A war crime? Or a tragedy?

Military analysis.
Nov. 18 2004 1:28 PM

What the Marine Did

The shooting of an unarmed Iraqi was a tragedy. But was it a war crime?

(Continued from Page 1)

On the same day as this story, the tragic news broke that CARE International worker Margaret Hassan had been executed by her captors in Iraq. Already, there have been cries of moral equivalence. One Iraqi told the Los Angeles Times: "It goes to show that [Marines] are not any better than the so-called terrorists." Al Jazeera fanned these flames of anti-American sentiment by broadcasting the shooting incident in full while censoring Hassan's execution snuff tape. (U.S. networks refused to air actual footage of both killings.) There is a simplistic appeal to such arguments because both events involve the killing of a human being and, more specifically, the apparent execution of a noncombatant in the context of war.

Yet it is the differences between these two killings that reveal the most important truths about the Marine shooting in Fallujah. Hassan was, in every sense of the word, a noncombatant. She worked for more than 20 years to help Iraqis obtain basic necessities: food, running water, medical care, electricity, and education. The Iraqi insurgents kidnapped her and murdered her in order to terrorize the Iraqi population and the aid workers trying to help them.

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By contrast, the Marines entered a building in Fallujah and found several men who, until moments before, had been enemy insurgents engaged in mortal combat. A hidden grenade would have changed everything, and the Marine would have been lauded. As it turned out, the Iraqi was entitled to mercy, but Hassan was truly innocent. There is no legitimate moral equivalence between a soldier asking for quarter and a noncombatant like Hassan.

There is another key difference that reveals a great moral divide between the Marines and insurgents they fought this week in Fallujah. The insurgents choose the killing of innocents as their modus operandi and glorify these killings with videos distributed via the Internet and Al Jazeera. They recognize no civilized norms of conduct, let alone the rules of warfare. The Marines, on the other hand, distinguish themselves by killing innocents so rarely and only by exception or mistake. Collateral damage is part of warfare, and civilians will die no matter how many control measures are in place. Yet the U.S. military devotes a staggering amount of resources to ensuring that civilian deaths do not happen, from sophisticated command systems that control precision bombs to staffs of lawyers at every level of command to vet targeting decisions. And when such breaches do occur, as they apparently did on Saturday, U.S. military commanders act swiftly to punish the offender, lest one incident of indiscipline blossom into many. (Indeed, one Army captain currently faces charges for killing a wounded Iraqi after a firefight and pursuit through the streets of Baghdad.)

War may be hell, but no honorable warrior likes to spread the hell unnecessarily. Killing Hassan, regardless of any attenuated argument the insurgent apologists may make, was both unlawful and amoral—and beneath what any warrior would do. Killing the insurgent in a split second because it was instinctual, on the other hand, was a tragedy, not an atrocity.

Phillip Carter is a former Army officer who writes on legal and military affairs. Owen West, a trader for Goldman, Sachs, served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Marines.

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