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Military and Media were Slow to Probe Haditha
By Greg Mitchell
June 4, 2006

Time magazine carried the first article about the alleged massacre in March. After covering the Time revelations, the media largely failed to follow up for more than two months. What happened? And why did the press downplay previous reports of wrongdoing by U.S. troops?

By Greg Mitchell

(June 04, 2006) -- By now, it's clear that the U.S. military engaged in some kind of cover-up of an apparent massacre in Haditha. Following the November killings it took months for an official investigation to begin. But even as reporters explore the story now, with impressive and detailed probes that often end up on the front page, the question must be asked: Did the press also drop the ball in probing the killings? Or was the usual roadblock – the danger of spending a lot of time in hellish Anbar province – just too difficult to overcome?

In any case, have editors and reporters back home, for three years now, shown too little interest in possible—some would say, likely—American atrocities in the heat of horrible pressures in Iraq?

An Associated Press story from Baghdad on Sunday quoted Hassan Bazaz, a Baghdad University political scientist, complaining that strong interest now being shown by Western news media in the alleged U.S. misconduct is only now catching up with common views in Iraq. "There is nothing new or surprising for Iraqis," said Bazaz. "The problem is that the outside world has been isolated from what happens on the ground in Iraq. What the media says now is only a fraction of what happens every day." This is pretty much what Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki said on Friday.

Of course, dangerous conditions for reporters in Iraq have been well chronicled – especially by E&P. It's hard to criticize anyone for not being eager to trek out to Haditha, and get shot at (or worse), and it's not known if villagers would have spoken frankly to any reporter months ago. But what about those covering war-related issues back in the safety of the USA?

Clues about the general lack of interest in American misconduct in Iraq -- here at home -- appear in Thomas Ricks' Washington Post story on Haditha on Sunday.

Near the end, he traces the now-familiar timeline: Haditha killings in November, Time magazine story in March, quiet again until Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) told reporters on May 17 the shocking news (after he was briefed on the incident) that what happened in Haditha was "much worse than reported in Time magazine." Murtha stated that the investigations would reveal that our troops overreacted, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.

But here's what happened next, according to Ricks: "The reporters present barely focused on what Murtha had said. When the congressman finished his statement, the first reporter asked about Iraqi security forces. The second asked about U.S. troop withdrawals. The third asked about congressional support for Murtha's resolution calling for a U.S. pullout from Iraq.

"Finally, the fourth asked about Haditha. Murtha responded with a bit more detail: ‘They actually went into the houses and killed women and children. And there was about twice as many as originally reported by Time.' Even then, his comments captured little attention and were not front-page news. It took a few days for the horror of what Murtha was talking about to sink in.'

This is shocking, on one level, but on another, not surprising, because the media had pretty much ignored the Haditha story after noting Time's scoop back in March.

The New York Times, for example, covered the Time revelations on March 17. On April 6, Haditha briefly appeared in a story, without any reference to the Time probe, and a week later another story mentioned the possible massacre in one sentence. Nothing else appeared in the paper until May 19—after Murtha's talk. Nothing appeared in any opinion columns either.

The Washington Post carried two stories just after the Time scoop – then nothing else until Murtha's remarks. The Los Angeles Times, after covering the Time revelations, returned for an April 8 story on three commanders at Haditha being relieved of duty, and that's it. A search of AP archives mirrors the L.A. Times' record in that period.

Throughout the war there have been scattered reports of U.S. wrongdoing in the field, ranging from hair-trigger shootings of civilians to running Iraqi vehicles off the road when they did not get out of the way of a convoy fast enough. The Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau has been relatively aggressive on this front, and others have covered dozens of tragic eipsodes -- but, by and large, the media's reports have been downplayed and rarely followed up.

On Sunday, John Burns of The New York Times described what he called "harsh Marine battle tactics" in Iraq. "Reporters' experiences with the Marines," he related, "even more than with the Army, show they resort quickly to using heavy artillery or laser-guided bombs when rooting out insurgents who have taken refuge among civilians, with inevitable results." Yet many of these same embeds do not report -- or at least rarely emphasize -- these "inevitable results."

One problem: news organizations are cutting back on sending reporters to Iraq, a true scandal. Another: some outlets that are not scaling back are having trouble getting volunteers to go.

The media, like political figures of all persuasions, have tried to separate the war from the warriors. This is a very good thing, except when it is carried too far -- into blanket and largely unquestioning support for the conduct of our boys. Surely, the vast majority behave nobly, but is that number really 99.9% as both Donald Rumsfeld and Wesley Clark asserted last week? Given the incredible conditions of facing a faceless enemy?

In any case, after Haditha, finally -- after three years -- we see a torrent of stories, on the home front, focusing on possible abuses, past and present.

Just one example was Mark Mazzetti's Sunday story in The New York Times. "Military experts," he revealed, " say that the first principle of counterinsurgency warfare, and its greatest difficulty, is to separate enemy fighters from the local population from which they draw strength. But as details emerge about the killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha and Hamandiyah, it seems increasingly clear that some American troops have come to see the population itself as the enemy. 'In cases where you fail to defeat the insurgency, you sometimes adopt out of frustration increasingly ruthless methods to try to defeat the insurgents,' said Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired Army officer and a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments."

Mazzetti then closes his story by noting that Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University and a frequent Pentagon consultant, had said "temporary insanity" sometimes set in for soldiers and marines who daily watched their close friends die in battle. The frustration and sense of powerlessness, according to Moskos, often leads combat troops to direct their venom at innocent civilians they assume are aiding the insurgents — and sometimes even at young children. "If they feel that a local town is covertly involved in the killing of G.I.'s.," he said, "that's when people lose their sense of right and wrong."

Of course, this has been true since 2003.

But soldiers themselves are now testifying. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said last week on Democracy Now, "And surprisingly, U.S. troops are very engaged to talk about what they've seen in Iraq. A lot of people don't commit abuses. They witness abuses, though, and they want to talk about them. And we've been using that testimony to piece together facts about what's going on.

"I mean, don't get the wrong idea. There are people out there who see these things and are horrified and report them up the chain of command. And then nothing happens."

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