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Justice for Ilario Pantano
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Five years late, Ilario Pantano has been fully vindicated. Now where does he go to get his reputation back?
A dogged NCIS investigator has proven that Pantano, then a Marine lieutenant, should never have been put up on war-crimes charges back in 2004-5. But that doesn’t wipe away the endless smears thrown at him since.
“Maybe the media and the bloggers hated [Pantano] so much because he lived the classic American success story.” –Arthur HermanMaybe the media and the bloggers hated him so much because he lived the classic American success story.
Born to a poor family in Hell’s Kitchen, Pantano showed the smarts to get a half-scholarship to the elite Horace Mann School — then put off college to join the Marines in the first Gulf War.
After that tour, he came back and worked nights to finish college, then landed a job at Goldman Sachs — until he re-enlisted shortly after 9/11.
In April 2004, 2nd Lt. Pantano was leading his squad in Iraq’s deadly Sunni Triangle when they stopped two Iraqis fleeing in a car from what turned out to be an insurgent ammo dump. Pantano ordered the pair to search their own vehicle to make sure it wasn’t booby-trapped. When they charged at him instead, he opened fire.
But one Marine, a disgruntled sergeant Pantano had disciplined more than once, claimed the two men had been kneeling and that Pantano shot them from behind. All other testimony contradicted him, yet that was the witness the Judge Advocate General’s investigating officer chose to believe when he charged Pantano with murder.
Since the witness kept changing his story and no evidence backed him up, the charges were dismissed in May 2005. But Pantano’s career as a Marine was over — and his nightmare was just beginning.
It was the crazy season after Abu Ghraib — a time when Rep. Jack Murtha was accusing Marines of murder in Haditha and Sen. Dick Durbin was comparing military personnel at Gitmo to Nazis and Pol Pot.
For the media, it was the charge against Pantano, not the verdict, that mattered. New York Magazine pilloried him on its May 21, 2005 cover — sneering at his rags-to-riches story and using his “post 9/11 fervor” to portray him as a trigger-happy nut. Pantano received death threats from a jihadist Web site, and two retired Marines felt obliged to maintain a security watch around Pantano’s house.
Eventually, it all helped with his decision to leave New York. But he still wanted to serve his country. Last year, he won the endorsement of Tea Party groups to run for Congress in North Carolina. Liberal bloggers immediately went into high gear. Slate’s Matt Yglesias said it proved that “Love of violence and brutality is deeply engrained in the conservative world view.” Other bloggers labeled him a Jack Bauer Republican, implying that he was a ruthless renegade who believes that the end justifies the means.
Pantano lost in the general election, and might have faded into oblivion — except for William Rodriguez of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who’d always been bothered by the “lynch mob” atmosphere, as he put it, surrounding Pantano’s trial, as well as the fact that there’d been no autopsy of the two Iraqis.
After five years of trying, Rodriguez finally convinced the Marines to exhume the bodies, and this last month proved that the two men had indeed been shot from the front, not the behind.
Five years too late, Ilario Pantano has finally found justice — as have those Marines accused in the Haditha case, who had the charges against them dropped over time, as well.
But two nagging questions remain. When will the media quit treating every war incident involving Americans as if it were My Lai? And when will our military justice system stop second-guessing our troops on the battlefield and let them do their job?
Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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