Haditha Killings Recall Vietnam's My Lai

The Associated Press
Friday, June 2, 2006; 6:06 PM

NEW YORK -- On a March morning in 1968, American troops swept into a village on South Vietnam's central coast in search of communist guerrillas. Instead, they found unarmed civilians _ and gunned them down, leaving bodies huddled in ditches.

Nearly four decades later, the notorious name of that hamlet _ My Lai _ has been summoned from memory again, as the U.S. military investigates allegations of mass civilian killings by a group of Marines in the western Iraqi town of Haditha.

While the numbers differ _ upward of 300 at My Lai, compared to 24 at Haditha _ some of the circumstances are eerily similar.

Haditha, a deceptively quiet town in the Euphrates valley, is known as a center of insurgent activity, just as My Lai was 38 years ago.

The killings at My Lai were attributed by some to U.S. troops seeking vengeance for booby traps and mines _ the "improvised explosive devices" of that time. Just two days earlier, the same infantry unit had suffered casualties from a booby trap.

Flash forward to another war, in another time.

Last Nov. 19, a Marine was killed when an IED struck a four-vehicle convoy at Haditha. The Marines reported that 15 Iraqi civilians also died in the blast, and eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing firefight.

But that story didn't stick. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a leading critic of the Iraq war, said after being briefed by military officials that the Marines actually had killed unarmed civilians at the scene, and others in nearby homes. Lance Cpl. James Crossan of North Bend, Wash., who was wounded by the roadside bomb, told a Seattle TV interviewer the incident might have caused others to be "blinded by hate ... and they just lost control."

Investigators want to know not only what happened, but whether officers of the 3rd Marine Regiment covered up the truth _ as did senior officers of the Army's Americal Division, to which the My Lai unit belonged.

While the two incidents appear to have similarities, there are key distinctions between the Vietnam era's military and today's _ an all-volunteer armed force that officials consider more professional and better motivated.

Perhaps most important is that all U.S. service members now undergo training in the "law of armed conflict," which spells out rules for dealing with civilians in a combat situation, said Scott Silliman, a law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

"That didn't kick in until the 1970s, and My Lai was the watershed case," Silliman said. "But this (Haditha) is not My Lai, and those that try to make a direct comparison are not well informed. It may be a gut reaction, but today's troops are much better educated, trained and disciplined than those at My Lai."

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