Chris Hitchens: Haditha is not My Lai

Hitchens always has an interesting perspective on issues related directly to the Iraq war as part of the overall global war on terror, and his latest piece is no exception:

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.


It’s not amusing to see fascist killers hiding behind human shields and then releasing obscene videos of the work that they do. Nor is it rewarding to clean up the remains of a comrade who has been charred and shredded by a roadside bomb. To be taunted while doing so must be unbearable. The humane George Orwell, writing of his life as a colonial policeman in Burma in Shooting an Elephant, told his readers that there were days when “I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” But he did not, in fact, succumb to this temptation. And the British were unwanted colonial occupiers in Burma, while the coalition forces are—until further notice—the guests of Iraq’s first-ever elected government and the executors of a U.N.-mandated plan for the salvage and reconstruction of the country.

There is no respectable way of having this both ways. Those who say that the rioters in Baghdad in the early days should have been put down more forcefully are accepting the chance that a mob might have had to be fired on to protect the National Museum. Those who now wish there had been more troops are also demanding that there should have been more targets and thus more body bags. The lawyers at Centcom who refused to give permission to strike Mullah Omar’s fleeing convoy in Afghanistan—lest it by any chance be the wrong convoy of SUVs speeding from Kabul to Kandahar under cover of night—are partly responsible for the deaths of dozens of Afghan teachers and international aid workers who have since been murdered by those who were allowed to get away. If Iraq had been stuffed with WMD warehouses and stiff with al-Qaida training camps, there would still have been an Abu Ghraib. Only pacifists—not those who compare the Iraqi killers to the Minutemen—have the right to object to every casualty of war. And if the pacifists had been heeded, then Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein would all still be in power—hardly a humanitarian outcome. People like to go on about the “fog” of war as well as the “hell” of it. Hell it most certainly is—but not always so foggy. Indeed, many of the dilemmas posed by combat can be highly clarifying, once the tone of righteous sententiousness is dropped.

Sounds like a Jacksonian, doesn’t he?

Make sure to read the whole Hitchens article. I’m interested in reading your thoughts on it.

Hat tip: James Joyner

Sidenote: Hitchens will be involved in another debate on terror-related issues on June 15th in New York City. Click here to find out all the particulars (look on the right side of the blog).


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