Understanding the Events of Haditha

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 10 months ago

With regards to the events of Haditha, on the one hand we have John Murtha’s histrionics; on the other, the forthright, deadpan observation in recent testimony at Camp Pendleton:

CAMP PENDLETON — A Marine lieutenant testified Wednesday that he had never considered that Marines might have done anything wrong in killing 24 people in the Iraqi town of Haditha, even as he found the bodies of two women and six children huddled on a bed.

Lt. Max Frank, who had been ordered to take the bodies to the city morgue, said he assumed that the Marines had “cleared” three houses of suspected insurgents according to their standing orders — by throwing in fragmentation grenades and entering with blasts of M-16 fire.

The smoke from the grenades, Frank said, would have kept the Marines from seeing that they were firing on women and children.

How can Murtha behave so hysterically, with Lt. Frank testifying that he never considered that anything wrong was done by the Marines under his charge?  Context is everything, and most discussions about the events of Haditha lack the proper context.

The events of Haditha occurred at the end of what we should consider Operation Iraqi Freedom 2: heavily kinetic operations against insurgents, with most of these operations involving military operations on urban terrain (MOUT).  The events that most poignantly mark OIF2 occurred in Fallujah, i.e., the first and second battles of Fallujah.  It is important to understand these battles.

Military doctrine can be simply described as a core set of beliefs, or a way of thinking about problems and framing military planning.  Military strategy involves the planning and conduct of war.  The two go hand in hand, with each informing the other.  Military tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are the lowest level conduct of war, and should be seen as a function of doctrine and strategy.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 (or the initial stages of the war when heavily conventional TTPs were employed), large population centers such as Fallujah were bypassed.  This strategy led to the rapid overthrow of the regime, but the congregation of insurgents in urban areas.  The battle for Fallujah in 2004 had as its strategy to force out the noncombatants, thus leaving the insurgents the (presumed) only persons left in the urban area.  This assumption was essentially correct.

At the doctrinal and strategic level, the decision could have been made, for example, to starve the insurgents out of the city.  Since there were displaced residents, there wasn’t time for this.  From the standpoint of TTPs, the decision was made to engage the insurgents in heavily kinetic operations, relying most heavily on room clearing operations.  In room clearing, the presupposition is that the room is inhabited by the enemy, and that the enemy is lying in wait to kill Marines.

The specific procedure, which will not be explained in detail here, involves first the use of a fragmentation grenade followed by fire from the firearms of the fire team (M16A2 or M4, and SAW).  This is true with the exception that the Marine cannot carry enough grenades to use on all rooms in a city the size of Fallujah, and eventually, the TTP in the battle for Fallujah involved only firing, i.e., no  use of a grenade.  Firing is immediate and aimed at all inhabitants of the room, under the assumption, once again, that all inhabitants are the enemy.

Cordon and knock and other ‘softer’ approaches to counterinsurgency came later (so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom 3), but for the time periods marked by Fallujah (and in 2005 Haditha), room clearing was the TTP relied upon when fire was taken from a location in Anbar.  It is also important to know that many veterans of the battle for Fallujah who left the theater after this battle went into the drill instructor ranks (for boot camp) or trainers for SOI (School of Infantry).  Room clearing was taught to new Marines, and is still taught to this day.

On that fateful day in Haditha, the Marines were engaging in room clearing tactics.  It isn’t any more complicated than that.  It was an approved method of battling insurgents, it was ordered, and given that fire was coming from the location of the rooms that were cleared, it was justified.  As we observed in Haditha Events Coming to a Head:

The one who led the stack into the room that day had previously been engaged in the battle for Fallujah.  The protocol was to toss in a fragmentation grenade, and follow with a stack of four Marines (a “fire team?), one whose billet it is to carry the SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon).  This day, the SAW gunner happened to be the one experienced from Fallujah, and who led the stack.

As I have pointed out before, this protocol does not distinguish between friend and foe.  There is no capability with this tactic to delineate a combatant from a potential noncombatant.  There can never be.  It happens far too quickly.  If our rules of engagement involve Marines and Soldiers hesitating to attempt to ascertain combatants from potential noncombatants, the insurgents will learn this and use it to their advantage.  Marines and Soldiers died in Fallujah as a result of room clearing operations, and many more would have died had this been the protocol.

There is another option if there are known noncombatants in a room.  The decision can be made not to engage in room clearing operations against that target.  Simply drive or walk away.  But if the decision is made that enemy fire is coming from a room and the room must be cleared, the sad truth is that, using these necessary tactics, the occupants of the room will die.  The answer to issues such as this in the future is not to change the rules of engagement resulting in more danger for U.S. troops.  The answer is to not engage in the operations to begin with.

Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum was indeed a veteran of the battle for Fallujah, and his family is currently pleading for money for his defense.  If someone objects to the actions taken that day in Haditha, they are not objecting to the Marines who were there taking those actions.  They are objecting to the use of a TTP that, in their opinion, wasn’t warranted.  This, of course, is a completely different issue.  A discussion about doctrine, strategy or TTPs is not the equivalent of a discussion about a finding of murder for Marines doing their duty.

Whether a TTP is warranted should probably be left to the military experts on the ground in Iraq, but that aside, the context for the events of Haditha is the battles for Fallujah.  Any other context is the wrong one, and any attempt to understand what happened without referring to Fallujah is mistaken and confused.



  • Dominique R. Poirier

    Herschel,
    to my knowledge, the recourse to these cleaning techniques, as described in your post, is a corollary to technical innovations in weaponry and explosives, which happened mainly during the XXth century, to be precise. In most cases they were imagined and improvised by soldiers on battlefields in order to adapt to new trends and tactics in warfare.
    Also, cleaning techniques and others practices always raise the same questions relevant to ethical considerations and morality, and even to law as you shall see.

    As a way to justify my statement and to bring my contribution to the matter at hand I explain how and when.

    The main purpose of the flashbang grenade is to make one or more hypothetic opponents blind and deaf for a lapse long enough to provide its user with an advantage over his oppenent, while entering a room, usually.
    Adapted versions of the British Gammon grenade
    see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gammon_grenade
    were first used as flashbang grenades during WWII.

    The concussion or overpressure grenade, also called offensive grenade has been purposefully invented for house and “hole? cleaning. Its first appearance on battlefield backs to WWI.
    The U.S. modern MK3A2 offensive hand grenade, commonly referred to as the concussion grenade, “is used for concussion effects in enclosed areas, for blasting, or for demolition tasks. The shock waves (overpressure) produced by this grenade when used in enclosed areas are greater than those produced by the fragmentation grenade. It is, therefore, very effective against enemy soldiers located in bunkers, buildings, and fortified areas.”
    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MK3A2

    The technique consisting in firing in full auto mode in a circular move while quickly entering a house, room, bunker or else backs to the invention of the submachine gun. But, as far as I know, this way of entering in force into an enclosed area has been made commonplace by the French troops during the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962). At that time, it consisted in kicking the house’s door with one’s foot so as to suddenly open it while opening fire in full auto mode and in a circular move (from left to right in the case of right-handed person) with the well suited MAT-49 submachine-gun
    see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAT-49_submachine_gun
    without consideration for the gender and age of the occupants.

    At that time the French soldiers made profitable use of the natural tendency of the barrel of the MAT-49 to rise during fire in bending their weapon to the right side when shooting that way (in the case of a right-handed person) so as to make the circular move easier and natural, if I may so.

    However, the need for cleaning confined areas in warfare happened first during the trench battles of the WWI; and the U.S. troops were the first to use it against the Germans. Submachine-gun didn’t exist during these earlier times. For, the first mass produced submachine gun was launched by the Germans in 1918 (called the MP 18, and whose design was close to this of the English Sten). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP.18
    Indeed, the invention of the MP 18 followed a decision made in 1915 by the German Rifle Testing Commission at Spandau to develop a new weapon for trench cleaning.

    But before the German proved able to mass manufacture a reliable and efficient submachine-gun the Americans got the idea to slightly modify the shotgun Winchester model 1897 so as make it a reliable and efficient cleaning gun. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winchester_1897
    The thus modified shotgun was named trench-gun M97. Owing to the appalling wounds the formidable M97 inflicted to the German soldiers, Germany complained in 1918 that the use of shotguns firing multiple projectile buckshot ammunition was a violation of Section II of the 1907 Hague Convention (the Geneva Convention’s predecessor treaty), which forbade belligerents to employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.
    See: http://neveryetmelted.com/?cat=949

    I will not debate at length about the flame thrower which was invented for the sake of identical needs.

    After the aforesaid events took place the cleaning house techniques you describe have been used by many fighters around the world; so much so that adapted counter-techniques have been suggested, such as the following one I heard once from the mouth of a former Israeli soldier.

    Since occidental soldiers are the more often right-handed, then “we were taught to never wait for the enemy in standing on the right side of a door –and the contrary in the case of Arab fighters– during circumstances in which this unpleasant kind of event was likely to happen. For, a right handed person shall almost invariably, and for natural reasons, shoot his first bullets from the left side on of the room while entering; whereas an Arab is (statistically) more likely to shoot from the right side on.?

    Well, if ever this last anecdote is true, then it largely relies on luck and is empirical, in my own opinion.

    Anyway, all those techniques and weapons hardly allow their users to spare the life of innocents hiding in confined areas, sadly enough. For, there is no device or technology available on the market, as yet, which would allow the selective targeting of fighters, soldiers, terrorists or mere criminals.
    Specialized law enforcement units and antiterrorist tactical squads have to cope with the same ticklish dilemma in a majority of the cases they have to deal with. On the one hand, yielding to moral consideration and opting not to do anything each time the risk to kill innocent people is too great would offer a too obvious parade to enemies or wrongdoers. On the other, there is no way to let go enemies and criminals; and so no sure means to avoid civilian casualties during such circumstances.
    Then, the harming or killing of innocent and vulnerable people done in order to create fear in the opponent’s mind or to coerce him is disputable; and is even relevant to mere and punishable common criminality, and not to warfare, in my own opinion. As a matter of fact, it explains why, in most cases, such acts of violence are done rather by mercenaries, thugs or people of easy virtue hired by those who are unwilling to venture in such fashions of attaining their objectives.

    For centuries, and until the happening of the Levée en Masse of 1793, in France, a turning point in the history of warfare, not much physical harm was done against civilians during wartime. The suffering of civilians during WWII and the rising influence of the public opinion about this question since this last event significantly spurred efforts to reduce civilian casualties. Those efforts significantly improved the safety of soldiers as well, and at this regard we may notice that automobile accidents happening on the U.S. soil, for example, kill much more Americans each year that the war in Iraq do. The number of civilians and innocent Iraqi accidentally injured or killed by the allies within one year is well at the lowest end of the list of all causes of death in this country.
    But we do complain much more easily about deaths and casualties during wartime than about automobiles accidents, or even injured or death policemen or firemen, actually.

    Consistent efforts to reach to an ability to wage war without direct casualties and to limit it to material destruction sometimes in the future are well underway. These efforts did pay off already because, strikingly enough, the first intervention in Iraq in 1991 made almost no casualties on the allies’ side; with the exception of a friendly fire, some accidents, and else. In any case, we may reasonably surmise that accidental or unintended injuries will persist during warfare as they will persist in automobile traffic, at work, etc.

    For now, until this expected turning point will be attained and as long as some countries, foreign fighters, terrorist groups and cells, and else will feel unconcerned by this question, the following statement written by Karl von Clausewitz in On War prevails:

    “War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.?

  • David Mullins

    It would not appear to be a room clearing exercise when
    women and children are shot in the head execution style at close range. Room clearing results in multiple body wounds and are not directly aimed at the head. Head shots are to finish off or execute.

    NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, CAMP PENDLETON, CALIFORNIA
    Saturday, Jun 02, 2007, Page 7
    Many of the 24 Iraqi civilians killed by Marine infantrymen in Haditha in 2005 died from close-range gunshot wounds, a military prosecutor said on Thursday. At least five Iraqis, two women and three men, were shot in the head.

  • clazy

    David, You’re not very self-aware, are you? Take a look at what you wrote and compare it with what you quoted. If you’ve got a better quote, by all means supply it, but this one says nothing about “execution style”, it doesn’t define “close-range” so that you could reasonably extrapolate “execution style”, it doesn’t even describe the head wounds (not every head wound is the result of an execution), and it doesn’t mention children.

  • Herschel Smith

    Glad that you could drop by Dave. Prosecutors say a lot of things. Especially ones who weren’t there that day.

    I would have been surprised if room clearing had occurred and shots had NOT been taken to the head. This is what happens. The SAW gunner led them in that day. His weapon fires in nine round bursts. M16A2s/M4s fire in three round bursts (or single shot, but I would strongly suspect that they were on three round that day). It is all over in 3-5 seconds. The stack goes in furiously through the doorway with weapons going, firing at everything that moves, through the smoke of the grenade. I suspect that within 3 seconds, 50-60 rounds had been discharged — that is, after the fragmentation grenade had been used.

    Fire was taken from the room, and this is not in dispute. Not a shred of evidence exists to suggest otherwise, and no testimony of which I am aware denies this. Next, the CO had given the order to clear the room. In order to believe your sequence of events, you would have to hold that in spite of the order, the Marines put themselves and their brothers in mortal peril by entering a home from which they had taken shots (and behind which walls they believed insurgents to reside) in order to do what? Hesitate, and then take them out of the room in order to shoot them? And gain what, in comparison to simply clearing the room by the method described above?

    How much ever you might want to believe something like that, no Marine puts himself and his brothers in the way of harm, disobeying an order, in order to gain absolutely nothing (shooting the inhabitants of the room outside rather than inside). Or worse, waiting until they saw that they were not insurgents (thereby again putting themselves in mortal danger because they hesitated) and then deciding to shoot them anyway. In either case, the Marines hesitate. Hesitation means death. Read the ROE posts I have made.

    Hesitation is NOT part of the procedure. You can question the use of the procedure. But once the procedure is underway, you cannot stop it.

  • David Mullins

    Herschel thanks for the correction to my post as to article not supporting the statement. I certainly hope that this was truly a room clearing incident. After reviewing more of the info available on the internet I see Time’s article and facts on Haditha are much contested and mostly a year old. I did see this http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/military/20070601-9999-1m1chessan.html that seems to give more details of the prosecution’s evidence of recent date. Specifically, “At least five Iraqis were killed at close range by bullets fired into their head or face, Lt. Col. Paul Atterbury said in a Camp Pendleton courtroom. Powder burns on some of the bodies gave that indication, he said.
    Atterbury cited the example of a young woman who was shot at the base of her skull. Marine officers later found her body in a cowering position. Wrapped in one of her arms was a boy who was shot in the head.”

    And this testimony, ” Atterbury then looked at photos of some of the civilians killed in Haditha. He asked Parks whether the fatal shootings of men, women and children, some of them shot in the head, would amount to an incident that merited investigation.

    “The substantial number of head shots suggests to me that you have a nonresisting force. … (It) raises issues,? Parks replied.”

    These are opinions from observations by experts but we do not
    have the photos or actual powder burns to examine. The
    court will determine the accuracy of those testifying. I hope they are wrong.

    I cannot imagine the pressure these men are under in Iraq.

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  • Herschel Smith

    Here are some good links that discuss and describe the collapse of the Haditha case against the Marines:

    Dinocrat: Fruit of the Poisoned Tree

    Newsmax: Bombshell Cripples Case Against Haditha Marines

    Democracy Project: Haditha Cases Continue to Crumble


You are currently reading "Understanding the Events of Haditha", entry #517 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Haditha Roundup and was published June 3rd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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