George W. Bush will offer some bromides about how
the punishment shows that the United States honors the rule of law and
how the punishment is further proof of America’s civilized behavior when
compared with the enemy’s barbarity. It’s also likely the U.S. news
media won’t place too much blame on Bush.
But the common thread from the bloody invasion of
Iraq in 2003 through Abu Ghraib to Haditha is that Bush cavalierly sent
young Americans into a complex and frightening conflict with false and
alarmist rhetoric ringing in their ears.
Through clever juxtaposition, Bush’s speeches
linked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror
attacks and later blurred the distinctions between Iraq’s home-grown
insurgency and the relatively small number of al-Qaeda terrorists
operating in Iraq.
Again and again, in 2002-2003, Bush rhetorically
fused the names Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden, as Bush rushed the
United States into war. Then, in fall 2005 – around the time of the
alleged Haditha atrocity on Nov. 19, 2005 – Bush was framing the Iraq
conflict as a war to stop terrorists from creating “a radical Islamic
empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia,” which would threaten the
Though these claims lacked credible intelligence –
Hussein and bin-Laden were bitter enemies and al-Qaeda remains a fringe
player in the Muslim world – Bush’s messages apparently sank in with
impressionable young soldiers and Marines trying to understand why they
needed to kill Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s
Latest Iraq War Lies.”]
As a result of Bush’s incessant propaganda,
a poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq – taken in January and
February 2006 – found that 85 percent believed the U.S. mission in Iraq
was mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.”
Seventy-seven percent said a chief war goal was “to stop Saddam from
protecting al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Bush had not only misled the American public, but
he had confused the American troops assigned to carry out the
complicated occupation of Iraq, a nation with a history, language and
culture foreign to the vast majority of U.S. soldiers. By exaggerating
the threat that Iraq posed to the United States, Bush also set the
conditions for atrocities.
While every soldier is responsible for his or her
own actions in a war, it is the duty of the top levels of the chain of
command – including the Commander in Chief – to take every possible
precaution to ensure that troops on the ground do not commit war crimes.
Indeed, commanders and politicians who lay the
groundwork for abuses often are held responsible along with the actual
perpetrators. The late Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic was put on
trial at the Hague not for direct participation in the slaughter of
Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the 1990s, but for aiding and abetting the
Milosevic’s violent rhetoric and deceptive propaganda were two
factors cited in
his indictment. One count alleged that the fiery Serb leader
“controlled, manipulated or otherwise utilized Serbian state-run media
to spread exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by
Bosnian Muslims and Croats against Serb people intended to create an
atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs.”
In Bush’s Iraq case, his legal responsibility is parallel though the
facts are far from identical. The Yugoslavian conflict was essentially a
sectarian civil war which involved ethnic cleansing and massacres.
Bush’s Iraq invasion violated international law and longstanding
principles, including the Nuremberg ban on aggressive war and a similar
prohibition in the United Nations Charter to which the United States was
a founding signatory.
In 2002, however, claiming a unilateral American right to invade any
country that may pose a threat to U.S. security in the future, Bush took
the law into his own hands. He brushed aside requests from allies, even
from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to get clearance from the U.N.
Security Council before launching the invasion.
Bush and his neoconservative advisers judged that U.S. military
preeminence in the post-Cold War world put them beyond the reach of
international law – and that public acclaim for a successful conquest of
Iraq would silence any remaining critics.
But Bush’s actions put U.S. troops in a particularly difficult and
dangerous predicament. Not only would the entire U.S. chain of command
be implicated in an illegal aggressive war, but there would be fewer
legal safeguards in the event civilians were killed, a certainty given
the level of firepower.
Though rarely mentioned by the major U.S. news media, this additional
danger for U.S. troops was noted by some Internet outlets, including
Consortiumnews.com, which published
an editorial on March 17, 2003, two days before the invasion,
“If George W. Bush orders
U.S. forces to unleash his ‘shock and awe’ onslaught against Iraq
without United Nations sanction, he will be opening American servicemen
to a kind of double jeopardy. First, they will be risking their lives in
a combat strategy far riskier than is publicly acknowledged. Second, any
significant taking of civilian life could leave both officers and
enlisted men liable for future war-crimes charges.”
Not surprisingly, there
were violations of the rules of war from the outset, such as the aerial
bombing of a civilian Baghdad restaurant where faulty U.S. intelligence
suggested that Hussein might be having dinner.
As it turned out, Hussein was not there, but
the attack killed 14 civilians, including seven
children. One mother collapsed when rescue workers pulled the severed
head of her daughter out of the rubble.
Other U.S. bombings inflicted horrendous death and
destruction on civilians. In one attack, Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded,
but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing
had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 –
who had been the center of his life.
“It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He
was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14,
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the
fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S.
missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, Ali’s pregnant mother and
his siblings were all killed.
As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming
a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he
would rather die than live without his hands.
The slaughter extended to the battlefield where the
outmatched Iraqi army sometimes fought heroically though hopelessly
against the technologically superior U.S. forces. Christian Science
Monitor reporter Ann Scott Tyson interviewed U.S. troops with the 3rd
Infantry Division who were deeply troubled by their task of mowing down
Iraqi soldiers who kept fighting even in suicidal situations.
“For lack of a better word, I felt almost guilty
about the massacre,” one soldier said privately. “We wasted a lot of
people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some
of the pride. We won, but at what cost?”
Commenting upon the annihilation of Iraqi forces in
these one-sided battles, Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe said, “We didn’t want
to do this. Even a brain-dead moron can understand we are so vastly
superior militarily that there is no hope. You would think they would
see that and give up.”
In one battle around Najaf, U.S. commanders ordered
air strikes to kill the Iraqis en masse rather than have U.S. soldiers
continue to kill them one by one.
“There were waves and waves of people coming at
(the U.S. troops) with AK-47s, out of this factory, and (the U.S.
troops) were killing everyone,” Radcliffe said. “The commander called
and said, ‘This is not right. This is insane. Let’s hit the factory with
close air support and take them out all at once.’” [Christian Science
Monitor, April 11, 2003]
Three weeks into the invasion,
Hussein’s government collapsed, but Bush’s short-sighted plan for
the occupation left U.S. forces stretched thin as
they tried to establish order.
Sometimes, jittery U.S. soldiers
opened fire on demonstrations, inflicting civilian casualties and
embittering the population. In Fallujah, some 17 Iraqis were gunned down
in demonstrations after U.S. soldiers claimed
they had been fired upon. Fallujah soon became a center of anti-American
As the Iraqi insurgency began to spread – and
Americans began dying in larger numbers – military intelligence officers
encouraged prison guards to soften up captured Iraqis by putting them in
stress positions for long periods of time, denying sleep and subjecting
them to extremes of hot and cold.
Some of the poorly trained prison personnel – like
those on Private Lynndie England’s night shift at Abu Ghraib – added
some of their own bizarre ideas for humiliating captured Iraqis, like
forcing them naked into pyramids.
But even some of those strange techniques, such as
adorning Iraqi men with women’s underwear, could be traced to wider
practices against other detainees. Army Capt. Ian Fishback and two
sergeants alleged that prisoners were subjected to similar treatment by
the 82nd Airborne at a camp near Fallujah and that senior
officers knew. [See
Human Rights Watch report.]
Fishback blamed the pattern of abuse on the Bush
administration’s vague orders about when and how Geneva Convention
protections applied to detainees, a problem that extended from the
prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a network of shadowy U.S.
prisons around the world.
“We did not set the conditions for our soldiers to
succeed,” said Fishback, 26, who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We failed to set clear standards, communicate those standards and
enforce those standards.” [NYT, Sept. 28, 2005]
Even Bush’s boast that he closed
Hussein’s torture chambers and “rape rooms” lost its moral clarity.
A 53-page classified Army
report, written by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, revealed that
abuses at Abu Ghraib from
October to December 2003 included use of a chemical light or broomstick
to sexually assault one Iraqi. Witnesses also told Army investigators
that prisoners were beaten and threatened with rape, electrocution and
dog attacks. At least one Iraqi died during interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic,
blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,”
said Taguba’s report. [See
The New Yorker's
May 10, 2004, issue.]
Bush’s contempt for international law has long been
an open secret. On Dec. 11, 2003, when asked by a European reporter
about the need for international law to govern the U.S. occupation of
joked, “International law? I better
call my lawyer.”
In 2004, Fallujah was back in
the news after Iraqi insurgents killed four American security
contractors and a mob mutilated the bodies. Bush ordered Marines to
“pacify” the city of 300,000 people.
The U.S. assault on Fallujah
transformed one soccer field into a mass grave for hundreds of Iraqis –
many of them civilians – killed when U.S. forces bombarded the
rebellious city with 500-pound bombs and raked its streets with cannon
and machine-gun fire. According to some accounts, more than 800 citizens
of Fallujah died in the assault and 60,000 fled as refugees.
In attacking Fallujah and in
other counterinsurgency operations, the Bush administration again
resorted to measures that critics argued
amounted to war crimes. These tactics included
administering collective punishment against the civilian population in
Fallujah, rounding up thousands of young Iraqi men on the flimsiest of
suspicions and holding prisoners incommunicado without charges and
subjecting some detainees to physical mistreatment.
But the Abu Ghraib scandal, with its graphic photos
of naked Iraqis posed in fake sexual positions, became the iconic
representation of American mistreatment of Iraqis. When the photos
surfaced in 2004, the images fueled anti-Americanism across the Middle
East and around the globe.
Back in Washington, the Bush administration tried
to defuse international outrage by blaming a few “bad apples.”
Bush said he “shared a deep disgust that those
prisoners were treated the way they were treated.”
The Abu Ghraib scandal led to military convictions
against nine reservists who were sentenced and marched off in shackles.
Lynndie England, a 22-year-old single mother who had been photographed
holding an Iraqi on a leash and pointing at a detainee’s penis, was
sentenced to three years in prison.
Bush has continued to cite the Abu Ghraib case as
one of a handful of mistakes that he will concede occurred during the
Iraq War. At a joint press conference with Tony Blair on May 25, 2006,
Bush said, “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.”
Now comes the Haditha atrocity in which several
Marines are alleged to have gone on a killing spree in the
insurgent-dominated town on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died from an
improvised explosive device.
According to published accounts of U.S. military
investigations, the Marines retaliated for the bombing by pulling five
men from a cab and shooting them, and entering two homes where
civilians, including women and children, were executed. Some of the
victims reportedly were praying or begging for mercy when they were
The Marines then tried to cover up the killings by
claiming that the civilian deaths were caused by the original explosion
or a subsequent firefight, according to investigations by the U.S.
military and human rights groups. One senior Defense Department official
told the New York Times that of the 24 dead Iraqis, the number killed by
the bomb was “zero.” [NYT, May 26, 2006]
The Haditha killings are likely to draw comparisons
with the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, when a
bloodied unit of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division stormed into a
village known as My Lai 4 and slaughtered 347 Vietnamese civilians
Though the number of dead at Haditha is less than
one-tenth the victims at My Lai, the scenarios are eerily similar: U.S.
troops – fighting a confusing conflict against a shadowy enemy – lash
out at a civilian population, killing unarmed men, women and children.
If the Marines at Haditha are found guilty of
committing the atrocity, they can be expected to receive severe
punishment for murder, which under military statutes could include their
Yet, while these Marines may face severe punishment
for violating the laws of war, the political leadership back home – up
to and including George W. Bush – remains immune from any meaningful
President Bush even won sympathy from some
commentators for joining Blair at the May 25 news conference at the
White House where the two leaders took turns admitting a few errors in
the Iraq War. Bush focused his self-criticism on a couple of
tough-talking comments, including his taunt to Iraqi insurgents in 2003
to “bring 'em on.”
The New York Times noted that when Bush mentioned
the Abu Ghraib scandal, “his voice was heavy with regret.” [NYT, May 26,
But the scales of justice may demand more from Bush
and Blair than a few limited apologies that ignore the original crime of
launching a war in violation of international law against a country that
was not threatening their nations.
As the war’s chief instigator, Bush would seem to
bear the heaviest blame. To justify the war, he also stoked up the
emotions of Americans – both civilian and military – with false claims
about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Hussein’s links to 9/11 and
connections between Hussein’s secular regime and al-Qaeda’s Islamic
Bush’s lies also didn’t stop after Hussein’s regime
fell. On June 18, 2005, more than two years into the war, Bush used a
radio address to tell the American people that “we went to war because
we were attacked,” continuing the subliminal connections: Saddam/Osama,
Bush’s rhetorical excesses, though primarily
designed to build and maintain a political consensus behind the war at
home, had the predictable effect of turning loose a thoroughly
propagandized and heavily armed U.S. military force on the Iraqi
Pumped-up by Bush’s false claims linking Iraq to
9/11 and his later warnings about al-Qaeda's scheme for a global
terrorist empire, U.S. soldiers have charged into Iraqi towns and cities
with revenge on their minds.
Bush thus put both American soldiers and the Iraqi
people in harm’s way. In the three-plus years of war, nearly 2,500 U.S.
soldiers have died along with tens of thousands of Iraqis. Thousands
more have been grievously maimed.
As the laws of war require the punishment of any
individual soldier who murders civilians, international principles also
call for holding accountable their superiors – both military and
political – who contribute to the crime.
In that sense, the atrocity at Haditha – and the
tens of thousands of other unnecessary deaths in Iraq – can be laid at
the door of official Washington, where some Democrats and nearly all
Republicans voted to authorize the invasion and where leading news
organizations uncritically transmitted administration propaganda to the
But the principal blame must rest at the feet of
George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed “war president” who considers
himself beyond the bounds of any law. In that larger sense, Haditha and
all the other carnage in Iraq can be viewed as Bush’s My Lai.