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Larry Johnson: Earplugs, Marines, and Haditha

Earplugs, Marines, and Haditha

By Larry Johnson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Saturday 03 June 2006

A sandstorm was swirling across the tarmac of a US military airfield in Qatar last week. The only thing better then getting pelted in the kisser with tiny grains of sand that pepper your face at 50 miles per hour is the 120-plus degree heat. You know the expression, "it's a dry heat." Yeah, well so is a Texas barbecue pit. Qatar, at least in terms of heat and dust, is the starting point of hell. How people live in an environment like this is beyond comprehension, but they do.

I came to Qatar on my way to Iraq. I was among the first to board a New Jersey National Guard C-130 that was revving its engines in preparation to take us north. Another lesson learned - be the last to board, not the first. The C-130 is an old workhorse of an aircraft. It was introduced into the Air Force in 1954, one year before I was born. One of its great features, apart from being able to haul stuff into tough areas, is the tail ramp that allows soldiers or vehicles (or both) to be easily loaded and off-loaded.

Anyway, I move to the front of the cargo/passenger section. Two rows of seats, one on the right side of the plane and one on the left side of the plane, run the length of the aircraft from the bulkhead to the tail. You sit in a piece of canvas and cargo net. You either face the side of the plane or you are against the outside skin looking at the middle. You are up close and personal with the people on either side and, of course, knee knocking with the gal or fellow across from you.

Once on board, you sit sweating and waiting. Any benefit from the shade of the aircraft is quickly eliminated by the proximity of other profusely sweating bodies. My group, about 15 folks, settled into our seats. Another bus pulled up and disgorged a platoon of Marines. Fully kitted in their combat gear - body armor, weapons, helmet, and uniform - they were really hot but managed not to sweat so much. I think it had something to do with their youth. Kids under twenty five don't sweat as much as a fat bastard who is over fifty.

The Marine unit had at least four women. Each one lugging the same equipment load as their male counterparts. They were heading to Western Iraq, the vicinity of the now infamous Haditha.

As the plane engines cranked louder, crew members circulated passing out foam ear plugs. You don't want to be deaf before you get into combat. Anticipating this contingency, I pulled out the Sonic II ear plugs I acquired and used during CIA training at Camp Peary in 1986. They still worked. While I was jamming the plugs into my ears, it suddenly dawned on me that the damn ear plugs were older than many of the Marines on my flight.

The takeoff from Qatar was uneventful. Once we got altitude, the heat let up. The landing in a combat zone is another matter. If you like a roller coaster you would love the combat landing in a C-130 Hercules. I never knew an old propeller aircraft could pull Gs. Another lesson learned.

As the Marines began to disembark, I asked a couple of the baby-faced boys if this was their first trip in. "No sir, it is our second." And for some, it marked their third trip to the sandbox. For being so young, they were, appropriately so, very serious and professional.

One note for non-military folks about personal hygiene side onboard the C-130 (this is like astronauts, how they pee in space). When the plane was designed, the creators did not anticipate that men and women would share the same space. If you need to take a piss (if you're a guy, that is) you can go up to the bulkhead and relieve yourself into a small urinal attached to the wall. There is no door or curtain. Women, on the other hand, have to troop back to a throne located near the exit ramp. The toilet basin, which is attached to the side of the aircraft, has a shower curtain arrangement. If nature calls, you climb up, pull the curtain around you, and do your business. Of course your head is poking above the curtain. You look like someone is a school carnival dunking booth, only your pants are around your ankles. I'm happy to report that after more than three hours on the plane no one had to use the facilities.

As we keep sending our sons and daughters into the teeth of the insurgency in Iraq, we are discovering that we have forgotten the horror of fighting an insurgency. When tight knit units, like these Marines, lose friends and colleagues, they normally are not thinking like philosopher warriors. The Marines train these kids to kill (and well they should). They are not trained to operate as police officers. Entirely different rules of engagement.

Insurgents don't play fair either. They do not show up in clearly marked uniforms. They look like civilians and hide in the midst of populations. Sometimes the locals are witting and supportive and sometimes they are coerced. Both situations currently exist in Iraq.

I do not know who is personally responsible for the killings at Haditha, but it certainly appears that some Marines lost control and are probably guilty of manslaughter. Fortunately, this has not been a common event. But that offers small comfort. In the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqis we do not have the luxury for any mistakes like this.

We must also accept that Americans as a whole share some responsibility for the actions of these soldiers. We sent them to war. We put them square in the middle of the battle. We cannot simply sit idly on the sidelines clucking our tongues over the awful thing that was done. We are complicit. If we think we can deal with this by simply "punishing" the guilty and move happily on with the rest of our lives, then we have ignored our societal obligation to the soldiers we ask to go to war to fight on our behalf. If young Marines have murdered Iraqi civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, then they must be held accountable. But, in punishing them, we must remember that we still have an obligation to these soldiers. Leaders we selected put sent these young men and women to war (and yes, I realize Al Gore probably won the election). We have an obligation to help make them whole and return them emotionally intact to civil society.

We face a terrible dilemma in Iraq. At present, we keep most of our military forces on secure bases. They have little interaction with the local Iraqis except during combat operations and patrols. Unlike the Vietnam War, during which US soldiers slept, ate, and partied with Vietnamese (at times, to our detriment and theirs), our soldiers are not building the relationships with the Iraqi people that will result in marriages and new restaurants in the United States. Go to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the Vietnamese and Thai eating establishments are one of the Vietnam War's lasting legacies.

I firmly believe that our sons and daughters in uniform can be our best Ambassadors. But I am afraid that things are so far gone now in Iraq that this possibility for American diplomacy is dead. I understand that the Commanders of these young Americans are not keen to lower the security barriers that protect our soldiers. The Generals and Colonels do not have the stomach to put them at needless risk. I also recognize that putting more of our forces into the communities will lead to more casualties, at least in the short term. But, we must also recognize that if our soldiers are not able to socialize with the Iraqis then we should not be surprised that they view us as an alien, enemy force. Despite some early successes by US troops in this regard in 2003, the community outreach is a rare event and new opportunities are slipping away.



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