WASHINGTON -- "Innocent until proven guilty" is a favorite, if sometimes ignored, American trope.
We are reminded of that once again with charges being dropped against two Marines in the so-called "Haditha Massacre" of November 2005. As well, we are reminded of the difficulty in applying civilian perceptions and standards to military conflict.
Those exonerated, Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt and Capt. Randy W. Stone, were among eight (seven Marines and one sailor) charged in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians after a roadside bomb had killed a Marine.
Sharratt, 21 at the time of the incident, was charged with three counts of unpremeditated murder and faced life imprisonment. Stone, a military attorney, was charged with two counts of dereliction of duty and one count of violating a lawful order for allegedly failing to properly investigate the killings.
Other Marines involved in the incident, including one charged with 13 counts of unpremeditated murder, are either awaiting hearings or dispensation of their cases.
Haditha is one of those wartime horror stories that rivets and divides nations. There's no question that Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed during what appears with hindsight -- and from the comfort of American living rooms -- to have been a gratuitous rampage.
Allegations also were made that the U.S. military tried to cover up the killings and mischaracterized them as collateral damage during the roadside bombing and ensuing skirmish, rather than as the result of a "shoot first, ask later" order.
From a civilian perspective, the case seemed clear-cut. How does one ever justify intentionally killing civilians? The answer is: We don't.
Americans struggle with the horror of civilian casualties, while insurgent and terrorist forces in Iraq devise ways to effect more, not fewer, civilian deaths. What we deplore -- and punish -- they celebrate. And replicate.
There is a difference, one that is both our strength and our weakness. Though some Americans, like other mortals, are capable of inhumanity, our national conscience compels us to examine the impulses that degrade our character and purpose.
Our attention to moral warfare -- always our goal, if not always met -- also nourishes our enemies, who suffer no such burden. They know that demoralization and flagging commitment tend to follow our moral introspection.
War does not become us.
We simply don't like killing as much as our enemies seem to, though you wouldn't know it to have read early reactions to Haditha. After Time magazine first reported the incident, sparking an investigation, other breathless stories followed that all but convicted the Marines of atrocities.
The perception of guilty-as-charged gained traction when former military men such as Rep. John Murtha, who served in the Marine Corps, said the Haditha Marines had killed civilians "in cold blood."
From video and photographs of unarmed families apparently killed at close range, it was easy to infer that we were witness to yet another My Lai-type massacre.
But did the Marines kill in cold blood? Or were they under fire from insurgents, some of whom hid among civilians in their homes, as the accused Marines claimed? Or were some guilty as charged and others not?
Those questions are being answered in part with the dropping of charges against Sharratt and Stone. Sharratt did kill three men, there's no dispute there. But he testified that he shot only after one of the men pointed a gun at him. Investigators apparently found his defense compelling.
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force who decided against court-martialing Sharratt and Stone, wrote Sharratt explaining his decision. Noting the difficulties in applying civilian standards to military circumstances, he quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served as an infantryman in the Civil War and described war as an "incommunicable experience."
Holmes also said that "detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife."
Mattis was most eloquent in describing the unique challenges in Iraq, posed by "a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians."
"As you well know, the challenges of this combat environment put extreme pressures on you and your fellow Marines," Mattis wrote. "Operational, moral, and legal imperatives demand that we Marines stay true to our own standards and maintain compliance with the law of war in this morally bruising environment."
Other Haditha investigations may yet lead to findings of guilt in some cases. Meanwhile, second-guessing how Marines should act under hostile fire before the facts are known is not only unfair, but dishonors the immense courage required to survive in the midst of such an incommunicable experience.