June 1, 2006  

The Testimony of the ‘Blue Man’

"The man was thrown backward by automatic weapons fire, his eyes blindfolded and his arms tied behind his back, his skull jerked upward at the neck, his fleshless mouth gaping, his two rows of teeth stretched apart, as though in a primal scream."

Thus John Burns of The New York Times describes "the Blue Man," as forensic archeologists temporarily are identifying one of 28 bodies recovered in the Iraqi desert as part of an effort to document the mass killings carried out under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Until the remains are more thoroughly investigated, the body can only be known as "Blue Man," for his shirt and trousers.

Although the forensic work is intended to be used in one of the trials of the former Iraqi dictator, they do a double service – as the timing of Burns’ story inevitably does as well – by providing some perspectives on the Haditha murder allegations. Although the facts of the Haditha case are far from clear, it appears that the incident was immediately provoked by anger and, perhaps, a desire for revenge; it was likely a crime of heat. The Blue Man died in quite different circumstances: it was an act of cold revenge by the Saddam regime, killings planned in advance, and not executed until a shallow trench had been scrapped out by a backhoe.

The killings were a response to the Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings that followed Operation Desert Storm, but any connection between the Blue Man and the rebellion would have been serendipitous; the Republican Guard simply trucked 28 men into the Ash Sham desert and shot them.

The Marines in Haditha or the soldiers in Abu Ghraib may have committed murders or other high crimes. They may have besmirched the honor of their units, their services, their country, and done very great damage to the strategic purposes of the United States in Iraq and in the Middle East. But there can be no moral equivalence between the crimes of individual Americans and the crimes of Saddam’s government, which were the policy of his government. Nor can it be said that the American moral purpose of "liberating" Iraq makes no difference: it makes all the difference in the world. The Blue Man is not simply an isolated victim of a long-ago atrocity; he is a glimpse into the future of Iraq and the region if there is no justice, rule of law or legitimate government. He gives no only testimony, but a warning.