Everybody knows Osama Bin Laden is dead. American shadow warriors blew him away in Pakistan several weeks ago. The President of the United States said he ordered it. The men tasked with doing the deed began planning for the occasion last August and knew exactly what they intended to do, the Pentagon says. They have since passed secretly into America’s Pantheon of Heroes, the subject of some future spectacular movie.

Far fewer people know 31-year old Marine Corps SSgt Frank Wuterich is about to stand court-martial at Camp Pendleton, California for assaulting more than a dozen Iraqi civilians after his 12-man convoy was ambushed in Haditha, Iraq more than five years ago. November 19, 2005 was the young sergeants first time under fire. One second into the fight a fourth of his little command was down; one of his men was dead and two more wounded.

The Marines who were with him say Wuterich did a pretty fair job leading the rest of them out of danger. No more of them died and they all went home together, they said, Marines can’t do better than that. The Marine Corps thought he did such a fine job it promoted Wuterich to Staff Sergeant, the Corps way of saying “well done.”

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On March 19, 2006 the young staff sergeants world fell apart when Time Magazine released a story that claimed Wuterich led his men on a rampage of murder and mayhem in revenge for the ambush that decimated his first command. Perhaps worse, the specious story claimed four of his officers had covered up the massacre in the biggest display of venal behavior in Marine Corps history. For months afterwards the incident at Haditha was the biggest news story in the American press. More than five years later the Marine Corps is still doing damage control.

Wuterich was originally charged on December 21, 2006 with 12 counts of unpremeditated murder and related charges after he ordered his devastated squad to defend itself. Their savage response broke the back of the early morning ambush, which triggered an all-day fight in the dusty city that left one Marine dead and eleven other wounded. Three of his men and four officers were subsequently charged with heinous crimes for their conduct that day.

Timemagazine reporter Tim McGirk, who wasn’t there and never would be, called the ambush and its aftermath a Marine inspired ‘massacre.’ He made it his ‘personal odyssey’ to ensure justice was done, he said. A few thousand Haditha stories later, Wuterich is still waiting for his day in court.

Shooting first, asking questions later

The heart of the prosecution’s case is that Wuterich ‘willfully failed to ensure Marines under his charge obeyed the rules of engagement by ordering his Marines to shoot first and ask questions later.[ Wuterich admitted as much during an ill-advised interview on CBS televisions 60 Minutes news show about 18 months after he was indicted. He said he thought that was the right thing to do when people he didn’t know were shooting at him and his men with machine guns.

The television interview and a novel legal defense that followed led to courtroom wrangling that consumed more than three years.His court martial is now supposed to begin Monday, June 27 at Camp Pendleton, although the public information officer at the Marine Corps Central Command who keeps us all informed still doesn’t know for sure. 

Unlike US Navy SEALs, Marines like Wuterich are never flashy. Marine riflemen rarely earn the kudos routinely handed to special operations warriors that have days and even months to plan electrifying missions that always capture the publics imagination. They fight where they always stand, at the pointy end of the spear waiting to take on whatever comes their way. It is rarely fun and almost never glamorous. Grunts don’t make many decisions and have even fewer choices. Once an encounter with the enemy begins, it is kill or die, the same choice warriors have been given since human history has been recorded. That is incidentally what Wuterich thought he was facing that November day.

 The 32-year old former high school musician joined the Corps several years before 9/11 to further his musical career. The recruiter who enticed him convinced the young man from Meriden, Connecticut that he had a good chance to be in the world famous Marine Corps Band. Instead he got the infantry. Then he had to reenlist to get in the ensuing fight. On November 19, 2005, almost eight years after joining the Corps he finally made it. One of his men was killed and two more wounded by hidden assailants armed with a remotely detonated bomb and automatic weapons before he ever fired a shot.

At the end of the day, 24 Iraqi citizens–nine judged to be insurgents and 15 determined to be innocents–were dead. Most of the innocents were women and children. They died in a sixty second onslaught of grenades and automatic weapons fire when Wuterich’s platoon leader told him to ‘clear South.’ Four months later, the late Pennsylvania Congressman John ‘Jack’ Murtha labeled Wuterich and the men around him ‘cold blooded murderers’ after reading Time Magazine’s spurious account. He repeatedly claimed four of the enlisted Marines officers were liars and schemers who worked overtime to hide the infantry squads nefarious deeds. About six month after Murtha opened up his mouth, Wuterich and seven of his comrades were charged with crimes ranging from unpremeditated murder to lying and cover up. Seven of the accused Marines, including his company and battalion commanders, have since been exonerated. Whether or not they were ever guilty of anything is a matter of perception.

War or murder

Osama Bin Laden, unarmed, was reportedly gunned down by SEALS, a few Delta Force operators, and some CIA types  about 70 in all – who clandestinely violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, broke into private property with murder on their minds, and without immediate provocation shot America’s worst enemy dead with two well aimed shots while President Obama and his leadership team watched enthralled on real time television. Why killing Bin Laden was legal and Wuterich’s remarkable tale of survival is not is still unclear.

In fact, the United States intentional violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan with an armed military force filled with hostile intent is an act of war, to say nothing of the laws Americans broke breaking into his house, shooting his wife, killing two of his house guests and wounding several others in the process. Each of those acts violates a multitude of American and Pakistani criminal laws, not the least of which is premeditated murder. That Bin Laden was a sworn enemy of our country who richly deserved his fate is irrelevant. Our leaders like to remind everyone whenever possible that we are a country of laws. Whether or not we broke any of them assassinating Bin Laden is apparently a matter of perception as well.

On June 27, barring some new development, Wuterich will finally have his day in court. Up the road in Hollywood they will probably be making a movie about the heroes who killed Osama Bin Laden. “Who done it?” will be the only mystery. Whether it was murder or war is merely a matter of perception.

Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
8 June 2011

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer and war correspondent.