The Haditha Massacre, Media and Patterns of Warfare

haditha map massacre

With the massacre of Haditha already drawing comparisons to the My Lai massacre — where up to 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children were killed in cold blood by American forces — proponents of this war are holding fast against this incident becoming the tipping point of complete anti-war sentiment.

Local blogger, Joe Guarino:

[…] We cannot take these unfortunate events, and then somehow generalize and amplify the Big Message they convey to suggest that the overall war effort is unworthy. We cannot make general assessments of the war in Iraq (or in Vietnam, for that matter) on the basis of tragic events that do not reflect the overall pattern.

The media would be wrong to muster a drumbeat on these stories, but if they do in stereotypical fashion, the public should ignore it.

Unfortunately for Joe and his agenda, the American public will discuss the role this atrocity plays in the overall war effort.

Whether Haditha represents an accurate assessment of the US military’s tactical MO or not, it has marked a clear shift in our collective perception of modern warfare. No longer do we live in a fantasy world of surgically precise operations; we’ve all awoken to the reality that combat-stressed groups of men and women in a war zone are capable of murdering civilians on their own accord.

That 21st century, smart-bomb warfare meme is kaput; we’re now all aware that the US is knee-deep in a grudge match.

But in the end, it truly doesn’t matter if this one incident is indicative of the pattern to the entire war effort or not, because to the Iraqi people — the people on the other end of the gun barrel in any circumstance — it signifies a terrifying escalation of chaos, murder and occupation that cannot be erased with clarifying words.

The Overall Pattern In Iraq

From pg. 39 of the September 2004 Strategic Communication report, by the Defense Science Board—a federal advisory committee established to provide independent advice to the secretary of defense:

2.3 What is the Problem? Who Are We Dealing With?

The information campaign—or as some still would have it, “the war of ideas” or the struggle for “hearts and minds”—is important to every war effort. In this war it is an essential objective, because the larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

  • Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
  • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World—but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.
  • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.
  • Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack to broad public support.
  • What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.
  • Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic—namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is for Americans—really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.

Thus the critical problem in American public diplomacy directed toward the Muslim World is not one of “dissemination of information,” or even one of crafting and delivering the message. Rather, it is a fundamental problem of credibility. Simply, there is none; the United States today is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam. Inevitably therefore, whatever Americans do and say only serves the party that has both the message and the “loud and clear” channel: the enemy.

That last sentence (with my emphasis) represents the overall pattern that I see in the Iraq war. We’re a 100,000 strong force of monolinguistic, armed men and women on a foreign soil. Our soldiers have little to no training in the local customs of the Iraqi people, and practically no one can verbally communicate with either civilians or the enemy.

Essential building blocks of communication with the Iraqi people—humane, personal connections via idle chat during a convoy exercise, supportive conversation in local establishments, calming direction provided during a house raid—all become lost opportunities to gain a semblance of trust or credibility.

This simple inability to communicate waters the fields of insurgent seeds.

So when an atrocity such as Haditha occurs, the Iraqi people’s understanding of the act can’t be contextualized or messaged into obscurity by our military. Worse even, the sheer brutality of such an incident doesn’t need to be framed or spun by operatives of al Qaeda or the leaders of local insurgents to build a greater resistance to American forces.

The atrocity speaks for itself, with a clarity of message delivered via a deafening tone of dead relatives, neighbors and friends, all never to be seen again.

Iraqi citizens have lived with the fear of a potential Haditha massacre for years now. Their daily lives are filled with various degrees of similar experiences with American forces as we consistently sweep through house after house in the middle of the night, searching for insurgents. A Haditha massacre does only one thing: it confirms their worst fears, leading to more fear and more aggression towards our troops.

No matter what we want to tell ourselves, perception is reality.

The DoD knows we’ll never be able to control the perception of Iraqi’s, so this cry of the right to look at the big picture of the war is a nothing more than panicked attempt to control the perception and reactions of Americans that might question this war effort.

To suggest that the American public should “ignore” the “media mustering a drumbeat on these stories”—these atrocities—in order to protect the overall pattern of the war in Iraq is a failed intellectual position. This incident might only be one data point in the overall pattern of war, but it’s a glaring one; one that exposes more elements going wrong over there than going right.

The Role Of The Media

Iraqi war planners aren’t overly concerned with critical journalism, such as the March 2006 Time magazine exclusive on Haditha, affecting the average American’s take on the state of the war.

Sure, it’s a concern, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

If not managed, the mainstream media can become a major threat to war efforts because it is exists via the same capitalistic infrastructure as the government it supposes to watchdog.

In other words, when media institutions begin climbing onto editorial limbs, foregoing their inherent responsibility to the interests of corporate advertising, it clearly signals a shift in times to American corporations who become placed in a position to make certain decisions they’d rather not have to make:

  • They can remove themselves from media buys that are beginning to serve the reflected will of the consumer (poor PR) or
  • They can keep their advertising in place as a public relations strategy, while implicitly distancing themselves from our government’s effort to wage war

See, the real concern isn’t with the common people in as much as it is with the flow of money, for once the majority of corporations are off the bandwagon of a war effort, its future becomes rather short-lived.

An Example Of The Power Of Media

Lieutenant William Calley—the American officer in charge at the My Lai massacre—faced the scrutiny of the much more centralized, mainstream media of 1970. Advertising legend George Lois provides context to the media exposure of the atrocity at the time by describing the decision and experience of placing Calley on the November, 1970 cover of Esquire magazine:

LieutenantWilliamCalley

“Lieutenant, this picture will show that you’re not afraid as far as your guilt is concerned. The picture will say: ‘Here I am with these kids you’re accusing me of killing. Whether you believe I’m guilty or innocent, at least read about my background and motivations.'” Calley grinned on cue, and we completed the session.

When I sent the finished cover to (Esquire editor, Harold) Hayes he called to let me know that his office staff and Esquire’s masthead bureaucrats were plenty shook up.

“Some detest it and some love it,” he said. “You going to chicken out?” I asked. “Nope,” he said. “We’ll lose advertisers and we’ll lose subscribers. But I have no choice. I’ll never sleep again if I don’t muster the courage to run it.”

The notion that some editors might feel a sense of duty to a global community—and not just to a sovereign position or a bottom line—marks the potential for transforming the media into the greatest, political equalizer on the face of the earth.

In 1970, the attack on the “liberal” media—outlets that didn’t explicitly recognize corporate interests over human interests at every turn—was eerily similar to the conservative banter of today. From Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre:

[…] On April 1, 1971, just two days after the verdict, Nixon ordered Calley to be placed under house arrest while his appeal worked its way through the courts. “The whole tragic episode was used by the media and the antiwar forces to chip away at our efforts to build public support for our Vietnam objectives,” he wrote.

Across the nation, there were many demonstrations of support for Lt. Calley. The American Legion announced plans that it would try to raise $100,000 for his appeal. Draft board personnel in several cities resigned in groups. Several politicians spoke out in public criticizing the government’s prosecution of the soldiers at My Lai. “I’ve had veterans tell me that if they were in Vietnam now, they would lay down their arms and come home,” Congressman John Rarick told the New York Times.

But prosecutor Aubrey Daniel also did not remain silent. He wrote a highly publicized letter to President Nixon criticizing him for releasing Calley to house arrest: “How shocking it is if so many people across this nation have failed to see the moral issue—that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women and babies.” […]

In the end, we have to recognize that an atrocity such as Haditha is a symptom of the behavioral patterns of all warfare. To brush it aside as a random act of violence would be to remove the complicit nature of war planners from the equation and lay it squarely on the shoulder of the souls that serve our country, no matter the call to duty.