Timing and Tragedy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006; 8:21 AM

The Haditha story has become so big--cover of Time and Newsweek and all that--that I've been wondering what took the media so long.

Time broke the story back in March, and the major newspapers and networks all did initial pieces about whether a group of Marines had killed two dozen innocent civilians. The issue flared up again when Jack Murtha said that military investigators would find that what happened at Haditha was worse than Time had reported.

And then, fueled by leaks from the investigation and strong intimations of a cover-up, Haditha exploded into the news last week. Suddenly it was being portrayed as the next My Lai.

Why the long fuse? Obviously, it's hard for reporters to find out what's going on with a secret military investigation, and just as obviously it's not easy to go out and interview Iraqis who might have information about the deaths. But you all know the drumbeat when journalists collectively decide that an issue tops their hit parade, the constant barrage of questions at briefings, the steady flood of analysis pieces gauging the political impact and listing the questions that remain unanswered. We saw none of that until last week.

Now, like everything else in Washington, Haditha has become a political football, kicked one way by pro-war pundits and the other way by anti-war commentators. Passions are high on both sides, as you might expect, but this is basically the latest permutation over the morality of the Iraq war.

Andrew Sullivan indirectly blames Bush:

"From the moment George W. Bush exempted U.S. military forces from the Geneva Conventions if 'military necessity' demanded it, he sent a message. From the moment George W. Bush refused to accept Donald Rumsfeld's repeated offers to resign after Abu Ghraib, he sent a message. From the moment, George W. Bush appended a signing statement to the McCain Amendment, arguing that as commander-in-chief, he was not subject to the ban on torture and abuse of military prisoners, the president sent a message.

"Those messages -- in a tense and dangerous war, where bad things will always happen -- made a difficult situation one where abuse and war crimes were almost bound to take place. And command responsibility in the military goes upward. The president cannot fill the role of being commander-in-chief in order to declare 'Mission Accomplished' and then choose not to fill the role when his troops commit war-crimes and torture and atrocities. In what George W. Bush himself calls a 'responsibility society,' he has ultimate responsibility for the forces he commands. And there is a direct and obvious line between his decisions to break decades' long adherence to the Geneva Conventions and the pandemic of torture, and now incidents of war crimes, that have plagued this war and stained the honor of this country.

"To say this is not to be, as Glenn Reynolds argues, 'pathetic and poisonous.' It is to face the fact that this president has formally lowered the moral standards for American warfare -- in writing, and by his actions." (Instapundit, for the record, was referring to "the clearly evident Bush-bashing glee over this stuff.")

The Nation has reached its verdict:

"Enough details have emerged from survivors and military personnel to conclude that in the town of Haditha last November, members of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment perpetrated a massacre. The killings may have been in retaliation for the death of a Marine lance corporal, but this was not the work of soldiers gone berserk. The targets (children from 3 to 14, an old man in a wheelchair, taxi passengers), the hours-long duration of killings, the number of Marines involved, the careful mop-up--all amount to willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis. As Representative John Murtha has pointed out, the patently false story floated afterward, blaming the killings on roadside bombs, and Marine payoffs to survivors imply a cover-up that may extend far up the chain of command . . .

"Whatever the responsibility of the unit commanders in Haditha, it is George W. Bush as Commander in Chief who has sent the clear message that human rights abuses and violations of international law are justified in the 'war on terror.' "

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