“They know we frequent the schools…”

A couple of years ago I quoted the writer Frank Schaeffer– the father of a US Marine– about the class inequality of military service, an issue which people on both the Left and the Right seem reluctant to confront.

In Saturday’s Washington Post Schaeffer writes about the Haditha massacre, and notes that wars fought for even the best reasons are never pure.

He quotes from a book by Norman Lewis, who was stationed with the British army in Naples toward the end of World War II.

“What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos . . .

“I saw an ugly sight: a British officer interrogating a civilian, and repeatedly hitting him about the head with the chair; treatment which the [civilian], his face a mask of blood, suffered with stoicism. At the end of the interrogation, which had not been considered successful, the officer called on a private and asked him in a pleasant, conversational sort of manner, ‘Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?’ The private’s reply was to spit on his hands, and say, ‘I don’t mind if I do, sir.’

“I received confirmation . . . that American combat units were ordered by their officers to beat to death [those] who attempted to surrender to them. These men seem very naive and childlike, but some of them are beginning to question the ethics of this order.

“We liberated them from the Fascist Monster. And what is the prize? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared to us.”

Replace “Mussolini” with “Saddam” and you get one of the more mindless criticisms of the invasion of Iraq– which doesn’t stop Michael “Flying Kites” Moore and countless others from repeating it.

Add to Lewis’s account the thousands of other atrocities surely committed by Allied forces during World War II, and the hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians killed by the deliberate bombing of their neighborhoods, and the Iraq war seems almost pristine by comparison. And yet who will say that the world isn’t a better place for the Allies having fought and defeated the Axis? Who will argue (as some have about Abu Ghraib and Haditha) that the Second World War atrocities were sufficient cause for stopping the fight and going home?

Abu Ghraib and Haditha have sickened me, and those responsible need to be held to account– up to the highest ranks, including the secretary of defense. Having never experienced combat, I can’t begin to imagine how stressful it is. But neither can I imagine any circumstances in which it is justified to shoot defenseless women and children.

And yet I also know that on the coalition side, atrocities are the exception and not a matter of strategy– in contrast to the other side in the fight.

Far more common are efforts by American soldiers to help Iraqis, as described in a 2004 Washington Post report:

Three dozen restless young boys waited in a line outside the cramped schoolhouse office [in Samarra], inching toward a grinning Health Ministry official administering measles shots. First Sgt. Dale Veneklasen, his pocket full of crisp $20 bills, walked in to see what, if anything, the school needed by way of help.

The school, teeming with students on a Saturday, showed the progress being made here, he said.

Within seconds, a hefty blast rocked the room, causing the brisk late morning air to surge. Screaming children scattered into a concrete breezeway, some still holding cotton balls against their arms. Teachers gasped and ran. Veneklasen and members of his Hellraisers platoon darted outside and into a nearby intersection where AK-47 fire erupted in a short burst amid lingering smoke.

Nearby, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in a rocket-propelled grenade attack as they toured the city’s schools as part of a civil affairs mission. The strike apparently came from behind a dirt berm in the middle of one of Samarra’s most tumultuous neighborhoods, a place where insurgents have launched several attacks in recent weeks.
On Saturday, the soldiers stopped at a dozen schools to monitor progress on reconstruction projects and to make sure that U.S. grants are being spent appropriately. One school had just received kerosene heaters for the classrooms but had no fuel for them, so the students sat in frozen classrooms wearing winter coats and snow pants. Ice-capped puddles dotted the school’s courtyard.
“They study our habits,” said 1st Lt. Mark Murray, 24, of Fond du Lac, Wis., leader of the Hellraisers. Twenty-six of the 42 soldiers under his command have been wounded in action. “They know we frequent the schools, and they target us there.”

And those who believe– based on scattered events– that US soldiers in Iraq are cold-blooded monsters (or more typically, those who seek to create that impression) should spend a few moments studying this photo of a GI comforting a child fatally wounded in a car bomb blast in Mosul in 2005:

us soldier and iraqi child.jpg
–Photo by Michael Yon

Update: See Peter Beinart’s comment on Haditha.