The day the war in Iraq was officially declared over, the Times returned to the 2005 Haditha 'massacre' on Thursday's front page. Baghdad-based reporter Michael Schmidt uncovered classified military documents about to be burned for fuel to cook a fish: 'Junkyard Gives Up Secret Accounts of Massacre.' Just above the story stood a photo of President Obama greeting crowds at Fort Bragg, N.C. with the subhead 'Obama Thanks Troops as He Observes End of Iraq War," teasing the paper's actual end-of-the-war story, which only made page A20.
As the war marked its official end, Schmidt let his feelings show:
One by one, the Marines sat down, swore to tell the truth and began to give secret interviews discussing one of the most horrific episodes of America's time in Iraq: the 2005 massacre by Marines of Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha. 'I mean, whether it's a result of our action or other action, you know, discovering 20 bodies, throats slit, 20 bodies, you know, beheaded, 20 bodies here, 20 bodies there,' Col. Thomas Cariker, a commander in Anbar Province at the time, told investigators as he described the chaos of Iraq. At times, he said, deaths were caused by 'grenade attacks on a checkpoint and, you know, collateral with civilians.'
The 400 pages of interrogations, once closely guarded as secrets of war, were supposed to have been destroyed as the last American troops prepare to leave Iraq. Instead, they were discovered along with reams of other classified documents, including military maps showing helicopter routes and radar capabilities, by a reporter for The New York Times at a junkyard outside Baghdad. An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.
The documents - many marked secret - form part of the military's internal investigation, and confirm much of what happened at Haditha, a Euphrates River town where Marines killed 24 Iraqis, including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, women and children, some just toddlers.
Schmidt treated as damaging, not vindicating, the fact that no Marine has actually been convicted of what the Times has long touted as a 'massacre' of innocent civilians.
Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.
But the accounts are just as striking for what they reveal about the extraordinary strains on the soldiers who were assigned here, their frustrations and their frequently painful encounters with a population they did not understand. In their own words, the report documents the dehumanizing nature of this war, where Marines came to view 20 dead civilians as not 'remarkable,' but as routine.
Iraqi civilians were being killed all the time. Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar, in his own testimony, described it as 'a cost of doing business.'
Schmidt provided front-page psychoanalysis of the entire military in Iraq.
The stress of combat left some soldiers paralyzed, the testimony shows. Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures, and were court-martialed. The bodies piled up at a time when the war had gone horribly wrong.
Charges were dropped against six of the accused Marines in the Haditha episode, one was acquitted and the last remaining case against one Marine is scheduled to go to trial next year.
That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.
All of this set the stage for what happened in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005.
That morning, a military convoy of four vehicles was heading to an outpost in Haditha when one of the vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb.
Several Marines got out to attend to the wounded, including one who eventually died, while others looked for insurgents who might have set off the bomb. Within a few hours 24 Iraqis - including a 76-year-old man and children between the ages of 3 and 15 - were killed, many inside their homes.
Townspeople contended that the Marines overreacted to the attack and shot civilians, only one of whom was armed. The Marines said they thought they were under attack.
When the initial reports arrived saying more than 20 civilians had been killed in Haditha, the Marines receiving them said they were not surprised by the high civilian death toll.
Schmidt has a looser style that some of the paper's war correspondents. In May he wrote insensitively of the 'scourge' of tasteless buildings going up in Iraq: 'Baghdad has weathered invasion, occupation, sectarian warfare and suicide bombers. But now it faces a new scourge: tastelessness.'