Haditha Deaths and the Psychology of War

Members of a Marine unit are under investigation in the aftermath of the shooting deaths of two dozen civilians in Haditha, Iraq. The deaths followed a roadside bombing that claimed the life of a fellow Marine. The incident has renewed questions about the psychology of soldiers in wartime and in the heat of combat. Madeleine Brand discusses the issue with Maj. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson (ret.), a 31-year veteran of the Marine Corps and current chief of the U.S. Naval Institute.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

As we just heard from Congressman Murtha, the stress is tremendous for the young men and women in Iraq, fighting in Iraq, and how do they deal with that stress?

Well, here to tell us is Major General Thomas Wilkerson. He's a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps, and now CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute. It describes itself as an independent forum on national defense. And Major General Thomas Wilkerson, welcome to the program.

Major General THOMAS WILKERSON (U.S. Marine Corps., Retired; CEO, U.S. Naval Institute): Thanks very much Madeleine, good to be with you.

BRAND: What can cause and incident such as the one in Haditha where, as Congressman Murtha says, discipline broke down and apparently a massacre was carried out?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: In the trials, in the terrific nature of combat, there is always the possibility, and the training - whether it be soldier or Marine, sailor - is the way in which we guard against having things like that happen, but it's not perfect.

BRAND: Well, what kind of training specifically do the Marines have when confronting a situation such as the one in Haditha? It's a very - it's an insurgent stronghold, one of their buddies was just killed, it's very difficult to distinguish between insurgents and civilians.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: One of the things that the Marine Corps has taught all along - and I mean before I became a Marine, even before my father became a Marine - is that every Marine is a rifleman. And in teaching people to be rifleman, we teach them the discipline of aimed fire and of courage under fire in such a manner that they're able to think when the situation gets tight.

Now, that doesn't mean for one second that that kind of training leads to this kind of situation that you had in the interview that currently went on in Anbar Province and that's under investigation. What it does mean is the vast majority of Marines - and I mean the vast majority - have proven themselves to be disciplined under fire, to recognize and courageously counter the idea that there is revenge involved because enemies kill those who are in your unit. And the end result is we have a very sterling track record of not only courage in combat, but successfully accomplishing the mission.

The only problem you will see along the way is we also have, periodically, incidents where individuals stray from the training that they've received and bring disgrace upon what we stand for.

Now, I don't know that that'll happen this time because it's still under investigation, but certainly there is something that's gone awry and people are looking into it.

BRAND: I wonder if the military - and if the Marine Corps specifically - I wonder if they've had to change their tactics dealing with the insurgency in terms of this kind of situation?

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Well, I can tell you this Madeleine, and you can look at this historically - it's the entire United States military, and when you think about it in a historical context, it lends some credence. In World War II and before, almost every time everyone went to war, they visited the horror of war on the civilian populous of their enemies. We did it in World War II in the bombings in Germany and Japan, and we did it on purpose.

Today we've gone full 180 degrees out. Every time there's a battle plan, one of the most important parts about it is the potential for casualties among innocent civilians and bystanders, and that's because we've had the weaponry in part that would allow us to do it. But also in part - and most importantly -because the adversaries that we face today have recognized the power of the United States on a conventional battlefield and said why should we go there? Why should we reinvent Desert Storm where we get outside and get rolled over? And so they consciously decide to integrate themselves as closely as possible into an innocent civilian populous, and thereby drive the war itself down to a one-on-one situation like what you saw in this incident.

BRAND: Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson is now the CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute, and thank you very much for joining us.

Maj. Gen. WILKERSON: Appreciate the opportunity to contribute.

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