How We Fight

Courtesy Reuters


On the morning of November 19, 2005, a U.S. Marine unit patrolling Haditha, a small farming town in the heart of Iraq's violence-plagued Anbar Province, was hit by a powerful roadside bomb. The explosion killed one marine and wounded two others. But that was just the start of the killing that day. Following the attack, four Iraqi college students and a driver who were approaching the scene in a taxi were also killed, as were 19 civilians in nearby houses, including an elderly man in a wheelchair and several children and the women who were trying to shield them.

The first official account of the incident claimed that only 15 civilians had died, all from the bomb blast. In March 2006, an extensive Time magazine investigation challenged that version of events. Subsequent inquiries found that the marines had probably killed all 24 Iraqi civilians themselves and that U.S. commanders should have conducted a more thorough investigation earlier. The marines involved in the incident appear likely to face criminal charges, including for murder.

If the marines' responsibility is confirmed, the Haditha killings will be the gravest violation by U.S. forces of the legal prohibition against the wanton targeting of civilians since the invasion of Iraq. A bedrock of the laws of war for more than a century, noncombatant immunity encompasses two key concepts: distinction and proportionality. (Although the United States has not ratified all the relevant international conventions codifying these rules, it treats most of them as binding.) Parties to hostilities are expected to always distinguish combatant forces and military objects, which are legitimate targets, from civilian populations and hospitals, schools, places of worship, and important cultural sites, which are not. Under no circumstances is force to be deliberately applied against strictly noncombatant targets. But according to the principle of proportionality, collateral damage to civilians and civilian objects is acceptable if it is the byproduct of attacks on legitimate military targets and the damage does not obviously exceed the anticipated military

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