War no excuse for taking action against civilians

By Freedom Newspapers

The trials, plea bargains and conviction of U.S. Marines involved in war crimes in Iraq have — like everything else involving the Iraq war — divided Americans.

Many Americans are shocked at the brutal nature of the crimes these Marines have committed or are accused of committing, including an execution-style killing of a man dragged from his bed, and the murder of two women and several children as they reportedly were huddled in terror on their bed.

Others, however, are shocked that the United States military would prosecute Marines who were engaged in a difficult and deadly battle against militants.

Regardless of what one thinks of this war, it is hard to understand the mentality that would excuse murder, even against the dangerous and morally dubious backdrop of war.

Those who make such excuses argue that the Marines are in a tough position, and often can’t distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants. They also argue that the military’s rules of engagement are too difficult to follow, so U.S. troops should not be punished for violating those rules that hamstring their abilities to fight the enemy.

Fortunately, military officials and juries are meting out some punishment against those troops accused of engaging in egregious behavior. For instance, a jury of Iraq war veterans recently found Marine Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III guilty of unpremeditated murder for his role in the kidnap and execution-style killing of an Iraqi man, and sentenced Sgt. Hutchins to 15 years in prison. Sgt. Hutchins, the squad leader, received the toughest sentence of his squad, all eight of whom faced murder charges.

According to the North County Times, “The eight men were accused of snatching Hashim Ibrahim Awad from bed in the Iraqi village of Hamdania in the early morning hours of April 26, 2006. Awad was marched about a mile down the road, where they shot him and then staged the scene to make it appear that the 52-year-old retired Iraqi policeman had been planting a roadside bomb.”

Pvt. Robert Pennington, who received an eight-year prison term for his role in the plot, said in published reports: “We were sick of their rules and decided to write our own rules to protect ourselves.”

In an even more disturbing yet ongoing case, three Marines are accused of participating in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha. Last month, the Marines held an investigation to determine whether the men will face court martial. One of those Marines, Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, was accused by his fellow squad-mate, Lance Cpl. Humberto Mendoza, of shooting women and children even though he was warned that the house was filled with innocent bystanders, according to Washington Post reports. Tatum has denied the killings were intentional.

This is unquestionably a difficult and frustrating war, yet that does not excuse such behavior. And while the rules of engagement might impose hurdles on American troops, it would be troubling if individual Marines were free to discard orders or rules at will and to wantonly kill civilians. Criminal behavior should be prosecuted, even if it takes place on the battlefield.

This sad tale should be yet another reminder of why wars should be fought only as a last resort.