Marines involved in the alleged massacre at Haditha, Iraq, went on trial this week. The New York Times’ Paul von Zielbauer talks about a knowingly false press-release put forth by the military, and says that without media attention, there may not have been any military investigation at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, four Marines faced a hearing for their roles in the alleged November, 2005 massacre in the Iraq village of Haditha. After one of their own was killed by a roadside bomb, Marines allegedly murdered 24 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in a fit of rage.
The details are gruesome. On Thursday, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified that he urinated on one of the civilian corpses. But the prosecution is about more than a murderous rampage. It is also about the conduct of the military afterwards, as an attempted whitewash finally gave way to an investigation.
Paul von Zielbauer, a reporter for The New York Times, is at Camp Pendleton covering the hearings. Paul, welcome to On the Media. PAUL von ZIELBAUER: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Let's go back to November, 2005. Tell me, please, what happened immediately after the civilians were shot? PAUL von ZIELBAUER: There were a number of reports that came from the platoon leader that said there were 15 what they call NKIAs - noncombatant killed in action, another word for civilians, along with eight enemy. And, of course, there was one Marine, Miguel Terrazas, who died in the roadside bombing of a convoy that started the whole incident. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there was an official explanation for the civilians' death that appeared very shortly thereafter. Tell me what it was. PAUL von ZIELBAUER: I believe it was the next day the Marines put out a new release for the reporters in Iraq and elsewhere that said that 15 Iraqi civilians had been killed as a result of the roadside bomb, I believe the exact language was.
Of course, this would lead anyone who reads it to believe that a roadside bomb by insurgents blew up, killed a Marine and also killed 15 Iraqis who happened to just be in that area. But, as we know now, that's not at all what happened, and it's not even what the Marines thought happened at the time they put out this release. BOB GARFIELD: But then, a few months later, up pops a reporter named Tim McGirk, of Time Magazine, who started asking questions about the incident because, for one thing, the cause of death, rifle shots and grenade explosions, did not square with the roadside bomb story. What was the Marines' response to McGirk's first inquiries? PAUL von ZIELBAUER: The senior commanders really viewed McGirk's questions as inflammatory, as sensational, as one Marine officer put it, and as biased, and informed by the mayor of Haditha, who all the Marines considered a sympathizer to the Sunni insurgency. So they saw McGirk basically as a tool, a naive tool of people who were trying to hurt the Marines and their mission in Anbar Province. BOB GARFIELD: Nonetheless, if I'm in charge and I get an inquiry from Time Magazine about my Marines having been responsible for an atrocity, I don't accept, well, this guy's been spun. I go immediately to find out what happened on that day, and how. Was an investigation immediately launched? PAUL von ZIELBAUER: No. I mean, no investigation was launched. In fact, in the environment in which they were operating – and they make a great point of saying they were fighting for perhaps not the hearts and minds, but what they call the ‘fence-sitters’ in Iraq – that is, the Iraqi civilians who are deciding whether to go with the insurgents or whether to cast their lot with the Americans.
And the propaganda war was very heavy, and they felt like Mr. McGirk was simply feeding the enemy. BOB GARFIELD: Of course, now it turns out that there is an eyewitness, a noncom, Sergeant Dela Cruz, who I mentioned earlier, who, under immunity, has testified to just that point-blank assassination. At what point did the military start to take this seriously? PAUL von ZIELBAUER: The Marines began taking this seriously when Mr. McGirk brought a video that he had been given by people in Haditha of the aftermath showing the dead women and children and so forth in these homes. And he showed it to the spokesman for the military in Baghdad, and that spokesman brought word of that video to his boss, Lieutenant General Peter Corelli. General Corelli then, on February 12th of '06, sent an email to General Richard Huck, who is the ultimate commander for these Marines,
And he said, you know, Time Magazine seems to be alleging certain things. What do you know of it? And as we heard in testimony, General Huck testified he didn't know about it at all. He hadn't been told, he said. But now that his boss was asking questions, that's when Marines began actually investigating. BOB GARFIELD: Paul, I just want to share something with you. When I first read about Haditha, my heart sank in a way that I cannot remember it sinking before, because in that moment, I lost some special sense about what American troops fighting abroad I had always been taught just didn't do. And the way the military has handled this investigation – or not handled it – it makes me wonder if there are many other Hadithas out there lacking a Tim McGirk to discover them.
Do we have any reason to think that this is happening in more places than this one isolated village? PAUL von ZIELBAUER: I think in insurgent and counterinsurgent warfare that you're seeing in Iraq now, I don't think any professor at any war college would be able to say you're able to win or even fight a war like this without those kinds of things unfortunately happening.
There's no excusing the needless killing of people who are not armed. On the other hand, I've talked to a lot of Marines and soldiers, and I've been to Iraq myself, and the pressure that these guys are under every day, you know, is very intense. And the Marines have a slogan – you know, be kind and courteous, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet. That's the central reality of a young Marine in Iraq. BOB GARFIELD: Paul, thank you very much for joining us. PAUL von ZIELBAUER: It's my pleasure. Thanks. BOB GARFIELD: Paul von Zielbauer is a reporter for The New York Times.