Tom Ricks on the Haditha massacre


The U.S. military justice system eventually would conduct a thorough review of the Haditha incident. Charges were dismissed against six of the Marines, and a seventh was acquitted. Wuterich still faces several charges, including voluntary manslaughter, and many of the Marines involved were found not guilty of wrongdoing. But there is no getting around the fact that 24 Iraqis were killed and that some of them were women and children. The only way to sidestep the question was to persuade one’s self, as Cpl. Sharratt did, that, “they were all insurgents”—including the women, children, and wheelchair-bound old man. “Personally, I think I did everything perfectly-that day,” he concluded. “Because of me, no one else died”—by which he meant only, no other Marines.

What happened that day in Haditha was the disturbing but logical culmination of the shortsighted and misguided approach the U.S. military took in invading and occupying Iraq from 2003 through 2006: Protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy, and treat the Iraqi civilians as the playing field on which the contest occurs. Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert who conducted an official study of the effectiveness of U.S. military battalion, brigade, and regimental commanders in Iraq at the time, reported that the Marines were “chasing the insurgents around the Euphrates Valley while leaving the population unguarded and exposed to insurgent terrorism and coercion.” This bankrupt approach was rooted in the dominant American military tradition that tends to view war only as battles between conventional forces of different states. The American tradition also tends to neglect the lesson, learned repeatedly in dozens of twentieth-century wars, that the way to defeat an insurgency campaign is not to attack the enemy but instead to protect and win over the people. “The more we focus on the enemy, the harder it is to actually get anything done with the population,” noted Australian counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, who would play a prominent role in fixing the way the American military fought in Iraq. The aim of a counterinsurgency campaign is to destroy the enemy—but often by isolating him and making him irrelevant rather than killing him. The best insurgent is not a dead one, who might leave behind a relative seeking vengeance, but one who is ignored by the population and perhaps is contemplating changing sides, bringing with him invaluable information.


  1. Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print. 5-6.

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