Atrocities happen

Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated American in World War II, said that he went crazy when he saw a buddy die so he went out and killed a lot of German soldiers. Gentle Sgt. Alvin York of World War I responded much the same way.

But it seems inevitable that every conflict like the one being waged in Iraq against faceless forces ultimately produces instances that break the boundaries most Americans believe are acceptable in warfare. So it is less than surprising that a group of Marines is being investigated in connection with the massacre of unarmed civilians in Haditha _ killings apparently triggered by the anger of losing one of their own.

Responding with uncivilized ferocity to the threat of a foe indiscernible from everyone else until he suddenly kills you is the quicksand of urban warfare that sometimes sucks into a realm of murderous behavior even the most disciplined forces.

In Korea, it was the docile refugee who paused as he passed by to stick a knife in a GI’s back, inflaming his comrades to turn machine guns indiscriminately on the whole group. In Vietnam, whole villages suspected of harboring the enemy were wiped out indiscriminately, blighting whatever nobility there was in being there.

War is hell, William Tecumseh Sherman famously noted. Then he proved it by sending out “foragers” who burned and looted the food and possessions of a starving populace. While it helped end the Civil War, it also prolonged the hatred and set back the cause of civil rights for all Americans. Similarly, there can be little denying that every instance of American disdain for the lives and welfare of Iraqi civilians hurts the cause of ensuring peace and prosperity there, delaying the time when U.S. troops can leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

Without condoning or excusing the barbaric, immoral acts that allegedly took place after a roadside bomb ended the life of a fellow Marine, there can be no denying the constant daily pressure that pushes troops over the line. Even the military’s effort to prevent such incidents through intensified training can have only partial success in an atmosphere so charged with irrational death and destruction. Seeing one’s friend blown apart by an unidentifiable enemy is an every day occurrence that, when combined with one’s own natural fears, tempts young soldiers toward actions they would never entertain otherwise.

Under the circumstances, it is perhaps a miracle that such atrocities don’t occur more often. Yet it is not acceptable to blame them simply on stress. The very fact that most do resist the urge for revenge and instant retribution denies that alibi to those who don’t. The men who followed Lt. William Calley into the eternal hell of the village of My Lai in Vietnam could not legitimately blame it on the stress of the moment. They had blindly accepted an illegal order.

Nor is there any validity in the excuse that these acts are commonplace among other armies, that they go unexposed for the most part. Perhaps some do, but U.S. soldiers aren’t supposed to be terrorists. As Americans, we tell ourselves that even in warfare we stand for something better. Noncombatants should have nothing to fear from our GIs. They go after those who commit war crimes.

It is also an attribute of our open society that it produces men and women of conscience who expose those among them who break the rules. The young soldier who revealed the rampant mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib just as those who earlier blew the whistle on My Lai are perfect examples.

The initial reaction of the Marine commanders on the scene was not what one would hope for. There were clear discrepancies in how the civilians had died that they chose to dismiss as the usual confusion. The Pentagon responded quickly when the news broke alleging the methodical assassination of civilians. President Bush _ beleaguered already by the lack of progress and continuing casualties in Iraq, and maybe a growing sense that some of what occurred may be the fault of our being there in the first place _ promised that those involved would be severely punished.

Meanwhile, new ethics courses for troops engaged in urban fighting have been ordered. Good. But don’t expect miracles. It is much easier to fight a war when the enemy wears a uniform.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)