Courtroom stark contrast to Haditha
Clean setting is 8,000 miles from Iraq - in many ways.
Register columnist

CAMP PENDLETON - In a small courtroom 8,000 miles from Iraq, a young Marine is facing charges that he and other Marines murdered 24 innocent civilians in the Euphrates River town of Haditha.

And unlike Haditha, the courtroom is a clean place.

The courtroom walls are gleaming white, the oak tables and rails freshly shined. Unlike in Haditha, there is no swirling dust, no searing heat, no stench of raw sewage in the streets, no acrid smell of explosives and gunfire or sickening odor of blood and death.

The Marines in the courtroom are clean, too, dressed in laundered desert camouflage uniforms, the sleeves rolled up to regulation perfection. The defendant, Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum, 26, accused of the unpremeditated murder and assault of Iraqi civilians, including women and children, sits quietly at the defense table, his parents in the spectator seats behind him. Unlike in Haditha, there is no dirt ground deeply into the pores of his red-cheeked face, no sweat seeping out of his tall, beefy body and soaking through his cammies.

Unlike in Haditha, there is no anger or hatred apparent in this courtroom. Everyone involved – prosecutors, defense lawyers, even the accused – is quiet, courteous, professional. When I was there last week, a military pathologist who studied the killings testified calmly and dispassionately, describing gunshot holes in bodies as "circular defects," and gruesome wounds to heads and limbs as "disruptions."

And also unlike in Haditha, except perhaps for Lance Cpl. Tatum and his family there is no desperate, mind-numbing fear in this room. No one is going to get shot by a sniper or blown to pieces by an IED; in this courtroom, there are no potentially fatal consequences for errors of judgment or moments of doubt and indecision.

In short, this clean, well-lighted courtroom seems to be not 8,000 miles away from Haditha, but rather a million.

And it's hard to understand how the calm, rational, orderly rules that prevail in this small room, and in this country in general, can ever be fairly applied to something that happened in a place so terribly different, and so far away.

As you may know, the court hearing for Lance Cpl. Tatum that began last week – a preliminary hearing to determine if he should face a full-blown court-martial – is one of a series of on-going legal proceedings against seven Marines in connection with the Nov. 2005 Haditha incident. (Not to be confused with the also on-going proceedings against other Marines for the alleged premeditated murder of an Iraqi man in Hamdaniya last year.)

Three enlisted Marines are charged in the Haditha case with various crimes that could bring life sentences – charges against a fourth were dropped in an immunity deal – and four officers are charged with failing to investigate the incident. Investigating officers have already recommended dismissal of charges against two of the Marines, although a final decision on that is pending.

And based on what I know of the case, and of the war, I can't help but hope that eventually the criminal charges against the other Haditha Marines will be dropped as well. I can't help but feel sympathy for young infantrymen who are thrust into a deadly situation, told to follow rules of engagement that seem to change from place to place and day to day, and then are criminally charged when things go wrong.

Not that what happened in Haditha wasn't a terrible thing. After an IED attack that killed a Marine, other Marines swept through nearby houses that they believed were concealing insurgents, shooting and throwing grenades. In the process, 24 Iraqis, including a half dozen children, were killed – tragically and inadvertently, the charged Marines say.

Of course, as anyone who's been in combat in Iraq knows, the insurgents not only routinely use women and children as human shields, but also routinely blow them up without a second thought. To that kind of enemy, the idea that Marines could be thrown into prison for killing Iraqi civilians must seem hysterically funny.

But we are Americans, and so, prodded by the news media and politicians and an often na´ve public, we charged these Marines with unpremeditated murder – a charge that in itself seems to belie the crime. In plain English, if not in legalese, it suggests that they had no time to think, to plan, to consider – and for a soldier or Marine in combat, to think too much can sometimes be to die.

As I said, the hearings in the Haditha case will continue through the summer, and as several readers have suggested, I'll try to cover them from time to time.

But meanwhile, when you hear news reports about the case, try to remember that the courtroom where the charges are being weighed and studied is a calm, rational, clean place.

And Haditha, a million miles away, was not.

Gordon Dillow served an as Army sergeant in Vietnam and has several times been an embedded journalist with Marine infantry units in Iraq. Contact him at 714-796-7953 or