Emphasizing Ethics Even as Bullets Fly
The Haditha case undermines U.S. credibility
BAGHDAD--Soldiers and marines have long joked darkly that their job is pretty simple: Kill people and break things. In Iraq, a broken country wracked by insurgency and sectarian violence, the mission of the American forces presents a far more complex predicament. Given the damage and killing that inevitably accompany war, how do you fight in a way that allows the construction of a peaceful nation?
Counterinsurgency is the military's latest answer--and that involves more than military operations against insurgent leaders, as was successfully done in the attack last week that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi and top associates. As important, it involves consciously trying to win a degree of public trust among Iraqis, even if not their hearts and minds. "It's very important--you have to interact with the people," says Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, who is responsible for 17,000 square miles in and around Baghdad, a volatile area twice the size of New Jersey.
It is against this reality that any allegations of U.S. military misconduct--most notably the reported execution-style killing of 24 civilians at Haditha by several marines--set back efforts to win the confidence of ordinary Iraqis. "Quite frankly, it's had an effect," says Thurman.
As he travels around Iraq to talk with U.S. soldiers and marines, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-highest-ranking U.S. officer in Iraq, repeatedly emphasizes the need to better understand that most Iraqis are not their enemies and are, like them, under enormous stress. He emphasizes that troops should be careful when it comes to escalating the use of force, given that "almost 30 percent of the people we're here to help think that we're the greatest threat to their security."
Values. Now, as the U.S. military here implements a remedial program of ethics and values training in the aftermath of Haditha, there is also an effort to turn this into a teachable moment for the Iraqi Army.
At the Iraqi Center for Military Values, Principles, and Leadership in the town of Rustamiyah north of Baghdad, American trainers are preparing to launch a new academy to instruct Iraqi officers in leadership. A list of principles, posted for the benefit of the Iraqi officers who will be attending the institute starting next month, hangs on the wall. A good leader, it says, is willing to seek advice. Willing to raise concerns. Willing to report observed violations. "Our counterparts are struggling, and we are here to be their moral compass," says Tom Adams, an American trainer at the center who up until earlier this year was a command sergeant major with a combat Stryker brigade in Iraq. He returned, he said, because he believes in what America is trying to do here.
But teaching these lessons is more difficult today, says Kenneth Johnson, a former Marine officer and senior ethical adviser to the institute: In the wake of Haditha, he wonders, "are we going to look like hypocrites?"
The Iraqi translators on their staff bat this question around in one of the old rooms that used to house family members of Baathist favorites attending the Iraqi Military Academy, which is attached to the leadership institute. "When I came here, frankly, I was only looking for money," says Danny, one of the Iraqi translators who uses an American name for fear of being killed should his identity become known. "When I found out what they were trying to do here, I thought it was very good for the country. We need to build an Army with not only weapons but with values. To protect the people, the Army must know how to treat the people."
Questions. Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Nabil Abdul Kadir, who has been chosen to lead the center, says he gets plenty of questions from his fellow generals, particularly in the wake of Haditha. "They ask, 'What can we learn from the Americans?'" he says. "And 'What they are saying--how can we believe in it?'" He says that there were Iraqi troops on the scene in Haditha as well and that he hasn't been entirely pleased with the conduct of some Iraqi Army soldiers in the streets. "They are not behaving properly with civilians. But they have to be very careful in their behavior. It is a matter of life and death for the country," he says. "You can see that the gap now is widening between civilians and the military," Kadir adds, a gap that began under Saddam Hussein's rule. "I want to see that gap closed, completely."
On the question of Haditha, Danny and his fellow translators at the leadership center are generally understanding. Some U.S. military officials remark that, well, they should be: "They are in a glass house, and all their windows are broken," says one. Others note that the Iraqis can also learn from the U.S. judicial process. Actually, Danny and his fellow translators tend to agree on both counts. "Of course, I cannot lie. This crosses our mind--that the coalition, they are doing mistakes," he says. "But they have admitted it, and this is a lot. They are saying, 'It happened, and I will not deny it.'" The idea of taking responsibility "is a healthy thing that we can learn from," Danny adds. "It was not the policy of the coalition to do something like that."
In the end, the ramifications of Haditha--and the success of coalition forces--hinge on questions of leadership, say military officials. The Haditha investigation is expected to reveal wrongdoing by the accused marines' superiors in trying to cover up their crimes. If so, say military officials, emphasizing good leadership--in both Iraqi and American forces--will be more important than ever. "If leaders are moral, if they are ethical, if they make sound decisions based on the right criteria, then hopefully their troops will make the right decisions under pressure," says Lt. Col. Kenneth McCreary, the coalition director of the new leadership center.
At the 4th ID headquarters, General Thurman contemplates the job ahead in the six months his division has remaining in Iraq. "I don't think we're going to win any more hearts and minds over here," he says. "But what we can do is gain their trust."
Iraqi General Abdul Kadir agrees and says the Iraqis need to do their part to encourage that process. Every Friday, he heads to the street markets in Baghdad, hoping to build a modest library of books from Iraqi philosophers, thinkers, and leaders to add to the leadership center's collection. The library now, he says, is quite limited--"many books have been destroyed in the war." These writings will help, he says, to respond to the critiques from his fellow generals--about Haditha, about how Iraq has nothing to learn from America. "Then I can say," says Abdul Kadir, "that I am not teaching you American values. They are our values, too."
This story appears in the June 19, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.