Friday, May 26, 2006

Haditha Incident

Too soon for a judgment on the Marines in Haditha story, but it looks like criminal charges are coming.

Even though it's too soon to say much, it won't be too soon for the anti blogs to curse the "silence" of the pro-Iraq invasion blogs. So let's break the silence.

In every war, however justified, however necessary, certain things are going to happen: Men who deserve to live are going to go to war and die and be maimed and go mad. Men who don't deserve anything are going to stay home and get rich and get the girls. Bombs will miss their targets. Civilians are going to die horribly, even though no one intended that. Women and children will suffer most. Some of our soldiers will die by friendly fire.

If you don't accept this, be a pacifist. If you only want to fight perfect wars, first you have to invent perfect warfare.

And in any war that lasts long enough -- which is probably "longer than two weeks" -- the warrior code is going to fall apart in some men and they will cross the line between soldiers and killers. The measure of a society and a nation is whether it punishes that to the full extent, or whether it accepts it. We are enduring such a trial now.

I've said all this before. It doesn't mean I like it or that it doesn't gall me. This is from February 5, 2004, in reaction to an earlier allegation of civilian abuse, in Samarra:

In Greek histories, Spartan mothers sent their sons to war with the commandment, "Come back with your shield, or on it."

Spartan mothers loved their babies, too -- they did not want to see dead bodies of their son brought back, as was the custom, sprawled on their shields. But if a warrior returned alive and unarmed it meant he had broken ranks and run. It meant he had thrown away the shield that protected -- not his own life, but, in the old method of fighting in phalanxes, the life of the man next to him. He had broken faith with his comrades; he had forgotten his warrior's code.

They wanted their sons back alive, but whole in spirit as well as body. They wanted them with honor intact. Everyone today who loves a soldier, sailor or Marine understand this. We want them alive, we want them victorious -- and we want them to have lives worth living when their battles are over.

Which is why we have to watch carefully, on many levels, the daily unfolding in Iraq. Roadside bombings and terrorist massacres make headlines, but incidents that miss the headlines can cut deeper.

... Modern armies sweep into their ranks hundreds of thousands of people. Not all are fit to be soldiers. Those who are not, when discovered, should be weeded out and sent home, and if they have committed crimes in the meanwhile they should be punished for them.

But this is not a matter of good soldiers and bad apples. Certain kinds of combat, or duty, wear down the military codes of honor. The warrior's code frays, then the seams fall apart. Then horrible things begin to happen.

Warrior codes, whether in Sparta or in West Point, distinguish soldiers from murderers. Warriors have rules that govern when and how they kill. Learning them is part of the purpose of military training. We give soldiers the power to take lives, but only certain lives, in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons.

The purpose of a code "is to restrain warriors, for their own good as much as for the good of others," writes Shannon E. French, an assistant professor of philosophy and author of "The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present." "The essential element of a warrior's code is that it must set definite limits on what warriors can and cannot do if they want to continue to be regarded as warriors, not murderers or cowards. For the warrior who has such a code, certain actions remain unthinkable, even in the most dire or extreme circumstances."

Yet the danger of crossing that thin, sharp line that separates warriors from murderers is greatest in exactly the kind of conflict Americans face in Iraq: war not among great powers, evenly matched, but of well-equipped armies pitted against weak but merciless foes who hit and run and hide among civilians. Samarra is smack in the Sunni Triangle. It's the kind of place where graffiti reads "We will kill the Americans wherever they go!" It is the kind of place people blow up public buildings to make a political point. There is no warrior code in that; a terrorist is a terrorist, however he justifies himself.

But this is where the risk lies for the Americans. "Vietnam" has become an overworked cliche from the Left. Like "fascist," it's an important word from history, full of lessons, that has been drained of meaning by over-use. Back in the spring, every time the Coalition armies paused on the road to Baghdad and Basra to regroup, the vultures from the Left began to cackle about "another Vietnam." The rapid collapse of Saddam's military shut them up for a while. But now that the U.S. forces face an insurgent movement, they're at it again.

Ignore them; they're just parroting their cliches. But pay attention to Vietnam. It was the last time the U.S. got into a situation like this, and in parts of the military, the warrior code broke down, the door between soldiers and killers came unhinged, and a few good boys from America gunned down helpless peasant villagers.

If there was an act of brutality in Samarra, it should be punished without pity. It should be done publicly, for all to see. The troops need to see that the criminals in our ranks will be found and purged. So do the Iraqis. Otherwise, the hard work of winning hearts and minds in Iraq will be lost. Otherwise, the warrior code will weaken by that much more in the minds of American soldiers and Marines still trying to do an honest job.

It is not the justness, or lack of it, in a war that makes this happen. Japanese soldiers, brutalized by experience in China, did it to American soldiers in the Pacific and Americans did it in turn to the Japanese when they found out about it. Tennessee soldiers who fought with honor and discipline at Shiloh in 1862 turned into murderous bushwhackers by 1864. Many soldiers in Hitler's army behaved to the end with utmost military discipline. Some of the Soviet troops who defeated the Nazis raped and pillaged their path halfway across Europe.

When warriors and murderers clash, the murderers risk nothing but death. The warriors risk more. "Their only protection is their code of honor," French writes. "The professional military ethics that restrain warriors -- that keep them from targeting those who cannot fight back, from taking pleasure in killing, from striking harder than is necessary, and that encourage them to offer mercy to their defeated enemies and even to help rebuild their countries and communities -- are also their own protection against becoming what they abhor."

UPDATE: Others who are not silent include Politburo, Allahpundit, Confederate Yankee, John Cole, Captain Ed, Blue Crab Boulevard.