The headlines last week were front page and stark. US Marines had apparently gone on a murderous rampage months earlier in the Iraqi insurgent stronghold of Haditha, killing as many as 24 civilians, including women and children. They did so after one of their Humvees in which they were patrolling was blown up by a roadside bomb, killing one marine and wounding two others. There was no evidence that the civilians they massacred were culpable.
There are grounds for belief that after the deadly action, the marines and some of their superiors tried to cover it up. The tragedy was uncovered by reporters for Time magazine. Senior US military officers launched investigations into the event itself and the coverup. President Bush said that those who are guilty must be punished. Though the investigations are proceeding, Pentagon sources say that charges of murder could be brought against some of the marines involved.
If the charges are true, the killings at Haditha could become as shameful a chapter in the Iraq war as was the Vietnam War's My Lai - where US soldiers massacred a whole village. Following the scandal of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib, such actions sully and undermine the selfless efforts by many other US military men and women to rebuild Iraq and bring it some semblance of democracy.
Also in the news last week, but generally not making the front pages, was the relief effort by US Marines and US personnel, along with other international donors, on Indonesia's big island of Java, which was hit by a devastating earthquake. Thousands of Indonesians were killed, thousands more injured, and perhaps as many as 200,000 left homeless.
Marine cargo planes flew a mobile field hospital into the city of Yogyakarta, closest to the quake area. Other marines started distributing emergency supplies to the needy. The amphibious assault ship USS Essex, which has extensive medical facilities, was routed to the area.
The two contrasting stories, one of senseless murder in Iraq, and the other of humanitarian aid to save life in Indonesia, underline for Americans both the agonies and the triumphs of being the most powerful nation in the world with sweeping international responsibilities.
This is not the first time the US has offered an outstretched hand to Indonesia in its time of need. After a giant tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, the US mounted a massive relief operation, sending aircraft and ships with supplies and manpower to the scene. …