U.S. soldiers entered a town after the enemy had surrendered. A group of unarmed civilians accused of looting were gathered together in a bombed-out factory and summarily shot. Among the dead were children.
The town was Canicatti, Sicily during July of 1943. The soldiers were military policemen serving under the command of General George S. Patton. Accounts of what happened at Canicatti differ, but the evidence leaves little doubt that a terrible atrocity was committed and that it was tightly covered up by the US high command at the time.
More recent events at Haditha, Iraq come to light in a superpoliticized atmosphere and are sure to deepen the partisan divide between those who support the Bush policy and those who do not. Arguments over what happened or who is to blame add little moral clarity to what is, in the final analysis, an ineffable human tragedy. Beyond this, no amount of moral clarity will do much to illuminate the significance of Haditha for the Coalition mission in Iraq.
Juxtaposing Haditha with Canicatti helps clarify its broader ramifications in ways that no amount of wrangling over the specific tragedy can. Rightly or wrongly, the growing public perception in both Iraq and the US is that something comparable to (or worse than) the massacre at Canicatti transpired in Haditha. If, in fact, such a horror did occur it no more serves as a blanket indictment of the Coalition mission in Iraq than Canicattti does of the Allied mission in World War II. However, the strategic significance of Haditha does infinitely outweigh that of Canicatti because of the structural differences between the Iraq conflict and World War II.
World War II was a war of position and maneuver, it was decided by the deployment and engagement of large capital assets (tanks, guns, planes ships) over strategically critical terrain. There were some political dimensions of the conflict, but the concretely military aspects of the war were vastly more important in determining victory and defeat. The number of incidents like Canicatti committed by the Allies could have been doubled or tripled and it would not have had a material effect on the outcome of the war.
The same cannot be said of the Iraq war. The phase of the Iraq conflict that resembled WWII ended after the short weeks in which Saddam Hussein's army was tactitly routed. The conflict since then has not been a war of position and maneuver (though the Bush adminsitratioin has been inclined to treat it as such), but a long, hard counterinsurgency. Like WWII the Iraq counterinsurgency has both political and military dimensions, but in the case of Iraq their relative importance to the outcome of the conflict are inverted. The old saw is no less true for being by now cliche- counterinsurgency warfare is 80% political, 20% military.
Thus though one could have doubled or tripled the number of atrocities committed by US troops in World War II without retarding the Allies' strategic position, every act of misconduct in Iraq costs the Coalition dearly. The only hope of victory in Iraq is to bleed the insurgency of civilian support and political legitimacy, and rightly or wrongly every act of misconduct by Coalition forces solidifies the insurgents'support and political standing. This was a hard reality that the US and its allies faced coming into the Iraq conflict, and it is a central fact driving events now.
Where a dozen Canicattis may not have been enough to sink the Allied war effort, in the wake of Abu Ghraib Haditha is one tragedy too many for the Coalition. The actual events of Haditha are in some respects moot by now in this regard- Premier Maliki's unequivocal excoriation of the Coalition troops demonstrates that the Iraqi public has already rendered its verdict. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the Iraqi government would distance itself so urgently from the very soldiers it relies on to maintain order.
Does this mean that the Coalition mission is now doomed to failure and the insurgency will win? No- the insurgency will never possess the coherence and substantive political and military assets necessary to conquer, much less govern, Iraq. But the strategic efficacy of the Coalition force is severely depleted in the long term. One year ago doubling the number of Coalition soldiers in Iraq (in concert with progress in the nascent Iraqi political process) might have had some hope of turning the strategic tide against the insurgency. Now that hope is gone- no troop increase can have any positive impact given the political handicap under which the Coalition must now work. The only viable strategic option left open to the Coalition now is a staged withdrawal undertaken in tandem with a redoubled effort to help build strong Iraqi political, economic, and social institutions to lay the foundations for order and peace as Coalition soldiers depart.