The fish rots from the head down. The thought comes to mind as this misbegotten conflict in Iraq - embarked upon by President Bush on the basis of at best false information, at worst downright lies - moves well into its fourth year. Not only is no end in sight, but Americans must now contemplate the accumulating and distressing evidence that the military they are told is the mightiest, best-trained and best-intentioned fighting force in the history of the planet may have committed atrocious war crimes.
Only last week we celebrated Memorial Day, when the President pays his traditional homage to the fallen heroes of wars past. But it feels like an age ago, as details have unfolded of at least two shocking incidents - the apparent revenge murder of a civilian at Hamandiyah in April, and, most stunning of all, what seems to have been a massacre by US marines of two dozen Iraqis, including women, children and entire families, in Haditha last November. On Friday evening, the US military denied claims of a third atrocity, the alleged round-up and killing of 11 people at Ishaqi in March, but without laying all doubts to rest.
Taken separately each might be considered one of those appalling things that happen in any war, especially in brutal counter-insurgency conflicts like Iraq. Haditha in particular would seem to fit that mould. A marine patrol from Kilo company had just lost one of its men to a roadside bomb, planted and detonated by the usual unseen enemy. Already under intense stress, some of his colleagues appear to have snapped. They set out on a killing spree, taking calculated vengeance on whoever had the misfortune to fall into their path.
Such behaviour can never be excused, but it can be understood - as can the temptation to conceal evidence and cover up the crime. These terrible lapses, military psychologists believe, must also be blamed in part on commanding officers who have failed to impress upon their men the difference between right and wrong, set out in the rules of war. But here, something else may be at play. Did this rot start, imperceptibly, from the very head of the body politic? At first glance it might seem not. Whatever you think of America, the country has a system where, sooner or later, bad things tend to come out.
Albeit belatedly, the Haditha incident was turned over in March to criminal investigators (largely as a result of evidence gathered by Time magazine). Subsequent investigations have been far speedier; the attempted cover-up at Hamandiyah was exposed within a couple of weeks. There can be little doubt that in all three cases, as Mr Bush has promised, justice will be done and those responsible punished.
But something else has surely contributed - insidiously and subconsciously - to the present dishonour of the military: the underlying belief of the commander-in-chief himself and his chief advisers that in the "war on terror" anything goes. This, after all, is the administration that has cast aside the Geneva Convention governing prisoners of war, and holds terrorist suspects incommunicado and indefinitely at so-called "ghost camps", in defiance of every legal norm. This is the administration whose Vice-President refuses to accept that torture is illegal, period, and whose President considers that his worst mistake in the conduct of the war was to have indulged in too much "bring 'em on" Texas frontier talk. If only.
Americans have never been famous for their knowledge of, and sensitivity to, foreign cultures - least of all George W Bush, who never misses an opportunity to extol the superiority of the American way, whatever the circumstances. All too easily, alas, superiority breeds contempt, and contempt can breed even worse, as the world saw with the dreadful pictures of prison abuse from Abu Ghraib. Taken together, Haditha, Ishaqi and Hamandiyah may inflict even more damage on America's reputation than Abu Ghraib. They also close the circle of falsehoods on which the Iraq adventure was built. First it was about Saddam's WMD - except that the WMD didn't exist. Then the proclaimed goal was to prosecute the "war on terror" - only for Iraq to become an unmatched breeding ground for terrorism. Finally the President has pitched his adventure in terms of bringing to bear America's ideals, and America's faith in democracy and human dignity, to build a peaceful democracy in the heart of the Middle East. These alleged war crimes will surely have destroyed most Iraqis' faith in American ideals and commitment to human dignity.
In the coming weeks and months, it is likely that several marines will be charged with murder. Courts martial will be held; some soldiers may even be sentenced to death. On the ground in Iraq, refresher training courses for America's soldiers in "core warrior values" may prevent further incidents.
But the damage has already been done. Domestic support for the 2003 invasion, which has slumped to barely 40 per cent, will probably fall further. Demands for troop withdrawal will multiply, as the presence of US forces is seen increasingly as part of the problem, not of the solution.
Most dangerous of all, perhaps, the country's trust in its military, so painstakingly restored after the trauma of Vietnam, may be in jeopardy. For this sorry state of affairs, the blame extends not only to "a few bad apples" in the ranks, but right up the chain of command to the White House itself.Reuse content