Maybe War Should Be on Trial

Thursday, January 12, 2012 | Day Six

Camp Pendleton, Calif. Former Marine sergeant Hector Salinas didn’t mince words when he told a prosecutor Thursday he should have called in airstrikes on a pair of houses in Haditha, Iraq where fourteen men, women and children were cowering in their homes after a huge bomb exploded outside their front doors.

Rounds were impacting on the fourth vehicle. I went back to render aid to my Marines that were wounded. There was destruction everywhere. There was a fog, a haze. When the smoke was clearing out I could see an object. It was LCpl Crossan. He was missing a couple of fingers. His body armor was obstructing his airway….

“I got as low as I could because I heard rounds coming. It was the impact of the rounds hitting the high back. I got low on the deck,” he said.


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Salinas was trying to convince a panel of rock-hard combat Marines why the infantryman on trial wasn’t guilty of wantonly killing the women and children staring up at them from the pages of their white loose leaf notebooks. The notebooks are full of pictures of dead children, women and a corpse with a fire still smoldering in its chest. For five years, Connecticut native SSgt Frank D. Wuterich has waited while the government wrangled over his life. It is finally time to find out what the price.

Wuterich was 24 when he led his squad into infamy.  He is 31 now, a devoted father taking care of three little girls on his own. If he loses his fight, four more lives will have been destroyed.

Salinas described an ugly, bitter war, a no-quarter environment where innocent victims found themselves on November 19, 2005. Al Anbar Province lived was a waste land after two bloody years of internecine warfare.

“On the outside of the house, on the east side of the house, I saw a small silhouette. Things look small that far away. It was a tall man. There was rounds impacting around me, so I engaged him. I used my M-16. I shot more than twice but not the entire magazine,” he told prosecutor LtCol Sean Sullivan.

“Then I took my 203 (M-203 40mm grenade launcher attached underneath his rifle) and fired rounds on the house , fired two or three.” It was a while trying to find Crossan’s fingers, he explained.

The big Texan’s voice was still filled with the rage he felt when his buddy, LCpl Miguel Terrazas, died before his eyes in the ambush. There’s a saying in the Marine Corps about ‘getting payback.’ Marines get payback. Salinas wanted payback. The notion is plugged into young Marine’s heads in boot camp and force fed into them in the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton where Wuterich used to teach. They don’t even know it sounds startling.

The year before the battalion had killed by its own reckoning more than a thousand Iraqis in Fallujah while prying the ancient City of Mosques away from the insurgency. Thirty-three Marines from 3/1 died in the process. Al Qaeda had to stage a comeback before it lost anymore prestige. Everybody who lived there knew Haditha was a prize al Qaeda was willing to pay any price to keep, and the Marines would pay in rich American blood to take it away.  

Salinas and the other men in 3rd Platoon who have already testified never mentioned the big picture. All they talk about is the way Marines are expected to fight; how they look out for each other even it costs them their lives. They all said that people and buildings where people shooting at them hide are ‘hostile.’  In Marine Corps parlance hostile doesn’t mean unfriendly, it means unlucky. Hostile things can be killed with grenades, rifles, machine guns, even rockets and bombs.  

“That’s the nature of war. Maybe war should be on trial,” one of witnesses said outside where they are allowed to smoke as long as they don’t talk to reporters.  None of them think they did anything wrong, not even Sgt Dela Cruz, despised by his squad mates for turning against his own to testify against Wuterich.

Dela Cruz urinated on a dead man’s head and told another Marine, former LCpl Trent D. Graviss, they could kill everybody in a house they were searching if they wanted to. Graviss testified that he looked at Dela Cruz ‘like he was an idiot.’ The government says Dela Cruz, who avoided five charges of murder by testifying against his fellow Marines, is one of the good guys.

It was surreal listening to Salinas Wednesday afternoon describing how he was looking for his buddy’s severed fingers while hidden insurgents shot at him.  A few feet away the mangled body of one of his best friends was lying in two parts.  Across the wadi the little girl who told CNN she put her fingers in her ears before the bomb exploded waited for what was to come. A few minutes later she would be an orphan.

In the faraway Green Zone the American generals were seeking a kinder, gentler war, the kind Americans could be proud of, the kind where nobody bleeds too much. The folks back home were tired of hearing about rendered corpses and grieving orphans. So the brass in Baghdad tightened the reins, changed the rules. Somebody forgot to tell 3/1’s young Marines.

Salinas was a corporal in Kilo, 3/1, the mighty ‘Thundering Third’ sent to the Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana Triad to secure the huge pipelines where Iraqi oil flows into Syrian ports on the way to world markets.

The parade of Marines who have appeared since testimony began last Monday never mentioned a thing about why they fought at Haditha. It probably never occurred to them. Their orders simply stated they should destroy the enemy. None of them could remember much about being taught restraint. Every Marine who testified so far said the Rules of Engagement they understood allowed them to waste anyone, and any place, where the enemy chose to fight, as long as it was hostile, or showed hostile intent.

Salinas was the 1st Fire Team leader, a sergeant-in-waiting, champing at the bit to take over the squad as soon as SSgt Frank D. Wuterich took over 3rd Platoon Sergeant. That’s a big deal in the Marine Corps. Salinas proudly told the court he was the patrol leader and convoy commander when the 12-man squad was ambushed by hidden insurgents that triggered and IED that has just reduced its numbers by three. He said he didn’t remember Wuterich giving an order the entire day.

While tending the wounded until the Quick Reaction Force arrived Salinas noticed that Wuterich and two other Marines were heading south, where Salinas had seen a silhouette at the same time bullets splattered into the armor of the wrecked Humvee that he pulled his friends from. He chased after them by a different route, he said. He was the first Marine in the door, he said, the first guy to throw a grenade, the first guy to see the product of his handiwork.

“There were women and children in the house,” Sullivan exclaimed.  Six people died in House One.

“But I didn’t know that,” Salinas responded, “and I wasn’t going inside that room without throwing in a grenade.”

Afterwards he stayed behind inside the back door while the others cleared House Two where eight more innocents died.

“I had my back to the house providing security inside the hallway,” Salinas testified.

“What did you see when you exited the house?” Sullivan inquired.

“The back of the house,” Salinas replied. It went that way all day.

Several dozen fruitless questions later Sullivan asked Salinas what he would do different if he could.

“I would have called in an airstrike,” Salinas replied.

Editor’s note: On November 21, 2006, NPR and other media outlets falsely reported that then-Sgt Salinas would face charges for the incident in Haditha. The story was based on a leak from the government.
Despite calls from this website for a correction or clarification, NPR never bothered and continues to provide incorrect information (read their story here). The media’s coverage of Haditha has been characterized by a careless disregard for the facts from start to finish.