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Marines deserve benefit of doubt

"What we've got here is - failure to communicate."

That famous line from the 1967 Paul Newman classic "Cool Hand Luke" might well apply to Iraq today, and specifically, to Haditha, where U.S. Marines are alleged to have massacred innocent Iraqi civilians last November.

Not only do we not know what happened in Haditha, but we've failed to communicate effectively to the rest of the world what we do know: Our Marines always deserve the benefit of the doubt. If something did go terribly wrong in Haditha, it was a rare exception to the rule.

Instead of launching an aggressive PR campaign to debunk the growing impression that such incidents, if true, are par for American forces, we get a presumption of guilt and an ethics course to fix a problem that isn't a problem. The failure to communicate responsibly and strategically in this case, coupled with the rush to judgment in the international court of public opinion, has hurt not only the Marines under investigation, but also all our military men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The drill is too familiar by now. The action begins with someone (apparently anyone will do) making an accusation; next come the cameras and the media saturation; and, voila, we have a conviction before we have a formal charge. Whether the alleged perpetrators are prison guards at Abu Ghraib, lacrosse players at Duke University or Marines in Haditha, we are predisposed to assume guilt.

In Iraq, we might add to our failure to communicate a failure of confidence in ourselves and of faith in our own. Given that Haditha is dense with insurgents whose tactics do not come from the Marine Corps playbook, is it possible that they, not we, killed the civilians, or that they used them as human shields? Killing civilians, after all, is the rule among those who seek to drive the U.S. from Iraq.

Is it also possible that some of our Marines lost control and did the worst? Of course. Prolonged exposure to combat takes a toll on the human psyche. In 1946, following a study of World War II veterans, John W. Apple and Gilbert W. Beebe wrote in The Journal of the American Medical Association:

"Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare."

Even so, today's Marines are as well trained and disciplined as any fighting force in human history. What is alleged to have happened simply doesn't jibe with what we know about the Corps in general and about Haditha in particular.

Consider this recent letter from Capt. Andrew D. Lynch, commanding officer of India Company (3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines), written from Haditha to friends and family. Lynch first wrote of the difficulties of adjusting to the "nuances of this complex setting," then described how his men had adapted:

"The Marines immediately recognized the key to success would be to establish themselves as the dominant entity in the city, the alpha male, who by their professionalism and aggressive posture would foster trust with the local population and command respect from our enemy.

"Every Marine can recognize subtle shifts in the population's mood, identify slight changes in the normal rhythm of the city's activities and can often sense the presence of an insurgent before seeing him ... all Marines are experts in reading body language, and can spot a nervous tic, a lie or a cover story during the first few exchanges in one of dozens of conversations they have with locals every day.

"The type of fight India Company is engaged in requires a special brand of fighter. Brash displays of firepower and unharnessed aggression are not only ineffective but also counterproductive. Self-discipline, tireless vigilance, prudent judgment and the patience of a hunter are the most valued skills, and Marines have learned to trust the hairs on the back of their neck more than anything else."

We don't know what we don't know, but those Marines don't sound like the kind of men who would knowingly mow down 24 innocent men, women and children.

That's what we should be communicating to the world instead of allowing a tiny minority to define us - or telegraphing to our enemies that our military needs ethics training.

Not that continuing education isn't always a good idea. In that spirit, perhaps Lynch could perform some alpha male training with certain faithless officers next time he's in Washington.

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com. Her column appears on Friday.