Media, Marines, and Rules of War

Bill at INDC is outraged at mainstream media portrayals of the shooting over the weekend of an apparently unarmed terrorist by a U.S. Marine in Fallujah.

No. We are not going to let the MSM do this. We are not going to let them blow up an incident that took place in the heat of asymmetrical urban combat amid booby-trapped bodies and enemy atrocities into a full-scale worldwide spectacle of American self-flagellation. When Abu Ghraib took place, I was disgusted by the repellent actions of the soldiers that casually abused their prisoners; I wanted them punished for the damage that they did to US credibility as well as the shocking impropriety of their actions. But within two weeks, after dozens of front-page stories and top features crowded major dailies and cable news broadcasts, my sentiments shifted to anger at the US media for once again sensationalizing and taking an issue out of context, and incessantly editorializing condemnation of the Bush Administration and the much larger effort in Iraq.

American Soldier is somewhat more colorful in his analysis.

It’s hard to disagree. While it’s generally a good thing that our society is sensitive to the rules of war–rules which, by and large, only a handful of Western countries even come close to following–the portrayal of aberrant circumstances as if they’re “the real story” is wrong. That said, I agree with Marine Commandant Michael Hagee:

In my personal opinion, embedded reporters have actually worked very well. They inform the American public about what these great young Americans are doing over there, and a large, large majority are doing… a tremendous job.

While, giving journalists largely unfettered access has its downsides, as this incident illustrates, the benefits are enormous. It gives the embeds a stake in the outcome and an appreciation of what our soldiers and Marines are going through. That a couple of them don’t “get it” is no reason to end the program.

Update (1450): The editors at WSJ add this:

Put yourself in that Marine’s boots. He and his mates have had to endure some of the toughest infantry duty imaginable, house-to-house urban fighting against an enemy that neither wears a uniform nor obeys any normal rules of war. Here is how that enemy fights, according to an account in the Times of London: “In the south of Fallujah yesterday, U.S. Marines found the armless, legless body of a blonde woman, her throat slashed and her entrails cut out. Benjamin Finnell, a hospital apprentice with the U.S. Navy Corps, said that she had been dead for a while, but at that location for only a day or two. The woman was wearing a blue dress; her face had been disfigured. It was unclear if the remains were the body of the Irish-born aid worker Margaret Hassan, 59, or of Teresa Borcz, 54, a Pole abducted two weeks ago. Both were married to Iraqis and held Iraqi citizenship; both were kidnapped in Baghdad last month.”

When not disemboweling Iraqi women, these killers hide in mosques and hospitals, booby-trap dead bodies, and open fire as they pretend to surrender. Their snipers kill U.S. soldiers out of nowhere. According to one account, the Marine in the videotape had seen a member of his unit killed by another insurgent pretending to be dead. Who from the safety of his Manhattan sofa has standing to judge what that Marine did in that mosque?

Beyond the one incident, think of what the Marine and Army units just accomplished in Fallujah. In a single week, they killed as many as 1,200 of the enemy and captured 1,000 more. They did this despite forfeiting the element of surprise, so civilians could escape, and while taking precautions to protect Iraqis that no doubt made their own mission more difficult and hazardous. And they did all of this not for personal advantage, and certainly not to get rich, but only out of a sense of duty to their comrades, their mission and their country. In a more grateful age, this would be hailed as one of the great battles in Marine history–with Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Hue City and the Chosin Reservoir. We’d know the names of these military units, and of many of the soldiers too. Instead, the name we know belongs to the NBC correspondent, Kevin Sites.

Indeed. Of course, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Hue City, and the Chosin Reservoir are all but forgotten, too.

Update (2202): Owen West and Phillip Carter have an excellent piece in Slate on this general subject, “What the Marine Did – The shooting of an unarmed Iraqi was a tragedy. But was it a war crime?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.