War’s horrors always haunt, no matter who they involve

One of my real fears is that someday I’ll look back at this time in history, and knowing I had a voice I’ll see that I used that voice only to talk about nice things.

Today, I am compelled to talk about the hardest thing: Americans serving their country in the military who are accused of murder. What is there to say?

All I can share are thoughts that refuse to go away. They come back even as I try to do what I usually do, which is to write about people and goings-on in our communities.

A particularly tragic episode in the Iraq war, seven Marines and a Navy medic charged by the military Wednesday with premeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, larceny and providing false official statements, has now hit home.

Earlier, reports surfaced of Marines killing 15 civilians in their homes in the Iraqi town of Haditha. Buffered by distance, I looked away from the awful words and pictures of a story too sad to absorb.

Last week, that shield of distance came down with news of a separate alleged murder of an Iraqi civilian, and that one of the Marines charged Wednesday, Lance Cpl. Robert B. Pennington, is a Mukilteo native.

Who could look away from the picture in Friday’s Herald of Pennington’s mother, Deanna, hugging her son a year ago after his return from his second deployment to Iraq?

I read the accusations of military prosecutors: that the servicemen kidnapped and killed an unarmed Iraqi man in Hamdania, and placed an AK-47 assault rifle and a shovel with the body to make it appear as though the man had been planting a bomb.

I read the unshakeable reaction of the Mukilteo Marine’s father, Terry Pennington: “I know my son and his Marine buddies … The things they are saying about them are not true.”

I know for certain that if I had a son or daughter in Iraq similarly accused, I would be just as impassioned in their defense.

I also believe no one can truly know or say what happened in Hamdania or Haditha, or in any war zones, except those who were there.

Only they know. They have to live with whatever happened, these tough young men and women sent off to fight a war where enemies blend among innocents.

Robert Pennington was on his third deployment to Iraq. He was there in 2003, at the start, in Baghdad. He has been there, with death around every corner, day after day, year after year.

The best book I read this year, or in any recent year, was “In the Lake of the Woods,” by Tim O’Brien.

One summer when she returned from college, my daughter brought home “The Things They Carried,” a collection of Vietnam War stories by O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran who later became a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post.

The author’s obsession with Vietnam continues in the fictional “In the Lake of the Woods.” In the novel, the career of a bright, young Senate candidate, John Wade, is torpedoed by revelations that he was involved in the My Lai massacre and that he falsified his military records to show he wasn’t there.

In the book, lines between horrific nightmares, memories and reality are so blurred, the reader doesn’t know what is true – and neither does the character John Wade.

It’s fiction, but author O’Brien intersperses his prose with real testimony from the military trial of Army Lt. William Calley, the only soldier convicted of 26 servicemen charged in the 1968 My Lai massacre of about 500 civilians.

Now, in this so-called war on terror, our government has sent our servicemen and women off to fight and kill. There is no uniformed force as a foe.

And yet, everything cannot be excused. There are behaviors beyond what’s acceptable – even in war. If conditions were terrible enough and a person was pushed hard enough, I imagine such platitudes would seem crazy. But I don’t know that’s how it is. I’ve never been there.

If any terrible accusation against any American at war in Iraq is proved, could there be a punishment worse than the memories of what happened?

It’s all heartbreaking, all of it.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein julie@heraldnet.com.

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