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.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. lily says:

    I agree that there are far more differences than similarities so that comparisons to My Lai aren’t productive. For one thing, there is a difference in scale.

    I also agree that there are trade-offs, judgement calls, and situations where decisions have to be made fast. Backseat driving decsions made under those circumstances can be unfair
    From what we know so far, however, the situation where the Marines killed the civilians wasn’t a trade-off, a judgement call, or a crisis requiring immediate decisions. They acted over a period of hours, quite deliberately. It appears to be a breach of military discipline, a failure to act according to their training.

    It isn’t a criticism of all soldiers or of the war itself to face up to the possibility that one group of soldiers way have done something very bad.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Lily:

    We agree on that. I’m pretty sure Hitchens would as well.

    His point, I think, is that the nature of war is that these things will happen and that failure to take decisive risks against the enemy for fear of friendly casualties can prolong the war unnecessarily and paradoxically lead to the inevitable friendly causualties.

  3. Christopher says:

    Lily,

    I agree with you, but the problem is that the liberals who oppose Bush will use the massacre against him and as his fault and add it as, hopefully for them, an incident to get us to pull out.

    These libs hate Bush, even though their own party voted to go to war and to support Bush over and over again.

    It is disgusting and shameful, more so than the incident itself.

  4. lily says:

    Well, I hate Bush and I have a huge issue with those politicians (Hilary included) who are still rationalizing support for the initial invasion, but I think it is important to try to keep separate things separate. The vote for the war is a different issue than the issue of how it is conducted and the issue of what we should do for the future. This incident way well harm the war effort, but not because of what anyone here says about it. The problem is how it might affect our relationship with Iraqis.
    By the way, I’m sort of with Gore on the war—going in was stupid and irresponsible but we’re there and we can’t just pack up and leave a mess behind, especially since the mess might include the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shiite militias. I do think the ultimate responisblitiy for this incident lies with the politicians who got us in and I hope some day they will pay politically.

  5. Gnatman says:

    Well said, Lily.

  6. LJD says:

    Given the state of affairs in the Middle East, and the GWOT, history may judge Iraq more kindly than knee-jerk commentators.

    The trap Hitchens falls into however, is the same that cripples arguments from the left. If we had only done x, then y would happen. There is no possible way to prove which action would have produced which result. All of the hindsight policies from the left very well may have resulted in an even bigger bloodbath. We will never know.

    You can criticize a past policy for its present day outcome, but to say with certainty that another path would have definitely produced another result is simply dishonest.

    We need to deal with the present, and work towards the future. Save the past for the campaign trail.

  7. Barry says:

    “Given the state of affairs in the Middle East, and the GWOT, history may judge Iraq more kindly than knee-jerk commentators.”

    That’s what people have been saying since the ‘rice and flowers’ theme became passe.

  8. McGehee says:

    That�s what people have been saying since the �rice and flowers� theme became passe.

    A theme I heard a lot more from anti-war types than from war supporters.

  9. McGehee says:

    (Hint: it’s called a “straw man.”)

  10. Pug says:

    I agree with you, but the problem is that the liberals who oppose Bush will use the massacre against him and as his fault and add it as, hopefully for them, an incident to get us to pull out.

    These libs hate Bush, even though their own party voted to go to war and to support Bush over and over again.

    It is disgusting and shameful, more so than the incident itself.

    This whole argument is so tired. When you arrive at the conclusion, as you did, that it is more disgusting to oppose Bush than it is to slaughter civilians, you’ve really gone around the bend.

    You make the point that Democrats voted to support Bush “over and over again”. Of course they did and that makes him responsible for what happens in Iraq. He has conducted the war exactly as he has wanted.

    Many of us who initially supported the war based on what Bush said have come to realize that it was a mistake. The things he said turned out not to be true. The conduct of the war has hardly been above reproach and, now, an incident like this involving our soldiers just saddens most of us. I feel bad for those killed and I feel bad for our soldiers and their families. And I’m just tired of this knee jerk defense of Bush even when no one is blaming him personally for this incident.

  11. LJD says:

    This incident has nothing to do with the President. This issue similarly has nothing to do with the war. People (like Murtha) ARE extending it to cause and effect. Some even take such actions to be SOP for our military, directed from the highest levels of the adminstration.

    Sure, on a simple level, if we were not in Iraq, this would not have happened. But how do we know the soldiers in question would have not perpetrated the same crime in Kosovo, Korea, or Camp Pendleton?

    Pug, you don’t get to make war and then change your mind. We acted on what we had at the time. Some things were wrong, but we were completely justified in waging this war. What is ‘tired’ is that one man could have ‘lied’ us into this situation. It’s just naive.

  12. legion says:

    We acted on what we had at the time. Some things were wrong, but we were completely justified in waging this war.

    Wrong, LJD. Not just no, but hell no.
    Many, many, many people disagreed with “what we had at the time”. Some didn’t believe the info the administration was putting out about Iraq. Some believed it, but thought the administration’s course of action and plan of execution were dead wrong. And that is by no means “completely justified”.

    We invaded Iraq for one reason and one reason only: because George Bush wanted to. He’s The Decider. Congress, right or wrong, rolled over and gave Bush every single thing he wanted. This war, and everything about it, is totally Bush’s.

  13. LJD says:

    Many, many, many people disagreed with â??what we had at the timeâ??.

    Seems like more every day know. Rewriting the past can be very effective on the campaign trail, but makes present day policy difficult. Just ask John Kerry.

    Contrary to your belief, the war wasn’t about WMD only. It was justified in enforcing UN sanctions and stopping the dictator from thumbing his nose at international authority. Or if you prefer, living up to the consequences of HIS past actions.

    We have a system of checks and balances. You can’t just discount the fact that Congress authorized this.

    So O.K. George Bush ‘wanted to’. Just for jollies. I can;t believe the anti war folks still peddle this laughable argument.