Is military justice in Iraq changing for the better?
High-profile cases reveal both new emphasis on laws of war and the shortfalls of military justice.
The wheels of American military justice seem to be turning as they should in Iraq, particularly given the extreme difficulties of urban combat against tough and sometimes suicidal insurgents blending in with the general population.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a series of cases involving the unlawful killing and abuse of Iraqi civilians, officers as well as enlisted soldiers and marines are being prosecuted and punished. The need to follow the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and the laws of war is being reemphasized in combat training down to the individual platoon level.
But the improvements in military justice come with some worrisome caveats as well, experts say: It took the highly publicized abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison to get the military's attention. The severity of punishment has been mixed, raising questions about the sympathy of military juries made up of fellow Iraq combat vets. And the length of the war, including multiple combat tours, plus the lowering of recruiting standards to meet manpower shortages, is adding to the stress and discipline problems that can lead to abuses.
"Based on a very incomplete picture of what's happening day to day in Iraq, it appears that there's much more attention to human rights and to the laws of war than, for example, in Vietnam or Korea," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
At Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Friday, Marine Corps Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III was sentenced to 15 years in prison and given a dishonorable discharge for organizing the kidnapping and killing of an Iraqi man in Hamdaniya last year. Six junior marines and a Navy petty officer involved in the case received lesser punishments.
On Saturday, one of the soldiers convicted of rape and murder in an attack on a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, was sentenced to 110 years in prison with parole possible after 10 years.
The case of 24 Iraqi civilians killed at Haditha in 2005 is approaching the court martial phase for a Marine staff sergeant and two lance corporals charged with murder. In that case, four officers, including the battalion commander, also are accused of failure to fully investigate the killings. The military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding this week will consider charges of dereliction of duty and violation of a lawful order against Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani.
Later in the month, Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan faces a general court-martial on charges that he failed to stop soldiers from abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Meanwhile, a retired US Army lieutenant general has been censured in the friendly fire killing of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, and he could be demoted to two-star rank.
"In a perverse way, these courts martials are a sign of the vitality of the military justice system, the fact that it's working," says Gary Solis, a Vietnam combat veteran who went on to spend 20 years as a judge advocate and military judge in the Marine Corps before teaching laws of war at the US Military Academy at West Point. Abu Ghraib, he says, was an impetus to cracking down on the abuse of civilians. "All of the armed services, it seems to me, are facing the music and saying, 'Hey, if we're a nation of laws, if we're the good guys, we've got to take action.' "
Especially important, says Mr. Solis, is the prosecution and punishment of officers.
"Haditha for the Marine Corps is sending a ... message for battalion commanders that they cannot turn a blind eye for what may be war crimes," says Solis, who now teaches at Georgetown University. "You're not going to get attention paid until you start trying officers."
"I only wish it went higher," he adds.
Do veterans make for lenient jurors?