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We Don’t Do War Without War Crimes
by Ahmed Amr
November 16, 2004

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“Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land - young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.”

“There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes.” 

-- Senator George McGovern, Sept 1, 1970

That eloquent statement never fails to move me. But the Senator should have added that we are also responsible for the war crimes committed by our young braves.

Every major American conflict leaves distinct impressions. Many will remember this war as an epic battle that culminated with the toppling of Saddam’s statue. Others will never forget the chamber of horrors at Abu Ghraib or the thousands of amputated and disfigured American soldiers or the ones who simply didn’t make it home.

Iraqis will spend decades mourning the tens of thousands of family members who have perished during the Anglo-American invasion -- or caring for the wounded and crippled survivors. The war will leave especially bitter memories for the people of Fallujah.

For those who still give a damn about illicit war crimes, one scene in particular should never be forgotten or forgiven -- the sight of American soldiers sending fleeing Iraqi civilians back into Fallujah. As their city was being reduced to rubble by American air power, about 300 unarmed refugees were detained as they fled the carnage. After allowing the women and children through their lines, the Marines tested all adult males to determine if they had recently handled weapons or explosives. Even after testing negative, all the men were forced to return to the combat zone.

Assume for a moment that the Marines were convinced that the men in their custody were insurgents fleeing the fight. Why weren’t they arrested and treated as POWs or even “illegal combatants”? Forcing them back, unarmed, into a battle zone was the equivalent of shooting them on the spot. Unfortunately, This peculiar sort of barbarity is not a unique war crime. Dutch soldiers serving as UN “peacekeepers” did worst in Srebrenica in 1995. After getting drunk with Serbian militias, they handed over all Bosnian males older than twelve -- knowing full well that they would be murdered in cold blood. In 1982, the Israelis prevented Palestinian refugees from fleeing the horror in Sabra and Shatilla and sent them back to face certain slaughter.

On November 11, 2004, another display of cruelty was added to the gallery of American crimes against innocents abroad -- proving once again that “we don’t do war without war crimes.” To date, there is no indication that the Pentagon intends to probe why so many innocent men were forced back to the killing fields of Fallujah.

Long before the atrocity in Fallujah, the United States had already accumulated a long record of merciless war crimes against Asians, Latin Americans, Native Americans and Europeans. The bones of the victims are scattered in distant battle zones from Wounded Knee to Dresden to Hiroshima to My Lai to No Gun Ri.  No matter. America has exceptional ways of bringing its war criminals to account.  Most recently, the Democratic Party nominated John Kerry as their candidate for the highest civil service office in the “civilized” world. The party hailed him as a hero even though he admitted to engaging in war tactics that were “contrary to the laws of warfare” and “contrary to the Geneva Convention.”

A few days before his famous Senate testimony in 1971, Kerry appeared on Meet the Press and gave a personal confession of his own misdemeanors in Vietnam.  “Yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50 caliber machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages.”

A transcript of Kerry's testimony before the Senate contains accusations that his comrades in arms also committed all manner of atrocities. Speaking under oath, Kerry gave a summary of the bad behavior of American warriors sent to Vietnam on a mission to spread the blessings of liberty. “They told stories of times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires with portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.”

It didn’t matter what crimes Kerry confessed to in 1971. He was still considered solid presidential material in 2004.

Another Senator with a similar sounding name made his Vietnam confessions long after the conflict had been put to rest. In April 2001, Bob Kerrey, the ex-Senator from Nebraska, confessed to the slaughter of innocent civilians in the village of Thanh Phong in 1969. This is how he described what happened on that night: “When the fire stopped, we found that we had killed only women, children and older men. It was not a military victory. It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it. I could never make my own peace with what happened that night. I have been haunted by it for 32 years.” Later, in an interview with CBS, Kerrey made this confession: “to describe it as an atrocity, I would say, is pretty close to being right, because that's how it felt, and that's why I feel guilt and shame for it.”

Bob Kerrey has long since dusted off his guilt and shame. Now fully rehabilitated, he was most recently appointed to the 9/11 Commission and continues to serve as the President of NYU.

In Fallujah, American forces once again resorted to tactics that virtually guaranteed that war crimes would be committed. Overwhelming use of force and a lack of concern about “collateral damage” are now standard operating procedures. None of this rises to the level of the genocide committed by the Germans in Europe, the Belgians in the Congo or the Japanese in China. But American military doctrine gives soldiers the privilege of shooting first without any concern that they might be held accountable later. 

The Pentagon doesn’t do body counts -- not that a tally would bother anybody back home. As a general rule, the American public doesn’t particularly care about the conduct of their troops in foreign lands. Recent revelations that as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have already perished in the war didn’t register a whimper in the United States. For most Americans, Iraq is just another low intensity conflict -- a little irritable background noise that occasionally rises to an audible nuisance.

Americans are mostly concerned with American casualties. The United States Army withdrew from Vietnam only after losing 58,000 of its soldiers. The retreat had next to nothing to do with the carnage visited on millions of Asian peasants. They were just “gooks” like the “hajis” currently being used for target practice in Fallujah. The US military subscribes to Senator Trent Lott’s view of how best to spread democracy to Iraq. Here is Trent’s formula:  “If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens.”

The young Marines that prevented Iraqi civilians from fleeing the Fallujah war zone were indoctrinated to be callous to the natives. In the midst of a war of choice – they elected to commit a war crime of choice. Reports are now emerging that a Marine killed a wounded insurgent in his custody. We know because Kevin Sites of NBC videotaped the incident. If this is the way they conduct themselves in front of witnesses – one can only imagine the crimes they might be inclined to commit away from prying eyes.

A few human rights group took notice of the refugee “incident” in Fallujah and will no doubt issue disturbing statements about their views on the matter. They know full well that no American soldier or commander will be held accountable for this atrocity. As the law now stands, United States military personnel are not subject to international jurisdiction.

This much is certain: there will be no outcry on the home front. Many red-blooded Americans delight in their heritage of spilling innocent blood abroad.  Other red-blooded Americans who feel genuine remorse are perfectly aware that there is next to nothing that can be done to bring the culprits to justice.  In the post 9/11 world, it is considered unpatriotic to bring up such matters in polite company.

The only way to stop this kind of behavior is to hold the political leadership responsible. I am not suggesting that we impeach George Bush. Rather, I think we should go for his poodle and bring war crime charges against his partner in crime -- Tony Blair.

Blair is just as responsible for Fallujah and the war in Iraq. Unlike Bush, Blair is subject to British law, which makes it easier to bring him to justice. If you can’t get the man, sue his dog. This might be the only way to send a message to the American government that they should consider the novel concept of doing war without war crimes.

Ahmed Amr is the Editor of NileMedia. He can be reached at:

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