by Nathaniel R. Helms |
June 4, 2008
The not surprising
testimony of General James N. Mattis on Monday in response to
alleged undue command influence charges during the Haditha
investigation was a serious setback for the highest ranking officer to
be criminally charged in the cover-up case.
Lt. Col Jeffrey Chessani
is charged with dereliction of duty and orders violations for failing
to investigate and report an incident on November 19, 2005 when one
Marine and 24 Iraqis died during an Al Qaeda inspired complex ambush
in a squad of Marines.
Mattis, the Marine Corps
general known as the “Warrior Monk”, said Monday he wasn’t influenced
by his personal attorney and long-time confidant Col. John Ewers during
25 meetings in which Chessani and his role at Haditha were discussed.
At the time, Mattis was deciding whether or not to prosecute Chessani.
Before joining Mattis at
Camp Pendleton as his personal lawyer and 1st Marine
Expeditionary Force Staff Judge Advocate, Ewers investigated the Haditha incident for Army Maj. General Eldon Bargewell. The Army
general’s scathing indictment of Chessani and his superiors led to
charges against Chessani and three other officers in 3rd
Battalion, 1st Marines. Two of those officers have been
exonerated and a third is in trial at this time.
Mattis’ long anticipated
testimony regarding Ewers revealed that the dynamic lawyer known in the
Corps as “Golden Ass” for his ability to always come up shining sat
mute while Mattis discussed with another attorney the case Ewers had
investigated. Mattis told the military judge hearing the defense’s
undue influence motion that he never asked Ewers for advice or
The Mattis – Ewers
relationship is a long and involved one, the evidence revealed. When
Mattis was a Major General commanding the 1st Marine
Division in 2003, Ewers was the divisions’ top lawyer. He is also the
architect and implementer of the Reportable Incident Assessment Team (RIAT)
adopted Marine Corps wide to “afford the Commanding General with a
means to counteract media backlash,” Ewers had projected.
A failed exercise by a
RIAT public relations officer two years later created the climate of
suspicion that triggered the initial inquiry by a Time magazine
reporter challenging the veracity of the Marine’s account of the
Haditha incident, evidence has already revealed.
envisioned RIAT would provide Mattis with "ground truth" regarding
serious incidents, ranging from friendly fire shootings to war crimes
perpetrated by one side or the other, according to the 1st
Marine Expeditionary Force “Lessons: Learned” post-deployment report.
His intention was to put
together a “small, internally sourced team” that could “help the
Commanding General decide whether additional investigation and
reporting to higher headquarters were required.” The RIAT core team
consisted of the SJA as team leader; the Division Public Affairs
Officer; combat cameraman; and the Division Surgeon.
When the RIAT effort fell
on its face in February 2006 somebody had to take the blame and
Chessani was the battalion commander on the ground where the incident
happened. He isn’t the first fall guy in Marine Corps history. Two
hundred and thirty-two years of unpredictable politics have left more
than a few good Marines to satisfy the gods.
The past lives
One legendary scapegoat
was Marine Major Littleton Waller Tazewell “Tony” Waller, in 1901 the
commander of 315 hardcore Marines serving under US Army command in the
Philippines. His story will seem vaguely familiar.
His boss was Brigadier
General Jacob H. “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith, the commanding officer of
an ad hoc joint service unit called the 6th Separate
Brigade. American military officers of quality had snappy nicknames in
the age before orders were roared over fax machines and e-mails.
Waller, like most of his Army counterparts,
based his operations on the fact that the majority of the natives were
hostile to U. S. actions and could not be trusted, despite pretenses
by the villagers to be pro-American. It was well known that many of
those supposedly pro-American villagers were actually members of the
President William McKinley, a humane man
and “progressive” politician, demanded new thinking. Reports of
extreme cruelties by American troops were surfacing in the press and
he insisted it stop. Toward that end, there arrived the U.S. Army’s
Company C, 9th Infantry, commanded by Captain Thomas W. Connell, a
strong advocate of McKinley's theory of "benevolent assimilation."
Connell attempted to assert his unwelcome benevolence upon Balangiga,
Samar, one of the Philippines hundreds of islands.
Samar in 1901 was populated by an extremely
violent, primitive society. One 9th Infantry officer
later testified that he considered the natives ". . . savages; they
were low in intelligence, treacherous, cruel; seemed to have no
feeling for their families or anyone else."
Obviously the dehumanization of opponents is not a 21st
On 28 September, 1901, 46 days after
arriving in Samar, the insurgents mounted a surprise attack on Company
C. Led by town officials, the locals slaughtered the American
soldiers. Only 26 of the 74 troopers in C Company survived the
massacre. Most were tortured to death and their bodies mutilated. The
massacre pretty much ended the practice of benevolence on Samar.
October 24, Waller’s Marines were sent to punish the rebels. Unlike
Connell, he held a less munificent view of the situation on Samar.
Waller issued explicit orders to his officers concerning relations
with the natives and the rules of engagement:
no confidence in the natives, and punish treachery immediately with
death. No trust, no confidence, can be placed in them. . . . The men
must be informed of the courage, skill, size and strength of the
enemy. We must do our part of the work, and with the sure knowledge
that we are not to expect quarter.”
Waller's orders were within the limitations of General Order No.100 of
1863 dealing with the rules of engagement with irregular warfare. The
order stated that if enemy units “gave no quarter and became
treacherous upon capture,” it was lawful to shoot anyone belonging to
that captured unit.
“Hell Roaring Jake” told
Maj. Waller to kill everybody he encountered over the age of ten…
including the woman. Waller didn’t want to do it, and told his Marines
not to. His Marines had fought in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and most recently
in China knocking down wild-eyed Boxers with deadly accurate rifle and
new-fangled machine gun fire. For the most part they complied.
After a short, glorious
campaign that wiped out the insurgent’s mountain headquarters Waller
inexplicably marched his men 35 miles through the jungle to the other
coast. It took them 29 days. It was rough going. His men were reduced
to eating roots.
Along the way ten Marines
in one column actually starved to death before they were rescued.
After the Marines were led to safety they accused eleven of the
Filipino porters who accompanied them of hoarding food. A delirious
lieutenant told Waller three of the porters tried to kill him with a
machete. None of it was true.
bewildered by jungle fever, ordered them summarily executed. He
telegraphed “Hell-Roaring Jake” that, “It became necessary to expend
Waller explained he had
45 effectives to guard 93 prisoners and defend against 3,000 restive
natives. He simply couldn’t afford the trouble the allegedly mutinous
porters were causing.
Word of the atrocity got
back to Washington in the dark days after President McKinley’s
assassination. It was all the war’s legion of opponents needed to bash
the unpopular campaign. Despite incoming President Theodore
Roosevelt’s best effort to shield Waller, whom he admired from their
campaign together in Cuba in 1898, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge initiated
hearings to find out why Waller had executed 11 Filipinos “in cold
The story was all over
the indignant New York and Washington press. Big newspapers had
entered an impassioned era of advocacy journalism in the wake of
America’s “new” imperialism. Before long tales of water torture,
beatings, and senseless murder emerged. Most of the atrocities were
true, in this war perpetrated however by soldiers, not Marines. But
then as now, the press often got them confused.
Mark Twain, the era’s
most trusted populist, got into the act, suggesting the American flag
should be redesigned with “white stripes painted black and the stars
replaced with the skull and crossbones.”
Not to be outdone,
publisher William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal
covered its entire front page with a banner headline, “KILL, KILL”:
MAJOR WALLER ORDERED TO MASSACRE THE FILLIPINOS.
At his court-martial
Waller accepted full responsibility for ordering the executions. He
naively believed “Hell-Roaring Jake” would do the honorable thing and
admit he had ordered his favorite Marine to kill everybody over ten
years of age who even seemed belligerent. After all, Waller reasoned,
“Hell Roaring Jake” was an Army general and generals of any stripe
were honorable men.
Waller was wrong.
“Hell-Roaring Jake” blamed his subordinate for everything. He
testified he had ordered the Marine officer to treat everyone
humanely. Enraged at his erstwhile superior’s lack of honor, Waller
remounted the witness stand and recounted Brig. Gen. Smith’s specific
“I want no prisoners. I
wish you to kill and burn, and the more you kill and the more you burn
the better you will please me,” he testified Smith had ordered. “… I
want all people killed who are capable of bearing arms.”
Waller: “I would like to
know the age limit.”
Smith: “Ten years.”
Then Waller produced
enough corroborating witnesses to convince the panel he was innocent.
Waller was exonerated and restored to duty, eventually rising to the
rank of major general.
But Waller was never
appointed Commandant of the Marine Corps as Roosevelt and other powers
of the day wanted it, despite having aces like two-time Medal of Honor
recipient Maj. Gen. Smedley “Old Gimlet Eye” Butler in his corner.
The entire affair was a
terrible black mark on the Marine Corps that historian Max Boot says
“put a pall over the entire U.S. war effort in the Philippines.”
Wait around long enough
and history always repeats itself.
Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
4 June 2008
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).