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by Nathaniel R. Helms

11 October 2007

Time sure flies.

It seems that no sooner than Time magazine reporter Tim McGirk completed his personal odyssey through a maze of misinformation at Haditha, Iraq than New York Times reporter Paul von Zeilbauer was denied his “defining atrocity” in the ancient land.

Mr. von Zeilbauer shared his angst in a news story of sorts he penned from Baghdad October 5 lamenting the recommendation of a Marine Corps investigating officer to dismiss 10 murder charges against Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich and reduce seven others to negligent homicide without ever having his heart in it.

Despite von Zeilbauer’s obvious disappointment he still managed to get the infamous massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam in his lede paragraph; no doubt for the sake of objectivity. That is no mean trick considering the people that really matter don’t think anyone at Haditha was murdered - much less that 24 innocents were massacred.

What apparently happened, at least according to Mr. von Zeilbauer, is that the pesky military law he knows almost nothing about took his defining moment away. It was denied by Lt. Col Paul J. Ware, best known in the Corps as one of its crackerjack prosecutors, who announced he was not convinced a malicious crime had been committed.

“Finally, although I believe the Government will fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that SSGT Wuterich committed any offenses other than dereliction of duty, due to the serious nature of the charges, I recommend referral to a general court-martial,” Ware wrote in his recommendation to drop the murder charges.

The New York Times, Time magazine, the Washington Post and all the other self-anointed purveyors of truth, justice, and the American way still have one last chance to earn vindication for rushing to judgment. Ironically, their last hope is Lieutenant General James N. Mattis, the convening authority and final arbiter in the Haditha matter. He can still disregard the recommendations of Lt. Col. Ware and find that SSgt Wuterich woke up that terrible morning on November 19, 2005 and decided to slaughter a hamlet full of innocent people.

The experts in military justice I talked to said that isn’t very likely. Unlike the experts in Mr. von Zeilbauer’s camp who think the Marines must be guilty because Time magazine said so, my experts pointed out that Lt. Gen. Mattis has so far shown remarkable rectitude for not prosecuting Marines he doesn’t think are guilty of anything.

Mr. von Zeilbauer’s favorite expert, Georgetown University law professor Gary D. Solis, apparently thinks it is unsporting of Ware to base his recommendations solely on the rules of evidence. Solis is a former Marine Corps judge and constant critic of the way the Haditha investigation has been adjudicated. He apparently believes even specious charges should be prosecuted vigorously to salve the national conscience. 

“When you have an investigating officer like Ware, who says ‘don’t go there if you can’t prove’” your case, we’re left with what appear to be very reduced charges.” Mr. Solis reportedly said. “He’s aggressive, and he seems to make his judgments without regard for anything but the law.”

The temerity of Lt. Col. Ware! How dare he base his recommendations solely on the law! What about McGirk and Time magazine, and the New York Times and Mr. von Zeilbauer? They have feelings too! Von Zeilbauer wrote 34 stories decrying the inhumanity of his countrymen. Perhaps he and his colleagues can dig up another alleged atrocity to pillory our warriors over – America’s enemies can always hope.

Even time itself turned on Mr. von Zeilbauer and the other reporters seeking truth, justice and the American way at Haditha, he claims. In von Zeilbauer’s arcane world malevolent time allied itself with Lt. Col. Ware and Lt. Gen. Mattis to vanquish the omnipotent forces of extant truth who just happen to control the headlines. 

“Evidence vanished, witnesses evaporated and memories paled,” Mr. von Zeilbauer noted.  

Is he suggesting Father Time is a Marine and not affiliated with the New York Times after all?

One element of the case that remains clear almost two years after the fact is the charges leveled by Time’s McGirk. They remain based on the word of two well-known Iraqi counter-intelligence operatives who beguiled him into believing a squad of Marines shot their way through four houses full of civilians to avenge the death of a fellow Marine. That particular Marine, a young man from El Paso, Texas named Miguel “T.J.” Terrazas was killed by a remotely detonated IED explosion that ignited a day long fight in Haditha.

Another problem Mr. von Zeilbauer discussed in his colloquy is the reluctance of the dead Iraqi’s relatives to disinter their loved ones so Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators could discover how they really died. The relatives were so adamantly opposed to the idea they actually shot at the investigators who went to Haditha to discover the truth.

Conversely, the relatives of the decedent in the Hamandiyah murder case cooperated fully by allowing the corpse of their relative to be flown to Dover, Maryland for an autopsy to determine how he died. The forensic evidence uncovered during the autopsy led to convictions in that investigation.

Finally, Mr. von Zeilbauer complained vigorously and eloquently that the hearings were conducted at Camp Pendleton, California, in the bosom of the Marine Corps, rather than Haditha, a hotbed of unrest in al Anbar Province.

For once we find common ground. This observer thinks it would have been just dandy to hold the summer-long Article 32 investigatory hearings in Haditha, perhaps at the combat outpost where Cpl. Joe Haman and 4th Platoon, Kilo Co were out-posted that day. Haman said it was a really nice place despite a daily dose of enemy incoming; it even had a barbeque pit.

There is a good likelihood that each day of the hearings would have received a strong measure of realism to help illustrate the context of the moment when all the unfortunates died. There is simply nothing like an incoming RPG or a round or two of mortar fire to keep reality in perspective.

It would be good for these old bones to watch from my well manicured hidey-hole while McGirk, Mr. von Zeilbauer and perhaps even Mr. Solis danced in the incoming pontificating over the great imponderables of war. It would be instructive to discover if they could occupy the same high morale ground in an atmosphere filled with lethal objects rather than hot air.


Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
11 October 2007


Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

© Nathaniel R. Helms 2007

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