Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Worst Crime of the 21st Century by Nathan J. Robinson and Noam Chomsky


First, a story from the years of the American occupation of Iraq , one of thousands that could be recounted. This one appears in Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War

“The most basic barrier was language itself. Very few of the Americans in Iraq, whether soldiers or diplomats or newspaper reporters, could speak more than a few words of Arabic. A remarkable number of them didn’t even have translators. That meant that for many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance. In Diyala, east of Baghdad, in the early days of the war, I came upon a group of American marines standing next to a shot-up bus and a line of six Iraqi corpses. Omar, a fifteen-year-old boy, sat on the roadside weeping, drenched in the blood of his father, who had been shot dead by American marines when he ran a roadblock.

“What could we have done? one of the marines muttered. It had been dark, there were suicide bombers about and that same night the marines had found a cache of weapons stowed on a truck. They were under orders to stop every car. The minibus, they said, kept coming anyway. They fired four warning shots, tracer rounds, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding.

“Omar’s family, ten in all, were driving together to get out of the fighting in Baghdad. They claimed they had stopped in time, just as the marines had asked them to. In the confusion, the truth was elusive, but it seemed possible that Omar’s family had not understood. ‘We yelled at them to stop,’ Corporal Eric Jewell told me. ‘Everybody knows the word ‘stop.’ It’s universal.’

“In all, six members of Omar’s family were dead, covered by blankets on the roadside. Among them were Omar’s father, mother, brother and sister. A two-year-old boy, Ali, had been shot in the face.My whole family is dead,’ muttered Aleya, one of the survivors, careening between hysteria and grief. ‘How can I grieve for so many people?’” 

“Filkins tells us that among the marines at the scene, reactions to the killings were mixed. ‘Better them than us,’ muttered one. Another broke down in tears as he loaded one of the corpses onto a vehicle. Filkins quotes a colonel insisting that ‘most of the Iraqis are glad we are here, and they are cooperating with us.’ This was plainly false, though Filkins attributes the impression partly to Iraqis telling Americans what they thought the occupiers wanted to hear. Nevertheless, he writes:

The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient—and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.

“The United States’ war on Iraq remains the deadliest act of aggressive warfare in our century, and a strong candidate for the worst crime committed in the last 30 years. It was, as George W. Bush said in an unintentional slip of the tongue, ‘wholly unjustified and brutal.’ At least 500,000 Iraqis died as a result of the U.S. war. At least 200,000 of those were violent deaths—people who were blown to pieces by coalition airstrikes, or shot at checkpoints, or killed by suicide bombers from the insurgency unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation. Others died as a result of the collapse of the medical system—doctors fled the country in droves, since their colleagues were being killed or abducted. Childhood mortality and infant mortality in the country rose, and so did malnutrition and starvation.

“Millions of people were displaced, and a ‘generation of orphans’ was created, hundreds of thousands of children having lost parents with many being left to wander the streets homeless. The country’s infrastructure collapsed, its libraries and museums were looted, and its university system was decimated, with professors being assassinated. For years, residents of Baghdad had to deal with suicide bombings as a daily feature of life, and of course, for every violent death, scores more people were left injured or traumatized for life.

“In 2007 the Red Cross said that there were ‘mothers appealing for someone to pick up the bodies on the street so their children will be spared the horror of looking at them on their way to school.’ Acute malnutrition doubled within 20 months of the occupation of Iraq, to the level of Burundi, well above Haiti or Uganda, a figure that ‘translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from ‘wasting,’ a condition characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein.’ The amount of death, misery, suffering, and trauma is almost inconceivable. In many places, the war created an almost literal hell on earth. 

“Some of the war’s early proponents have gone quiet. Some have simply lied about the record. (‘We were able to bring the war to a reasonably successful conclusion in 2008,’ wrote neoconservative William Kristol in 2015.)  Others have made public displays of their regret, but cast the war as a noble and idealistic mistake.

It is hard, for instance, to find more extreme pro-war statements from 2002 and 2003 than those of Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that ‘we would fail in any conception of Christian duty if we failed to act after all this time, if we let evil succeed, if we lost confidence in our capacity to do what is morally right.’ Sullivan was unequivocal: ‘This war is a just one. We didn’t start it. Saddam did—over twelve years ago.’ (The United States, in this view, only ever takes defensive measures, thus Hussein is framed as having ‘started’ the war, despite never having attacked the U.S.)

“Nor was there any time to lose: ‘To say that we are in a rush to war is an obscene fabrication, a statement of willful amnesia, a simple denial of history.’ In response to those who pointed out the criminality of the invasion, Sullivan insisted that ‘we have to abandon the U.N. as an instrument in world affairs.’ In fact, he claimed, the lack of international approval only showed that the U.S. was one of the few morally serious countries in the world: 

“[B]y going in, we also stand a chance of seizing our own destiny and changing the equation in the Middle East toward values we actually believe in: the rule of law, the absence of wanton cruelty, the dignity of women, the right to self-determination for Arabs and Jews. We also have a chance to end an evil in its own right: the barbarous regime in Baghdad. We choose Iraq not just because it is uniquely dangerous but because the world has already decided that its weapons must be destroyed. We go in to defend ourselves and our freedoms but also the integrity of the countless U.N. resolutions that mandate Saddam’s disarmament. Our unilateralism, if that is what is eventually needed, will therefore not be a result of our impetuous flouting of global norms. It will be because only the U.S. and the U.K. and a few others are prepared to risk lives and limb to enforce global norms.”

“By 2007, however, with the war having entirely destroyed the country it was supposed to ‘liberate,’ Sullivan was professing to have been a duped innocent whose hatred of evil was so strong that it inhibited his rationality: 

“I was far too naive, and caught up in the desire to fight back against Islamist evil to recognize the casual evil I was enabling in the Bush administration. When I hear of the thousands of innocents who have been killed, tortured and maimed in the Rumsfeld-created vortex, my rage at what this president did is overwhelmed by my shame at having done whatever I did to enable and even cheerlead it, before the blinders were ripped from my eyes. This war has destroyed the political integrity of Iraq. But it has also done profound damage to the moral integrity of America.”

“Sullivan’s newfound concern for the killed, tortured, and maimed may be commendable (although massive human casualties were an entirely predictable consequence of the war which officials were warned about repeatedly). But Sullivan, like many others who realized the war was indefensible, retreated to the position that the war was another of the United States’ endless Well-Intentioned Blunders. He ultimately came to see that the ‘imprudent’ war ‘was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively.’

“As in the case of Vietnam, many ostensible critics of the Iraq war were actually critics of its execution, not its intent. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, writing about Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, lamented that Wolfowitz’s admirable principled idealism was unfortunately a mismatch for human imperfection: 

“I find it impossible to fault on moral grounds the case for toppling Saddam Hussein last March, and for staying the course now. America did a good deed in liberating Iraqis from a tyrannical regime. But Hussein never posed the sort of imminent danger to America that administration rhetoric implied, and Wolfowitz must share the blame for exaggerating that threat… One lesson of this painful year is that too much moralizing is dangerous in statecraft. The idealism of a Wolfowitz must be tempered by some very hard-headed judgments about how to protect U.S. interests…His commitment to principle is admirable, but sound policy can’t be premised on the dream of human perfectibility, in Iraq or anywhere else. America’s problems in Iraq stem in large part from wishful thinking…” 

“The Iraq War, Ignatius wrote, was “the most idealistic war fought in modern times,” fought solely to bring  democracy to Iraq and the region, and its very idealism doomed it to failure. Likewise, while Barack Obama did not dispute the good intentions of those who began it. (The Obamas maintain warm relations with George W. Bush, with Michelle Obama telling the Today show, “I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man,” and “he is my partner in crime.”)

“Very few mainstream criticisms of the war call it what it was: a criminal act of aggression by a state seeking to exert regional control through the use of violence. A great deal of this criticism has focused on the costs of the war to the United States, with barely any attention paid to the cost to Iraq and the surrounding countries. 

“Those who critique the execution are not actually opposing the crime of the war itself. When we apply to ourselves the standards that we apply to others, we see just how little principled opposition to the Iraq War there has actually been and how little acknowledgement that the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral from the outset. If there is ever going to be accountability for this crime, we would first do well to understand what was done and why.”


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