When Soldiers Kill: A Meditation

It is a hard truth that Marc Goldberg reminds us of in his latest post here at TOI about the 57th anniversary of the massacre at Kfr Qasim: that soldiers sometimes kill outside the rules of engagement. All armies, however moral or upright, are composed of individuals, and, on occasion, some of those individuals will stray into unjustifiable criminality.

It happens, and it is a tribute to the high moral standards and the high value placed on human life in the IDF and Israeli society in general, that marked the outrage to the incident, both then and afterwards, rather than a celebration, as certain people today would do. In the face of decades of existential challenges to hearth and home, the soldiers of the IDF have upheld a code of honorable conduct that perhaps no other such fighting force in similar circumstances could sustain. Kudos to them.

Marc’s article nonetheless set me to thinking of this matter when soldiers kill, many incidents of which of course, dot the course of military history, but particularly of an incident, whose circumstances are still unclear, one that involved a group of  U.S. Marines in the Iraqi town of Haditha, and 24 dead Iraqis.


On the morning of November 19, 2005, the Marines of Kilo Company took fire after their vehicle hit an IED. The bomb killed Lance Corporal Miguel (T.J.) Terrazas, 20, from El Paso, Texas, who was driving, and injured two others. The Marines responded by promptly seeking out the source of the incoming fire. In the course of seeking out four dwellings, the Marines killed 24 Iraqis, 8 of whom they said were armed insurgents. Whether the 16 civilians killed was accidental, a deliberate slaughter of innocents, or a criminally negligent killing, we do not know; the subsequent court martial hearings were contradictory and inconclusive.

We thus do not know exactly what happened in Haditha on November 19, 2005. An interview with Chief Warrant Officer K. R. Norwood of Kilo Company, referenced by a NY Times article on the subject a few years back, has him answering a question posed to him whether civilian deaths were out of the ordinary, to which he responded,

“Not out of the ordinary, sir, because, I mean, we had 24 major operations in Huseba, you know, insurgents using houses with civilians in the basement with not knowing. Insurgents utilizing children as shields for implanting IEDs, I mean these–I mean , we had this everyday . And as the Ground.Watch Officer, I mean, I was so engaged. I mean, it just happened, and I don’t think you get sensitized to it, but it happened everyday, sir.”

Norwood was thus not talking here of coalition inflicted deaths, but of all civilian deaths. Other interviews here with the soldiers in his company similarly commented the tactics of the al-Qaeda insurgents, and their contempt for the lives of civilians.

Contrary to the thrust of the NY Times article, these sentiments do not indicate a casual indifference to civilian deaths; they indicate the stresses typical of young men living daily with the specter of combating a shadowy enemy ruthlessly indifferent to human life, let alone rules of engagement, and whose sole objective is to maximize confusion between civilians and combatants and wreak the greatest possible havoc to spur along a war of sectarian bloodletting.

We certainly failed the Iraqi people in the breathtaking incompetence of our post-war administration and lack of foresight, and our failure to protect them from both the chaos that ensued following the military operation, and the murderous depredations of Al-Zarqawi and his like in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). However, there is a moral distinction between trying and failing to protect, and deliberately planning and executing acts of indiscriminate mass-murder in the tens of thousands, and the attempts, aided and abetted by Iran, Syria and Al-Qaeda, to openly and unabashedly foment wholesale sectarian civil war and an even greater orgy of mass slaughter. The overwhelming number of these attacks were aimed at Iraqi civilians, not coalition troops.

The worst follies of the Americans and the coalition simply have nothing to compare with the nakedness of these acts of nihilistic evil, and it is nothing less than shameful that not one person on the anti-war left has a single word to say about this. The murderers of tens of thousands of innocents are not only excused by them from the crimes whose responsibility they so loudly and proudly claimed as their own, but are themselves given an ennobled status under the euphemistic obscenity of “resistance,” while those who, however imperfectly, fought and sacrificed to thwart the designs of these monsters, are portrayed as thuggish, imperialistic, racist grunts who would happily slaughter whole families in a fit of pique just to emphasize their displeasure. The moral myopia that informs this viewpoint is simply beyond belief.

Perhaps no form of warfare puts more strain on those who wage it than counterinsurgency. The confusion between civilian and combatant, the stress of knowing that today’s friendly civilian could be tomorrow’s assailant or terrorist, sap nerves and morale sometimes to breaking point. Almost all anti-guerrilla and anti-insurgent campaigns in history—the Peninsular War in Spain in 1808-1814, where Napoleon’s Grand Armee slowly bled to death under the blows of Spanish guerrillas and Wellington’s army (and immortalized in Goya’s “The Third of May,1808“), the Philippines in the 1890’s, and, of course, Vietnam, have incidents where soldiers have been involved in the deaths of civilians or prisoners of war.

Of course, there is the My Lai massacre, which is certainly the most famous incident of the Vietnam War. Here, the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division, commanded by Second Lieutenant William Calley, came upon the South Vietnamese village of My Lai on the morning of March 16, 1968, where the village and the surrounding hamlets were suspected of harboring Vietcong militants. Although no shots were fired at them, some soldiers in the platoon began firing at the civilians in the rice fields, shooting virtually anything that moved, others joined in, and some 3-400 civilians in the area had been murdered by the platoon at the end of the day. Some of the women had been gang-raped. When the matter came to light a year later, Calley claimed that he was just following the orders of his superior officer, Company Commander Captain Ernest Medina, but Medina denied giving any such order, and indeed, was acquitted of all charges in the court martial that followed, while Calley was convicted of premeditated murder.  Calley’s conviction was upheld by the Army Court of Military Review in 1973, and by the U.S. Court of Military Appeals in 1974.

One other particularly famous example occurred in the Second Boer War (1901-1902) between the British and the Boer Guerrillas of South Africa, which was one of the more brutal insurgent wars of the century. Australian Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, upon learning his commanding officer, Capt. Hunt, had been murdered in cold blood by Boer guerrillas and his body savagely abused, determined to avenge his murder. Morant responded “like a man demented, and…vowed there and then that he would give no quarter and take no prisoners.”

Morant then led a contingent and set about to the farm where Hunt had been killed in search of the perpetrators, only to find they had fled. After one engagement with guerillas, they captured a Boer insurgent named Visser, who was found to have clothes on resembling those of a British officer, thought to be of Capt. Hunt (They weren’t. In fact, it later turned out that Hunt had been killed in action, not murdered). Morant then ordered that Visser be shot; there were objections voiced by some, but one soldier carried out the shooting, botching the job and leaving him alive. Morant then had a subordinate carry out the coup de grace with a revolver. This was only the beginning. Morant then rampaged about killing some 20 Boer prisoners, including a German missionary who had witnessed the killings.

At his court martial, there was much talk about the brutality of the conflict, the stresses on the soldiers, and the savage behavior of the Boer guerillas. As with Calley at My Lai, the defense argued justification for Morant’s actions on orders from a superior officer. Again as with Calley, no such orders given could be proven to exist. George Ramsdale Witton, a fellow officer of Morant’s whose sentence was commuted, and who later published the book “Scapegoats of the Empire” (1907), which portrayed Morant’s conviction and execution as unjust and Morant himself as being sacrificed for behavior that was widespread and rampant throughout the conflict (and which formed the basis of the famous film “Breaker Morant”), had this to say:

“War is calculated to make men’s natures both callous and vengeful, and when civilised rules and customs are departed from on one side, reprisals are sure to follow on the other, and the shocking side of warfare in the shape of guerrilla tactics is then seen. At such a time it is not fair to judge the participants by the hard and fast rules of citizen life or the strict moral codes of peace. It is necessary to imagine one’s self amidst the same surroundings–in an isolated place, with the passions of war aroused, men half-starved, dangers constantly threatening from all quarters, and responsibilities crowding one upon another–to enable a fair decision to be reached.”

This is, of course, all true. But Lord Kitchener, the Commander in Chief of the British Army in South Africa, in a letter to the Australian government, touched also upon a truth not to be overlooked,

“In reply to your telegram, Morant, Handcock and Witton were charged with twenty separate murders, including one of a German missionary who had witnessed other murders. Twelve of these murders were proved. From the evidence it appears that Morant was the originator of these crimes which Handcock carried out in cold-blooded manner. The murders were committed in the wildest parts of the Transvaal, known as Spelonken, about eighty miles north of Pretoria, on four separate dates namely 02 July, 11 August, and 07 September, 1901. In one case, where eight Boer prisoners were murdered, it was alleged to have been done in a spirit of revenge for the ill treatment of one of their officers – Captain Hunt – who was killed in action. No such ill-treatment was proved. The prisoners were convicted after a most exhaustive trial, and were defended by counsel. There were, in my opinion, no extenuating circumstances. Lieutenant Witton was also convicted but I commuted the sentence to penal servitude for life, in consideration of his having been under the influence of Morant and Handcock. The proceedings have been sent home.”

Kitchener was right. These were cold blooded executions that no “fog of war” or extenuating circumstances in the heat of battle, could ever justify. To have condoned or ignored such atrocities would have been a moral travesty. Kitchener here upheld both the sentence and the principle that none are above the law, and that one man’s savagery can never be another man’s alibi for murder when his own life is not even threatened. When a prisoner avails himself to the custody of his captors, his life and security are inviolable under every custom of law and morality. Period.

(An appeal to the British Crown to review and overturn Morant’s court-martial and conviction three years ago was rightly rejected.)

These principles are sacrosanct, as all regarding non-combatant immunity must always be. The difference between Morant’s crime (or Calley’s) and the killings at Haditha is that Morant’s guilt was never in question and the circumstances at Haditha are still unclear. If this was a deliberate killing, nothing can excuse it. All we do know is that Marines that were subject to combat stresses and strains beyond what most of us can imagine were involved in an engagement that involved the deaths of 24 Iraqis.

And those strains are real, lasting long after shots are fired in anger. A U.S. Naval Medical Bulletin report examining combat fatigue in Marines on Guadalcanal in November 1942 said,

“Many of these patients reported being buried in foxholes, blown out of trees, blown through the air…Many who had no anxiety in the daytime would develop a state of anxiety and nervous tension at night. These were shadow troops. They were the young ancients, the old young, staring with a fixed thousand yard stare out of eyes that were red-rimmed and sunken. Their bodies were taut rags of flesh stretched over sticks of bone. They had come to Guadalcanal muscular and high spirited young men, but now their high fervor had ebbed and nearly flowed away. They were hanging on by habit only, fighting out of the rut of an old valor.”

General Alexander Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal, had no illusions about the price of that valor. He had seen too many brave men whose nerves and physique could no longer bear the strain of explosions and flying shrapnel. One officer came to him and said, “I am awfully sorry, sir, but I know I cannot stand another shelling and I do not want to crack up in front of my men.” Vandegrift sent him to the hospital, where, rested and apparently cured, he once again braved open combat, only to collapse again in a fit of nerves. The doctor who treated the officer did not understand, but Vandegrift did. “I did not ask because I knew,” he wrote. “It is not a matter of physical build, stamina, faith, courage, or what have you. It is a matter of man, and thus fortune…’There but for the grace of God go I.’”

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.