In the year 8 A.D., a lauded Roman poet named Ovid pondered the topic of warfare and famously asked, "Isn't the best defense always a good attack?"
Apparently so. Ovid's credo is alive and well today. The conservatives who defend the Iraq war are clearly rattled by the increasingly credible allegations that some U.S. Marines killed 24 innocent Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in the town of Haditha last November. A new report today lays out the imminent findings of the U.S. military's probe: the incident did occur; some officers lied in an effort to cover it up; and their superiors missed the clues that would have enabled them to detect the lies.
This incident obviously involves only a small handful of Marines, and is atypical of the manner in which the vast majority of U.S. troops have been conducting themselves, even under the most stressful circumstances. Nevertheless, during the months ahead (bad timing for the GOP, which doesn't want Iraq to dominate the '06 elections), Haditha will fuel more public discussion about the administration's well-documented failure to anticipate and plan for a long and bloody occupation.
Hence, the quandary for the pro-war right: Realizing that Haditha is impossible to defend on the merits, particularly at a time when the majority of Americans have turned against the war and against the president who launched it, conservative activists have tapped their inner Ovid and decided that the best defense is a good attack.
Thus far, here are the main elements:
1. Attack some of the officials who have called attention to the killings. Attack John Murtha, the ex-Marine Democratic congressman, in particular. Murtha has been out front on this incident, clearly utilizing his many contacts inside the Marine Corps. Dallas radio talk show host Mark Davis wrote yesterday, "Mr. Murtha has led the pack of baying critics casting negative light on our fighting forces...savoring every nugget...barely able to contain the spring in his step as he basks in the grisly particulars."
2. Attack the people who have long harbored concerns about this war, and brand them as traitors and loons. Michael Reagan, another radio guy and son of the late president, writes today that "these traitorous antiwar zealots are salivating over the possibility that they can exploit whatever happened in Haditha last November just as they exploited the My Lai massacre (in Vietnam)....The worst aspect of this treasonous activity is the motive behind much of the antiwar hysteria - an insane hatred of George W. Bush and the overwhelming lust of the Democratrs to regain control of Capitol Hill no matter what it costs the United States of America in blood and treasure."
Jeb Babbin, a former defense official in the senior George Bush administration, also writes today that "the left will try to use Haditha as it used My Lai 30 years ago: as a political tool to take apart America's support for the war." (His memory, however, is very shaky. The My Lai massacre was publicized in 1971, by which time the majority of Americans had already turned against the Vietnam war. In 1970, according to Gallup, 56 percent were opposed.)
3. Attack the messenger (big surprise!). Dismiss the Haditha story as "a media feeding frenzy" (Babbin's words). Contend that the story is simply being overplayed in the press; as blogger John McIntyre at RealClearPolitics wonders, "(C)an't the story just be mentioned in passing or relegated to page A19 where they put all of the good news about Iraq and the economy, until at least the military finishes its investigation? Why the urge to cover this story on the front page...? Who does that help?"
Lastly, if it looks like the culpable Marines lied to cover up what they did, blame their lying on the media; as Philadelphia talk show host Michael Smerconish suggests, "Isn't it conceivable that...fully understanding that the media would vilify them for their mistake, they compounded their error and lied...If so, I think the lie was a mistake, but an entirely understandable one."
These applications of the Ovid credo have flaws, however.
For instance, the "media feeding frenzy," otherwise known as a free and independent press trying to do its job, is being supported by military insiders who are working to get the truth out.
Today's Washington Post story, linked above, clearly owes its veracity to an Army official who supplied key information about the incident and the aftermath. And a Marine who helped load the slain Iraqis into body bags, Lance Cpl. Roel Ryan Briones, has already spoken on the record, telling the Los Angeles Times in its May 29 edition that "they ranged from little babies to adult males and females. I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood. This left something in my head and heart."
And another thing: attacking the critics, messengers, et al does not erase the larger context in which Haditha occurred. Those Marines have been working in a hot zone heavily populated by insurgents, and the mounting evidence suggests that some of them may have snapped after having been hit with one too many roadside bombs. A key sentence in the Post story reads: "One of (the investigation's) conclusions is that the training of troops for Iraq has been flawed...with too much emphasis on traditional war-fighting skills and insufficient focus on how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign."
Connect the dots on that one. The evidence is overwhelming that the Bush war planners failed to adequately anticipate the prospects of a post-Hussein insurgency. Bush himself, several years ago, told the New York Times that he had "miscalculated" on that scenario. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told Fox News that he has also failed to anticipate the strength of resistence, although he offered an excuse: "No one has a perfect view into the future."
When the Haditha incident is fully aired in public, this failure of policy execution will be the context in which it is widely debated.
I was going to end there. But maybe we should give the last word to Samir Sumaidaie, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United States. The other day, he was warmly welcomed by Bush. He hails from the new government that Bush lauds as the best hope for democracy in Iraq. Yet he too is upset about Haditha. Here's what he said on CNN the other day: Haditha was "a cold-blooded killing" -- and, worse yet, he claims that in a separate incident, a Marine also murdered one of his cousins ("killed intentionally...unnecessarily").
Memo to the conservative talking heads: Is Sumaidaie just another Murtha, "savoring every nugget?"