The United States and War Crimes

The United States was founded on a genocide, that of Nastive Americans, and on an institution, Negro slavery, which was based on race and, because it led to deprivation, death and murder, was also of the nature of a genocide. Any view of American history which does not acknowledge this leaves us bereft of any ability to judge the actions of others.

The general who led the troops at Sand Creek, where more than eighty Indian women and children were systematically slain, had a few weeks before spoken of the necessity of murdering Indian children, because "nits make lice." This rhetoric assumes an equal position in the pantheon of hatred with any statement made by Hitler.

There is a remarkable resonance between this statement and one made by Lieutenant William Calley. Michael Bilton and Kevin Simm say, in their book Four Hours at My Lai:

It was Calley who, seeing a baby at My Lai crawling away from a ditch already filled with dead and dying villagers, seized the child by the leg, threw it back in the pit, and shot it.

And Calley wrote in his memoir, Body Count:

"And babies. On babies, everyone's really hung up. 'But babies! The little innocent babies!' Of course, we've been in Vietnam for ten years now. If we're in Vietnam another ten, if your son is killed by those babies you'll cry at me, 'Why didn't you kill those babies that day?'"

In My Lai that day, four hundred unarmed people including women and babies were lined up and shot in pits, in an action exactly equivalent to that of the German Einsatzgruppen in eastern Europe in World War II. No moral difference whatever. Many of the women were raped, and some of the victims were tortured, before being murdered. The American reaction, and Calley's fate, are very instructive. "Its those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it," moaned President Nixon after the New York Times broke the story, with Seymour Hersh reporting. The application of justice was left up to Army courtmartial (remember the famous dictum that "military justice is to justice as military music is to music").Out of the scores of soldiers who participated and officers who covered-up the massacre, only five were ever court-martialed (many other charges were dismissed in the "interests of justice") and only Calley was convicted.

He was initially sentenced to life at hard labor, and then an interesting political dance began. President Nixon immediately ordered him released to house arrest while various appeals proceeded. His sentence was cut to twenty years, then ten. He was freed on bail for a time, then finally commanded to Leavenworth, where he served four and one half months, and was then paroled. Today, he owns a jewelry business in Columbus, Georgia, where (as his memoir indicates) he feels no perceptible shame or guilt about the murders he committed.

A majority of the American people either refused to believe that murder had occurred (despite the color photographs of women and children dead in the ditches which appeared in Time magazine and on television); or felt that murder during war was justifiable; or held that Calley was the wrong man to punish anyway, because (like the soldiers and party functionaries at Nuremberg) he was "only following orders".

The result: Calley trumps Nuremberg. We are not willing to live by the same rule of law we are so proud of there. In the Calley courtmartial and its aftermath, we had the same spectacle as if the post-Nazi Wehrmacht had been asked to conduct the Nuremberg trials. Bad men were eager to see Calley go free, while the good were merely embarrassed, and, in most cases, willing to see the matter swept under the rug.

The United States attitude to war crimes is not much different, even when they are not our own. A specially constituted Bosnian war crimes tribunal, with American members and supposedly with our support, is gathering evidence right now to prosecute killers from all three sides, Croat, Moslem, and Serbian. This is proper, because provocation is no excuse, though everyone knows that the bulk of the murder was committed by the Serbs, who also account for most of the defendants. U.S. troops, acting for the UN, regularly come into contact with or at least are near the Serbian defendants, some of whom have passed through U.S.-manned roadblocks without being apprehended.

An article in the March 2, 1996 New York Times, p.3, entitled "GI's in Bosnia Shun Hunt for War Crimes Suspects", tells an appalling story. Contrast the following two statements to get the full nuance. The first is a pronouncement made last November by our President, lead manipulator and beneficiary of "the society of the spectacle":

We have an obligation to carry forward the lessons of Nuremberg. Those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide must be brought to justice. There must be peace for justice to prevail, but there must be justice when peace prevails.

The next quote is from an unidentified Pentagon official, explaining why US troops in Bosnia will not attempt to arrest war criminals indicted by the UN tribunal:

We will take these people into custody if they surrender to us, preferably with their hands up over their heads, or maybe if they're turned in by someone else....I can't imagine it would happen any other way. No matter how much people might want us to arrest war criminals, we have a much bigger mission in Bosnia.

But it is hard to imagine what. Imagine a U.S. army spokesman, during the occupation of Germany after World War II, announcing that known Nazi murderers would be allowed to circulate freely because of a bigger mission. Obviously, prosecution of Bosnian murderers is considered inconvenient or embarassing by the U.S. and by NATO in general, despite the commitment of all parties to the Dayton accords that war criminals would be arrested and tried. (See also the New York Times for January 20, 1996, p. 6, "NATO Backs Off Helping Bosnia War Crimes Panel.")

Both the Bosnia and Rwandan war crimes tribunals were authorized by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Legal bases of jurisdiction include the U.N. Charter, and the Geneva, Hague and Genocide conventions. These are the first two international war crimes tribunals since Nuremberg. According to an article in the April 7 New York Times, "U.N. Seeks Accord on Permanent War Crimes Court", a move is on now to create a permanent tribunal for the future, instead of creating temporary ones on shoe-string budgets to address particular problems. The United States response, as described in the article, is very interesting: we want the Security Council to be able to block tribunal action.

The domestic parallel would be giving the President such complete power over the judicial branch that he could order a court not to proceed with a case. In other words, we want to be able to do with international war crimes prosecutions what President Nixon reprehensibly did with the Calley prosecution: make sure they come to nothing.

There are powerful, or at least well-armed, forces in the U.S. today who regard the U.N. as the lead figure in an evil "New World Order" and regard any American involvement in the U.N. as a threat to sovereignty. But the domestic slogan, "No Justice, No Peace," applies tenfold to the international arena. The final test of whether a scheme of international law will succeed, and the determinant of whether we will ever be able to live in a quiet and fair world, is whether we are willing to live by the same rules we wish to see applied to others. When the U.S. is not only willing to inflict a fair punishment upon a future Lieutenant Calley, but is even willing to submit him to an international war crimes tribunal for fair judgment, we will know that day is here.