Haditha Case May Test Military Justice
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
President Bush today spoke publicly for the first time on the alleged killing of civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha, Iraq.
GEORGE W: I am troubled by the initial news stories. I am mindful that there is a thorough investigation going on. If, in fact the, you know, laws were broken, there'll be, there'll be punishment.
BLOCK: Military investigators have been looking into the shootings of the 24 civilians, including women and children, last November. They're also investigating an alleged coverup of what happened. Gary Solis is a Marine Corps historian, a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, and he spent 18 years as Judge Advocate and a judge for the military. He's also taught the laws of war at West Point, and he joins us in our studio. Thanks for coming in.
GARY SOLIS: My pleasure.
BLOCK: There doesn't seem to be much doubt anymore that the initial statements made by Marine spokesmen back in November in Iraq were completely wrong. They said at the time that 15 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in Haditha, and that troops then killed 8 insurgents. What are you hearing from your contacts within the Marine Corps about what happened?
SOLIS: I've asked, why didn't we report this earlier? And I think the answer is that we didn't know what had happened. But as soon as we did know, an investigation - two investigations were initiated.
BLOCK: Well, someone clearly knew. I mean, there were any number of people in that town at the time.
SOLIS: Oh, yes. One may suspect that there was a cover story, and it was not revealed to the command. And when the command did find out about it, I suspect, without knowing, the command at a low level was not eager to get these facts out.
BLOCK: There is a complication here, which is that the Marines did offer payments to the family members who survived of the people who were killed there. Somebody had to approve that.
SOLIS: Well, that's true. But selation payments are something that have been made in combat zone for some time. We did them in Vietnam as well. It is a recognition that due to perhaps friendly fire, or collateral damage, someone has died and you're trying to make some form of recompense.
BLOCK: But if the story from the Marine Corps officially was 15 civilians killed by a roadside bomb laid by an insurgent, there would be no need for the Marine Corps to compensate for that, would there?
SOLIS: That is correct. I can't say why those payments were made, but I don't think that they should be taken as prima fascia evidence or admissions of wrongdoing on the part of the Marines.
BLOCK: Assuming there are criminal charges filed here, there are courts martial, what would you expect the defense to be for these Marines?
SOLIS: Well, the usual defenses, of course, are obedience to orders and duress. They will, one suspects, plea that the sergeant to do this. He told us they were the ones who set the bomb, or we believed they were the ones who set the bomb. That's one possible defense.
BLOCK: Women and children?
SOLIS: I've been shot at by a lot of women and children.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: These were, these were babies who were killed here.
SOLIS: Oh, yes. No. I don't think that anyone with a straight face can say that these people really believe that these children or these women set off the IED. But perhaps the Marines are saying these guys either did it or they know who did it. Or they watched them while they set it up, and we're going to send a message. I don't know if that's the case or not, but...
BLOCK: But that might be the defense?
BLOCK: What charges could be brought related to the alleged cover-up here?
SOLIS: A number. For example, disobedience of a lawful order. There are orders that have been issued by headquarters Marine Corps, by the Marine Command in Iraq, by DOD - all of which say if anyone knows of violations of the law were, they must be reported. If you know and you don't report, you've violated that order. And another would be, or could be aiding and abetting in the crime itself. You don't have to be the trigger puller to be an aide or abettor. And of course, a false official statement. All these people have been interviewed and have given sworn statements. And if they have lied in those sworn statements, that's a false official statement, which is a crime in it of itself in the military.
BLOCK: You do hear this from some quarters now, that when this investigation is complete, when the report comes out, when the photos and video are made public, that this could end up being much worse than Abu Graib. What do you see the affects of this being on the Marine Corps?
SOLIS: This is terrible for the Corps. We pride ourselves on being America's foremost fighting force. We have such a proud tradition, as the Marine's hymns say, we keep our honor clean. I think any Marine would really be hurt to know that there's been such a stain on the Corps, and to think something like this could happen to the Marine Corps is painful to, you know, old Marines like me.
BLOCK: Gary Solis, thanks very much.
SOLIS: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Gary Solis is a former judge advocate and judge with the Marine Corps. He's now at Georgetown University Law School.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.