Editorial: Investigation by military carried out with honor

Web Posted: 01/17/2007 09:55 PM CST

San Antonio Express-News

Last spring, military officials took on a painful duty that had nothing to do with the prosecution of the war in Iraq.

Focusing on what may prove to be the darkest chapter in this conflict, the officials investigated allegations that a small group of Marines killed 24 Iraqi men, women and children — slayings allegedly triggered by the killing of a Marine in a bomb attack.

It has become clear that the investigators carried out this grave responsibility with honor and integrity, erasing whatever fears may have existed that the probe would represent a whitewash.

Military prosecutors recently charged four Marines with the slayings in the village of Haditha, according to news reports. The prosecutors also charged four officers with failing to investigate and report the slayings, which occurred Nov. 19, 2005.

The cover-up charges are particularly significant, because if a crime did occur, it would have been exacerbated by an effort to protect the soldiers involved, thus damaging U.S. credibility and moral authority.

It is important to note that while the military should be commended for its aggressive investigation, the soldiers are innocent until proven guilty.

"I think this illustrates the deep seriousness the Marine Corps takes with these events," Gary Solis, who teaches the law of war at West Point and Georgetown University, told the New York Times. "I definitely think the Marine Corps is sending a message to commanders, to those in authority of combat troops, that they better pay close attention to the activities of their subordinates to ensure that there was no wrongdoing."

The military had to send that message regardless of what happened in Haditha — and regardless of how the case is resolved. This war is unlike any the United States has ever waged. In the chaos of Iraq, where the enemy blends into the environment, it is easy to view every civilian with suspicion.

Soldiers, facing an enemy that shatters the Geneva Conventions with every IED assault, shoulder a horrible burden. Yet while war is brutal, the brutality multiplies when soldiers stray from the rules of warfare — regardless of the tactics the enemy uses.

The men charged with these crimes may be innocent, but the search for justice must continue with the same diligence shown thus far. The integrity of the military — and the nation — depends on it.