If the facts bear out what has already been widely reported about the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the village of Haditha, it will be an atrocity on a par with the horrors of Abu Ghraib -- or My Lai in Vietnam, years ago. But it will also be a tragedy that reflects a shameful failure of leadership.
My years as a Navy captain taught me that our enlisted men and women are a good cross-section of our nation -- on the whole smart, adaptable, and idealistic, with the same human flaws as the rest of us. As a military force, they will be what their leaders make them. If they are properly trained and prepared for every contingency, they will be tough, self-confident, and disciplined, far too proud to lower themselves to the enemy's level. Without that kind of leadership, and under the enormous pressures of combat, their human flaws will take over.
I'm not rushing to judgment on the Haditha episode. Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell has yet to deliver the verdict of his three-month investigation, and a second inquiry by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service won't be finished until this summer. There may not have been what Congressman John Murtha, himself a Marine hero, has called a cover-up, and extenuating circumstances may yet be found. But there seems little doubt that deaths first reported as casualties of a roadside bomb, and then as insurgents killed in combat, were really civilians shot by our Marines in retaliation for a comrade's death in the bombing.
I have every sympathy for the troops under fire. They were trained mainly for large-scale combat in a war with identifiable enemies and familiar, predictable battle situations. They find themselves instead -- as our troops did in Vietnam -- in a murky counterinsurgency campaign, where an enemy can lurk behind every smile and any rock can be an improvised bomb. It's well known that that kind of fear and frustration can breed atrocities, and our military leaders should have prepared the troops to avoid such reactions.
Aboard my ship USS Benfold, I rehearsed the crew to handle every contingency any of us could imagine: What if we hit a mine? What if a small boat full of explosives is heading our way? What if there's an oncoming missile? What if half the crew comes down with a virus? As one result, when an anchor tore loose one day and plunged into the depths, the crew calmly did what was necessary to slow down the screaming chain and finally stop it short of disaster -- and they did it in silence, with no yelling or confusion.
General Bargewell is expected to recommend that all the coalition forces in Iraq be given training in how to treat civilians professionally and humanely under the rules of combat, with multiple scenarios to handle the possible contingencies. That's the right way to do it -- and should have been done long before now. What would be worse than useless, though, would be abstract "ethics training," a smug Sunday school exercise that only further destroys morale.
Our leaders must also take care to send the right signals to the troops. When higher-ups in the Pentagon started tinkering with the rules of interrogation and carving out exceptions to the Geneva conventions, they sent a wink and a nod down the line -- and that made the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo all but inevitable. Leaders must also be held accountable. When no one but low-ranking troops had to do time after Abu Ghraib, it was a clear signal that the only real crime was getting caught. In the ranks, cynicism deepened.
It isn't too late to mend matters. As I said, most of our enlisted men and women are smart, adaptable, and idealistic. They want to believe they are part of a just cause. And they will believe it, and behave accordingly -- if they are properly trained, by leaders who are held accountable for the same standards they impose.
Is that too much to ask?
Captain D. Michael Abrashoff is a popular speaker author of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller It's Your Ship -- Management Techniques From the Best Damned Ship in the Navy, The Wall Street Journal bestseller Get Your Ship Together -- How Great Leaders Inspire Ownership From the Keel Up, and the seminal Harvard Business Review article "Retention Through Redemption."