Christopher Hitchens: Why Haditha isn't My Lai.

Roundup: Media's Take

Unjust though the assumption may prove to be, let us imagine that the Marines of Kilo Company did indeed crack up and cut loose in Haditha that day. Something like this has certainly been waiting to happen. I wrote in this space almost a year ago about a warning delivered to the U.S. commanders in Iraq by their British counterpart Gen. Michael Jackson. He told them that their "zero tolerance" force-protection measures, which allow for the use of deadly fire if anyone comes too close, ran a serious risk of losing Iraq. (Recent clumsy skirmishes in Kabul, though they do not involve any allegation of deliberate murder, make the same point in a different way.)

It's thus a bit harder than one might like to argue that a Haditha-type incident would have been an "isolated" one. The combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is overwhelmingly political, and there is no soldier who doesn't know that it's imperative for this reason—to say nothing of any moral objections—to use his or her firepower with exact discrimination. If this principle is not being meticulously observed, then it means that there is a rupture in training and discipline, which would be a serious enough story in its own right.

However, all the glib talk about My Lai is so much propaganda and hot air. In Vietnam, the rules of engagement were such as to make an atrocity—the slaughter of the My Lai villagers took almost a day rather than a white-hot few minutes—overwhelmingly probable. The ghastliness was only stopped by a brave officer who prepared his chopper-gunner to fire. In those days there were no precision-guided missiles, but there were "free-fire zones," and "body counts," and other virtual incitements to psycho officers such as Capt. Medina and Lt. Calley. As a consequence, a training film about My Lai—"if anything like this happens, you have really, truly screwed up"—has been in use for U.S. soldiers for some time.

The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples' army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us. These depraved elements are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge. They have two methods of warfare. One is the use of random murder to create a sectarian and ethnic civil war—perhaps the most evil combination of tactics and strategy it is possible to imagine. The other is the attempt to alienate coalition soldiers from the population. ...

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