Saturday, January 28, 2012

How much is a life worth?

On November 19, 2005, in the Iraqi city of Haditha, a bomb went off and killed an American soldier, Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas. In the aftermath of the explosion, an Iraqi cabdriver and four teenagers were shot and killed by US troops under orders of Sgt. Frank Wuterich.

Upon arriving at the scene, Lt. William T. Kallop ordered the troops to seize a house from which he believed shots were being fired. The marines stormed the house and killed 19 unarmed civilians, including seven women and children, through the use of rifles and grenades.

The original story was that the dead were part of a group of Iraqis who opened fire on the Americans. But questions were asked when the dead were found wearing their nightclothes.

But when witnesses were asked to recount the events of that day, a startlingly different picture emerged. Tim McGirk of Time Magazine broke the story in March 2006. The account of 9-year-old Eman Waleed is harrowing:

 "We heard a big noise that woke us all up," she recalls two months later. "Then we did what we always do when there's an explosion: my father goes into his room with the Koran and prays that the family will be spared any harm." Eman says the rest of the family—her mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles—gathered in the living room. According to military officials familiar with the investigation, the Marines say they came under fire from the direction of the Waleed house immediately after being hit by the ied. A group of Marines headed toward the house. Eman says she "heard a lot of shooting, so none of us went outside. Besides, it was very early, and we were all wearing our nightclothes." When the Marines entered the house, they were shouting in English. "First, they went into my father's room, where he was reading the Koran," she claims, "and we heard shots." According to Eman, the Marines then entered the living room. "I couldn't see their faces very well—only their guns sticking into the doorway. I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny." She claims the troops started firing toward the corner of the room where she and her younger brother Abdul Rahman, 8, were hiding; the other adults shielded the children from the bullets but died in the process. Eman says her leg was hit by a piece of metal and Abdul Rahman was shot near his shoulder. "We were lying there, bleeding, and it hurt so much. 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.'"

Eight marines, including Sgt. Wuterich, were charged with murder and dereliction of duty. The cases almost immediately began to fall apart with military investigators recommending that charges against the soldiers be dismissed or reduced to just dereliction of duty. The investigation uncovered instances that the defendants had destroyed or withheld evidence.

Of the eight, one was acquitted and charges against six others were dismissed. In the last case, Sgt. Wuterich pled guilty to negligent dereliction of duty. The manslaughter and assault charges were dismissed. As punishment, Sgt. Wuterich was demoted to private.

And so the question remains, what's an Iraqi life worth? According to the military court, one American life was worth the lives of 24 Iraqis; but the lives of those Iraqis was only worth a loss of rank.

I do think Sgt. Wuterich was being made something of a scapegoat in this affair. He, after all, wasn't the one who ordered the marines to storm the houses. But no one ever went after Lt. Kallop. As a result we have 24 dead civilians who were killed as the result of a war without purpose entered into by President Bush.

War isn't about fighter jets and targeted bombs. It isn't about smart bombs and surgical strikes. War is about death and destruction. Collateral damage is just a sanitized why of saying "We fucked up."

For more background, see:

"Investigating the Haditha Killings," NPR

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