What Happened in Haditha?

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: May 27, 2006 6:07 AM

Something very bad happened in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005. One Marine and 24 Iraqis died in the wake of a roadside bombing, which hit a Marine convoy. Fifteen of the 24 casualties were civilians, some women and children. Was it the fog of war? Were the civilians "collateral damage?" Or was it a deliberate massacre?

We don't know. The investigation is ongoing and no Marine has yet been charged.

But you'd have trouble discerning that from reading press coverage of the incident. Time originally reported the incident in March, under the headline "Collateral Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?"

Earlier this month, Congressman and retired Marine John Murtha announced at a press conference that U.S. Marines had killed innocent civilians "in cold blood," referring to the incident in Haditha. The press conference was a political event held to mark the 6-month anniversary of Murtha's high-profile political failure of 2005-- his call for cutting and running in Iraq.

Because Murtha decided to convict his brother Marines before their trial, the press got the soundbite it needed to do the same. The headlines largely dispensed with the question posed in the original Time piece. Today, the phrase "in cold blood" brings up 1,450 Google News hits. It's been the headline of the month.

The Haditha story picked up pace this week as Pentagon sources close to the investigation started leaking word that there may be murder charges in the case. The Marine Commandant's trip to Iraq has also piqued interest.

The Post has been unable to get anyone from the Pentagon on the record on the investigation, using mostly anonymous sources. The one man they did get on the record on Friday was retired Brig. Gen. David H. Brahms, a long-time lawyer with the Marine Corps who has experience with these types of cases. His quote is in the third paragraph. See if you can guess why the prominent first-quote placement:

"When these investigations come out, there's going to be a firestorm," said retired Brig. Gen. David M. Brahms, formerly a top lawyer for the Marine Corps. "It will be worse than Abu Ghraib -- nobody was killed at Abu Ghraib."
I have a feeling someone was lying in wait for an Abu Ghraib reference. I read the quote and was taken aback because I spoke to the same Brig. Gen. David M. Brahms about the case this week, and his sentiments were very different from those presented in the Post. Which explains why he sent me this statement yesterday:
"Recent reporting on the events in Haditha, Iraq have included significant factual errors and/or misleading statements. This includes a quote attributed to me in the Washington Post this morning that was taken completely out of context and its meaning distorted. Many facts that are favorable to the Marines involved have not yet been disclosed."

When Brahms and I spoke, he made it clear that his concern is that the Marine Corps do a thorough investigation and punish severely those who did wrong, if in fact it is found that they did. He feels confident that will happen. His other concern is that the Marines involved get a fair trial in a highly politicized environment:

"The worst thing that can happen in a case of this kind is to have it politicized...that's exactly what has happened here. They're leaking a story which is yet unwritten."

"It's not normal to have a Member of Congress to decide to have hearings, at least while this whole business is in flux."

"I think there has been (a rush to judgement)...This has got to impact the fairness of the procedure."

"We'll get more precise information. Let's kind of step back, let's try to realize that there's another side of this story...People accused may be guys like my son and your brothers."

"The problem is, of course, that everybody's got a political agenda...in the middle are a group of American Marines."

Those quotes are all taken from a phone interview I did with Brahms this week.

Brahms confirmed what press reports have said, that charges in two investigations-- an NCIS investigation of the incident itself and an Army investigation of whether there was a cover-up of the incident-- are likely to come in mid- to late-June or July, with military justice proceedings in August.

Brahms did mention Abu Ghraib during our conversation. He's hoping Haditha does not turn out to be a similar black mark on the American military and the war effort in Iraq. He's also hoping press coverage won't make Haditha a black mark even before the investigations are complete.

If indeed Marines acted out of line, they will be punished, he said, and he's confident the Corps will be circumspect in its investigations. Three commanders were sacked in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Folks on the anti-war Left are crowing that Friday's leaks mean "Murtha was right," as Oliver Willis put it.

Well, no. Murtha said Marines murdered civilians in cold blood. The leaks say Marines may be charged with murder in the case. We've got charges and a trial to go before Murtha can be right.

It's an important process, during which much more truth will be revealed about this incident than can come out through leaks.

If Marines did murder civilians without regard, then Haditha is a name that will rightly forever bear the same kind of shame for the American people and the American military as My Lai. But conferring My Lai status upon this Iraqi town before the truth is out is irresponsible.

It is Memorial Day Weekend. Our men in uniform certainly deserve the presumption of innocence and a little patience from us, no matter our positions on the war.