Incidents such as the one at Haditha in western Iraq last November don't occur in a vacuum. They grow out of the horror of war, watered by the blood of young soldiers and Marines and, yes, of the innocents who are always caught in the middle.
The investigations proceed, and they likely will come up with the names of half a dozen young men who could face courts-martial, perhaps on charges as serious as murder. Officers part way up the chain of command could be charged with covering up what happened in a street and in the houses on that street.
Judgments will be rendered and lives and careers ruined, much as they were in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, and the people at the top will say that justice has been done and it was simply an aberration, a few bad apples.
But the real aberration is war, and always has been. The slaughter of innocents, accidental and deliberate, has occurred in every war man has ever fought. It was no different when Americans fought Americans in the Civil War in guerrilla campaigns in places such as bloody Kansas and the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Or in the great World Wars.
It's especially true in the wars of insurgency, in which the enemy cannot easily be distinguished from the innocents and strikes in infernal ways that regular soldiers find hard to deal with—Viet Cong booby traps, Lebanese suicide bombers and Iraqi roadside bombs.
Remember My Lai and Lt. Rusty Calley and Capt. Ernest Medina? Under their command, U.S. soldiers rounded up and mowed down between 300 and 400 Vietnamese women and children and a few old men and left their bodies piled in a grotesque heap.
Or the recent revelations that the Tiger Teams of an elite American airborne unit ran wild in Vietnam for months, killing anyone and everyone they came across without regard to age, gender or innocence.
Vietnam was largely a war against insurgents in the beginning, a war of nebulous origins that was begun almost surreptitiously by our political leadership and fought by them on the cheap, slowly ratcheting up the commitment of lives and national treasure.
So many lies were told to the American people for so long, by leaders of both political parties, that in the end—when no end was in sight after eight bloody years—the nation turned against the war.
Only this spring was it revealed in newly declassified documents that the master of diplomacy and deceit, Henry Kissinger, told the communist Chinese near the end that all Washington wanted was a decent interval to get out of Vietnam and didn't care what happened to the country or our South Vietnamese allies.
Now, as then, there are others who share the responsibility for the handfuls of young Marines or soldiers in places such as My Lai and Haditha.
There are political leaders, none who ever experienced the stress and insanity of combat, who took this nation to war in Iraq on a whim and a grudge, certain that Americans would be greeted as liberators. They sent too few troops to secure even law and order, much less peace.
They covered up the truth with buzzwords such as "transformation" and theories of a new way of war in which lighter, faster and more agile forces strike pre-emptively against our enemies. They fought the war on the backs of a too-small volunteer military that's had no choice but to send the same troops back into the jaws of hell, over and over and over.
If a few of those troops in Haditha snapped, driven mad by the senseless death of yet another brother in arms by the explosion of yet another IED, whose fault is this? It is theirs and their commanding officers', and if they're convicted they'll pay a terrible price.
But those who started a war for no good reason and managed it with the greatest accumulation of arrogance and ignorance and incompetence seen in wartime since World War I, or perhaps the Charge of the Light Brigade, will just fade away to live the good life on their fortunes.
Those who've actually been in combat know it isn't a cakewalk. The Duke of Wellington, in a dispatch from the bloody field of Waterloo where he had won a great victory, put it this way: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail: email@example.com.