By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
Reported scene of Haditha shooting
The suspected massacre of 24 civilians by US marines at Haditha last November has come as a severe blow to an effort by the US military to develop a counter-insurgency doctrine in Iraq.
Whether it becomes a symbol of campaign failure, as My Lai became for Vietnam, remains to be seen.
It is probably no accident that the marines were involved. They are the most aggressive close-quarter troops the Americans have.
Their battle song proclaims their expeditionary prowess: "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." They were the ones chosen to lead the assault on Falluja in 2004. They are on the frontline of the most difficult operations in Iraq, in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province.
In advance of Falluja, according to Newsweek magazine, men of Kilo Company - the one in Haditha - held a chariot race. They rounded up local horses, wore togas, played heavy metal music and made a "ball and chain studded with M-16 bullets."
A company commander shouted a line from the film Gladiator in which the Romans declared before battle against the barbarians: "What you do here echoes in eternity."
Now there is nothing new about warriors psyching themselves up for war.
The issue is whether such attitudes became a mind-set for the marines fighting a less intensive, drawn-out and increasingly frustrating anti-guerrilla war. Some were on their third tour in as many years.
Gen Casey (L) gave Donald Rumsfeld a key book on warfare
The wife of one unnamed sergeant in the unit has said there was "total breakdown" in discipline, with "drugs, alcohol, hazing [initiation ceremonies], you name it". An American soldier jailed for refusing to return to Iraq has said that Iraqis were routinely called "Hajis" as the Vietnamese were called "gooks".
Such a breakdown (of the "soldiers snap in battle" type) might explain an action by a particular unit, but it does not adequately put into context what appears to have been a lack of a proper counter-insurgency philosophy among the US Marine Corps. There was a vacuum in which such incidents were more likely to happen.
The current post-Haditha quick fix, a course on "core warrior values" lasting some two to four hours, is hardly a substitute.
Indeed, there was no such counter-insurgency doctrine in the US military as a whole when the invasion of Iraq was launched in early 2003. There was no expectation that one would be needed. The hope was for a quick war and a quick peace.
Developing a doctrine
It has only been comparatively recently that US commanders have begun to address the problem, though along the way some developed their own piecemeal concepts of how to win hearts and minds.
One of the leading thinkers is Lt Gen David Petraeus, former commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which took part in the invasion. He subsequently went back to Iraq to help train the Iraqi security forces.
In an article in Military Review in January 2006, Gen Petraeus admitted: "The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were not, in truth, the wars for which we were best prepared in 2001; however, they are the wars we are fighting and they clearly are the kind of wars we must master."
The title of his article is instructive: Learning counter-insurgency; observations from soldiering in Iraq.
Counter-insurgency therefore is something new.
He lists 14 "observations". The first of these is: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands." This is taken from one of Lawrence of Arabia's sayings: "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly." Lawrence's writings are being dusted off by many interested US officers.
Another Petraeus observation is: "Success in a counter-insurgency requires more than just military operations."
The current US army leadership in Iraq is mindful of such a doctrine.
Lt Gen Peter Chiarelli, in charge of day to day operations in Iraq, told the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad last month: "We have to understand that the way we treat Iraqis has a direct effect on the number of insurgents that we are fighting. For every one that I kill, I create almost 10 more."
The key document
Perhaps the most influential thinking came from a book originally published in 2002 and called intriguingly Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. The quote is again from Lawrence whose whole sentence was: "To make war upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."
The US army is "ill-suited" to the Iraq war, a UK officer said
The book is by US Col John Nagl, who wrote it 10 years ago while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. The senior US commander in Iraq, Gen George Casey, another convert to counter-insurgency, gave the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a copy. It is not known if Mr Rumsfeld read it.
It studies the successful British campaign to put down a communist insurgency in Malaya from 1948 and compared it with the failure of Vietnam. Colonel Nagl argued: "The British army was a learning institution and the US army was not."
The difference, he suggested, was that the British, unlike the Americans, employed "underwhelming force" as part of their strategy.
Col Nagl's ideas were amplified in another article in Military Review in November 2005 by a British officer who served with the Americans in Iraq, Brig-Gen Nigel Aylwin-Foster.
Ruffling not a few American feathers, he concluded: "The US Army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent style, which left it ill-suited to the kind of operation it encountered [in Iraq] as soon as conventional warfare ceased to be the primary focus."
It can be seen therefore that, with a counter-insurgency doctrine emerging, in which the effect of military operations on the civilian population is being given such prominence, the events in Haditha have come as a considerable blow.
It can be argued from one side that nothing the US can do will make the occupation acceptable. And from another, that all wars, from high to low intensity, produce their own massacres, that Iraq is no different and the US military no worse.
Indeed, the French in Algiers, the Russians in Chechnya did not produce examples of war with kid gloves and the British army had its Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972.
Even during the Malaya Emergency, the handling of which won the admiration of Col Nagl, there was a massacre in 1948 at a place called Batang Kali. A total of 24 unarmed civilians were shot there, the same number as at Haditha.