The Haditha Scandal "I Hope the Investigation Goes up the Food Chain"

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Michael Sallah -- who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting on war crimes in Vietnam -- discuss the parallels between the massacres at Haditha and My Lai.

In Washington this week, public and political debate continued over the events of Nov. 19, 2005 in Haditha, Iraq. There, United States Marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians in a massacre that, as fresh evidence emerges, is beginning to strongly resemble a war crime. Initially, the military attempted to cover up the story, but the reporters at Time magazine revealed a completely different chronology of events after interviewing Haditha residents and survivors. Currently, two military boards are conducting official investigations into the killings, and internally, the Pentagon is already calling it a massacre.

In 2003, the Toledo Blade newspaper completed an eight month investigation into allegations of war crimes in Vietnam that were covered up by the US government for decades. Reporters Michael Sallah, Mitch Weiss and Joe Mahr researched a US Army unit that ran amok in Vietnam, murdering hundreds of innocent civilians within a span of only months. Women and children were hunted and killed, old farmers were shot dead while working in their fields. Soldiers kept ears and scalps as souvenirs of their murderous rampage. Initially, the series got little attention -- at least until investigative reporting legend Sy Hersh, who broke the My Lai story, brought it to the attention of the media establishment. The reporters ultimately won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for their work, which is now compiled in the book "Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War."

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Sallah, who is now the investigative editor of the Miami Herald discussed the parallels between Haditha and war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sallah, when you won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for your detailed reconstruction of the "Tiger Force," an Army troop responsible for terrible war crimes committed by the United States in Vietnam, you said that killings like those conducted by Tiger Force or the even worse atrocities committed at My Lai could happen again. Have they?

Sallah: Haditha wasn't as bad as My Lai, but the parallels are striking. In both instances you had soldiers who were frustrated and lost control. At Haditha, the soldiers obviously killed these people and then initially tried to cover it up -- just as the military did at My Lai, where soldiers went on a rampage and killed innocent villagers as they pleaded for their lives. If it weren't for the media, neither of these crimes would have been uncovered.

SPIEGEL: The similarities between My Lai and Haditha don't end there.

Sallah: What you have in Iraq right now is a guerilla war, a counterinsurgency in which you don't always know who the enemy is. Our American personnel over there don't even know where they stand in terms of winning the war. It was the same in Vietnam. At My Lai, soldiers lost control and took out their frustrations on innocent villagers who were unarmed and didn't offer any resistance. The contexts are strikingly similar.

SPIEGEL: What is it that drives soldiers to the kind of barbarity where they can shoot women and children at point blank as happened at Haditha and My Lai?

Sallah: Soldiers are trained to kill. They were in a rage mode when the killing happened at Haditha. Members of their unit had been shot at or killed. The same thing happened in the 11th Brigade in My Lai. The commanders in charge didn't put on the brakes, and at My Lai, you actually had some taking part in the rampages. This causes everyone to lose control -- there is no braking mechanism to stop the worst. Soldiers start to kill anything that moves. You need commanders who know how to apply the brakes and stop soldiers from veering over the edge. The other problem is that we dehumanize our enemies. In Vietnam, we called the people "slants," "gooks" and "ginks." In Iraq, they're "towel heads" or "rag heads." We dehumanize the enemy to the point that they look the same to us. Let's just kill them, some seem to be saying, nobody's going to notice.

SPIEGEL: How well informed were soldiers in Vietnam about the Geneva Conventions and other international obligations? And are soldiers stationed in Iraq today better informed?

Sallah: Then and now, soldiers were well aware of the Geneva Conventions and the uniform code of justice for the military. At My Lai, one soldier even shot himself in the foot so he would look injured so he wouldn't have to fire his weapons. William Calley, the lieutenant in charge, knew he was firing on unarmed villagers and that it was wrong. He was just nuts -- an overzealous commander who didn't see these people as human beings.

SPIEGEL: Still, the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and the massacre at Haditha suggest that none of that training was effectively conveyed to the soldiers.

Sallah: They are well trained in the rules of war. In fact, our military is far better trained today than they were in Vietnam. They know what the limitations are. Unfortunately, my suspicion is that Haditha wasn't the only place where this happened in Iraq.

SPIEGEL: During the Vietnam years, you didn't have an administration that actively and publicly debated what, exactly, constitutes torture. Have statements made in the past by former White House counsel and now US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Bush administration fostered an atmosphere in which soldiers feel like they can get away with more?

Sallah: I don't think that had any impact on Haditha. These were just people who crossed the line between right and wrong. There are some gray areas the Bush administration has tried to put out there, but they had no impact on Haditha. These were no fog of war killings caused by confusion; this was murder.

SPIEGEL: Twenty-four people were killed in Habitha compared to about 503 at My Lai, where an entire village was decimated. Can one fairly compare the two?

Sallah: First of all, whenever people are killed and there's an atrocity, it would be very un-Christian to place a value on which was worse. But My Lai was a bona fide massacre. You're talking about over 500 villagers and even babies. The images of My Lai are gruesome, and to this day it is the mother of all atrocities committed by the US.

SPIEGEL: You would have great difficulty this week finding a single newspaper in Germany and Europe that doesn't mention My Lai, Abu Ghraib and Haditha in the same editorial. Did the US learn any lessons from the prison torture scandal about military excess?

Sallah: No. The problem is that we don't learn lessons from these things. We didn't learn from Tiger Force. If you can bury a case like that -- and they buried it in the archives at the Pentagon for 30 years, you can bury anything. But we need to acknowledge these breakdowns in the system so that they can become part of our institutional memories and help us put in the kind of safeguards that we need to avoid these disasters.

SPIEGEL: How severe will Haditha damage America's image abroad?

Sallah: We've already done terrible damage to our image abroad and it will take years for the United States to repair it, especially given the policies of the current administration here. Europeans are largely forgiving and they see the US as a strong ally -- and we can fix that relationship in the longer term -- but they're deeply disappointed and angry.

SPIEGEL: As scrutiny of the massacre at Haditha increases, how will it influence public support for the war on terror and Iraq?

Michael Sallah (center) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff of the Toledo Blade.

Michael Sallah (center) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning staff of the Toledo Blade.

Sallah: Even here in the US, there was never great support for the war in Iraq, and now there is even less. People clearly felt that Afghanistan was ground zero for the war on terror, not Iraq. I don't know how the public will take an event like Haditha. We sometimes look at this thinking, this is part of war, this happens. But that's a dangerous thread because if we allow this to happen and we don't do anything, it's just going to get worse. In the case of My Lai, people didn't believe what had happened until they saw the pictures -- of people crying. The scary thing now is that there are a lot of people who think: Sure, they're civilians, but they're also Iraqis -- so what are 24 dead Iraqis? When you dehumanize people the way we have, the reactions to massacres become visceral and they're not as powerful.

SPIEGEL: The US military has a tendency to deny first, give as little reaction as possible and then to convict as few people as it can. We saw that with My Lai -- will we see it happen with Haditha?

Sallah: Haditha was covered up, they lied about it initially and it was Time magazine and its persistence in getting out the truth that brought this out and got an official investigation. Still, you shouldn't blame these young men -- you should blame the commanders, the leaders. Where were the brakes? I go up the food chain, not down it.

SPIEGEL: In the wake of Abu Ghraib, they certainly didn't go up the food chain. They prosecuted soldiers and low-ranking officers.

Sallah: That's the problem -- it was the same thing with Calley in My Lai. We tend to isolate the guys in the field when clearing the investigations. But instead prosecutors should be going after the command level. Those are the people you hold responsible for dereliction of duty and other war crimes. They are the ones who clearly didn't put on the brakes and didn't acknowledge in the beginning what actually happened. Instead, they covered it up. I don't think this was just a spur of the moment thing. I think it was part of a longer standing pattern that now exists in Iraq, where some of our troops are losing control. I blame the commanders for not pulling them out of battle. I hope this investigation goes up the food chain. Judging by history though, the chances of that happening aren't very good.

Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey.

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