The colors have been cased, the command has been shut down, and the war has been officially declared over. By December 31, the final U.S. troops will come home, and Americans seem to have decided they’re sick of hearing about Iraq. But Baghdad’s trash heaps hold reminders of some of the war’s lasting scars — in particular, the infamous 2005 massacre at Haditha.
That’s what Michael S. Schmidt discovered. Schmidt, a New York Times reporter, found hundreds of pages of interviews from the Marines’ investigation into the massacre in, of all places, a junkyard near Baghdad. “An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp,” he writes.
In November 2005, members of a Marine unit in Haditha, a town in the western Sunni province of Anbar, killed 24 Iraqis after a roadside bomb attack killed one of their own. Many of the killings occurred inside Iraqi homes. Women, children and at least one man in his 70s were amongst the dead. One of the Marines charged in the massacre was acquitted in 2008; six others had charges against them dropped; another is set to face trial in 2012.
It was one of the most infamous episodes of the war, second only, perhaps, in its damaging consequences to the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal. It occurred before senior commanders embraced the idea that success in Iraq depended on partnership with Iraqis and rigorous distinction between civilians and insurgents. That era is recalled in the documents Schmidt found.
Marines throughout the chain of command describe a brutally confusing war, an unfamiliar landscape and a sense of relentless danger. Iraqis would not stop at vehicle checkpoints, leading panicked Marines with little choice but to open fire. Their commanders worried about how they would handle knowing they killed innocents.
“It is one thing to kill an insurgent in a head-on fight,” recalled Sgt. Major Edward T. Sax. “It is a whole different thing — and I hate to say it, the way we are raised in America — to injure a female or injure a child or in the worse case, kill a female or kill a child.”
Others became desensitized, and snapped photographs of themselves “taking shots at people,” recalled a colonel serving as a staff judge advocate.
But none of that actually explains the Haditha massacre. After all, only a small number of Marines took part in the assault. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel faced the same burdens of war and bore them honorably.
So to the mysteries of Haditha, add the question of how 400 pages of investigative documents wound up in the trash. Schmidt, who chanced upon the documents while working on an unrelated story, writes that the pages “were piled in military trailers and hauled to the junkyard by an Iraqi contractor who was trying to sell off the surplus from American bases.” An attendant told him, “These things are worthless to us, but we understand they are important and it is better to burn them to protect the Americans.” Many more pages of the history of the war have been lost to the fires of the junkyard.
The military has not explained why the pages were junked. “We don’t put official paperwork in the trash,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Richardson, who runs the logistics for the pullout, said in October. But that’s exactly what happened.
It’s hard not to see a metaphor here. There has been nearly no consistent news coverage of the Iraq war for three years. After President Obama couldn’t secure a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq, he portrayed the looming pullout as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. No one has seemed to mind. The airwaves will be filled with mawkish, holiday-time stories about the end to a grueling war. And afterwards few Americans will care to think about Iraq.
But after the troops and the news cameras return home, the U.S. will maintain its largest overseas diplomatic presence in Iraq. It will be protected by a hired army of over 5000 security contractors. Iran will vie with American for influence. The war will not end, it’ll just have fewer American combatants, assembled in a patchwork chain of command. And its history will be consigned to the scrapheap.
Via: Danger Room