Nothing in the human experience is more physically exhausting, mentally challenging, and emotionally rattling than ground combat, particularly that which is fought in tooth-to-eyeball proximity to the enemy. It does things to soldiers that people who have never experienced it will never truly comprehend.
"Everyone in ground combat is in a constant state of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, high strung emotions and nervous tension. All are anticipating the next action," says retired U.S. Marine Col. John W. Ripley.
He should know: As the legendary leatherneck who almost single-handedly blunted the North Vietnamese Army's Easter Offensive in 1972 by blowing up the Dong-Ha bridge while under heavy enemy fire, Ripley would testify 20 years later before a Presidential Commission on the very subject of ground combat. He described it as an "overt, aggressive, purposely violent act where violence has an advantageous role."
In a conversation earlier this week, Ripley told me, "Marines are always alert and prepared to react in combat. The responsibility then falls to the leader to prevent them from overreacting, and often it is not easy."
For those tasked with engaging the enemy in violent ground combat, the potential for overreaction is a variable that simply never goes away.
What Happened in Haditha?
Which brings us to the remote town of Haditha, in Iraq's notorious Al Anbar Province. There on November 19, 2005, a handful of U.S. Marines allegedly killed some two-dozen Iraqi civilians, some said to be women and children.
Though the facts are not yet known, the killings are alleged to be the result of an emotionally charged retaliation for the ambush killing of Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, who was driving a Humvee on patrol when the vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED).
According to preliminary reports, after Terrazas was killed, his fellow Marines raided two or three houses suspected of harboring insurgents. There was shooting, and people died.
Today, it seems most anyone on either side of the political fence — whether supportive of our efforts in Iraq or not—would agree that someone is probably going to be charged. Whether or not they will be convicted, and of what, is another matter entirely.
Now, I'm not excusing what may — with "may" being the optimum word here — prove to be a shameful day in the history of our Marine Corps. But it benefits no one if we do not attempt to understand the men involved and the dynamics of the system, and how it all could have temporarily broken down, if it did. Nor is there any justifiable reason to publicly convict the Marines — as we have seen in the rhetoric of Congressman John Murtha (D., Penn) — before those Marines have had their day in court.
Murtha contends the Marines killed civilians in "cold blood." But based on my understanding of killing in "cold blood" — which is "deliberate" and with "a complete lack of emotion" — that would have been impossible under the circumstances. And any former Marine like Murtha should know better.
Of course we will not know the specifics of what happened until all of the investigations and hearings have been completed. Even then, we may not know everything, much of it having been lost in the proverbial fog of war and the so-often under-appreciated reality of combat and combat stress.
Guilty or not, what these young riflemen go through day-in and day-out must be considered if we are to fully understand what went so terribly wrong at Haditha and why.
A Typical Attack
Let's consider a frequent and typical attack on a Marine or Army patrol as an example: When a Humvee is hit by a mine or an IED, the result is nothing like what one might see in a movie. It's not simply a blast and people are dead. No chest-clutching John Wayne departures with inspirational music. There is no glory. No adventure. It's just the worst sort of human drama imaginable.