A Modest Atonement For War Crimes?



Those who presume to dispense justice are the most unjust.


With every morning’s news, more of the Iraqi iceberg of White Trash continues to emerge from the murky depths of potent depravity. Private England holding her Arab pet on a leash was only the beginning. Since then we have seen Corporal Charles Graner presiding over a pyramid of living human flesh, heard of dogs being let loose on men, cattle prods being used on men’s genitals, of male detainees being forced to wear women’s underwear, outright rape and murder and a thousand other normally unspeakable horrors taking place in the prisons being run by the US-UK forces in Iraq.


All this from those who had gone to Iraq to set the people free from the crimes of Saddam Hussein.


Moreover, as we have been repeatedly told this past week, the worst is yet to come. Several incriminating videos and pictures are yet to be released by the Pentagon. “It’s going to get still more terrible, I’m afraid,” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld himself admits.


Senators and Congressmen were closeted in for three hours the other evening eyeing the many spectacles of American sadism in Iraqi prisons, which have been kept from the public. The people of the free republic must naturally be barred from such X-rated material.


The fact that the prison guards and interrogators had the nerve to photograph and video the crimes of their colleagues obviously means that they did not see their actions as odd, merely amusing, and enormously effective in humiliating their victims. Which could only mean one thing: that they were acting and filming under orders. The Guardian reports, quoting US officials, that there are dozens of such videos in the military archives at the Camp X-Ray prison at Guantanamo alone.


The statements issued by the top brass of the Bush administration over the past week all seek to portray the systematic tortures and human rights violations as limited infractions from the moral impeccability of the US armed forces and the American people. They have been trying to isolate the problem in the eyes of the world. What could be more “un-American”, after all, than violence? Bush claimed that descriptions of the behavior of the Americans at Abu-Ghraib did not correspond to “the America that I know.” To Rumsfeld it was “totally unacceptable and un-American.”


Yet, the two most respected and widely quoted international human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross have been pointing out to the Bush administration for well over a year the widespread pattern of tortures and human rights violations in US prisons across the world. Even the US army’s own report, compiled by Major-General Taguba back in February, speaks of “systemic and illegal abuse of detainees.” As one American soldier has put it, the truth is more nearly the opposite of what the leaders wish to portray and what the public right across the world is being asked to believe: “it’s not the person, but the system.”


Such has been the spate of exposures that the American armed forces have found the unprecedented audacity to upbraid their bosses. In the words of the influential American army journal, Army Times, “This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level. This was a failure that ran straight to the top. Accountability here is essential – even if it means relieving top leaders from duty in a time of war.” But if accountability is to be seen as a sign of democratic health, American democracy is mortally ill. Not one resignation has been forthcoming in the wake of the revelations. And why should we see resignations? According to investigations reported by Seymour Hersh in the latest issue of the New Yorker, since 9/11, Washington leaders have themselves conspired skillfully to create a massive worldwide prison system legally exempt from international law. It’s just bad luck that seems to have caught up with them now. The leaks were not meant to happen. Joseph Darby was not meant to blow the whistle. He is the one they would really like to court-martial!


Donald Rumsfeld would like us to believe that if only his eyes had fallen upon “the pictures” in time his irreproachable moral rectitude would not have let such egregious, un-American injustices to be perpetrated. Yet, he was the mastermind behind the infamous “Stress Matrix”, which has been used, since 9/11, as the torture module at Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu-Ghraib and several other known and unknown American detention centers scattered across the world (up to 10,000 people are being held in secret detention centers across the world in Washington’s war on terror, reports The New Zealand Herald). Every fresh revelation is only showing how high up the chain of command the loud prompts for torture – if not outright orders – were issued. So, short of mass resignations by Bush’s top brass too utopian to contemplate, there is no assurance whatsoever that such crimes will not continue in the future. No reason to trust them whatsoever. Today they are isolating and court-martialing Private England and Corporal Graner, tomorrow it will be John Doe and Jane Dunn. The Rumsfelds, Wolfowitzes and Cheneys will live on forever, basking in the immortal glow of benevolent liberators.


The superpower is irredeemably sick. All barring the sick themselves can see that now. Washington warlords preside over a stupidity of savage proportions. When Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair’s very own human rights envoy to Iraq, has claimed that a 70-year-old Arab woman was ridden like a donkey by US troops, the battle for Arab “heart and minds” has been won hands down by the clerics and Jehadi fighters with Osama Bin Laden. All that they wished Arab people to believe about the West and its decadent culture has met the public eye on Television screens across the world in the past few weeks. To soothe irrepressible Arab rage an out-to-lunch President had to be prompted into an apology by his rapidly deteriorating public relations image. But he still lacks the courage to sack his infinitely shameless and thick-skinned cover-up artist, Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Those who stand at the apex of the pyramid of human corruption naturally go blind. Their ignorance is all too intentional. Rumsfeld not only boasts of not reading newspapers (he knows about reality already, being its author), but also skips key reports from his own army, the Red Cross and reputed human rights organizations. And if reports in British newspapers are correct then such documents are also slow to reach the table of Mr. Blair. Power will accomplish all that the effort of reading can only delay; such seems to be the maxim in the high offices.


How long will this state of affairs continue? This is an election year. It is time for America to find better leaders. The world deserves and needs them. But will we get them? Nothing John Kerry has said so far on the Iraq war holds much hope.


If there was any wisdom left in the city of Washington, the Americans, instead of calling for more reserves and their troops on South Korean soil to join battle in Iraq, and asking Congress to approve another $25 billion for a war which was declared “won” a year ago (they spend $1 billion every week there already), would urgently seek to withdraw and cut costs. There have been a few nervous murmurs by Proconsul Bremer to that effect recently.


What about the American image in the Middle East and across the world? Far from being seen as the harbinger of freedom and democracy, America has never disgraced itself more. There were no video images of My Lai. Nor of the tortures of Koreans. This time the gutter of frat-house Western culture has overflowed on to Arab and Main Streets. To lose the immense moral capital that the 9/11 attacks had given the US, and fall into a global public relations catastrophe took talent. Team Bush, with its imperialist hubris and unerring moral stupidity, has accomplished just that.


And the euphemistically described “prison torture scandal” is not all. Fallujah, where American warplanes dropped 2000-lb bombs and murdered up to 800 innocents, constitutes a war crime by any yardstick, generating Saddam-like mass graves. There are “little” crimes to add to the moral bill too. Many Iraqi families have complained that after US troops have searched and destroyed their homes, the occupants have returned to find their safes broken open and their savings and valuables stolen.


“You cannot unring the bell”, as a Senator from Arkansas, said at Rumsfeld’s Senate hearing last week. But you can avoid running for cover when the door opens and take it on the chin, if you wish to save your dying honor. For at this point “the land of the free and the home of the brave” appears to Arabs and all decent people across the world quite plainly as the land of the brazen and the craven.


Gulf War II – the first war under the Bush doctrine of preventive war, which was meant to replace tyranny with democracy in Iraq – is well and truly lost. Never in the annals of imperialism has a great power suffered such a humiliating moral defeat. Can anything be done to redeem what’s left of the moral legitimacy of American hegemony?


Let’s grant the Americans their claim that this war and occupation have nothing to do with oil, that even if Iraq grew broccoli, they would be as keen to deliver its people from the scourge of brutal tyranny. With what sort of moral legitimacy can the US continue to stay on in Iraq? Is it alright to murder 11,000 innocents of a sovereign nation to bring democracy to the survivors? Is it enough for the President and his officials to apologize? Are we supposed to get used to the sickness? Apology? Or Withdrawal?


A recently leaked Red Cross report cites some Coalition military intelligence officers as reckoning that “between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.” That is how little American troops can tell friend from foe! If so, the least that the US can do to rescue its image in the region is to set free ALL the prisoners in Iraqi jails. This is indeed the demand of many Iraqis.


Last week the Arab media (Times of Oman) reported that political and tribal leaders in Western Iraq had urged Paul Bremer to free all detainees as a gesture of good faith in the wake of the US abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib:


“The leaders from the Sunni-dominated Al-Anbar province, from where many detainees come, said the gesture needed to be large enough to offset the enormity of abuses, which have shaken the upper reaches of the US administration. “We need a measure that is as big as the affair that has happened — it needs to reflect the size of the problem,” Mamouon Sami Rasheed, vice-chairman of the provincial council, told Bremer during a meeting at US headquarters in Baghdad.”


This measure would offer but a modest atonement for numerous war crimes. But it would not be a bad place to start.


Clearly, the moral imagination of Iraqi people is working quite differently from that of Washington. An Iraqi girl writes in her Web log: “Today’s lesson: don’t rape, don’t torture, don’t kill and get out while you can- while it still looks like you have a choice… Chaos? Civil war? Bloodshed? We’ll take our chances- just take your puppets, your tanks, your smart weapons, your dumb politicians, your lies, your empty promises, your rapists, your sadistic torturers and go.”


Evidently, token Television apologies from Bush, Rumsfeld and Powell will not suffice, especially when Coalition business carries on as usual: let’s apologize and carry on as though nothing has happened.


More evil has been done in human history in the name of good, than for something avowedly bad. When they convince themselves of the nobility of their goals, human beings can commit far heinous crimes than when they act with moral skepticism and ambivalence. No genocide in history has been committed without some higher moral purpose being cited as the reason for sending thousands or millions to their graves. Now where is the famed “moral clarity” of the Neo-Conservative intellectuals after Abu-Ghraib?


The more immoral their lives become, the more men seem to need morality. The intensity and frequency of moral rhetoric is in fact a reliable index of the immorality of the powerful invisible realities that guide public life. But even if the corporate beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex have been able to drug the public, using their media, with what can be described as a moral superiority syndrome, might is not right.


Technology has given “civilized” man much to hide behind. He so easily thinks that slaughtering non-Western humans or sundering their limbs from their bodies with the aid of smart-bombs and Daisy-Cutters is somehow less sick and more acceptable than Arabs cutting open the throats of their few, vulnerable white captives with kitchen-knives. Red-handed murder and manual genocide are somehow morally despicable, but mass-murder from the air and routine stress-tortures ordered from high places do not find reckoning in the tables of evil. When cruelty is Arab, it is “medieval” and “barbaric”, meriting loud outrage. When it is American or Israeli, it is just “softening” of prisoners or “pacification” of recalcitrants. But so many across the world increasingly see through the fog cultivated by the Western media and wonder aloud: is it still what they used to call civilization? Or a technologically advanced super-barbarism masking its plunder of the earth and its people under the disgraced banner of democracy?


The French newspaper Le Monde spoke to a number of Arab intellectuals who all took the view that the present impasse in Iraq constitutes a “crisis of civilization”, for which “almost all lay the responsibility for this descent into hell on “the strongest, that is, the United States, which invaded Iraq.”” The view of Fawziya Al-Bakr, a young Saudi academic, teaching assistant at King Saud University in Riyadh, is representative:


“I can’t find the words to describe or even to understand what’s happening, neither the tortures inflicted on Iraqi prisoners, nor this beheading of the young American hostage… this similarity in cruelty, bestiality and horror! I cried when I saw the pictures. I didn’t want to believe it; I said to myself, it’s staged. Is it possible we’ve gone back to the Middle Ages? All humanity is undergoing a crisis of civilization. It’s materialism that causes it, this reference to consumerist and material values only that has destroyed all sensitivity and humanity in people.”


What kind of a world is it in which some of the truth is admitted, heinous crimes acknowledged, promises of formal justice offered, but there is no serious moral reckoning? It is a world without honor and shame, in which the truth, brutal and ugly, keeps surfacing and resurfacing, is covered up or ignored and the lazy memory of drugged, educated masses relied upon to “move on.” This culture of “moving on”, without reckoning, must be brought to an end. So must America’s moral delusions and its presumptuous monopoly over global political morality. Or else the blight will soon consume us all.

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