The Congo Question, The Heart of Darkness, and Accountability

The enforcement of standards of civilized behavior is what distinguishes us from our enemies, and today, we must again make that distinction plain. The Army has charged two soldiers and an NCO with murder in Iraq, based on an alleged incident that took place just last month. A three-star general ordered the investigation after following up reports about it. We eagerly await a John Murtha coverup allegation.

The case will now proceed to an Article 32 investigation, a cross between a preliminary hearing and a grand jury. The Article 32 is very possibly the greatest truth engine in any legal system, anywhere. Attorneys for the government and the defense (appointed military counsel; civilian counsel at no cost to the government) will have extensive rights to question witnesses and examine documents. One officer will examine all of the evidence produced and make recommendations on whether the case merits trial, and at what level. The recommendation is not binding. The various court-martial convening authorities — the highest of whom is generally a two- or three-star, will decide whether probable cause exists to believe that each accused committed a triable offense. As a practical matter, however, if the investigating officer finds probable cause, there will be a trial.

Patience is not a virtue of the American media, but I’ve had some of experience with both fora, and thus have far more confidence that the military courts will develop an accurate account of the events in question than the New York Times will. It’s entirely possible, after all, that these soldiers are not guilty, and while it’s now commonplace for us to forget that, no one deserves the benefit of all reasonable doubts more than those who protect our own freedom. If these turn out to have been soldiers who forgot who they were, the bidding ought to start at double-digit, hard-time confinement. The same would be just as true of accountability by senior officers and NCO’s, something that has finally begun to happen with Abu Ghraib. How ironic that for all of the attention lavished on Abu Ghraib, the world has forgotten most of the horrors that happened there. This is how the abandonment of perspective tends to work, and will probably work here.

If any reminder is needed that we ought to wait for the legal process before we judge any suspect, whether in this case or that of Haditha, Michael Yon has expressed it from a deeper personal knowledge and with a far greater poignancy than I could ever hope. Unfortunately, the cause for which all of the soldiers are sacrificing — including those whose conduct is beyond reproach — will soon face unfavorable comparisons to unattainable standards that no Army in the field has ever met, or will ever meet. Expect venenous, hyperbolic analogies to Einsatzgruppen. The message some will want us to take from this will be that the only appropriate atonement is to abandon the field to those who see the murder of children as their very point-blank, execution-style modus operandi. That, of course, would be to incentivize rather than deter barbarity.

Unfortunately, the morality of too many is sufficiently perverse that every death in Iraq — regardless of the actor or his intent — is implicitly the fault of the United States. This view shovels guilty and innocent alike into a statistical mass grave, with the fallen soldiers of an elected government piled on top of shards of foreign terrorists, with dead diplomats, foreign workers, and innocent children akimo in heaps, and here and there, an American Marine or British soldier. This view makes no moral distinction between the terrorist who drives a car bomb into a school, the child he killed, the teacher who dies trying to shield the child, or the Iraqi soldier whose final act is to empty his magazine into the car. It takes little thought to see this communal statistical burial, this exploitation of a victim in common cause with her murderer, for the desecration that it is.

Still, such a simplistic framework has appeal — as the substitution of emotion for thought always does — because it is easy on the mind. The anticipation of consequence, the consideration of the greater moral context, the careful examination of circumstances, and the building of one’s moral framework around reason are not, as a rule, easy things. One cannot reach the “right” moral answer without considering them, however.

Among those who will have the most to say about this case, and among those who have already had the most to say about Haditha, there has been much studious evasion of some dire realities, beginning with the fact that our deadliest enemy in Iraq — if not necessarily the most numerous — calls itself “al Qaeda in Iraq” and swears allegiance to those who engineered the murder of 3,000 American civilians on a single day — right here in America. They cannot argue why a government chosen by the consent of the governed in three free elections is less meritorious of our respect and support than the violent acts of gangs of displaced cut-throats and ambitious petty warlords. They cannot say how America can survive if it consistently yields the field of battle to those who would follow us to our homes to kill our people, rob us of our freedom, and destroy our prosperity, or why this would make the world better. They cannot explain why the forebearance and understanding of Europe and the Middle East have purchased them so forebearance and understanding in return — why, for example, were 25 terrorists convicted just last week for plotting attacks in France over Russia’s war in Chechnya? They do not answer for the incalculable horrors that would follow a sudden U.S. flight from a nation that freely elected leaders who ask for the presence of U.S. forces until — and only until — the rule of law and the will of the people have a chance to triumph against bands of cutthroats in the pay of the predatory tyrannies that surround them. They evade this obvious consequence above all others: that after Iraq, there will be another battleground, and another, and that sooner or later, America will be among them. Again.

It is a statistical certainty that in every Army there are men who have committed crimes, whether in times of peace or under the stresses of war. This is not an excuse for crime; it is an imperative both for accountability and for perspective. Neither any European nation, nor the Canadian Army, nor the United Nations itself is exempt from that statistical certainty, or from the responsibility to hold those who err accountable under the law. Here, the U.N. has much to learn from the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I wonder how many of those who say that we must abandon Iraq to the heirs of Saddam and Zarkawi believe just as strongly that the U.N. must atone for its soldiers’ exploitation of some Congolese girls by abandoning all of them — and their sisters, brothers, and parents — to the tender mercies of cannibals and rapists. It is only some sense of perspective that leads to the obvious answer, despite the U.N.’s woeful job of assuring that the guilty are held accountable.

A just world does not measure the justice of nations and their causes by the actions of an abberrant few, but by how swiftly and thoroughly their actions are judged, and accountability imposed, by a system of laws that represents the many. That process is at work in the U.S. military. If only we could hope for the maintenance of that perspective as that process works toward its conclusion. That may be too much to hope for.