The American people had better brace themselves for a truly awful barrage of "news” about what happened last November in Haditha.

Haditha is a small Iraqi town west of Baghdad. Exactly what happened there is still under investigation, and what follows is therefore subject to qualification as the facts emerge. But it appears that a group of U.S. Marines were passing through the town when one of their vehicles hit an “improvised explosive device” planted in the road by insurgents, and one of the Marines was killed.

Now, it should be emphasized that we know nothing, thus far, about events that preceded or accompanied the explosion, and therefore nothing about the stresses that this particular group of Marines was under at the time. But it hardly needs saying again that war is a horrible business that subjects human minds and bodies to incredible pressures, and that the death of their comrade may well have been the culminating event in a series that pushed these brave young men beyond the limit of their endurance.

Whatever the case, it appears that this particular group of Marines simply “lost it,” and went on a killing spree in the town that resulted in the deaths, by gunfire, of 24 innocent villagers, including women and children.

Let us pause here to note that episodes of this tragic sort occur in all wars, without exception. Anyone who talks to American veterans of World War II who were actively involved in combat can find ready confirmation that gratuitous killings — of enemy prisoners, and civilians suspected of aiding enemy forces — occurred again and again.

And the same is true of the “cover-up” that is alleged to have taken place with respect to the events at Haditha. There, as in many episodes of the same type in earlier wars, officers in the Marines’ ranks, or at midlevels as word trickled upward, may have sought to conceal or downplay what actually happened. In the particular case of Haditha, the first accounts attributed the civilian deaths to a bomb, or to accidental crossfire, and only journalistic reports, beginning in January, compelled the Pentagon to launch the investigation now under way. If that investigation confirms the above account, some Marines may well be prosecuted for murder.

Thus far, therefore, whatever happened at Haditha has precedents as old as human history. What is new is the national and international atmosphere in which it occurred. For the formidable technical competence of the liberal American media, and the grim determination of the Bush administration's domestic and foreign critics to destroy it, have been recruited to the cause of making Haditha the central symbol of America's war in Iraq.

We saw this first in the case of Abu Ghraib, where photographs of the badgering of Iraqi prisoners by a handful of mindless, out-of-control U.S. soldiers were played repeatedly on TV worldwide, infuriating the Arab world, sickening everyone else, and doing immense damage to the image and cause of the United States. There were no photographers covering the events at Haditha, but the ghastly nature of those events will more than compensate for that shortcoming.

We are, therefore, on the threshold of a media blitz and a political attack that will be quite unprecedented. The episode at Haditha, if it occurred as we have described, was an incredibly brutal and inexcusable event, and must be prosecuted accordingly. But it takes its place in the long and tragic tapestry of man's inhumanity to man. What may follow it, in terms of damage to the high and honorable reputation of the American armed forces, to the image of American idealism in world affairs, and to the hopes for global peace and freedom, is almost incalculable. The mainstream media bear a heavy responsibility to treat this matter with prudence and caution.

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