The headlines last week were front page and stark. US Marines had apparently gone on a murderous rampage months earlier in the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Haditha, killing as many as 24 civilians, including women and children. They did so after one of their Humvees in which they were patrolling was blown up by a roadside bomb, killing one marine and wounding two others. There was no evidence that the civilians they massacred were culpable.
There are grounds for belief that after the deadly action, the marines and some of their superiors tried to cover it up. The tragedy was uncovered by reporters for Time magazine. Senior US military officers launched investigations into the event itself and the coverup. President Bush said that those who are guilty must be punished. Though the investigations are proceeding, Pentagon sources say that charges of murder could be brought against some of the marines involved.
If the charges are true, the killings at Haditha could become as shameful a chapter in the Iraq war as was the Vietnam War's My Lai - where US soldiers massacred a whole village. Following the scandal of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, such actions sully and undermine the selfless efforts by many other US military men and women to rebuild Iraq and bring it some semblance of democracy.
Also in the news last week, but generally not making the front pages, was the relief effort by US Marines and US personnel, along with other international donors, on Indonesia's big island of Java, which was hit by a devastating earthquake. Thousands of Indonesians were killed, thousands more injured, and perhaps as many as 200,000 left homeless.
Marine cargo planes flew a mobile field hospital into the city of Yogyakarta, closest to the quake area. Other marines started distributing emergency supplies to the needy. The amphibious assault ship USS Essex, which has extensive medical facilities, was routed to the area.
The two contrasting stories, one of senseless murder in Iraq, and the other of humanitarian aid to save life in Indonesia, underline for Americans both the agonies and the triumphs of being the most powerful nation in the world with sweeping international responsibilities.
This is not the first time the US has offered an outstretched hand to Indonesia in its time of need. After a giant tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, the US mounted a massive relief operation, sending aircraft and ships with supplies and manpower to the scene. Some 15,000 American servicemen took part, flying hundreds of helicopter missions to deliver food, water, and medical aid to the victims.
The reaction in Indonesia to the visible American effort was very positive. A poll by the respected Indonesian Survey Institute found a threefold increase in the favorable view of the United States. In 2003, after the American military invasion of Iraq, the favorable view of America was a lowly 15 percent. After the American aid effort to refugees from the tsunami, the favorable view of the US rocketed to 44 percent.
There was a similar rise of approval for the US in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there. The US was swift to offer relief. In four months, the US flew more than 4,000 sorties with Chinook helicopters delivering more than 11,000 tons of relief supplies. Nearly 32,000 patients received medical attention and a US Navy construction battalion cleared more than 50,000 tons of debris.
A subsequent poll by the nonprofit Terror Free Tomorrow organization showed that, as a result of the relief operation, favorable opinion of the US in Pakistan jumped from 23 percent in 2005 to more than 46 percent by the end of that year.
Both Indonesia and Pakistan are Muslim, but non-Arab, countries. Their direction could offer a meaningful example to other Arab countries in the Islamic world.
The US has a long history of aiding countries around the world after catastrophic events. The motivation is humanitarian. With typical American generosity, churches, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals have worked alongside the US government in bringing aid to human beings in distress, whatever their politics and whether the relationship of their governments with the US is friendly or not. North Korea and Iran are just as likely to be offered aid as are longtime allies of the US.
This is just as it should be. But when the US is engaged in a critical war of words with terrorists and would-be terrorists in the Islamic world, such no-strings humanitarian aid plays a role in generating a more positive image of Americans and their government.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.