Losin' it

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The other Vanity Fair piece that’s worth a look-see this month is William Langewiesche’s piece on the November 2005 Haditha massacre. It too comes with a photo essay—portraits of Marines from the company alleged to have gone on a killing spree after a roadside bomb attack.

Like the Andersen piece, it’s a great read. In vivid, dense packed and elegantly structured prose, Langewiesche explores the context of the killings and makes the case that there was really nothing very extra-ordinary about them, “just another shitty Anbar morning.� He even suggests that some of the killing may have been technically within the rules of engagement—at least those to which the Marines were accustomed. He calls this “...a baseline narrative that becomes the happiest possible version of the morning's events.�

Some people are going to read this as an attempt to smear the morning's events into something palatable, and others will say that it is an attempt to normalize (for better or worse) civilian deaths.

Neither will do justice to the nuance of the piece.

Langewiesche notes that there is evidence that tells heavily against the Marines: photos and accounts that indicate that five Iraqi civilians who blundered upon the aftermath of the bomb attack were simply executed, and witnesses who say that subsequent killings were far less shadowed by the fog of war than participants later claimed. (Tim McGirk's May 19 story in Time goes into this in far more detail, however).

The cumulative effect of his evocation of the horror of the killings weighs more heavily, however, than would a more fervent attempt to arrange fragments of evidence into a picture of indictable action.

This is part of his “happiest possible version:�
Nine people had sheltered in that room, three generations of the same family, from an ancient man paralyzed by a stroke to an infant girl just three months old. When the grenade exploded, it blew some of them apart, wounded others with penetrating shrapnel, and littered the room with evil-smelling body parts. In the urgency of the moment the old man forgot that he was paralyzed and tried to stand up. He took rounds to the chest, vomited blood as he fell, and then lay on the floor twitching as he died.

The unfortunate part about this piece is that Langewiesche wants us to understand that it doesn’t really matter whether his blankly horrific “happiest possible version� is correct, or whether something nastier and colder happened that morning in Haditha. No, what matters is the PR disaster that the massacre (however the hell it happened) represents, and its strategic implications.

This is him writing about a video that was shot just after the killings and used by McGirk to peer around the untruths of the marine press releases. The last line of this excerpt is the last line of the article. It is Langewiesche's last word in a major American magazine on an incident in which, it appears very likely that, unarmed civilians in a land far away were executed by heavily armed American soldiers.
A man cries, "This is an act denied by God. What did he do? To be executed in the closet? Those bastards! Even the Jews would not do such an act! Why? Why did they kill him this way? Look, this is his brain on the ground!"

The boy continues to sob over the corpse on the floor. He shouts, "Father! I want my father!"

Another man cries, "This is democracy?"

Well yeah, well no, well actually this is Haditha. For the United States, it is what defeat looks like in this war.

The horror rings here the more clearly for the hard-edged shallowness of this conclusion, but is this Langewiesche’s intention? In my “happiest possible version� it is. But I have my doubts.