Yesterday, I heard on NPR that at least one of the soldiers charged with murdering an Iraqi man will not be subject to the death penalty. It was an interesting story in that it talked about the evidence, or lack thereof. At the heart of the case is a body so badly decomposed nothing can be discovered from it. It yields no clues. On one side of the body are Marines who confessed to a murder, but now claim that their confessions resulted from coercion. On the other side are claims from some Iraqis that these Marines seized this Iraqi man, killed him brutally, and tried to cover it up. The Iraqis refuse to give their statements in court. From a legal point of view, with no physical evidence, no witnesses, and confessions that may be the result of coercion, it’s not much of a case. As always, what’s more interesting is how the media handles it.
First off, I suspect without actually knowing that, during WWII (the last of the wars people believed in), the Press wouldn’t have reported this stuff at all. Wherever you have vast numbers of young men with guns and high stress levels, you’re going to have some crime, and some of those crimes are going to be awful ones. The Press would have understood the normalcy of this fact, and would either have ignored the stories altogether, or would have made the considered decision that reporting these inevitable outbursts of ugliness would be bad for morale. News focused on (a) battles and (b) bravery.
The paradigm is so different nowadays. Reporters are obsessed with death: how many of our soldiers have been killed and how many “innocents” our soldiers have killed. When our troops successfully route bad guys, it gets covered and forgotten. When a minute fraction of our troops are accused of having killed civilians the news keeps being regurgitated like a bad meal. (And keep it mind that it’s not always easy to tell whether the dead are, in fact, civilians. Witness the Hezbollah fighters who, upon death, were magically transformed into Lebanese civilians for body count purposes.
In any event, you don’t need to listen to the NPR story I listened to; you just need to read this little NPR summary:
U.S. military prosecutors in California have begun to lay out their case against seven Marines and a Navy corpsman. The servicemen are accused of committing murder while serving in Iraq.
The incident in town of Hamdaniya was one of several that has called attention to the conduct of American troops in Iraq. (Bolded emphasis mine.)
Don’t you love that insouciant language? It’s an “incident” that “called attention” to ” conduct.” That’s all. But cast your mind back to the press’s savage coverage of Abu Ghraib and Haditha. It’s as if, to the American Press, every member of our military would have cheerfully participated in the My Lai massacre. That’s it, guys and gals: you’re all mass civilian murderers, every one of you. There are no bad guys (aside from the American military, of course), there are only innocent civilians.
I’ll concede, though, that the story out of Hamdaniya is news, even though I’ll also argue that American newspapers would not be impairing their ethics if they chose not to cover it. But what about the good news out of Iraq, the stories of bravery and loyalty and decency? Those are reserved for the bloggers and the military’s own publications. A case in point is the CENTCOM story I just got today about Marine Medics who have come together to save an Iraqi girl:
For a 12-year-old Iraqi girl in need of a kidney and liver transplant, time is the enemy. Her friends are a team of U.S. Marines and Sailors who have applied their medical skills to help the keep the girl alive.
Hadael Hamade is in desperate need of surgery, say U.S. Navy physicians who have treated her in recent months.
The girl first befriended Marines from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, months ago when the Marines were on patrol in Karabilah – a city of about 30,000 near the Iraq-Syria border.
You can read the rest of this story about simple human decency here. It’s a lovely story and, in a just world, it wouldn’t just be languishing in my email inbox, but would be in every paper’s “human interest” section. But it’s not. The papers don’t want this kind of human interest story because it interferes with the My Lai paradigm I mentioned above — all soldiers are brutes.
So next time you read in the newspaper about some atrocity a minority of our troops are alleged to have committed, ask yourself where the stories are about the myriad acts of decency our troops routinely engage in every day, all while functioning in a hostile environment.