Saturday, June 20, 2015

Murder and the Misfortunes of War

Apparently, the life of an Iraqi man is worth about seven years.

This week ends with word that Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins, again convicted a US Military Courts Martial for killing an Iraqi civilian will be dishonorably discharged from the Corps, but will not serve additional time over and above the seven years he has already served for the crime.

While some may celebrate the end of this matter as a vindication of any kind for the conduct of Hutchins, it is no vindication. It is a moment of deep shame that a member of the American military stands convicted of homicide. And, as is detailed further in this post, there seems no question but that the killing of retired Iraqi policeman, Hashim Ibrahim Awad, after he was kidnapped from his home was just a straight up murder. Walking with seven years incarceration sends the wrong message to America, to its allies in conflict, and to its enemies.

Special solicitude for non-combatants in battle is a feature of civilized people. Even Conan, a Barbarian, knew not to kill the women and children:
Mongol General: What is best in life?
Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.
Mongol General: That is good! That is good.
The re-conviction of Sgt. Hutchins is the right message.

His release from further incarceration communicates poorly our respect for individuals, our concern to distinguish battlefield combatants and civilians, and gives a pass that should not be written for misconduct in war.

His dishonorable discharge, at least, which is shameful, and strips him of the right to stand with those whose chests swell somewhat when they hear the phrase, "Semper Fi," reminds our fighting men and women that they bear, each of them, the conscientious duty to distinguish between the legitimate, and the illegitimate targets of war


As a very young child, I lived with my family aboard the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, in eastern North Carolina. My memories of those days are few. Principally, I remember my first friend, Russell Martin, like me, a Marine Corps brat. Russell would knock on our front door, and in a deeply husky voice, intone, "Mrs. Henderson, can Jamie come out and play?" Russell and I must have played a lot, but the main, notable, play was a rough-housing in which, I am told, we took turns standing in a red wagon and being knocked out of it by each other. I suppose we'd seen a cowboy show or something that prompted our childhood attempt at recreation.

We relocated from Cherry Point back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, after that.

In Albuquerque, I started school at St. Mary's Elementary School. More memories begin to creep in at that point.

I remember sitting on our front steps while the older kids and their friends were playing softball in the front yard. Someone hit the ball badly and it struck me in the face. Many Albuquerque memories spring up around the legendary witch of our neighborhood, Meanie Miny Mella. The Mellas lived next door. Their son, Paul, had had polio and wore a brace. Mrs. Mella operated a beauty salon from her home. Hers was the first purple hair I ever remember seeing.

The Mellas' yard had a quite tall hedge all along the sidewalk and bounding up both property sidelines. Mrs. Mella did not seem much to care for children, particularly not others' children, and had a habit of using a garden hose to spray through the hedge at kids passing by. If you can picture a younger version of Mrs. Henrietta Lafayette DuBoise, the elderly, Confederate-pistol-packing invalid neighbor of Jem, Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, then you will get the picture, although Meanie Miny Mella never showed a propensity to being placated by gentlemanly conversation.

One memory of our time back in Albuquerque pertains to this heart of this post. We had, in our neighborhood, a man that survived the Bataan Death March.

The immediacy of his brokenness is lost on readers today. I am of the generation whose fathers fought Japanese Imperialists, Italian Fascists, AND German Nazi Socialists. And, although the aftermath of World War II gave great focus to the horrors of Germany's Final Solution, not much attention broadly spread in America the horror of how Japanese military and medical personnel tortured and killed native peoples of the Pacific Rim and Allied POWs with the sole exception of coverage of the Bataan Death March.

The Bataan Death March followed the surrender of the American Army at Bataan, on the Philippines. American and Philippine POWs were forcibly marched through the jungle to a temporary internment camp until they could be transported to Japan where they were subjected to further torture, degradation, forced labor, and starvation.

We neighborhood kids -- we who never had experienced the horrors of war -- could still see how the horrors of war changed a man when we saw our Bataan Death March survivor on the sidewalks in our neighborhood. Never speaking, never engaging, walking, walking, walking, and always wearing that 1000 yard stare. Harmed greatly, but apparently quite harmless, he just marched ... as though Bataan was just one long and forced march away. He truly was harmless, although we had a brief scare when he stood outside our home and stared in a bedroom window, startling one of my older brothers.

The reason for his brokenness becomes clear when you read the stories of those who died told by those who, they say, wished that they had died. One survivor, Glenn Frazier, revealed some of the horror when he was interviewed for a special by PBS. You can read a transcript of his story and view the excerpt here.

The abuses and atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese forces included:
  • Raping natives who gave water to the prisoners of war being forced marched.
  • Pulling soldiers at random from the line, some for beheading (sound familiar?), and others for bayonet practice. 
  • Refusing to allow those marching to stop, so that they had no choice but to march as they defecated and urinated on themselves.
  • Failing to provide medical aid and care to sick and wounded soldiers.
  • Denying basic sanitation and water to POWs.
As odd as it sounds, these acts of brutality had been contemplated before they occurred.

I refer not to the likelihood that Japanese military personnel sat around their huts and tents thinking through how they might degrade, abuse, and murder particular prisoners of war. Rather, what I have in mind is that, in 1929, the United States, and many other nations, including Japan, became signatories to a "Convention Relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War ... by the respective Plenipotentiaries of the United States of America and forty-six other countries, at Geneva." The entirety of the Convention is available to review here. The Convention takes less than twenty minutes to read in its entirety.

I should clarify that what the signatories to the 1929 Convention contemplated was the certainty of future armed conflicts. Given that certainty, they planned for it by laying ground rules for the treatment of those who by misfortune of war would become prisoners of an opposing nation. Little about the 1929 Convention directly predicts the stunning brutality of the Bataan Death March.

So, we were introduced, as kids in our neighborhood, tangentially, to just how terribly broken a man can be made to become by captors that despise him for surrendering, deny basic necessities to him, march him and his fellows till they collapse, execute those that fall, behead some as warnings, murder others to keep bayonet skills sharp, and inflict rape and murder on sympathetic local populations. Now, to be clear, we did not know all of that at the time. We just knew that he survived "The Bataan Death March."

And the kind of treatment to which Bataan Death Marchers were subjected actually was anticipated, and the prevention of such treatment was contemplated, by the Convention Relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Japan's signature to the treaty, as it turns out, was not worth the paper on which it was written.

A world away and over a half century later, we are watching the last act of a horrible crime committed during war time in Iraq play out in an American military courtroom. That horrible crime, that military drama, reminds us all that there really can be only two kinds of war. 

One, as we have seen played out by terrorists who wear bombs to cafes, bus terminals, mosques, and public places, by madmen that fly airplanes into landmark towers, by the disturbingly evil who release Saran gas in transit stations. That kind of war knows no rules; it recognizes no boundaries except abject surrender. 

The other kind, the kind a Marine brat like me wants to believe is possible, the one that we want to believe our fathers, our uncles, and our brothers fought, and that our mothers, our aunts, and our sisters too now fight, is according to rules and principles of war, usually set out in international agreements designed to prevent harms to protected persons and civilian populations.

There is that scene that the contemplation of a rule of war brings to mind. It is Shakespeare, that old dead white guy, so some of you may be tempted by his irrelevance to your life to click through to the next post or meme. I wish you well on your journey. For those that have stayed, remember the battle at Agincourt, in Henry V, where the French forces in overwhelming numbers are outmatched by the English under Henry's command.

As the smoke and fog of battle is clearing, two Englishmen discover that a group of French deserters broke through the English lines, and, rather than attacking the English army, they murdered the young boys that served as camp aides to the knights and soldiers, and the other camp followers that had stayed behind during the battle. Fluellen, a Welshman, is outraged at the heinous act:
Kill the poys and the luggage! tis expressly against the law of arms: 'tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offer't; in your conscience, now, is it not?
'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive; and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter: besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the king's tent; wherefore the king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king!
Act IV, Scene VII
And there you have it. Even a Welshman is surprised to find the errant knavery of breaches of the laws of war amongst his French enemies. That law of arms, or what we call the Law of War, serves to limit conflicts in time, in scope, in targets. The Law of War protects the weak and vulnerable, including the elderly, infirm, sick, children and other non-combatants.

Unfortunately for all involved, in 2006, a Marine non-commissioned officer and his scouting party ignored the Law of War. They directly contravened it. Hutchins and his men were tasked with clearing an insurgent resistance in the Hamdaniyah region of Iraq. The apparent intention was to make a lesson for Iraqis regarding the planting of improvised explosive devices. No doubt they had good intentions of using their actions to send a message to those that were involved in that form of resistance to discontinue.

But rather than fully prosecuting an engagement plan against an insurgent involved imminently in planting an IED, they engaged in a murderous shortcut, an elaborate ruse of murder to imitate life. They kidnapped Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his bed. They bound him and carried him to a site where they would create the scene of Awad's supposed IED planting. They shot Awad while he was bound, and killed him. Then, after he had been killed, they reported their "discovery" of an insurgent planting an IED. One of the appellate court's that reviewed Sgt. Hutchins' previous conviction summarized the crime this way:
The appellant was assigned as squad leader for 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, assigned to Task Force Chromite, conducting counter-insurgency operations in the Hamdaniyah area of Iraq in April 2006. In the evening hours of 25 April 2006, the appellant led a combat patrol to conduct a deliberate ambush aimed at interdicting insurgent emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The court-martial received testimony from several members of the squad that indicated the intended ambush mission morphed into a conspiracy to deliberately capture and kill a high value individual (HVI), believed to be a leader of the insurgency. The witnesses gave varying testimony as to the depth of their understanding of alternative targets, such as family members of the HVI or another random military aged Iraqi male. 
Considerable effort and preparation went into the execution of this conspiracy. Tasks were accomplished by various Marines and their corpsman, including the theft of a shovel and AK-47 from an Iraqi dwelling to be used as props to manufacture a scene where it appeared that an armed insurgent was digging to emplace an IED. Some squad members advanced to the ambush site while others captured an unknown Iraqi man, bound and gagged him, and brought him to the would-be IED emplacement.
The stage set, the squad informed higher headquarters by radio that they had come upon an insurgent planting an IED and received approval to engage. The squad opened fire, mortally wounding the man. The appellant approached the victim and fired multiple rifle rounds into the man’s face at point blank range.
The scene was then manipulated to appear consistent with the insurgent/IED story. The squad removed the bindings from the victim’s hands and feet and positioned the victim’s body with the shovel and AK-47 rifle they had stolen from local Iraqis. To simulate that the victim fired on the squad, the Marines fired the AK-47 rifle into the air and collected the discharged casings. When questioned about the action, the appellant, like other members of the squad, made false official statements, describing the situation as a legitimate ambush and a “good shoot.” The death was brought to the appellant’s battalion commander’s attention by a local sheikh and the ensuing investigation led to the case before us.
Here we are, having been told just recently that, were they at liberty to do so, senior military commanders would describe Iraq as a "quagmire." Just the same description that was used for how bogged down we became in Vietnam, and how bogged down the Soviet Union became in Afghanistan. And now we face again the morale damaging problem of a senior non-commissioned officer having led the Marines under his command far afield morally, having misguided them as to acceptable actions under the law of war.

By doing so, Hutchins put in jeopardy the lives of other American military personnel, and American civilians. He accomplished that unfortunate result by casting an image of the American military as defiant of the very laws of war that we have affirmed and to which we have, through our government, committed ourselves to follow. His conviction and punishment is a necessary step in reversing that mistaken message.

Hutchins should be drummed out of the Corps. For his motto, when he chose to murder a civilian, and when he choose to order his Marines to cover up his crime, became “Fie Semper,” rather than Semper Fi.”