Just a week ago, the Bush administration was bracing itself for the worst. After six months of covering up the Haditha massacre, the time had come to face another public audit of the conduct of American occupation forces in Iraq. Once again, as in Abu Ghraib, the real culprit was a camera.
American eyes are not supposed to see this sort of thing lest it disturb their inner harmony. The folks back home live under the comfortable illusion that their armed forces are busy fighting the “bad guys,” promoting democracy, setting up school playgrounds and passing out candy to street urchins.
Don’t expect the average American to dwell -- let alone show empathy -- for the traumatized Iraqi survivors in Haditha. Just because the majority of Americans are now against the invasion doesn’t mean they’re paying attention to the details. In this most sanitized of wars, they rarely get a look at their own dead and wounded. For most, the whole sordid Iraqi affair is no more than background noise. Half of them still can’t place Iraq on the map and there is a significant minority that still believes Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
Imagine the reaction if the same gang of cold-blooded marines had executed women holding suckling babes right outside the gates of Camp Pendleton. Would their officers cover up for them? Would the local reporters take six months to dig up the details? Would the mayor do a Bush imitation and pretend that he heard about it from the papers?
The innocents who were murdered in Haditha could very well have ended up as another pile of anonymous carcasses tagged as “collateral damage.” Had it not been for the videotape, it would have come down to the account of the villagers against the word of the marines and their officers. Even with the physical evidence, the Pentagon has taken six months to figure out if the marines acted within the bounds of the rules of engagement.
Haditha is the way America does war when the cameras aren’t rolling. From the wholesale slaughter of Filipino peasants in the Spanish American War to the killing fields of Vietnam -- American forces and American generals have never had qualms about slaughtering innocents abroad. The random civilian victims of American military might are buried in places stretching from Wounded Knee to Dresden and Hiroshima.
The criminal nature of the American occupation of Iraq was apparent long before Haditha. By definition, a war of choice is a war of aggression. The very first “smart” bomb that killed an innocent Iraqi was a war crime. Under international law, doing body counts and investigating the circumstances of how tens of thousands of civilians were butchered during and after the invasion is the obligation of the occupation forces. Providing security to the population is another one of those liabilities that come once you start breaking the pottery in another people’s back yard.
By now, the world has forgotten the Fallujah video camera that caught the image of American soldiers casually shooting wounded Iraqis in a mosque. Months later, after the affair was investigated, the Pentagon decided that the conduct of the assassins was within the bounds of the rules of engagement. Some day -- in the very distant future -- when Iraq no long makes headlines -- those “rules” will be made public.
One of the first clues you look for at a war crimes scene is the ratio of dead to the number of wounded. It’s enough to know that few Iraqi wounded emerged from the rubble after Fallujah was leveled and bombarded with white phosphorous bombs -- a weapon of mass destruction with all the attributes of napalm.
Many Americans will take comfort in the fact that Iraqi death squads have killed more civilians than the Marines. No one knows for sure how to keep score in the Mesopotamian killing fields. Still, it is worth pondering, why the same occupation regime that disbanded the Iraqi army allowed ethnic militias to thrive. Was that a casual mistake or a strategic decision? Were the forces of darkness in the Pentagon unaware that many of the recruits they were training for the new Iraqi army and the police force were moonlighting as members of the Shia death squads that have conducted a reign of terror in the streets of Baghdad?
Some are already making the comparison between Haditha and My Lai. And indeed they are similar. Both massacres were not aberrations. Both involved a cover-up operation. In the case of My Lai, one of the officers who tried to sweep the whole event under the carpet was a young African-American Major -- Colin Powell. As we all know, his efforts at burying the crime did little damage to his career.
As a nation, we still remember Vietnam as a black hole where 58,000 young were squandered by an irresponsible and vain political class that couldn’t figure out the exact time to cut our losses. But, the popular literature of that war pays scant attention to the four million South East Asian peasants who were killed as a consequence of our intervention. There will never be a wall on the Mall commemorating the names of the thousands of Vietnamese women who were murdered while trying to shield their babies from American bullets. And when the Iraq war is over and done and the Bush team figures out a face saving exit plan, we will quickly forget Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Tal Afar and Haditha.
Historically, war crimes are an integral part of American military doctrine. The Geneva Convention and international law have little if anything to do with the rules of engagement issued to the marines that committed the massacre at Haditha. In Iraq and Afghanistan, customary rules of war have been deemed ‘irrelevant’ because we’re involved in a “war on terror.”
For the White House, Haditha is just one more public relations nightmare that stains our image as “liberators.” By the reckoning of the Pentagon spin-doctors, those damn videotapes may cause a few misguided folks to believe their lying eyes and reach the conclusion that many of our troops in Iraq are acting like virtual death squads.
The conduct of American troops in Iraq has even outraged British officers who have publicly expressed disdain for their senior coalition partners and their treatment of the Iraqi people. Let’s be honest. Most American soldiers have racist attitudes against the “Hajis” -- just like they had an almost casual bigotry for the “gooks” in Vietnam. America remains an intolerant country and it carries its racism and bigotry into battle.
Having said that, it is important to note that -– again as in Vietnam -– the vast majority of American soldiers and Marines will return from Iraq without a stain of innocent blood on their uniforms. For one thing, many of them serve their time without ever encountering an Iraqi. They watch the war on CNN and FOX behind heavily guarded isolated fortifications. For the last two years, their main mission has been “force protection.” We have thousands of troops in Iraq whose sole mission is to protect thousands of other American grunts in Iraq.
There is no reversing the death and suffering in Haditha. If it hadn’t been for the videotapes, the Bush administration would have treated the massacre as a justifiable military mission to “liberate” Iraq. As for the Iraqis, they live in a state of endless trauma where Haditha style death squads -– native and foreign -- lurk outside every front door. It’s unlikely they that they will receive condolences from Bush and his neo-con praetorian guards anytime soon.
* See also the following article about war crimes in Fallujah, published on November 16, 2004: “We Don’t Do War Without War Crimes.”
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