For a few months in late 2005 and early 2006, it was ready fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. Eight U.S. Marines stood accused of killing 24 Iraqis during a rampage through their town. Tim McGuirk of Time magazine described a “horrific” event, with Marines going house-to-house and shooting civilians indiscriminately in retaliation for an earlier IED attack that claimed the life of a fellow Marine.
Other media outlets offered equally grim accounts of the Haditha incident, characterized as the “worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians since the war began.” Politicians also joined the chorus. In May 2006, with the official military investigation still underway, Congressional blowhard Jack Murtha rushed to a microphone and declared the Marines guilty as charged.
“There was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people,” Murtha stated. “Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”
Eventually, the Marines were charged in connection with the killings at Haditha. But over the months that followed, the cases against them largely collapsed. Prosecutors or investigating officers, citing insufficient evidence or improper command influence, dismissed charges against seven Marines.
Today, three years after the events at Haditha, only one Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, is facing charges in connection with the incident. A courts-martial for Wuterich has been postponed, and some legal analysts believe the case may never go to trial. Sergeant Wuterich has filed a libel suit against Jack Murtha, claiming that the congressman’s comments harmed his image. Murtha’s efforts to dismiss the suit have been unsuccessful.
The Haditha example is worth remembering as the media and the justice system gear up for the next high-profile case related to alleged atrocities in Iraq. Earlier this week, five former employees of the private security firm Blackwater were charged with manslaughter for their role in a Baghdad shootout two years ago. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died in the incident.
Like the Marines, the ex-Blackwater employees will face an uphill battle in clearing their name. The infamous shootout has been described at length, though no journalists were present on that September day in 2006. Meanwhile, the media has repeatedly characterized the firm — and its security guards — as trigger-happy cowboys and rogue operatives.
“Blackwater most often shoots first,” trumpeted a headline on CNN’s website in October 2007. Citing the findings of a Congressional report, the cable network claimed that Blackwater USA guards inflicted “significant casualties and property damage” in Iraq. According to investigators, Blackwater contractors fired their weapons 195 times, “an average of 1.4 times a week between the beginning of 2005, and September 2007. In 80% of those incidents, Blackwater reported that its personnel fired first.”
That certainly fits the popular template, but it’s also worth remembering that Blackwater (and other private security firms) face a daunting challenge in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Baghdad shootout occurred as conditions in the city — and the rest of Iraq — spiraled out of control. Terrorist attacks were increasing at an alarming rate, with insurgents targeting the Green Zone and other locations that were once considered “secure.”
Making matters worse, the U.S. military had long advised the State Department, intelligence agencies, relief agencies, and other organizations that it could not provide security for all activities in Iraq. Troop reductions in the 1990s and our “pre-surge” strategy left ground forces unprepared for a growing insurgency that threatened key sections of that country, and required an expanded security presence.
Against that backdrop, private contractors became an imperative. They provided protection for supply convoys, escorted diplomats to meetings with Iraqi leaders, and accompanied CIA operatives on intelligence-gathering operations in some of the most dangerous sections of the country.
And the vast majority of the contractors performed their duties admirably, even heroically. In Congressional testimony last year, Blackwater Chairman Eric Prince reminded lawmakers that 30 employees of his company — or its affiliates — have been killed in Iraq, with many more wounded or maimed. He also pointed out that Blackwater employees mounted more than 1,800 security details in the first nine months of 2007, and discharged their weapons on just three percent of those operations.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has also defended Blackwater publicly, pointing out that our operations in the country would be impossible without private security contractors. Ambassador Crocker clearly understands the realities of modern warfare and diplomacy. With projected force levels there will never be enough troops for all security missions, leaving other agencies with stark choices: develop their own protective services; go without security, or rely on contractors. Obviously, the notion of removing private security firms from the war zone is both naive and dangerous.
But that doesn’t excuse unprofessional or illegal behavior. The Justice Department clearly believes that contractors involved in the Baghdad incident broke the law, and filed charges after a lengthy investigation.
Still, it would be a grave mistake to prejudge the actions of the Blackwater guards, or the outcome of their eventual trial. Three years ago, the Haditha Marines were tried and convicted in the courts of public opinion and media coverage. Yet the military justice system, for all its flaws, delivered a far different verdict. Now, a similar presumption of guilt is being applied to those former Blackwater staffers. They deserve their day in court — not a press-driven rush to judgment.