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.
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Jones has met with Pantano three times, including at a barbecue fundraiser near Camp Lejeune. Pantano's mother, Merry, has designed a website to gather support for the former Goldman Sachs energy trader, who, when he reenlisted, was making a six-figure income at his new company, Filter Media. He grew up on the streets of New York and earned a scholarship to the tony Horace Mann prep school. He and his wife have two young children.Skip to next paragraph
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"I do not believe that Lieutenant Pantano should be charged with premeditated murder for doing his job," says Jones. "This sends a horrible message to young men and women in uniform.... Those who have never walked in a marine's shoes should think long and hard before judging him."
After this week's hearing, Marine Maj. Mark Winn will decide whether to recommend a court-martial. Those who study ideas of America's "just war" theory in the Middle East say that if Pantano is court-martialed the jury that judges him will be appropriate: fellow combat-veteran marines.
"There's such a narrow line in those tense situations between an unnecessary use of force and self-defense that it almost defies anybody to draw that line precisely - and that's really where a court-martial can come in," says Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Roy Gutman, author of "Crimes of War: What the public should know."
The parallels to My Lai aren't so much in the action on the ground as in the reaction back home, historians say.
In that case, Lt. William Calley of Charlie Company was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the killing of 535 Vietnamese civilians. Both sides saw him as a scapegoat, and the case - and charges of coverups - came to color the mythology of the Vietnam War. Now, there are lingering questions about a coverup in the Pantano case as well, since Pantano was once cleared of any wrongdoing by his immediate superiors and even received a glowing promotion report - all amid the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal.
"What disturbs me frankly about what Congressman Jones has had to say is it's very reminiscent of the kind of statements that were made by a lot of fairly ill-informed politicians with respect to My Lai," says Mr. Belknap. "A lot of this is starting to sound like echoes of that case."
Insurgents' infiltration of civilian populations have played into both cases. Although Calley was convicted, another defendant in My Lai, Capt. Ernest Medina, was found not guilty. Pantano's self-defense argument, say some, mirrors Medina's. Medina shot an unarmed woman who was lying on the ground, but testified that she was in the process of getting up and had a hand grenade. "To claim self-defense, you don't actually have to be in danger, you just have to reasonably believe you are," says Belknap.
There are deeper implications for the military as well. Around the world, amid satellite-borne propaganda campaigns, the case promises to affect how American soldiers are perceived by locals on the battlefield - one of the main struggles in Iraq.
"The [military] has tremendous incentives to be at least perceived as being fair and just," says Andrew Rehfeld, who studies morality and war at Washington University in St. Louis. "Being seen as aiming only at bad guys and not at any old person, they will garner more approval."