The Haditha Incident (also called the Haditha Killings or Haditha Massacre) is one of the most emotionally charged, hotly debated events of America’s recent wars. Many proclaim themselves knowledgeable on the topic, but when you dig deeper, you learn that they cannot know as much as they think they do.

This isn’t their fault. Those who really know aren’t talking.

Kenneth Englade is an investigative journalist and author of eight previous books about high-profile civilian trials. He writes that his latest book, Meltdown in Haditha: The Killing of 24 Iraqi Civilians by U.S. Marines and the Failure of Military Justice, was by far his most difficult book to research. He often thought of giving up. Most of the court documents to which he would normally have access were classified, and he received little help from any Marine or military lawyer, serving or retired. Even those who had no inside knowledge of the case wouldn’t help him, refusing to merely clarify U.S. military jargon and legal processes. When he asked a retired Army JAG officer from the Vietnam era why this retiree wouldn’t help, the former JAG replied: “Because you’re wasting your time . . . The fix is in. You’re never going to get anything meaningful.”

Meltdown in Haditha proves this retiree wrong, shedding some much-needed light on the Haditha incident and its messy legal aftermath. Ultimately, what is publicly known and what is ambiguous about the incident resolves into a clarion call for military change. Reaching the sound of this call, though, can be a distressing journey for the open-minded reader to travel, especially if the reader is American and, even more so, if this reader has ever served in the U.S. military.

Hell House

Englade starts the reader on this painful journey with a description of the First Battle of Fallujah. The 1stMarine Expeditionary Force (1MEF) assumed military responsibility for Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in early 2004. 1MEF leaders expected their Marines to set a new standard for cultural sensitivity, leveraging this sensitivity to win respect, establish dialogue, and earn locals’ acquiescence in the formation of a new Iraqi government. Their expectation didn’t last long. When four American contractors were killed in Fallujah and their bodies publicly burned, the national command authority ordered the 1MEF to seize the city and punish the perpetrators. The 1MEF quickly complied, assaulting the city with 2,000 men. After four days of intense fighting with insurgents, the U.S. unilaterally declared a ceasefire. An ad hoc “Fallujah Brigade” consisting largely of former Iraqi Army officers was permitted to try to restore order.

The faux peace failed with the dissolution of this “brigade” in September. Englade writes that both “insurgents and Marines girded for a second, more violent showdown.” In November, the 1MEF established a 5000-man-strong cordon around the city and assaulted the city with 10,000 Marines, soldiers, and sailors. Since women, children, and the elderly had been allowed to leave the city, the 1MEF’s Rules of Engagement (ROE) were relaxed. The combination of permissive ROE, overwhelming U.S. firepower, and entrenched insurgents made the Second Battle of Fallujah the most kinetic battle of the war. The 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Division (3/1 Battalion), the assault’s main effort, was in the thick of the fighting. One especially intense fight was for what they called “Hell House,” a structure designed for defense and manned by well-armed insurgents. One Marine was killed and nearly a dozen wounded before it was decided to blow up rather than occupy the structure. When the battle was over, the 1MEF held the city. It was an impressive, albeit inevitable, tactical victory.

Englade argues that the Marine Corps may have been slow to recognize this battle’s uniqueness. This kind of fighting was the exception, not the rule, and the Marine Corps as an institution—from the commandant to young Marines listening with envy to the stories of those “who had been there”—may not have fully embraced this fact. Less than a year later, the 1MEF redeployed to Al Anbar Province. By this point, residents needed the respectful, culturally attuned organization that 1MEF leaders had once trained their unit to be. Ironically and tragically—with at least a few Marines still stuck in memories of the great battles for Fallujah, others dreaming of earning such memories for themselves—this wasn’t the unit Iraqis always got.

The stage set, Englade’s narrative shifts to Haditha. During the early twilight hours of November 19, 2005, a squad from Kilo Company, 3/1 Battalion, ran its regular re-supply mission from their base to a checkpoint five miles away. Mission ROE allowed them to fire into civilian buildings only if insurgents were using them for military purposes or if necessary for self-defense. It also required positive identification (a reasonable certainty) that the proposed target was a legitimate military target.

The squad’s convoy of four Humvees was returning from the checkpoint when, after turning a corner, the last vehicle hit an IED. The vehicle was thrown several feet in the air, instantly killing the driver. As Englade graphically describes, the Marine’s “upper torso came to rest on Route Chestnut while the lower portion of his body was wedged beneath the Humvee’s steering wheel.”

Englade recounts how five Iraqi men immediately happened upon the scene in a white Opel sedan. Four of the Iraqis were students, and the fifth had been hired to drive them to their nearby technical school. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. The squad leader forced the men out of the car at gunpoint, then killed them. He would testify that the five men were running away when he shot them. Another Marine—granted immunity from prosecution—would testify that the Iraqis were standing, some with their hands behind their heads, when the squad leader opened fire. He would also testify that the squad leader shot each a second time from close range, that he himself urinated in the open head wound of one of the dead Iraqis, and that the squad leader would later ask him to lie when questioned and say that the Iraqis “were running away” when shot. A Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigator would testify, based on photographic evidence, that he believed at least four of the Iraqis had been standing still when shot.

The Marines searched the vehicle and found no weapons, IED materials, or any device that could’ve been used as a detonator. The company’s Quick Reaction Force drove up, and the squad’s platoon leader dismounted. A Marine pointed to the south, telling the lieutenant that “he had seen someone shooting at them from a corner of the house.” Whether they were actually shot at would be later disputed, with Marines giving conflicting accounts. As Englade writes, if someone did shoot at the Marines, “the contact was quickly broken.” The platoon leader ordered them to “Clear south!” and, while the squad ran to the first house, their squad leader told them to treat the house as “hostile” and to “Shoot first and ask questions later.”

He would also testify that the squad leader shot each a second
time from close range, that he himself urinated in the open head
wound of one of the dead Iraqis, and that the squad leader would later ask him to lie when questioned and say that the Iraqis “were running away” when shot.

At the first house, the squad leader kicked the door in, and the Marines found themselves facing a 76-year-old Iraqi man in a wheelchair. Englade writes that a Marine “fired a quick burst into his chest, killing him instantly.” The old man’s 66-year-old wife, who had been standing at his side, turned to run. She, too, was gunned down. Peering into a dimly lit room from the hallway, a Marine saw an Iraqi man, asked for permission to shoot, then did so, killing the man.

Two Marines would later swear that, in a shadowy room on the far side of the hallway, they heard an AK-47 being racked for fire. They prepped the room with grenades and entered, as one Marine would testify, “firing at silhouettes.” Prosecutors would later present photographic evidence that two of the men and three of the women killed in this house were shot “execution style” and that, as Englade writes, “one of the women was killed by a shot to the base of the skull while she was in a cowering position, with her arm around a young boy, who was also shot in the head.”

They found an open door at the rear of the house, and another Marine yelled that he had seen someone run out this door to an adjoining house. It would be later determined that this Iraqi was likely a woman holding her two-month-old daughter.

Running to the adjoining house, they knocked on the door. The squad leader whispered to one of the Marines: “Wait until someone comes, then shoot.” When no one came, they walked around the house. Looking through the glass pane of a second door, they saw a man peek around a doorframe at them. One of the Marines fired through the glass, killing him. The squad leader and two Marines—both “Hell House” veterans—rushed inside. Then, as was done at Fallujah, they entered “every room with a boom”—grenades followed by rifle fire. One of the Marines would testify that he looked in one room and closed the door, telling the more senior lance corporal with him that there were only women and children in the room. Under oath, he would state that the other Marine told him to shoot them, and when he didn’t, the lance corporal pushed by him and shot them himself. An NCIS agent would testify that the lance corporal told him that he had known that at least one person in the room was a child but had shot him anyway. However, since this Marine would later retract this statement and had never reviewed or signed the copies of his questioning, this agent’s testimony would fail to constitute conclusive evidence of a crime.

Englade summarizes: “Later, following a body count, it was discovered that the team, in less than 30 minutes, had killed 20 Iraqis: five on the shoulder of Route Chestnut, seven in House One, and eight in House Two. The dead included six children, age 5 to 14, and four women . . . . Three children were wounded, including a 13-year-old girl who survived by pretending she was dead.” No weapons, IED material or potential IED trigger device were found in either house.

Three hours later, the squad noticed Iraqi males jumping up and down on the other side of another compound’s wall, trying to look at them. Englade reports that the squad leader and two Marines went to investigate. In one house, they found a teenage boy, a few women and an infant. The squad leader asked where the men were, and a woman pointed to the other house in the compound. The three Marines went to the house and shot and killed four adult brothers, two of whom they would later testify were carrying AK-47s. They would swear they found a suitcase with Jordanian passports and currency and that they placed this evidence in the back of a Humvee to be transported to battalion headquarters, logged, and stored. Months later, investigators would be unable to locate this evidence. Two other Marines would tell investigators that one of the three Marines at this house boasted to them about how he had lied and fooled investigators. Iraqi family members would state that they believed the four brothers had been herded into a back room and executed.

The Cover-up

Next, Englade describes the Marines’ grossly inaccurate reporting. Kilo Company’s initial report to its higher headquarters falsely stated that eight insurgents had been killed, a map and $2000 in U.S. currency had been found in one of the houses, some civilians had been killed in the IED explosion and others in the cross-fire between insurgents and Marines, and the battalion commander had traveled to the site to assess the situation (that is, to verify reported facts). The 2nd Marine Division relayed this false information three days later to the public in a news release. The 3/1 Battalion intelligence officer created a “storyboard”—a PowerPoint narrative—derived from this false report. The storyboard’s narrative was still further removed from the truth than the report, failing to even mention that civilians had been killed in the houses.

Englade points to other signs of a cover-up. After a staff sergeant took photos of victims’ faces to compare to images in an insurgent database, his lieutenant ordered him to destroy the photos. The platoon leader submitted a praise-filled, obfuscating recommendation for the squad leader to receive an Army Commendation Medal with a “V” (for valor) device. Contrary to policy, any mention of the incident was absent from the company’s radio and watch logs. The company commander told a battalion staff officer that the four students in the Opel had been armed with chest rigs and carrying weapons and ammo. The company’s executive officer would testify that he heard his battalion and company commander discussing how to “spin” the incident. The battalion commander refused to initiate an investigation, despite being encouraged to do so by two majors on his staff. This suppression of the truth, Englade suggests, extended to the top: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directed the Marine Commandant to say nothing to the press about the incident, and the Marine Corps Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and Judge Advocate issued a policy memorandum forbidding Marines to talk about it.

It’s likely that little about this event would’ve ever been uncovered if not for an Iraqi who took video footage of the bodies and forwarded this footage to Tim McGirk, a Time magazine reporter. McGirk talked to the Marine Corps’ senior PAO in Iraq, who put the reporter in contact with the 3/1 Battalion Commander. The battalion commander asked the company commander and his executive officer to draft a written response to the reporter’s questions. Englade describes the junior officers’ answers as inaccurate and sarcastic, to include their stating that eight AK-47s had been found in the homes and insurgents had “honorably” used civilians as human shields during a firefight.

Unsatisfied, McGirk showed the video to the coalition forces’ senior PAO. The PAO showed the video to Lieutenant General (LTG) Peter Chiarelli, the Multi-National Corps-Iraq commander. LTG Chiarelli promptly appointed a colonel to investigate the charges. In late February, this colonel conducted interviews for a week. His written findings essentially repeated the storyboard’s false narrative. He did, however, recommend that a more thorough investigation be conducted. LTG Chiarelli sent Major General Eldon Bargewell to Haditha with a large team of investigators. Meanwhile, Major General Richard Zilmer, the top Marine commander in Iraq, announced that he had asked the NCIS to conduct a criminal probe.

Under greater pressure and scrutiny, the storyboard’s false narrative came apart. In his final report, Major General Bargewell concluded that Kilo Company’s initial reports were “untimely, inaccurate, and incomplete.” He reported that many Marines at the company and battalion levels displayed “questionable candor,” including the squad leader and a subordinate, who “had on four separate occasions discussed lying about specific events related to their involvement in some of the killings.” He faulted battalion and regimental leaders for failing “to adequately scrutinize information reported by Company K that was untimely and incomplete and of obvious questionable accuracy.” And “ranking high on Bargewell’s list of negatives,” Englade writes, “was the discovery than an attitude prevailed at all levels of command that Iraqi lives were not as important as American ones.”

The NCIS investigation involved more than 50 agents, the “largest NCIS contingent investigating a single incident involving a Marine since 1987, when a sergeant named Clayton Lonetree was accused of spying for the Soviets.” The NCIS’s voluminous report remains classified. What is public knowledge is that the NCIS believed there was enough evidence to recommend criminal prosecutions. Consequently, in late December 2006, “the Corps announced that charges ranging from dereliction of duty to multiple counts of murder had been preferred against four officers and four enlisted men.”

During the Article 32 hearings—the military equivalent of grand jury proceedings—more damning evidence was offered. A Marine sergeant testified that, before the incident, the aforementioned lance corporal had told him that Marines should be able to approach combat as they had in the Bible, “where you just go in the city and kill every living thing.” Similarly, in another hearing, he testified that the squad leader told him that, if they were hit by an IED again, “we should kill everybody in the vicinity to teach them a lesson.” He also testified that, when his squad mates signed the rucksack of the driver killed by the IED and sent the rucksack to this Marine’s family, the lance corporal “had inscribed two dozen hashmarks signifying the number of civilians killed in the incident” and written on the bag, “This one’s for you.” Englade’s recounts other damning circumstantial evidence, far too much to fully list in an essay.

Nonetheless, with the court-martials over, only one Marine had been convicted of one minor crime, “negligent discharge of duty.” Englade writes:

The Corps—with help from willing civilian defense attorneys—cloaked the proceedings in secrecy, shut out the media, and prolonged the processes for an unprecedented five years. In the end, charges were dismissed against six of the accused, including the battalion commander. One junior officer was tried and acquitted. The only conviction was that of the NCO who led the assaults. Originally accused of murdering 18 people, the sergeant was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a general discharge under honorable conditions. He never spent a day in the brig and was absolved of paying a fine that could have been assessed as a result of his plea.

To be sure, military careers were ruined. Englade points out that two of the enlisted Marines granted immunity from prosecution were discharged for their admittedly lying to investigators when first asked about the incident. The company commander and battalion commander were relieved from command, and the regimental commander, division commander, and the division commander’s chief of staff received letters of censure from the Secretary of the Navy. It’s fair to say, though, that the careers lost pale in significance to what 24 Iraqis and their loved ones lost one early morning in Haditha.

The courtroom verdicts represent to Englade a clear “failure of military justice.” This is contrary to how many observers interpreted these verdicts. For them, the lack of serious criminal convictions was vindication, not just of the Marines involved but of the Marine Corps and U.S. military. Despite being convicted of a misdemeanor, the squad leader was welcomed home as a hero, with a local veterans’ chapter throwing a banquet in his honor. For such patriots, good Marines had been unfairly persecuted, and, after military juries heard classified and unclassified evidence, the truth prevailed.

Meltdown in Haditha makes clear that this interpretation is rooted in wishful thinking. Crimes unquestionably occurred. Two Marines—granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony—admitted to war crimes and violations of ROE. However, their testimony was not compelling enough to lead to any convictions. Irreparably damaging their credibility was the fact that each confessed to having lied to investigators before allegedly coming clean, and each admitted to having committed crimes themselves. It was easy for defense attorneys to argue that they were the only villains and that it was likely that the two Marines were admitting to some crimes but covering up others that they themselves had committed.

Other evidence failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” exactly who had performed what crimes. Some photos likely depicted execution-style murders of civilians, but it remained conceivable that gunshots had been fired from ten feet away in dust-filled rooms rather than from a foot or two away. A forensic examination of the bodies would have settled the question of firing range, but surviving Iraqi family members refused to allow victims’ bodies to be exhumed. What also might have settled the question would have been a timely forensic examination of the homes, but these buildings had been cleaned and repaired (probably using U.S. funds) by the time investigators belatedly arrived in Haditha. Also, investigators could not locate any confiscated physical evidence, such as the white Opel sedan and the two AK-47s reportedly carried by two of the four brothers killed. Most harmful to the government’s cases, the Marines who testified were clearly reluctant to implicate their fellow Marines, so much so that, during the squad leader’s court martial, the lead prosecutor complained to the judge that he couldn’t think of a single Marine witness who actually wanted to help the government.

Remember Haditha

Meltdown in Haditha also makes clear that Marines lied under oath, and that this number is more likely than not to be a large, rather than a small, number. The real question is not whether false testimony was given, but rather who gave false testimony about what and when. In short, contrary to wishful thinking and popular myth, none of the Kilo Company Marines were heroes in this incident. Each let down his country. Each contributed in some way to what would become an insurgent propaganda coup and rallying cry—“Remember Haditha!”

So, if Englade is right, and this incident is an example of war crimes and a miscarriage of military justice, what is to be done to prevent future Hadithas? Englade suggests that successful prosecutions were to some degree doomed by the 1MEF’s reluctance to immediately initiate an investigation. This may be true, but ensuring prompt investigations in a war zone is easier said than done. It is one thing for military leaders to accept as principle the idea that investigations should be initiated promptly; yet another for busy, stressed combat leaders to recognize that they must suspend their trust in their subordinates’ reporting and initiate an investigation.

Englade also believes that peculiarities of the U.S. military’s legal system stymied any remaining possibility for successful prosecutions. He is most concerned about military court proceedings’ lack of public transparency and accountability. Information is typically classified so as to protect military operations or methods of intelligence-collection: Does a republic’s military have the right to classify information—information that would be a matter of public record in civilian proceedings—in order to save itself from public censure and embarrassment? Englade believes the answer is a resounding no, arguing that no institution can consistently exhibit “just” practices without public scrutiny and accountability.

Englade finds this lack of accountability particularly troubling in light of the great authority military commanders have in criminal cases. He contends that, with regard to Haditha, a lack of accountability allowed the cases’ “Convening Authority,” Lieutenant General James Mattis (who Englade accuses of “extreme command arrogance”), to refuse to prefer charges against some Marines and to dismiss charges against other Marines with no apparent rationale; to grant immunity from prosecution to five Marines who “provided no relevant testimony;” to appoint presiding officers who may not have been fully qualified to perform this duty; and to exert “unlawful command influence” in the case of the battalion commander, leading to this case’s dismissal.

Civilian Justice

In the book’s final pages, Englade recommends that the U.S. adopt a legal system like that of the British military. In 2006, the UK abolished separate courts for the military services, consolidating them into a single court presided over by a civilian judge appointed by civilians. In this unified military court, all prosecutors and most defense lawyers are civilians. “Almost the only remnants of the military in the British system,” he writes, “are the authority to conduct investigations of alleged violations of the military code by military police, and a commanding officer’s right to conduct hearings in misdemeanor cases involving military personnel.”

Would putting civilians in charge of the Haditha legal proceedings have ensured more “just” criminal proceedings? Probably not. It’s unlikely that Lieutenant General Mattis, a senior commander who had disciplined hundreds of Marines during his career (some no doubt with prison terms), placed the welfare of a few Marines before his sense of duty. He was probably no more inclined to protect members of his “tribe” than a civilian official would be to show “due honor” to a servicemember.

More interesting is Englade’s argument about the need for greater public scrutiny of military court proceedings. As compelling as his argument is, greater transparency alone would not be enough to prevent future Hadithas. If a group of warriors—men conditioned and expected to break the ultimate social taboo, that against killing human beings—wish to exact vengeance on a perceived enemy and their loyalty to each other is such that they are willing to lie under oath to save each other, how likely is it that the threat of surer punishment would prevent their exacting vengeance? Isn’t it possible that, for some, this threat would only give them added incentive to lie and cover up anything remotely incriminating?

The Role of Psychology, Military Culture

A more comprehensive solution to preventing future Hadithas must involve psychology. A former Marine Commandant, General Charles Krulak, said that the modern warrior needs to be prepared to wage a “three–block war,” one with a high-intensity battle on one city block, low-intensity conflict and peacekeeping on a second block, and humanitarian operations on a third. U.S. military leaders have understood that this kind of war is difficult, since it requires servicemembers to possess different, complex skill sets for each block. The Haditha Incident indicates that this type of warfare may be even harder than thought, due to the psychological difficulty servicemembers may have transitioning from the first block of war to the second and third blocks.

In 2006 and 2007, mental health surveys of hundreds of U.S. Marines and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan recorded that 10 percent believed they had mistreated noncombatants or damaged property “when not necessary.” The Haditha Incident suggests that one reason so many combat operators engaged in gratuitous violence may have been their difficulty adjusting to low-intensity conflict after the high-intensity battles of 2003 and 2004. More research needs to be done, but it seems likely that, when moving from the first block of war to the second or third, Marines and soldiers require more counseling, education, and training than previously considered. ROE training alone is not nearly enough. It’s also fair to say that, if the psychological cost and difficulty to the warrior of modern warfare is higher than commonly understood, then this higher cost should factor into any nation’s decision to go to war.

A comprehensive solution must also counter a common misapprehension within the ranks about how to successfully conduct “information operations.” This misapprehension is the idea that a leader can “spin” or “control” the narrative so that the desired message is what is always communicated. Its proponents argue that “the truth is what we say it is,” and if a unit’s members repeat the same upbeat story or talking points, then—whether the story is correct or not—it will become subjective “truth.” In the 21stcentury, though, the idea that leaders can “spin” or “control” the narrative is proving increasingly illusory. There are just too many media sources that a population can access for U.S. military leaders to believe that they can ever be deceptive and maintain the trust of any population, whether this population be abroad or at home. As a few military leaders learned to their chagrin at Haditha, even in the chaos that was Al Anbar Province in 2005, many residents owned handheld telecommunications devices and were connected to the internet. Far wiser is it for military leaders to attempt to “influence” rather than “control” the narrative, and the only way to consistently exert such influence is to always speak the truth about your units’ actionsand do your utmost to ensure these actions are justifiable. Words must reflect actions, and vice versa.

Most importantly, though, any real solution must address military culture. One aspect of this culture that needs righting is an over-emphasis on brotherhood. Marines repeat as mantra “Semper Fidelis,” a motto understood to place a Marine’s devotion to other Marines on the same pedestal as other values, such as service to nation and others. Once a Marine, always a Marine, and, it is understood, Marines always take care of each other. Likewise, the Army holds as a core value “loyalty” and ranks equally soldiers’ loyalty to each other with other core values, such as honesty, integrity (doing what’s legal and moral), duty, and selfless service. If the Marine Corps and U.S. Army truly do not want their members to “close ranks” and conspire to lie to “outsiders”—if they truly value “honesty” and “duty” more than “loyalty” to their chain-of-command and each other—then doctrine, education, and training needs to make this clearer.

To listen to many servicemembers speak, the enemy is a dirty “raghead,” crazy “haji,” or, more commonly, a despicable “terrorist” sharing few qualities in common with ourselves.

Another aspect of military culture that must change is a tendency within some units to accept, even encourage, dehumanizing the enemy. It‘s not surprising that Major General Bargewell faulted the 1MEF for considering the lives of Iraqis to be worth much less than the lives of Marines. In this reviewer’s experience, contempt for the enemy—and sometimes even the population in which the enemy hides—is fairly common in our military. To listen to many servicemembers speak, the enemy is a dirty “raghead,” crazy “haji,” or, more commonly, a despicable “terrorist” sharing few qualities in common with ourselves. A “terrorist” is not someone who is courageous and moved by lofty ideals or passions; he is incomprehensibly cruel, deranged, cowardly, and even “evil.” This tendency toward dehumanization is understandable. Dehumanizing the enemy makes easier in the short term the exercise of a unique military function, that of performing extreme violence against human beings, and we Homo sapiens are hard-wired to find it easier to kill a dangerous predator, a disease-carrying rodent or insect, or a food item than to kill a member of our own group.

Dehumanizing the Enemy

As understandable as this tendency may be, the Haditha Incident serves as a case study for why dehumanizing the enemy does more harm than good: dehumanization destroys restraint and can permit rage and cruelty to run unchecked again a select “other.” Such cruelty lies at the heart of atrocity, and, in the “information age,” stories of atrocity can create adverse strategic effects far more serious than even the worst tactical battlefield defeat. There is still another problem with dehumanization—what it can do to those who dehumanize. The psychologist Dr. Jonathan Shay is one of several psychologists who have written extensively about what happens when the rage clears and those who go “berserk” realize that the beings they’ve killed or harmed were just as human as they are. These psychologists describe such knowledge as leading to “moral injury” and, potentially, life-long self-handicapping feelings and behavior. While it isn’t public knowledge whether or not participants in the killings at Haditha feel today debilitating remorse for their actions, it’s likely that at least a couple do. Limiting our military culture’s tendency to dehumanize will not be easy. The first step toward correcting this tendency would be simply acknowledging at the military’s institutional level that dehumanizing others may be a problem.

It’s worth noting that this problem of culture is much broader than the U.S. military. Underlying domestic crises like the recent Baltimore riots, for example, is the perception that, when policemen commit crimes, other members of their “tribe” are “closing ranks” to protect them. Also underlying these crises is the perception that, in some police units, there is a tradition of racism.

In closing, Meltdown in Haditha is not literature per se. Its prose is simple, rarely lyrical, and not nearly as lurid as you might expect, considering Englade’s experience writing books on sensational criminal trials. Although the authors lack of military experience sometimes shows, his narrative and judgments are usually well-supported by the available evidence, to include investigative reports and Article 32 hearing transcripts. This generally workmanlike approach to a polarizing subject should make the book accessible to most readers. If readers can finish this distressing read, they will find illuminated the dark corners of a terrible incident as well as much larger national issues. It’s a painful journey worth making. Any open-minded American interested in making our nation stronger and, in the 21st century, our military more successful—more politically attuned, just, and humane—would benefit from reading this book.

[Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons] 

MELTDOWN IN HADITHA: The Killing of 24 Iraqi Civilians by U.S. Marines and the Failure of Military Justice
By Kenneth F. Englade
McFarland Publishing, 276 pages, $35 (paperback)


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *