Whatever the outcome of the Haditha investigation, the core values of the military will survive. In fact, they will almost surely emerge ingrained even deeper in all of us. The mere existence of these kinds of allegations only underscores the obligation the rest of us have to conduct ourselves in battle in a way that is beyond reproach.
Throughout my deployment in Iraq, I literally wore the Army values around my neck. They were pressed into metal, like dog tags: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Self-Observance, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. In my pocket, I always carried a copy of the Rules of Engagement (ROE). Both were issued by the Army, and both were required to be on us at all times. In fact, I was often spot-checked to make sure my ROE was in my pocket, and then often quizzed on how I would handle certain situations.
Leading up to my deployment, the Army trained me for what it thought I would experience. I received ROE training, learning how to respond and handle myself and how to react to an IED among other things. We trained like we would fight.
Whatever happened in Haditha, the stories now in the media highlight the psychological pressures our troops face. I know from personal experience that Iraq is a foggy combat environment. There is no way to prepare for actual combat. That's like trying to prepare an astronaut for the experience of being on the moon. You bridge that gap when you get there.
It is also hard to separate friend from foe, civilian from enemy. The insurgents are smart, and one of their most effective tactics is to blend in with the civilian population. They use innocent men, women and children as cover, and they are very good at it. They don't care about the loss of civilian life if they have the chance to kill an American.
Soldiers must make instant decisions in high-pressure, high-risk situations with limited information, personal experience and intuition. The benefit of the doubt always goes to avoiding bloodshed. Deciding when to shoot and when to wait is a deadly choice.
Nearly every soldier in Iraq will face moments when he or she risks his life by not firing his weapon. Sometimes the gamble is wise, and a civilian life is saved. Sometimes the soldier pays the price for his caution with his life. And tragically but inevitably, sometimes a soldier will choose to take action when the perception of threat is greater than the actual threat.
The alleged events at Haditha take that a step further. Constant frustration and fear takes a toll on the soldier. But the virtues we carry in our minds and literally around our necks are always at the fore. Soldiers are first and foremost human beings with the same feelings and concerns as civilians.
As a soldier, I am outraged by the alleged events of Haditha. This is not the military I know. I hope the public does not indict the military as a whole. If the worst case is true, these are actions by a few people who did wrong and who disgrace the uniform.
If the Rules of Engagement were violated at Haditha and if crimes were committed, those responsible should be punished severely.