29 December, 2006

The Women and Children of Haditha

Posted in Gender Issues, Iraq, Male Disposability, Reposts, War at 10:48 pm by Daran

(Originally posted at Creative Destruction. Here slightly edited.)

In the headline of his Sunday Herald story, Neil Mackay characterised the atrocity as follows:

Haditha: the worst US atrocity since Vietnam … Iraqi women and children massacred by American marines.

After giving a little background, including a comparison with the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam war, (“mainly women, children, and the elderly”), he gives the following summary of the events in Haditha:

Minutes after Terrazas died, the remaining 13-strong unit of marines went on a bloody rampage, wiping out whole families, killing women, children and an elderly man in a wheelchair, and hurling grenades into homes. In all, 24 Iraqi civilians were murdered by American troops.

Let’s parse the entire story, to see how many of these women and children were actually men.

In the first house attacked, according to MacKay there was a girl called Eman, her “father… mother, grandfather, grandmother, two brothers, two aunts and two uncles”, of whom one aunt and a niece escape – a total of 12 people in the house to start with. We’re told that Eman and one brother survived, Presumably the escaping Aunt was the “Only one of the adults in the house that day [who] survived.” Also the niece, giving a total of four survivors. We’re told that seven family members died, leaving one unaccounted for, which must have been a child, probably the other brother.

Here’s the tally for house number 1:


2 Men. (Grandfather, Father)
2 Women (Grandmother, Mother)
2 Male probable Adults (Uncles)
1 Female probable Adult (Aunt)


2 or 3 Children (Eman, Brother, maybe other Brother)


1 Woman (aunt)
2 or 1 Children (Niece, maybe other Brother)

The second house contained eight individuals, of whom seven died:

1 Man (Father)
1 Woman (Mother)
1 Female probable Adult (Mother’s Sister)
5 Children

Not killed:

1 Child

House number 3:


4 Men


1 Woman (intentionally spared by the Marines.)



5 Adults (almost certainly all Male)

Total Killed:

7 Men
2 Male probable Adults
5 Adults probably Male
3 Women
2 Female probable adults
5 children.

Of the 24 people killed in this massacre of “women and children”, it looks like at least seven, and probably as many as forteen were men, perhaps five were women, and five were children. Morever it appears that what started out as an indisriminate slaughter, perhaps, had morphed by the time it reached the third house into a targetted cull of men.

But you really have to dig deep into the story to tease this information out. Would a normally attentive reader who read to the end have realised just how deceptive the headline and summary paragraph were? What about someone who only read as far as the summary paragraph? Or who only read the headline?

In actual fact the gender gap is even more striking. This list of the victims confirms many of the details given in the story. It also confirms some of the assumptions I made in my analysis: The uncles and aunts were indeed adults. The taxi passengers were indeed male. However, there are a couple of discrepancies. Firstly the other brother in the first house, who was indeed a child and who I assumed survived, in fact died. One fewer adult died than MacKay accounts for. Either there was an error in his list, or a second adult escaped. My lack of familiarity with Arab naming conventions means I cannot tell for certain, but my impression is that it was one fewer woman. (Perhaps the “two aunts” were each the mother of the other’s niece, leading Mackay to double-count the mother. However this is speculation.) I assumed the mother’s sister in the second house was an adult who died, but no such person is listed as a casualty. Instead, there is an additional child. The revised tally of the dead is as follows:

14 or 13 Men
3 or 4 Women
7 Children (5 girls, 2 boys)

Three Strategies

There are many ways you could describe this atrocity. It was a massacre of men, and maybe of children, in which a small number of women got caught up. But a massacre of women it was not. How then, does MacKay manage to pass this event off as a massacre of “women and children”? He doesn’t give false information; the factual claims match the United for Peace list almost exactly. Rather it is the placement, and selective concealment of facts which create this impression. The specific errors and omissions which lead me to infer perhaps two more women casualties than there were, were surely unintentional, but the pattern of exclusion, displacement, and incidentalisation which served to marginalise the male victims was not.

Of the three techniques documented by Dr. Jones, exclusion is most obviously at work here. Men were excluded entirely from the headline. The taxi occupants were excluded from the summary paragraph. The phrase “women, children and an elderly man in a wheelchair” appearing as it does superficially to be a characterisation of the victims, not just some of them, serves to exclude the men.

displacement also rears its head in this paragraph. Having highlighted the “worthy” victims – the women, the children, and the disabled old man (therefore “worthy” according to the distorted cultural values at issue), the “unworthy” remainder (who would they be?) are displaced and effectively concealed behind two gender-neutral terms. “Whole families” might suggest that some men were killed, but not necessarily. The phrase is unlikely to be read as asserting that every single member of each of the families was killed, and indeed there were survivors from each of the three families attacked. Likewise the claim that “In all, 24 Iraqi civilians were murdered” does nothing to suggest that any of them were men. Later on in the story, the male occupants of the taxi were displaced into “driver” and “students”.

Finally we see incidentalisation. Dr. Jones explains the process:

Modern news, as noted, is a hierarchical creature. It generally “leads” with the dominant theme of the article, which the headline is also meant to convey. Many newspapers, printing or reprinting an article or wire-service report, will include only (a version of) the headline and the first several paragraphs of the story. Thus, to relegate an important theme to passing mention in the middle reaches of the article, or to introduce it only at the end, is effectively to render it incidental and inconspicuous, if not outright invisible.

MacKay’s treatment of the murdered men is anything but “passing”. Indeed, he is to be commended for merely doing his job his extensive coverage in the middle and latter parts of the article, but one fact, utterly crucial to our understanding of what happened in Haditha is given the scantest attention: the sparing of the woman in the third house. The women and children had never been the targets. It had always been the men the marines were after. Notice how one woman had been able to escape from the first house, even though burdened with a child, while an unencumbered man hadn’t. Nor did they finish off the injured children in both houses. What happened at the third house is that they had stopped disregarding the women and children. Their rage had subsided, just enough for the code of ‘civilian’ immunity to reassert itself, but only for the “default” civilians.

Feminists tell me that the goal of feminism is not merely to advance the aspirations of women, but to challenge sexist systems which disadvantage men too. The systematic marginalisation and concealment – effacing – of male victims of war surely meets that definition. When will feminists challenge it?


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