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Haditha and a Soldier's Duty

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What are we to make of the deaths of unarmed civilians in Haditha? Investigations will tell more. But individual soldiers know they have the right — and the duty — to oppose the killing of non-combatants.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The investigations into the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last November will continue for several months. The U.S. Marine Corps own investigation could bring criminal charges stemming from the incident or the alleged effort to cover it up.

It is important not to prejudge what any investigation may find. A kind of debate already seems to be taking shape, if you can really have a debate about a massacre that may typified by a phrase in the strong Time magazine cover story that broke the first news about Haditha.

What happened in Haditha, that magazine said, is a reminder of the horrors faced by civilians caught in the middle of war, and what war can do to the people who fight it.

Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania who is a former Marine colonel who served with distinction in Vietnam told a press conference, These guys are under tremendous strain and this strain has caused them to crack in situations like this.

Many supporters of the U.S. intervention in Iraq don't want the war or the soldiers who are serving there to become known by a crime like Haditha or Abu Ghraib, which they insist are exceptional. Many opponents of the U.S. intervention believe that the war itself is the cause of the massacre, that fear and stress of occupation drive otherwise good American boys and girls to become killers.

As someone who has been a reporter with the U.S. troops in a few wars, I find both views limited and, in a way, patronizing.

For more than 30 years now the U.S. Armed Forces have taught every man and woman in uniform about war crimes. I've sat through some of these lectures. Soldiers and sailors are bluntly and clearly told that making civilians the targets of attacks is wrong, that not honestly reporting such attacks is wrong, that their own military will prosecute them if they are ever a part of such crimes. And that's what they're called, crimes.

I remember being with a group of paratroopers who were told, if you abuse non-combatants, you disgrace your family, your fellow soldiers who risk their lives for you, and your country.

All U.S. soldiers are told to be personally responsible for their actions. To say I was following orders or even you have no idea what we went through, I must have cracked, is no defense.

While any line of responsibility for outrages like Haditha or Abu Ghraib must be traced back to superior officers in the field or even in the Pentagon, individual soldiers know that they not only the right but the duty to oppose such crimes. It's one of the features that makes the U.S. military justifiably proud.

In a democracy, soldiers are still citizens. They're given orders, but they still have rights. And the responsibility they bear for their own actions can be as significant as any weapon.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small