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Movies play role in Marine hearing

June 15, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Wherever the Marines go, the movies are sure to follow.

In boot camp, recruits are exposed to great movies of the past about Marine heroism. "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949) with John Wayne, for example.

In Iraq, Marines unwind after a dangerous day of patrolling the streets of Al Anbar province by watching movies, often war movies. The 2001 HBO series "Band of Brothers," about a battle-weary Army unit in World War II, is a particular favorite. Go figure.

And now it turns out that movie references are playing a cameo in the Article 32 hearings, akin to a preliminary hearing, for Marines accused in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha. The hearings will decide which if any of the four officers and three enlisted Marines will go to court martial.

Take the hearing this week for Marine Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt. The prosecution says he executed three unarmed civilians; the defense says he acted in self-defense when confronted with a man pointing an AK-47 at him.

A defense witness, an expert in the use of force, testified that Hollywood movies have polluted the public's understanding of death and dying.

"Hollywood too often deceives the public on what is an ability to fire or inflict death or grievous injury," said Air Force Lt. Col. David "Bo" Bolgiano, a former Baltimore police officer.

People don't die or even fall to the ground immediately even when shot "center-mass," Bolgiano testified. The truth, he said, is that it can take 20 to 40 minutes to bleed to death, during which time the wounded individual is still a danger. Hollywood never shows that part, he said.

The next day, the hearing officer in the same case opined that a Marine's comment about having put a machine gun on his hip and begun blasting away sounded unrealistic given the weapon's powerful kick. "Sounds like 'Rambo,' " he said, disapprovingly.

On Thursday, Sharratt told the hearing officer that before the battle in Fallouja in late 2004, a Marine recited one of the stirring speeches in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" to help Marines find courage in the upcoming battle.

But for a movie tie-in, the Oscar may go to the case of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the battalion commander accused of dereliction of duty for not launching an investigation into the Nov. 19, 2005, killings to see if his troops had committed a war crime.

Chessani says he believed that the killings were combat-related -- that the civilians had been killed in a crossfire between insurgents and Marines after the insurgents had attacked Marines and then hidden behind women and children.

That version was accepted up the chain of command until Time magazine began interviewing Iraqi survivors and asking questions of the Marines. At about the same time the Army began an investigation.

To decide how to answer the Time magazine reporter's questions, Chessani and three other officers met one night at a forward operating base in Haditha.

1st Lt. Adam Mathes, by his own testimony, was particularly suspicious of the reporter. He was sure the reporter was preparing to unfairly slam the Marines as wanton killers. His notes from the meeting are now part of the legal case against Chessani and another officer.

"We must be on guard ... of the reporter's attempt to spin the story to sound like incidents from well-known war movies, like 'Platoon,' " Mathes told the group, referring to the Oliver Stone film.

In case they had forgotten the plot, Mathes summarized: "In 'Platoon,' Sgt. Barnes, the movie's antihero, is depicted as a no-nonsense, war-haggard platoon sergeant who knows how to get things done in the bloody jungles of Vietnam -- and it ain't always pretty."

Barnes -- played by Tom Berenger -- threatened to kill women and children "as a means of interrogation," Mathes said.

The reporter's questions, Mathes insisted, showed that he thought he had found a Barnes-like maniac: Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who was the squad leader when Marines stormed three houses and killed 19 of the civilians, including seven children and three women.

Mathes added his own theory of the movie: "This is the classic 'runaway sergeant' storyline wherein the audience is supposed to be sickened by the sergeant's brutality and equally sickened by the traumatic effects war has on soldiers."

After hearing Mathes, the officers decided to take a tough line with the reporter. The reporter's questions couldn't shake their belief that their Marines hadn't done anything wrong.

"Unfortunately for the muckraking press, Sgt. Wuterich is no Sgt. Barnes," Mathes wrote in his notes of the meeting.

Ten months after the movie analysis, Wuterich was charged with 13 specifications of unpremeditated murder and three of making false statements. His attorneys predict he'll be exonerated when his case goes to a preliminary hearing this summer.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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