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Meltdown in Haditha: The Killing of 24 Iraqi Civilians by U.S. Marines and the Failure of Military Justice

Meltdown in Haditha

The Killing of 24 Iraqi Civilians by U.S. Marines and the Failure of Military Justice

Kenneth F. Englade

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 276 pages

Book Review published on: March 3, 2017

In Meltdown in Haditha, author Kenneth Englade issues a broad reproach of the Marine Corps’ handling of the tragic killing by a team of U.S. Marines of twenty-four apparently unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005. Englade, an investigative reporter with no previous legal or military justice background, takes direct aim at the Corps, going so far as to declare it “obsessed” with keeping the public unaware throughout the process. In addition to the Corps’ lack of transparency, Englade challenges the competence of the marine prosecution effort, and ultimately describes the likelihood of a drastic amendment of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) resulting in a transfer of prosecutorial responsibilities away from military authorities. Though at times overly critical of the Corps’ handling of the case, Englade exhaustively researches and depicts the available investigations, reports, news media, and case literature surrounding the Haditha tragedy. In the end, Englade’s conclusion that the Marine Corps poorly handled Haditha from start to finish may be partially true; however, his ultimate conclusion that the case both demands and incites drastic changes to the UCMJ lacks adequate support.

Part I details the case facts, in which a convoy of marines led by Sgt. Frank Wuterich hits a remotely detonated improvised explosive device that kills a team member. They order the occupants of an approaching vehicle to exit their car, whereupon the marines, led by Wuterich, shoot to death all four unarmed individuals. Hearing alleged reports of fire “to the south,” a platoon leader orders Wuterich and his team to “clear” the houses in the area. The team kills twenty apparently unarmed civilians after Wuterich declares the houses “hostile” and tells his marines to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Despite the large number of noncombatants killed, including women and children, the Marine leadership in Iraq failed to initiate any investigation into the incident.

In Part II, Englade describes the investigative efforts ultimately spurred by an article published in Time magazine. He complains of a “wall of silence” surrounding the investigations, specifically alleging the Corps deliberately classified portions of criminal and administrative investigations to keep them from the public. From excerpts of the administrative investigation ordered by Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the reader is led to the conclusion that the Marine team exercised a negligent to reckless application of the rules of engagement, and the battalion commander and his staff unreasonably failed to investigate the incident.

Parts III and IV detail prosecution efforts against eight of the involved parties, including Wuterich and his team members, the battalion judge advocate, and the battalion commander. Englade criticizes the prosecution effort, to include the decision—and failure to explain—the granting of broad immunity for numerous key players, the failure to place the marines involved in pretrial confinement, and the decision to engage in an unfruitful two-year pretrial appeal that netted no ultimate benefit.

Though some of Englade’s descriptions of prosecutorial missteps ring true, he surprisingly alludes to a need for blanket reform of the military justice system. While the prosecution efforts proved largely unsuccessful, Englade does not thoroughly articulate the broader need to so vastly change the system except to complain of a prohibitively lengthy appellate court battle in Wuterich’s case.

While he discusses the comparative success of the Hamdania war crimes case completed by the same marine military justice team, Englade does not adequately highlight the main factor that enabled success in that case—the immediate completion of a criminal investigation. While the author acknowledges that such an effort in the Haditha case may have resulted in a completely different outcome, he gives no credit to the Corps or the prosecution team for at least attempting to bring to justice the key individual responsible for refusing to conduct an investigation—the battalion commander. One of the lessons learned from Haditha, as Englade indicates, may be that access to lengthy appellate proceedings in criminal cases should be curtailed; however, the better point taken should have been that any incident resulting in civilian casualties on the battlefield should automatically trigger a formal inquiry—a policy implemented by senior military commanders since the Haditha incident. Englade may have better concluded that Washington authorities should permanently mandate such a requirement as a prophylactic against investigative and ultimately prosecutorial failures in future conflicts.

Englade’s perception that the Corps maintains an “obsession with keeping the public unaware” provides insight from a journalist’s point of view that officials should note. Though the military services have privacy obligations to service members, the requirement to maintain the integrity of open cases, and operational security considerations, they should aspire for transparency to the extent possible where the public has expressed interest in the operation of its military. Though Englade admits his account will not be the definitive telling of the Haditha tragedy, and his conclusion warrants substantial additional consideration, the book offers a holistic portrayal of the case yet to be offered for public consumption.

Book Review written by: Maj. Michael Lipkin, U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir, Virginia