Friday, March 16, 2007

Cold-Blooded Murder This Ain't

Last May, John Murtha accused the Haditha Marines of "killing innocent civilians in cold blood" while appearing on ABC's This Week. This Sunday night, 60 Minutes will run an interview that Scott Pelley conducted with Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the leader of the Haditha Marines. Here's the key portions of Drudge's article on the interview:
One of those decisions, which Wuterich admits to in the interview, was shooting five unarmed Iraqi men in their backs. Wuterich says the men were running from a car that had appeared on the scene at about the same time their comrade was killed by a roadside bomb. Wuterich says their killing was justified; he says he identified them as having hostile intent toward the Marines. Wuterich also maintains that the Iraqi men disobeyed the orders of one of his squad members and that the Iraqis should have known what to do.

"Normally the Iraqis know the drill...if something happens...get down, hands up...They started to take off, so I shot at them," Wuterich says. Other Marines have told investigators that the Iraqis appeared to be following orders and were not fleeing. Pelley asks Wuterich how running away from the scene could have constituted hostile intent. He replies that he thought they may have detonated the roadside bomb. He adds, "But also at the same time, there were military-aged males that were inside that car. The only vehicle, the only thing that was out, that was Iraqi, was them. They were 100 meters away from that IED. Those are the things that went through my mind before I pulled the trigger. That was positive identification," Wuterich tells Pelley.
Let's put you in the soldiers' shoes. You're out on patrol. You haven't seen any Iraqi vehicles during your patrol. Suddenly an IED goes off and you see 5 Iraqi men get out of a car and start running. The car is 100 meters from where the IED exploded. You tell them to stop. How many of you think it's reasonable to think that the men running are the ones who planted or detonated the IED?

If it's reasonable to think that the men running were terrorists, I don't know how you can define that as "cold-blooded murder" like Murtha did. Let's move onto another section of the interview:
Another decision Wuterich made that day was to lead an attack on two houses. That attack killed three women and six children. The Marines attacked the first house with the permission of a superior officer because they thought two or three shots were fired at them from it. Wuterich says the Marines tossed a grenade into a room in the dwelling before determining who was inside. They pressed the attack with a charge through the door and gunshots to kill any survivors. According to Wuterich, this was the best way to clear a house safely, and he has no compunction about doing it. "You can't hesitate to make a decision. Hesitation equals being killed, either yourself or your men...That's what we do. That's how our training goes."

Wuterich says he saw that the attack on the first house had killed women and children. But he did not stop the assault, because he says he saw a back door open in the house and assumed the sniper had gone through it to the next house. "My responsibility as a squad leader is to make sure that none of the rest of my guys died ...and at that point we were still on the assault, so no, I don't believe [I should have stopped the attack]," he tells Pelley.
If innocent civilians were killed while the Marines were doing what they were trained to do, I couldn't call that cold-blooded murder. Yet that's the conclusion that Murtha arrived at. Remember that Murtha did that before the investigation was complete and before being officially briefed. I'd side with Sgt. Wuterich that he did the right thing, especially when Sgt. Wuterich tells us that he saw a door open through which a sniper could've escaped. House to house combat is a bloody business. Risks can be anywhere. Hesitation will get soldiers killed more often than not.

That isn't what I'd call cold-blooded murder. It's time that we told John Murtha he was wrong in characterizing the Haditha Marines' actions that way.

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Cross-posted at LetFreedomRingBlog