From My Lai to Haditha

June 10, 2008

Every Iraqi is considered a potential threat by the U.S. military, so every Iraqi is a potential target--that is the logic of occupation that leads inevitably to massacres and war crimes.

IN NOVEMBER 2005, U.S. soldiers went on a three-hour shooting spree in Haditha, just west of Baghdad. They attacked a taxi and shot the passengers, including women and children, at point-blank range, and they swept through homes. By the end of the assault, 24 people were dead.

Nine-year-old Eman Waleed described the scene as the Marines came to her family's house. "First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she told Time magazine, "and we heard shots." Then they entered the living room. "I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head," Eman said. "Then they killed my granny."

The adults tried to shield the children and were killed while doing so. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much," said Eman. "Afterward, some Iraqi soldiers came. They carried us in their arms. I was crying, shouting, 'Why did you do this to our family?' And one Iraqi soldier tells me, 'We didn't do it. The Americans did.'"

Two-and-a-half years after this horror, Lt. Andrew Grayson became the sixth U.S. soldier cleared of any wrongdoing at Haditha; he was found not guilty of all charges last week by a military court. Not a single solider has pled guilty or been convicted on any charge related to the rampage.

An Iraqi woman and her children in the district of Hor Rejab in southwestern Baghdad
Every Iraqi is viewed as a potential threat by the U.S. military

When they are uncovered, incidents like Haditha are painted by the military, the government and the media as aberrations in an otherwise benevolent occupation. The individual soldiers responsible for the violence, we're assured, will be punished.

They almost never are. In reality, the military has an interest in seeing its soldiers go unpunished--both because massacres like Haditha are far more regular occurrences than the Pentagon ever acknowledges, and because the crimes go all the way up the chain of command. When war crimes like Haditha see the light of day, the myth of U.S. "success" in Iraq is exposed, as is the real face of occupation.

That's why the military did its best to keep a lid on Haditha. In the days after the massacre, the Marines issued a press release saying that one American, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, and 10 Iraqi civilians had been killed as the result of a roadside bombing and a firefight with insurgents.

An investigation by Time magazine revealed that the civilians were shot after Terrazas was killed by the bomb. Military officials say the soldiers were scouring the area looking for those responsible for the bombing, but the events look more like retribution, plain and simple.

What else to read

For a valuable source of information and analysis on the war in Iraq, see Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment.

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, to be published later this year by Haymarket Books, provides a thorough analysis of the real roots of the violence.

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, published in an updated paperback edition with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

IN THE military, soldiers are trained to fear and despise the people under occupation.

Some soldiers see the contradictions of the situation and conclude that their training is a lie. They may even find ways to challenge the lies--overtly, by resisting and speaking out, or covertly, by doing their best to stay clear of combat.

But while some soldiers reach these conclusions, others do not.

In March 1968, U.S. forces came to the village of My Lai and murdered more than 400 elderly men, women and children, including babies, over four hours' time. Dozens of soldiers took part in the slaughter, but only one man, Lt. William Calley, was found guilty--and he was released from custody after just three years.

Calley's initial psychiatric report revealed that he didn't think he was killing people that day at My Lai, but "rather that they were animals with whom one could not speak or reason," according to an Army psychiatrist.

Racism is a key component in the military's indoctrination of soldiers to turn human beings into killing machines.

"As soon as I hit boot camp in Fort Jackson, N.C., they tried to change your total personality," recalled Vietnam veteran Haywood Kirkland in the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. "Right away, they told us not to call them Vietnamese. Call everybody gook, dinks...They told us they're not to be treated with any type of mercy or apprehension. That's what they engraved in you. The killer instinct. Just go away and do destruction."

The same applies to Iraq. During the Winter Soldier event in Washington, D.C., in March, Geoff Millard, a former Army National Guardsman who spent 13 months in Iraq, testified, "Everything that wasn't us, became 'hajis'"--citing an Arabic term of respect for people who have made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, but that is used by the U.S. military to denigrate Arabs and Muslims.

Millard said the racism reached the highest levels. He described a shooting in which "a young private made a split-second decision, and put more than 200 rounds into a car" containing an Iraqi family. Millard said he heard a general, after being briefed on the incident, tell a room full of soldiers, "If these fucking 'hajis' learn to drive, this shit wouldn't happen."

Ultimately, the U.S. government's determination to control Iraq and its oil was the driving force behind the actions of the soldiers in Haditha. The command, inside and outside the military, should be held responsible.

Every Iraqi is considered a potential threat by the U.S. military, so every Iraqi is a potential target of U.S. attack--and thus, as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq, massacres like Haditha will continue to take place.

This is the logic of occupation. As Chris Hedges wrote in Asia Times:

The failure in Iraq is the same failure that bedeviled the French in Algeria; the United States in Vietnam; and the British, who for 800 years beat, imprisoned, transported, shot and hanged hundreds of thousands of Irish patriots.

Occupation, in each case, turned the occupiers into beasts and fed the insurrection. It created patterns where innocents, as in Iraq, were terrorized and killed. The campaign against a mostly invisible enemy, many veterans said, has given rise to a culture of terror and hatred among U.S. forces, many of whom, losing ground, have in effect declared war on all Iraqis.

MANY PEOPLE who oppose the U.S. war on Iraq hope the end is in sight, with the potential of a Democrat taking over the White House next year.

Now that the Democratic presidential nomination is settled, it may seem like common sense to believe there's a world of difference between John McCain and Barack Obama. But when you look at Obama's actual positions on Iraq and U.S. foreign policy, there's far less reason to hope for far-reaching change.

For all his rhetoric about withdrawing from Iraq--aimed at the majority of people who want the war to end--his "sensible" policy is a promise that he won't take the chance of getting out too soon. And Obama is also eager to take the fight against "terror" to the rest of the Middle East--to Iran, for example, as Obama's speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee made plain.

Rather than a fresh perspective on foreign policy, Obama would bring to the White House decades of a Democratic Party tradition--presiding over wars and occupations for more than a century. Every Democratic president has put the highest priority on protecting and expanding U.S. power in the world, and a President Obama wouldn't be any different.

That's why opposition to the occupation has to be built from the ground up--and without letting up on the pressure, no matter who's in the White House.

Further Reading

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