(Caption for photo at top of the post: “Town council leader and lawyer Khalid Salman by the graves of his sister and her children, who were among the twenty-four Iraqi civilians killed by US Marines in the 2005 Haditha massacre, Haditha, Iraq, 2011”.)
How squeaky must a country itself be? Extracts from an article by the indispensable Fintan O’Toole at the NY Review of Books–very much my own line of thinking, far too many Americans are incapable of recognizing the frequent hypocrisy of their “exceptionalism” in the eyes of much of the rest of the world:
Our Hypocrisy on War Crimes
The US’s history of moral evasiveness around wartime atrocities undermines the very institution that might eventually bring Putin and his subordinates to justice: the International Criminal Court.
There is the war, and then there is the war about the war. Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine is being fought in fields and cities, in the air and at sea. It is also, however, being contested through language. Is it a war or a “special military operation”? Is it an unprovoked invasion or a human rights intervention to prevent the genocide of Russian speakers by Ukrainian Nazis? Putin’s great weakness in this linguistic struggle is the unsubtle absurdity of his claims—if he wanted his lies to be believed, he should have established some baseline of credibility. But the weakness of the West, and especially of the United States, lies in what ought to be the biggest strength of its case against Putin: the idea of war crimes. It is this concept that gives legal and moral shape to instinctive revulsion. For the sake both of basic justice and of mobilizing world opinion, it has to be sustained with absolute moral clarity.
The appalling evidence of extrajudicial executions, torture, and indiscriminate shelling of homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, and shelters that has emerged from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and from the outskirts of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy gives weight and urgency to the accusation that Putin is a war criminal.
By late April, the UN human rights office had received reports of more than three hundred executions of civilians. There have also been credible reports of sexual violence by Russian troops and of abductions and deportations of civilians. According to Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, by April 21 Russia had committed more than 7,600 recorded war crimes.
Yet the US has been, for far too long, fatally ambivalent about war crimes. Its own history of moral evasiveness threatens to make the accusation that Putin and his forces have committed them systematically in Ukraine seem more like a useful weapon against an enemy than an assertion of universal principle [emphasis added]. It also undermines the very institution that might eventually bring Putin and his subordinates to justice: the International Criminal Court (ICC).
There have long been two ways of thinking about the prosecution of war crimes. One is that it is a universal duty. Since human beings have equal rights, violations of those rights must be prosecuted regardless of the nationality or political persuasion of the perpetrators. The other is that the right to identify individuals as war criminals and punish them for their deeds is really just one of the spoils of victory. It is the winner’s prerogative—a political choice rather than a moral imperative…
It is hard to overstate how important it is that the war crimes that have undoubtedly been committed already in Ukraine—and the ones that are grimly certain to be inflicted on innocent people in the coming weeks and months—not be understood as “a flexible instrument in the hands of politicians.”
…If accusations of Russian war crimes are seen to be instrumental rather than principled, they will dissolve into “whataboutism”: Yes, Putin is terrible, but what about… Instead of seeing a clean distinction between the Western democracies and Russia, much of the world will take refuge in a comfortable relativism. If war crimes are not universal violations, they are merely fingers that can point only in one direction—at whomever we happen to be in conflict with right now. And never, of course, at ourselves.
Even before Putin launched his invasion on February 24, the Biden administration seems to have had a plan to use Russian atrocities as a rallying cry for the democratic world.
…on April 4 he went beyond deeming Putin a criminal by calling specifically for him to face a “war crime trial.” Then on April 12 he pressed the nuclear button of atrocity accusations: genocide. “We’ll let the lawyers decide, internationally, whether or not it qualifies [as genocide], but it sure seems that way to me.” He also referred to an unfolding “genocide half a world away,” clearly meaning in Ukraine.
…When asked about genocide on April 22, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “No, we have not documented patterns that could amount to that.” Biden’s careless use of the term is all the more damaging because, however inadvertently, it echoes Putin’s grotesque claim that Ukraine has been committing genocide against Russian speakers in Donbas.
The problem with all of this is not that Biden is wrong but that it distracts from the ways in which he is right. This overstatement makes it far too easy for those who wish to ignore or justify what the Russians are doing to dismiss the mounting evidence of terrible crimes in Ukraine as exaggerated or as just another battleground in the information war. In appearing overanxious to inject “war criminal” into the international discourse about Putin and making it seem like a predetermined narrative, the US risked undermining the very stark evidence for that conclusion. By inflating that charge into genocide, it substituted rhetoric for rigor and effectively made it impossible for the US to endorse any negotiated settlement for Ukraine that leaves Putin in power: How can you make peace with a perpetrator of genocide [emphasis added; easy these days, talking point it away]?..
What makes these mistakes by Biden truly detrimental, however, is that the moral standing of the US on war crimes is already so profoundly compromised. The test for anyone insisting on the application of a set of rules is whether they apply those rules to themselves. It matters deeply to the struggle against Putin that the US face its record of having consistently failed to do this.
On November 19, 2005, in the Iraqi town of Haditha, members of the First Division of the US Marines massacred twenty-four Iraqi civilians, including women, children, and elderly people. After a roadside bomb killed one US soldier and badly injured two others, marines took five men from a taxi and executed them in the street. One marine sergeant, Sanick Dela Cruz, later testified that he urinated on one of the bodies. The marines then entered nearby houses and killed the occupants—nine men, three women, and seven children. Most of the victims were murdered by well-aimed shots fired at close range.
The official US press release then falsely claimed that fifteen of the civilians had been killed by the roadside bomb and that the marines and their Iraqi allies had also shot eight “insurgents” who opened fire on them. These claims were shown to be lies four months later, when Tim McGirk published an investigation in Time magazine…
In his memoir Call Sign Chaos (2019) the former general James Mattis, who took over as commander of the First Marine Division shortly after this massacre and later served as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, calls what happened at Haditha a “tragic incident.” It’s clear that Mattis believed that at least some of the marines had run amok…
Mattis nowhere uses phrases or words like “war crime,” “massacre,” “atrocity,” or “cover-up.” He was determined, too, to exonerate the lower-ranking soldiers who participated in the violence at Haditha that day [emphasis added]…
…One of the most prestigious arms of the US military carried out an atrocity in a country invaded by the US in a war of choice. No one in a position of authority did anything about it until Time reported on it. No one at any level of the chain of command, from senior leaders down to the soldiers who did the killings, was held accountable. And such minor punishments as were imposed seem to have had no deterrent effect. In March 2007 marines killed nineteen unarmed civilians and wounded fifty near Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, in an incident that, as The New York Times reported at the time, “bore some striking similarities to the Haditha killings.” Again, none of the marines involved or their commanders received any serious punishment.
…When bad things are done by American armed forces, they are entirely untypical and momentary responses to the terrible stresses of war. The conditioning that helps make them possible, the deep-seated instinct to cover them up, and the repeated failure to bring perpetrators to justice are not to be understood as systemic problems. Nowhere is American exceptionalism more evident or more troubling than in this compartmentalizing of military atrocities [emphasis added].
The brutal truth is that the US abandoned its commitment to the ICC not for reasons of legal principle but from the same motive that animated Putin. It was engaged in aggressive wars and did not want to risk the possibility that any of its military or political leaders would be prosecuted for crimes that might be committed in the course of fighting them…expediency rather than principle was guiding US attitudes…
…the US has alternately endorsed the legitimacy of the ICC in prosecuting Africans and called the same court corrupt and out of control when it explores the possibility of investigating war crimes committed by Americans.
…A yawning gap has opened between Biden’s grandiloquent rhetoric about Putin’s criminality on the one side and the deep reluctance of the US to lend its weight to the institution created by the international community to prosecute such transgressions of moral and legal order [emphasis added]. It is a chasm in which all kinds of relativism and equivocation can lodge and grow. The longer the US practices evasion and prevarication, the easier it is for Putin to dismiss Western outrage as theatrical and hypocritical, and the more inclined other countries will be to cynicism…