Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The meaning of leadership, in Iraq and elsewhere

We don't yet know for sure what happened, but it does not look good for the marines accused of shooting two dozen Iraqi civilians, including women, children, and an elderly man in a wheelchair.

Surely there can be no one by now who does not understand how close to the surface our worst instincts can be under certain conditions. The most obvious and best known factor in wartime is the violent death of one's buddies. Soldiers become enraged when this happens and are likely to turn on the enemy with great ferocity and vengefulness. It is under these circumstances that atrocities take place.

All of this is present in the explanations offered by various spokesmen in the last 24 hours since the killings in Haditha became widely known. The following excerpts are from The New York Times.

Mr. Harper [a retired marine] expressed doubt that the marines knowingly committed crimes in Haditha, saying that they undoubtedly acted on instinct, as trained, in the heat of battle. "When a bullet comes at you and you turn around and half your buddy's head is blown off, it changes the way you think forever," he said.

Jerry Alexander, the owner of G.I. Joe's and a Navy man who served with the Marines for a dozen years, had much the same perspective, saying, "If I saw my buddy lying there dead, there is no such thing as too much retaliation."

While Mr. Alexander said "unacceptable kills" should not be covered up, he worried about the unfairness of judging those who were in Haditha. "In the heat of combat, you cannot hesitate; he who hesitates is lost," he said. "I would not prosecute these young men because they were just doing their jobs."

On this Memorial Day, in this military community, people will concede that any marine who committed illegal acts must be punished and that the Pentagon must take responsibility. But conversation quickly returns to emotional and earnest explanations of the need for understanding for what one former marine described as "these 19-year-old kids who get paid 900 bucks a month to put their lives on the line."

A preliminary inquiry indicated that the civilians were killed during a four- to five-hour sweep, led by a handful of marines angry over the death of Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, 20, of El Paso, who was killed as his patrol drove through the area.

Col. Ben Mittman of the Air Force, interviewed as he got his regular military buzz cut at the Beachcomber Barber Shop in Oceanside, worried that the young servicemen were being made scapegoats. "If this thing really happened, they had to radio communication and get the go-ahead," he said. "The frontline grunts these days do not do anything without the commanders knowing, especially something like that."

What all this adds up to is the universal need for leaders who are wise, strong, firm and able to keep their own emotional balance. That is the calling of a leader, in the church or in business as well as on the battlefield. Where were the commanders of those troops during the four or five hours in question?

True leaders understand that, precisely because of the violent and vengeful human instincts that surface under stress, it is crucial that under such conditions purposeful guidance be given to rein in our worst nature. They understand that when young soldiers kill innocent bystanders in the heat of emotion that is not "doing their job." These young men, if they did a thing, will have to live for the rest of their lives with the consequences of lack of guidance from their commanding officers.

The tragic nature of this lack is highlighted by the testimony of a young woman from CNN who was "embedded" with these troops and can hardly believe they are the same ones accused. See this link: