Was it murder? A US marine faces scrutiny
Timeless questions on morality in war surface in first post-9/11 case alleging murder in combat.
Some called Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano the "preppy marine," a charismatic Gulf War veteran-turned-Wall Street broker who cut his long locks and reenlisted in the Marines after several close friends perished in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Legions of supporters say the 33-year-old served with honor. "I'd have him for my son," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, one of Lieutenant Pantano's staunchest defenders.
Marine prosecutors have a different view of the officer's professional conduct. A year after he shot two terror suspects in the back during a tense search mission in Iraq, and laid a scrawled sign with a unit motto - "No better friend, no worse enemy" - on their bodies, Pantano this week is facing a military version of a grand jury at Camp Lejeune, N.C., on charges of premeditated murder.
The Pantano saga has become the first post-9/11 case of alleged murder in combat to come before the military justice system. Haunting to some for its echoes of proceedings that followed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the case is also dredging up difficult questions about the morality of combat and what can happen to soldiers when the fog of war clears.
"Just being on a battlefield isn't a complete license to do anything," says Michael Belknap, a professor at California Western School of Law and author of "The Vietnam War on Trial." "After all, the two people that he killed were shot in the back, and that certainly, most of the time, is not going to put the shooter in a good position."
The two men - Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil - were stopped in their car as they were leaving an area in Mahmudiyah where homes were being searched. At first they were handcuffed. When reports came that soldiers had found explosives in the area, Pantano removed the handcuffs and ordered the men to search their own car.
"They quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other. They did this simultaneously, while speaking in muffled Arabic. I thought they were attacking me and I decided to fire my M-16A4 service rifle in self-defense," Pantano has said in his official statement. But some witnesses said he may have emptied 45 rounds into the men before leaving what fellow marines called a "death card." If convicted, Pantano could face the death penalty, though that's unlikely, experts say.
Already, the case has stirred a fiery debate about the murky nature of the Middle Eastern battlefield. For three weeks, Mr. Jones has spoken almost nightly about Pantano on the House floor. He has written two letters to President Bush asking for intervention. Pantano's cause has also been taken up by conservative talk-show hosts such as Michael Savage.
They claim that the prosecution implicitly limits soldiers' ability to make split-second life-and-death decisions - which affects morale and recruitment - all in the name of a 33-year-old who left his cushy stateside existence to take on terrorists in the dusty heart of Babylonia.