Opinion: Haditha Tests The US

What happened in Haditha last November is as much a test of the American people as a whole as it is a test of the Marine Corps and the military community. How we, the majority of civilians react, will have a profound impact on the way the war in Iraq is waged from this time onward.

As a retired Marine I will not rush to judgment about the individual culpability of those directly implicated in the unfolding events. However, as this event is investigated, and those responsible are prosecuted, more gruesome details are likely to unfold and some people will be seen to be more responsible than others.

Murder and cover-up can never be condoned. Those responsible must be judged and, if guilty, punished. As a Marine General I served with used to say, "The American people can be very understanding of human frailties and individual mistakes. However, they are very reluctant to forgive institutional cover-up."

When all the investigations are complete, it is likely there will be little agreement about what happened, why it happened and what action should be taken. It is unlikely there ever will be a single, clear picture of what happened in Haditha. Events will be distorted, filtered, forgotten and glossed to suit individual perceptions and ambitions.

Onlookers, pundits and commentators, especially those with political agendas, are already using this event to characterize and justify their points of view, honing the message they are promulgating by the details they choose to use. Some will excoriate the men in the squad; some will use this event to condemn the entire military community; some will use it to attack or defend the Administration and one political party or the other.

What we must not overlook is the hard fact that the purpose of the military is to deliver controlled violence - to amass overwhelming force and to crush an opponent. 21st Century technology has distanced warriors from the violence they deliver, whether in an airplane at 30,000 feet above the battlefield or at an artillery weapon many miles from where the shells impact.

Urban guerrilla warfare by an occupying force is different. In urban warfare you are rarely separated from the enemy by as much as 40 yards, and the closer your enemy, the faster a threat materializes and the faster you must react to survive. Urban warfare is the most difficult, deadly and grinding assignment a military fighting force can face. There is no way to describe the constant level of intense alertness, punctuated by minutes of adrenalin-fed fury, accompanied by stark terror.

Troops in an urban warfare environment get ground down very quickly. As the facts have unfolded we have learned about the men involved in this incident. These troops were from Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment, one of the best battalions in the Marine Corps, and one that has been in the thick of the fighting over the last three years. It is likely that many of the men have served multiple rotations in Iraq.

Without proper time-out from the fighting, after long exposure to violence, when men become fatalists about their chances of survival, the line between killing and murder can begin to blur. The military is right to remind our forces of their obligations as civilized people, but warning alone will not be enough. Millions of years of evolution have bred humans to protect their lives at all costs. Threats of maybe being punished are ineffective if someone believes he or she will certainly perish unless extreme measures are taken.

Whatever unfolds from this time forward, an enormous tragedy has already occurred – for the people who were killed and their families; for the men in the squad accused of committing the murders; for the men who cleaned up after the scene; for the Marine Corps, the military and our nation.

When crimes are verified, some will be brought to trial. Some will be found guilty and some sentenced to prison terms. Let us hope that the investigators take their inquiries as high as the evidence leads them, even if it is to the highest levels of leadership.

Our enemies will use this event to indict all America. We have yet to hear the anti-American cries from our detractors in the Moslem world and this in itself is troubling. One theory says that the Moslem world already assumes that this event is not an aberration, but typical of how our forces behave. As photographs of the event and its aftermath become available, and as it becomes obvious that women and children were among the victims, this event has the potential to be used as a worldwide rallying point against the U.S.

It is truer today than ever that the reality of war isn't represented by how politicians sanitize it. War is a hard, dirty, thankless, life-altering experience, and those who forget that truth either become or cause others to become casualties. Our job, as Americans, is to dispassionately examine our individual and communal responsibility for what happened in Haditha, and to come to grips with how to prevent it happening again.