices on all sides - from the Arab world to Amnesty International - don't help matters. The Al-Jazeera network repeatedly has aired video of the shooting, prompting responses like this one from an angry Iraqi: "When I saw the video, I wished I had a stronger gun and (could) spray that soldier with 100 bullets in his head."
From Amnesty International we hear charges of potential war crimes as well as an indictment of military leaders who perhaps didn't teach their young well enough. AI spokesman Alistair Hodgett said he was especially concerned with past comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling the war on terror suspects "killers" and "the worst of the worst."
Forgive me if I beg to agree with Rumsfeld on this point. We've seen enough by now to recognize that insurgents are killers, often of civilians, and barbaric enough in their executions to qualify among "the worst."
The question in this case, as explained to me by a military lawyer, is whether the Marine's actions were "reasonable" under the circumstances. Ironically, film of the incident by an embedded cameraman working for NBC may provide the key to the Marine's exculpation even as it raises new concerns about the distorting power of the media.
As captured on film, the Marine in question and others came upon five insurgents lying inside a mosque. Three of the men were severely wounded; one was apparently dead; a fifth was lying under a blanket. When the Marine under investigation noticed the fifth insurgent breathing, he started yelling:
"He's (expletive) faking he's dead. He's faking he's (expletive) dead." Then he shot him. Note to the children: This is an appropriate use of profanity.
We now know the man was unarmed, though he might have been hiding a weapon under the blanket. We don't know whether he was faking being dead, though one could argue that pretending to be dead in order not to be killed is a reasonable reaction when U.S. Marines have just shot your companions.
What we do know is that Iraqi insurgents frequently fake death, booby-trap dead bodies and perform other ruses that have resulted in many GI deaths. In the context of that knowledge, is it possible that the young Marine acted reasonably? That he was acting in self-defense?
To those of us who can't imagine combat, the notion that war has rules seems odd. All is fair in love and war, right? But indeed there are strict rules of war as outlined by the Hague Convention, which governs the means and methods of warfare, including permissible tricks and ruses.
Among those rules: Don't fake surrender, and don't fake dead or wounded to gain an advantage and kill the enemy.
Meanwhile, at the same time the incident inside the mosque was taking place, a U.S. Marine was killed and five others wounded when the booby-trapped body of a dead insurgent blew up.
Insurgents and terrorists don't play by anyone's rules but their own. They're not held to the same standards, as the Hague Convention applies only to state actors. Technically, I'm told, the United States doesn't have to adhere to the conventions when fighting non-state actors such as terrorists either, but we do "because it's the right thing to do."
The Marine who fired the killing shot, ending the life of a man we now know to have been alive, unarmed and - at least in that instant - no threat, was a kid who obviously did know the rules and was attempting to balance that knowledge against his fear of being killed.
He himself had been shot in the face the day before but was back in the fray. By his words we can conclude that his mind was racing. His rapid-fire thoughts most likely went something like this: The man is faking; he intends to shoot me; if I don't shoot him, I will die.
His decision under those circumstances seems reasonable to me. The gravest concern, however, is that the Marine risked his life to voice his rationale, possibly aware he was being filmed and had to justify his actions for the media.