What Haditha Portends

About Haditha, Americans today agree on but one thing.

If Marines did shoot and kill women and children, either in rage or reprisal after the killing of one of their own, and if this alleged atrocity was covered up, those responsible must be punished. That such things happen in every war, even "the Good War," does not excuse them.

But if we are agreed upon that, Haditha, nevertheless — and again assuming the charges are true — is going to wound this country deeply and divide us bitterly. For two cultures are heading for a collision.

The first is the culture of the Marine Corps, hierarchical and familial. Marines are an extended family. They believe in loyalty up and loyalty down. Their tradition is not only to retrieve their wounded, but retrieve their dead.

They are as proud of the retreat from Chosin Reservoir to the sea, when surrounded by Chinese troops in 1950, as they are of the victories of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Legendarily, they take care of their own. In a fight, they stand by their own. And a fight for the reputation of the Corps, unlike any in its history, may be coming. And, if it is, Middle America will be on the side of the Marines.

The culture of the dominant liberal media, however, is different. It has been so since Watergate. To the big media, the whistle-blower — the individual who exposes for the press the sins or scandals of church or state, politics or government — is the real moral hero to be cherished and celebrated.

In 2006, one Pulitzer Prize went to The Washington Post for revealing that NATO allies were secretly allowing the CIA to bring terror suspects into their countries for interrogation. Another went to The New York Times for exposing the super-secret program of the National Security Agency to monitor U.S. overseas calls to and from individuals under suspicion of terrorist connections.

To advance "the people’s right to know" of official misconduct, the media claim rights denied to other citizens: the right not to have to testify to grand juries about sources, the right not to have their notes inspected even by prosecutors with warrants. They are the high priests of the secular society.

In the Nixon era, the media celebrated their own for their roles in scandals that were considered media triumphs: the exposure of My Lai, publication of the secret Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal that brought down the president. Journalists reveled in exposing past excesses of the FBI and the CIA. Both institutions were demoralized and damaged not simply by the revelations, but by the extended and hostile publicity.

The media response to such charges is that they were simply the messengers doing their duty in bringing the bad news to the people and the responsible authorities, so reforms could be made.

But if that were all the media were doing, their reputation would not be as low as the Marine Corps’ is high. Why are the major media distrusted, even despised by so many Americans in whose name they profess to act?

The truth is the public does not believe the protestations of the press about the nobility of its motives. To many in Red-State America, the media do not just expose wrongdoing. They revel in it, rejoice in it, profit from it, as it enables them to preen as morally superior to those hapless souls whose sins or scandals they have uncovered. Invariably, the media seem not to seek to minimize, but to maximize the damage done to the institutions and the individuals whose failings or crimes they have revealed.

Listening to the breathless reports of Haditha, noting the glee and excitement in the voices of some correspondents, anchors and talking heads, one senses anticipation about what is to come.

But if the media are seen as exploiting Haditha — again, assuming the allegations of a war crime prove true — to undermine the war effort or the soldiers and Marines fighting, or damage President Bush or his secretary of defense, there will be a savage backlash. Any goodwill won by embedding reporters with troops on the drive to Baghdad will be wiped out, and the old Vietnam wounds, never healed, will reopen.

For any trial of Marines that could go on for months would not only damage the reputation of the Corps, but also serve as a propaganda bonanza for our enemies.

Given the proliferating allegations of war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers and Marines, the accusations by the elected leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan that our troops are callous in their treatment of civilians, the patience of the American people with these war commitments is certain to dissipate.

But if we walk away and the governments in either or both of these countries collapse, there will be a long, dark night of recriminations here unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes.

"Woe to the world because of scandals!" the Lord says in Matthew 18:7. "For it must needs be that scandals come, but woe to the man through whom scandal does come!"

Sound counsel to the media today.