By: Sarah Weber
One year ago, I wrote a special report for Editor & Publisher titled ?Haditha, My Lai, and the Media.? Iinvestigations into alleged war crimes at Haditha were underway, and many in both the press and public began to draw correlations between the ?massacre? at Haditha and that of My Lai.
In my article, I found ?several chilling links? between the two cases. And, reading it one year later, I stand by the article. On the whole, I believe its conclusion was apt: though the hundreds of civilian casualties suffered at My Lai could never be compared to the twenty-four civilians killed at Haditha (more so because there are still contentions as to whether eight of the twenty-four were in fact insurgents), there were enough similarities in the way the cases were mishandled and in their circumstances to provoke an examination and superficial link between the two.
But a lot can happen in one year. In the investigations and Article 32 hearings (the latter of which are similar to civilian grand jury testimony), new facts were brought to light that challenged earlier interpretations of how Haditha unfolded. The pendulum of press coverage also swung another way; what had once been a lightning rod of political conversation has now become mired in the boring logistics of legal maneuvering.
It turned out to be another military story that brought my entire focus back upon the case of Haditha. It is this shift that has prompted me to reexamine Haditha, much as I called for a reexamination of My Lai one year ago. For I believe that in the case of at least one soldier of the eight accused of wrongdoing, the politicians and the press helped to foster a hostile environment toward the young man long before he ever took the stand.
Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt is one year younger than I am. The twenty-two-year-old?s mother, Theresa Sharratt, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 2006 that Justin had always wanted to be a U.S. Marine. His childhood in Canonsburg, Pa., was filled with wearing ?camouflage military-style clothing every chance he got,? and as he grew older, ?hanging out with recruiters? became another extension of his passion.
Until recently, Sharratt was just one of the eight largely faceless men who were accused of slaying 24 Iraqi civilians in, as Sharratt?s U.S. Representative John Murtha (D?Pa.) told the press, ?cold blood.? I knew only what he was accused of, and what the early evidence in the news intimated.
But then, several weeks ago, I began work on another military-themed story for E&P. It was to focus on several military bases in America that had suffered the most casualties in Operations Enduring Freedom (the name for the war in Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom. The aim was to find out from local newspapers that covered the bases how the community?s views had shifted toward the war, if at all. At a time when the nation couldn?t even muster 31% approval for its Commander-in-Chief, I wanted to find out whether the military base communities were an anomaly to this national mistrust, or whether they too were beginning to wonder just what their loved ones were going off to fight for.
The more I spoke with military reporters at such papers as the North County Times of Escondido, Calif. (which covers Camp Pendleton), and The Leaf Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn. (which covers Fort Campbell), the more insight I received into the mentality of a military community. It was a profoundly eye-opening experience.
These diverse communities, where many out-of-state families live together with deep-rooted local families, have a completely different mindset than other areas of the nation. Resoundingly, it seems that though some family members and even soldiers might question the politics of the war in their private moments, these qualms are miniscule in their lives. What matters most are the mission and the service of one?s country. The families of servicemen and women have an admirable trust that their loved ones will not be put in harm?s way in vain. And though some may have doubts, their communities are still bedrock-strong in their support of their troops and in the completion of their mission.
It was in speaking with Mark Walker, the military correspondent for the North County Times, that I began to have a more nuanced view of the military. I began to realize that I might have not given the Haditha accused the benefit of the doubt. I decided to more closely examine the cases; at the time of my decision, Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt?s Article 32 hearing was just coming to a close.
In reading some of the documents associated with the Sharratt A-32, I found that this case was not nearly as black-and-white as many in the media and politics had tried to portray it. On a chaotic day, in an extremely hostile area of Iraq, and not too long after the bloody battle for Falluja, 24 Iraqis were killed. Sharratt did not deny that he shot and killed three of the four Ahmed brothers: Jasib Aiad, Kahtan Aiad, and Jamal Aiad. What was being contested was whether Sharratt did so within the rules of engagement, that the killing was not unlawful, but in response to a perceived threat.
On July 6, 2007, investigating officer Lt. Col. Paul J. Ware issued his recommendation to Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis?the Commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton?that the charges against Sharratt be dismissed. The government, Ware wrote, had not presented enough evidence to convince him that Sharratt should be court-martialed on the three charges of unpremeditated murder.
After seeing their son?s reputation as a solider sullied, it came as a great relief to the parents of Sharratt that Ware was recommending ?dismissal of the charge and specifications without prejudice.? But at the same time, Theresa and Darryl Sharratt could not contain their anger for those who had judged their son guilty before he was proven innocent.
The reasoning within Ware?s report that ultimately let Sharratt off the hook did not surface within the media during the flurry of reporting on Haditha. The idea that Iraqi witnesses may have been influenced by the collateral damage payments that the US military was handing out for the deceased was not addressed in the media. Nor was the forensic evidence in keeping with what Ware would have deemed an execution. These and other scenarios that might have supposed innocence among the eight men were not played out in the media nearly as much as the scenarios of massacres, rampages, and blood-thirsty revenge for a fallen comrade.
There is, of course, another side to this all. Sharratt had the misfortune to be grouped with seven other men who were charged with different crimes than he, and testimony has been ugly in some of the cases. The current Article 32 hearing for Lance Corp. Stephen B. Tatum, for instance, is bringing to light some very disturbing stories. Unlike Sharratt, who was accused of killing three men who were between the ages of 24 and 41, Tatum is accused of killing women and children as young as 4 years old and as elderly as 76 years old. One of the eight men who were accused of wrongdoing, Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, is testifying against Tatum in exchange for his charges being dismissed. According to the testimony of Dela Cruz and other Marines, Tatum knew there were women and children in one of the houses, and shot them anyway.
Tatum himself admitted as much to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in March 2006, when he told investigators that he shot the victims because ?women and children can hurt you, too.? Tatum?s attorney?s later claimed that this and other statements made to NCIS were inadmissible, since Tatum never swore to or signed the statements that NCIS claimed he made to investigators.
Another factor is that the original investigations into the crimes purported at Haditha were deeply flawed, and filled with misinformation and destruction of evidence. One of the battalion commanders, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, saw his Article 32 hearing end with the conclusion that he be recommended for court-martial; the investigating officer Col. Christopher Conlin wrote that Chessani ?failed to thoroughly and accurately report and investigate a combat action that clearly needed scrutiny.? Many may argue that the charges are being dismissed against these Marines not because of their innocence, but because there simply wasn?t enough tangible evidence to convict.
Finally, there are the disturbing poll numbers that were recently published that showed that only 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of Marines agreed with the statement that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Nearly one in five, according to the U.S. Army Surgeon General Study, said that all noncombatants should be treated as insurgents. With this type of attitude mixing with the chaos and uncertainty in Iraq, it is unfortunate but understandable that many would be quicker to assume the guilt of troops accused of wrongdoing in Iraq, rather than wait to hear the full case.
We may never fully know the level of responsibility for the deaths at Haditha for years. The stories of what really happened at My Lai took nearly five years to surface, after many trials and dismissals. But it is the responsibility of the press to inform the public not only when crimes are committed, but to make sure that the accused are afforded the right of presumed innocence. America?s view of the military was severely damaged after the atrocities of My Lai and Vietnam took place; today, it is the political polarization of the country that has provoked distrust of the military.
But one need neither be a liberal or a conservative to support the troops enough to await their trials before passing judgment upon them. Lance Cpl. Sharratt, in my opinion, was not afforded that luxury.