Why Haditha isn’t My Lai
Christopher Hitchens contends that any attempt to equate the events in Haditha with the My Lai massacre are “glib.”
Most of his arguments are about the institutional nature of the two wars and are well taken. The one that most struck me, though, was this:
The other difference, one ought not need add, is that in My Lai the United States was fighting the Vietcong. A recent article about the captured diary of a slain female Vietnamese militant (now a best seller in Vietnam) makes it plain that we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples’ army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us. These depraved elements are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge. They have two methods of warfare. One is the use of random murder to create a sectarian and ethnic civil war—perhaps the most evil combination of tactics and strategy it is possible to imagine. The other is the attempt to alienate coalition soldiers from the population.
All true, although one seldom sees indignation about a comparison with the Vietcong flowing in this direction.
Less amusing, however, is Hitchens’ closing:
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.
War, like everything else in life, is full of trade-offs. Some of our cautiousness and some of our boldness both proved costly in hindsight; the problem is, commanders don’t get to make decisions with that foreknowledge.