It seems to me as this war in Iraq continues that people are having a hard time seeing who the real “enemy” is.

We now have a situation in the United States where we could see a literal replay of the film Breaker Morant. Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman are back in the States charged with premeditated murder, kidnapping, conspiracy and related offenses concerning the death of an Iraqi man April 26.

The Marines were reportedly on “ambush duty” outside the Iraqi village of Hamandiya, waiting to catch insurgents burying roadside bombs. After finding one insurgent’s home empty, the accused allegedly went next door to the home of a disabled 52-year-old Iraqi, Hashim Ibrahim Awad, and dragged him outside where he was bound and shot.

According to the Los Angeles Times, an AK-47 and a shovel were left near the body to make it appear Awad was an insurgent caught digging a hole to plant a roadside bomb, military investigators said.

After Awad’s family protested to Marine authorities, the military launched an investigation. This is one of a growing number of such incidents now being investigated.

But you don’t have to go far from Camp Pendleton, the Marine base in California, to get an opinion of the eight men’s innocence.

In a Sunday L.A. Times story, the Camp Pendleton community has been holding demonstrations outside the base in support of the accused.

While this is understandable, it seems interesting that the Patriotic Right would jump at anyone who would assume the worst about these men prior to a trial, while assuming they were innocent as choirboys also without benefit of a trial.

But attitudes in America are frayed beyond the traditional blue state — red state dichotomy. There is something increasingly visceral in these demonstrations.

Here’s a sample of some of the placards held up during the rally: “Killing the Enemy is Not Murder,” “Pres. Bush Free Our Heroes,” “Liberate Pendleton 8: Prisoners of Political Correctness.”

The most incredible poster I saw from the news reports read “The Enemy Trains Their Kids to Go On a Killing Spree . . . U. S. Schools Teach Tolerance and How to Hug A Tree.”

There seems to be little room for reasonable doubt or self-examination among these folks, many of whom would view such introspection as a sign of weakness. They’ve been there before (and so have we as a nation) at My Lai where their fathers and mothers also lionized Lt. William Calley.

While we don’t know whether the Pendleton 8 are guilty, it seems there is an almost a savage pre-emptive campaign to banish all thought that they might be. And that is a dangerous sign for public discourse and military discipline.

While none of us who are parents would reflexively believe our sons or daughters capable of such atrocities, the problem is most Americans understand so little of war that they also fail to comprehend what can happen to otherwise well-adjusted kids exposed to the extended horrors of combat.

The problem comes when the military establishment, for PR sake or simple justice, take your pick, try to police those who step over the line from combat to wanton murder.

The difference now is that many Americans don’t seem to care. If their soldiers get antsy and some innocent people die, well, that’s war. But if you refuse to prosecute or even investigate these incidents, a breakdown of discipline could result in slaughters that would make My Lai and what has gone on up until now in Iraq look like child’s play.

And then whom do you blame when this generation of soldiers come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among other problems? If history is an example, most of these patriotic protesters would blame the Veterans Administration rather than the old men who sent their young men to fight another unwinnable war.

The problem seems to also be one of traditional American myopia. Many see every Iraqi as the enemy and refuse to consider that the people we’ve come to “liberate” have families and lives worth every bit as much to the human family as your son the Marine’s. But if you believe that, it is no longer a war you are waging but an extermination.

I also find it incredible that so many people protesting these incidents who reflexively support the U.S. military now wail in outrage when that same military attempts to administer justice with the due process outlined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) of which each service member is made fully aware upon enlistment.

When will Americans come to realize what is happening to this generation we sent to war? Certainly with almost no video footage coming from inside Iraq, we have been spared the “Vietnam in our living room” syndrome from the 1960s. That is as many wanted it, but we pay a price in our ignorance of the conditions these soldiers have been placed in — and then we act surprised when some crack.

What is it about our national stubbornness that makes us continue to support these wars? Is it that in war we feel we can be united while at peace we have to look at our society, warts and all? Do we just love being at war? Do we care more about being seen as “cutting and running” than butchering not only our treasury but countless thousands of lives, both military and civilian?

Was there a better way to combat terrorism than this? Or would it have not been so noble, so heroic, so star-spangled, button-popping proud wonderful as a war?

Or is it the darker spectre of anti-Islamic bigotry that is playing into this particular fight?

In any case, the refusal of the mainstream to confront these uncomfortable conditions head on only guarantees more deaths, more lives ruined, more grieving families and more unpleasant “investigations” while those who sit behind the desks of the oil- and weapons-related industries chuckle contentedly over their profits.

I wonder if the folks protesting outside of Camp Pendleton ever think of that?

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...