In November 2005, the Marine Corps reported that a number of civilians had been killed in Haditha by an improvised explosive device (IED) that also killed Marine Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, and that eight insurgents were killed in the ensuing firefight.
But in March of 2006, Time ran a story, “Collateral Damage or Civilian Massacre in Haditha?” which claimed, based on interviews with locals, that the Marines had killed 24 civilians in cold blood in retaliation for Terrazas’s death. In May, the Marine Corps charged a number of Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, with killing the civilians, and a number of officers for covering up the alleged killings.
Although the investigation had hardly begun, opponents of the war pounced. The press, especially Time and the New York Times, presumed the Marines guilty. Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) piled on, claiming that “there was no firefight, there was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” This incident, said Murtha, “shows the tremendous pressure that these guys are under every day when they’re out in combat.”
Appearing on This Week on ABC, Murtha also contended that the shootings in Hadithah had been covered up. “Who covered it up, why did they cover it up, why did they wait so long? We don’t know how far it goes. It goes right up the chain of command.” When Alan Colmes asked Barack Obama about Murtha’s charge in June of 2006, Senator Obama replied, “I would never second-guess John Murtha . . . I think he’s somebody who knows of which he speaks.”
But a strange thing happened on the way to the lynching. The case against the Marines began to fall apart, and a deafening media silence ensued. Eight Marines were originally charged with offenses ranging from murder to dereliction of duty, but charges against six have been dismissed, and one has been acquitted.
The case began to unravel in 2007, when then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis, Commanding General of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF), accepted the recommendations of the Article 32 investigating officer and dropped charges against two of the Marines charged with murder and an officer charged with dereliction of duty. In the case of Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt, one of four enlisted Marines charged with murder in the Hadithah incident, General Mattis wrote that Sharratt:
has served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq where our nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians.
With the dismissal of these charges, LCpl Sharratt may fairly conclude that he did his best to live up to the standards, followed by U.S. fighting men throughout our many wars, in the face of life or death decisions made in a matter of seconds in combat. And as he has always remained cloaked in the presumption of innocence, with this dismissal of charges, he remains in the eyes of the law — and in my eyes — innocent.