Within the next week or so, a Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 32 hearing at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will determine whether Marine 2nd Lt. Ilario Pantano should face court-martial, and a possible death sentence, for an incident that occurred in Iraq last year. Pantano’s fate will tell us a lot about the present state of our military culture.
Ilario Pantano is a highly respected Marine officer who rejoined the Corps after 9/11, leaving behind a prosperous Manhattan life to do so. He originally enlisted in the Marines out of high school, served in the Gulf War, and rose to the rank of sergeant. Then he returned to New York, graduated from NYU, and became an investment banker and an entrepreneur. But the terror attacks shook him to his core, and he became a Marine again.
In April of 2004, he was leading a platoon to investigate a possible insurgents’ hideout in the town of Mahmudiya, near Fallujah, in the Sunni “triangle of death.” Marines searched a house and found numerous weapons stores, fake passports, and literature supporting Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Two men tried to escape the house in a white sedan, but Pantano and his Marines detained them and forced them to search their car, a common practice.
The men were speaking to one another in Arabic, and Pantano told them, in Arabic, to be silent more than once, but they persisted. Then, he said, “they quickly pivoted their bodies toward each other,” a gesture he interpreted as hostile. He discharged his M-16, killing both men. Then he reloaded the magazine and discharged it again. Pantano placed a sign on their bodies that said, “No better friend, no worse enemy,” a slogan favored by Major General James Mattis, the Marine commander in Iraq.
It was not until June of 2004 that Pantano was informed he would be brought up on charges due to the complaint filed by a sergeant who was posted by the sedan, with his back turned, when the shooting occurred. Last week the sergeant was excused for several days from the Article 32 hearing to get legal advice about possibly violating an order not to give media interviews about the case. But the gist of his charge is that the shooting was wholly unnecessary, and that Pantano is guilty of premeditated murder.
Pantano’s story is becoming better known as his case approaches its moment of truth. A North Carolina congressman, Walter Jones, from the district that includes Camp Lejeune, introduced a resolution last month in the House calling on the U.S. government to dismiss the charges against Pantano. New York magazine ran a cover story under the graceless title, “Murder and the Preppie Marine.” The article itself is balanced, but the cover headline conjures memories of the “preppie murder case” and Robert Chambers, an obscene linkage to make with Pantano, whatever the magazine’s intentions.
The incident under investigation took place during what was at the time the bloodiest month of the war, when 135 U.S. troops died fighting an enemy that flouts every rule of war. Pantano and his Marines were not facing adversaries in the manner of Europeans on the Western front in 1914, who sang carols to one another on Christmas Day to mark a mutual break from the fighting, bury their dead, and honor a common heritage.
No such luck against an enemy that has conducted attacks from mosques; deliberately killed innocent civilians, journalists, and aid workers; faked surrenders and ambushed credulous troops; tortured hostages and broadcast their beheadings.
“The threat is from everywhere and all the time,” Pantano has said of Iraq, and many Marines have voiced similar sentiments. Faced with a split second decision, he reacted with lethal force. Perhaps, in this particular situation, the men were not going to do anything worse than run away. Assuming such, however, is a good way to become a dead Marine in Iraq. And in any event, all the men had to do to stay alive was follow Pantano’s instructions. They disregarded them more than once.
If Pantano is court-martialed and found guilty, the climate in Iraq will become even more dangerous for Marines, as it is bound to inject a hesitancy they can ill afford.
One wonders, too, about the impact such a verdict might have on Zarqawi and his acolytes, purportedly losing hope at the moment. How could they fail to derive new strength from such a glaring example of Western decadence — killing our own warrior for being a warrior?
Last week, the Army sentenced to death a sergeant, Hasan Akbar, who killed an Army captain and an Air Force major in a bombing and rifle attack in Kuwait during the opening days of the Iraq war. The incident raised questions about how well the military is screening for men like Akbar, and two years later no satisfactory answers have been given. But at least one could take heart in the Akbar verdict and the knowledge that, however tardy, the military had at last recognized an enemy in its midst and treated him accordingly.
The military is already tardy in recognizing the ally it has in Ilario Pantano. God help our cause if we send men like this away.