Morally bruising war
The general in charge of U.S. Central Command Marines praised Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt in dropping all charges against him this month in the shooting deaths of four Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005.
“The experience in combat is difficult to understand intellectually and very difficult to appreciate emotionally,” stated Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander, in a letter dismissing all charges against the corporal without prejudice on Aug. 8.
Gen. Mattis quoted former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said that combat is an “incommunicable experience” and that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the face of an uplifted knife.”
“Marines have a well-earned reputation for remaining cool in the face of enemies brandishing much more than knives,” Gen. Mattis said, noting the “brutal reality” of daily life in Iraq.
“Where the enemy disregards any attempt to comply with ethical norms of warfare, we exercise discipline and restraint to protect the innocent caught on the battlefield. Our way is right, but it is also difficult.”
Gen. Mattis stated that an exhaustive investigation showed Cpl. Sharratt “acted in accordance with the rules of engagement” in Haditha, and he noted that by dropping the charges, Cpl. Sharratt could “fairly conclude that you did your best to live up to the standards followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made by in a matter of seconds in combat.”
The three-star general put the current conflict in context by noting that in Iraq “our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians.
“As you well know, the challenges of this combat environment put extreme pressures on you and your fellow Marines,” he said. “Operational, moral and legal imperatives demand that we Marines stay true to our own standards and maintain compliance with the law of war in this morally bruising environment.”
Gen. Mattis’ letter contrasts sharply with comments made in May 2006 by Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, who accused the Marines in Haditha of killing Iraqis “in cold blood” and then covering up the purported atrocity.
Cpl. Sharratt was investigated after Iraqi civilians said he and another Marine executed four Iraqis during a search of a house in Haditha. Investigators later determined that he and another Marine acted in self-defense after one of the men pointed an AK-47 rifle at Cpl. Sharratt from the house.