If you're like most Pittsburghers, you only tune in to WQED-TV to watch Lawrence Welk reruns, and that slightly creepy "Celtic Woman" who plays the violin. So you may have missed the PBS Frontline report last night, "Rules of Engagement," a look back at the allegations of a massacre in Haditha, Iraq, where 24 Iraqis were killed under murky circumstances in 2005. (You can see the report online by following the link above.)
Watching the broadcast made me wonder why conservatives ever wanted to get rid of PBS: Frontline provides a highly sympathetic, if not quite exculpatory, account of the Marines in Haditha, while engaging in some media criticism as well. (Even Fox News appears to hate the troops, based on the footage selected.)
The person who comes off worst of all, though, is Pennsylvania's very own John Murtha, the Johnstown Democrat who gave the Haditha story national prominence. It was Murtha, a former Marine and Bush Administration critic, who cited Haditha as evidence that US troops were snapping under the strain, to the point that they were going on murderous rampages.
Military prosecutors trying the case did not comment for the Frontline story, citing a policy not to speak about cases outside the courtroom. (Defense attorneys were under no such obligation, and their interviews make up a sizable chunk of the Frontline piece.) Murtha isn't quoted either, and little time is spent dwelling on how he got his information about Haditha.
But at least one of the Marines charged in the Haditha deaths, staff Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, blames his own superiors. In a 2006 defamation lawsuit against Murtha, Wuterich argues that Murtha may have been the willing dupe of nefarious elements in the Pentagon itself. Murtha, the suit says,
was one of several Congressional Members in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate who was provided information by officials within the Department of Defense concerning the ongoing investigation into the Haditha tragedy. According to news reports Mr. Murtha was briefed by, among others, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee. ... [T]he Department of Defense officials who have briefed or leaked information to Mr. Murtha deliberately provided him with inaccurate and false information.
Murtha responded to the lawsuit with a statement explaining that he made a public issue out of Haditha "to draw attention to the horrendous pressure put on our troops in Iraq and to the cover-up of the incident. Our troops are caught in the middle of a tragic dilemma. The military trains them to fight a conventional war and use overwhelming force to protect U.S. lives. I agree with that policy, but when we use force, we often kill civilians. What are the consequences?"
The Frontline story gives little attention to Murtha's defense, although it tacitly suggests that -- even if his criticism of the Marines in Haditha was over the line -- there may have been merit to his criticism of the war effort as a whole. At the end of the piece, Marines who'd been involved in the Haditha deployment say that on later missions, a new premium was put on protecting Iraqi lives -- and that this is a good, if difficult, thing. But in general, and for right or wrong, "Rules of Engagement" is kinder to active Marines than retired ones.