Radically Inept
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
  War Crimes and Criminals

From TomDispatch comes this introduction:
"Oh, and here's another small but quite remarkable link between then and now, which, with (as far as I know) the exception of the New York Times' Frank Rich and the superb Paul Krugman, has not been seriously mentioned, no less highlighted in our press. The journalist who forced the story of the Abu Ghraib photos into the light of day -- after all, until CBS's 60 Minutes II heard that his piece was coming out in the New Yorker, they were still holding up their own report, as per the request of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers -- and so brought the issue of war crimes to the very tips of American tongues, had done exactly the same thing back in that ugly year of 1969. Until Seymour Hersh, the former Associated Press reporter, published his piece on My Lai with the then-unknown Dispatch News Service, the massacre had moldered in cover-up and silence for twenty full months. (The Abu Ghraib cover-up, though noticeably shorter thanks to the permeability of the Internet and email, still lasted from January 13 to the beginning of May.) Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story then; and, to push this analogy into the future, he should win another for his New Yorker two-parter about Abu Ghraib.

Note, by the way, that in 1969, as now, the My Lai story was first pushed to consciousness by a GI whistleblower who distinctly knew right from wrong (Ron Ridenhour then, Joe Darby this time around); and, as now, that nightmare story was driven by horrific images splashed across the mainstream media. Those were, of course, the color photographs of Ronald Haeberle, an Army photographer who had helicoptered into My Lai with Charlie Company. ('Guys were about to shoot these people. I yelled, 'Hold it,' and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up.') Haeberle took many of his massacre photos back to Cleveland when he left the service and there, for a year, he showed them to civic organizations in a slide show of his own creation. ("They caused no commotion… Nobody believed it. They said Americans wouldn't do this.") Finally, after the Hersh story broke, Haeberle's horrific photos appeared in a famous ten-page spread in LIFE magazine (an issue with an African antelope on the cover), labeled "a story of indisputable horror -- the deliberate slaughter of old men, women, children and babies." Now… well, I hardly need describe the photos of this moment as more of them are reaching the front pages of newspapers and TV screens every day. Then, President Nixon called My Lai an "isolated incident." Now George Bush calls Abu Ghraib, "the actions of a few people" and Gen. Myers blames a bare "handful" of Americans (even as Red Cross reports of the widespread nature of these abuses throughout our penal system in Iraq spread daily).

War crimes proved unacceptable as a category for Americans back then and so, as I wrote in my history of American triumphalism, The End of Victory Culture (from which I dug out many of the above details): "Of all the charges of the antiwar movement, the ones that disappeared most quickly were those concerning war crimes -- and the people who made them were as quickly forgotten." (At least, that is, until John Kerry became the Democratic candidate for president this year.)

"Containment" of the crisis back in 1969 (as in 2004) meant doing one's official best to keep the story to one location which, in turn, was to be identified with a single aberrant event; though such crimes were far more widespread as witness the ones still leaking out so many decades later. After all, the Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer this year for its vivid coverage of a never-prosecuted "seven-month rampage" of horror in Vietnam's Central Highlands in 1967 by a platoon of the 101st Airborne known as the Tiger Force. And on the 9/11 commission, of course, is Bob Kerrey, whose Vietnam horror story only made it into the press in 2001. Containment, then as now, also meant keeping whatever prosecutions there were to as low- level individuals as possible. (Does this sound faintly familiar?)

War crimes. Such a nasty term. In everyday logic, in fact, not that far from an oxymoron. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, when Hersh broke the My Lai story, the subject of war crimes burst on American consciousness (and there was quite a backlash against it). Right now, it's at the very edge of being spoken -- but only in the most limited way, only in relation to the abuses that can be seen on photos from Abu Ghraib prison and only for a few "bad eggs" at the lowest level of a procedure which should really make its way up, up the ladder of command. But rest assured, there's so much more to come, and not just all the new photos, videos, and even possibly audios, promised by Donald Rumsfeld either. Terrible as it may be, we're only at the beginning -- and the one thing we know is that digital cameras and computers are everywhere."
Which as I said is an introduction to this an excellent piece on the legal status and obligations of occupation forces and those so occupied. It also does a very thorough job of looking at the effects of various international treaties, including the Geneva convention, in determining what constitutes a war crime. Via TomDispatchcomes this piece by Mark LeVine:
"When I'm outside the US, whether in the Muslim world, Europe or almost anywhere else, people invariably ask me why Americans don't care that their country is violating the very principles of international law the U.S. helped design. Some might say it isn't fair that the occupiers, and not the occupied, are the only ones facing international condemnation and even prosecution for the violence. And in fact, while under international humanitarian law Iraqi civilians have no obligation of loyalty towards the occupying power, they are also prohibited by international humanitarian law from violently resisting the occupation or attempting to liberate Iraq., and according to Article 5 of the 4th Geneva Convention can in fact be detained by the coalition if they are 'definitely suspected' of engaging in violent opposition.

But however bloody or criminal the actions of the Iraqi insurgency, the onus is on the coalition, as Iraq's internationally recognized occupying power, to conduct itself strictly according to international law. In this context, expressions of 'disgust' or even apologies, however slow in coming, by President Bush or Prime Minister Blair, or promises of 'independent' investigations by people connected to the occupying powers are meaningless, while admissions that the abuses at Abu Ghraib are 'systematic' are misleading if the system referred to is only the prison system, and not the occupation as a whole.

As a matter of fact, the rest of the world is not just sitting back watching events unfold. There have already been attempts to indict U.S. military commanders in Belgian courts based on that country's law of 'universal competence,' although political pressures have prevented a case from proceeding. There are at least three other ways of bringing U.S., coalition (and let us not forget, Iraqi) perpetrators of war crimes to justice that are being considered by progressive international lawyers. If successful, these could severely damage American credibility for the foreseeable future.

The first would be the indictment of Tony Blair and other senior British officials at the International Criminal Court, to which Britain, unlike the United States, remains a signatory. Several international lawyers with whom I've spoken believe that President Bush and other American officials could actually be listed as co-conspirators and/or perpetrators of any crimes for which Blair and his subordinates might be indicted, based on Article 25 of the Rome ICC treaty, despite extensive efforts by the Bush Administration in the months before the invasion to force the EU (and other countries around the world) to grant "total exemption" from prosecution by the ICC to all American civilians and military personnel. The second would be to convince the UN General Assembly to convene a war crimes tribunal (or at least a Truth Commission) to investigate abuses by coalition and rebel forces. Finally, war crimes charges could be brought right here in the U.S. through Federal war crimes statutes. If the Justice Department (as is likely) refused to open such an investigation, plaintiffs could still sue in Federal court to compel it to do so. And if the Republican-dominated courts refused to order an investigation it would only further strengthen the worldwide sentiment that the U.S. operates by double standards in Iraq and the world at large.

Given the possibilities, why is the peace movement not moving on this issue? Certainly it can't be because it's not relevant to the larger issues of peace and justice in Iraq. As Voltaire reminded us over 250 years ago: "Those who can make you believe absurdities will get you to commit atrocities... As long as we believe in absurdities we will commit atrocities." In other words, as long as the occupation of Iraq is based on the absurdities sold to us by the Bush and Blair governments, its very structure will make atrocities a necessary part of the functioning of the system it's put in place. And as long as Americans continue to believe in the absurdities behind the much larger "war on terrorism," they will continue to be accomplices to international crimes, and to increasing violations of the rights of their fellow citizens as well -- and on a grand scale at that."
Personally, I would like to see Baby Bush go to trial for war crimes, mostly, because this war was totally unnecessary and has succeeded only in getting people killed and making profits for a few companies.  
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