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The visibility of Pantano's saga is due in part to its rarity. Only one other Marine has been charged with murder for actions during the Iraq war; the Army says just five of its soldiers have so far been tried and convicted for serious violent crimes committed in Iraq. Because cases like Pantano's are so unusual, they prove to be bitterly divisive, with the prosecution and the defense equally convinced that they are fighting to uphold the military's core values. In that sense, the Pantano case is a window on a larger debate within the military about how and when to apply the rules of war in a shadowy fight against an unconventional enemy. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and other highly publicized excesses--such as the televised Marine shooting of a wounded insurgent in Fallujah last fall--the top brass is disinclined to tolerate rogue behavior of any kind. When asked about Pantano last week, General Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, would not comment directly on the case but said, "There are rules of engagement. All Marines understand what they are. We will hold them accountable."
Pantano's fellow junior combat officers have a very different view. To them, the case against him is at odds with the reality of waging a counterinsurgency in which every Iraqi civilian is a potential threat and attacks are almost impossible to anticipate. Several Marine officers who served with Pantano in Iraq and spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity criticized the Marines for pursuing the case. Pantano, they say, was caught in a combat situation in which he had just two choices: hold fire and risk his life and those of his men, or shoot to kill. He made exactly the decision that many others say they would have made under the circumstances. "When I heard the words premeditated murder," says a Marine infantry officer, "I laughed out loud. Sure, I kill insurgents. That's my job."
At the center of this swirling storm stands Pantano, a 33-year-old officer who peers say was viewed as the top platoon commander in his battalion. "He was consistently the most cool-headed, tactically savvy officer in the field," says a more senior officer. Although Pantano's lawyers have advised him not to give interviews about the charges pending against him, he spoke to TIME about his life and career. From these conversations and interviews with friends and family members emerges a portrait of a born fighter who gave up a prosperous Manhattan lifestyle after 9/11 to rejoin his beloved Marine Corps--only to find himself charged as a murderer by his superiors. Pantano has received a remarkable outpouring of support. Officers and sergeants have written statements on his behalf. High school classmates from New York's élite Horace Mann School are making common cause with Fox viewers and contributing to his defense fund, whose website is maintained by his mother. The fund raised $8,000 in a single day. Old acquaintances find it incomprehensible that their affable friend may be a war criminal. "It's the last thing I would expect," says Hillary Schupf, a Horace Mann classmate. "I'd expect that he'd have military honors, if anything. Not this."