“Here Lies the Moral Onus”

          For several decades, articles and books documenting the war crimes, brutality, and militaristically-inclined foreign policy of the United States have issued in abundance. Less often explored are the related questions: What political and economic groups, what governing parties and factions, what ideologies make elected leaders squander trillions of dollars in taxpayer money on illegal wars and occupations of increasing cruelty — wars in which armed forces violate the same normative standards that Japan and Germany once breached on an absolutely greater scale? How is this possible?

          Blame for turning American field commanders and many combat soldiers into barbaric criminals fighting futile wars of aggression, lies first on America’s flawed political institutions and legal system, its military-bureaucratic culture, and all of its ideologies supportive of racism, narcissistic exceptionalism, and redemptive violence. Further reflection suggests that these institutions and ideologies forge our national self-understanding.

          In Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (2010), Garry Wills focuses on the atomic bomb and how it transformed America’s global role, impacted its political class, reshaped presidential power, and “instilled a structure of fear.”[1] Wills argues that the conversion of the U.S. into an externally indestructible national-security state, dedicated to preserving U.S. global capitalist dominance, started with the onset of World War II and President Roosevelt’s declaration of a state of war emergency. Then came Pearl Harbor and FDR’s authorization of the secret, illegal Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

The formative phase continued under Truman, who expanded his war powers, furthering the cult of the commander-in-chief able at will to commit the nation to offensive war. The CIA, the “loyalty oath,” and the attorney generals “list” of proscribed organizations all date to 1947. They were intended in essence to obscure the exercise of U.S. economic and strategic power from democratic scrutiny, while stifling individual conscience. The last two especially refracted back politically to the Salem witchcraft trials. Other interlocking executive branch institutions followed, including the National Security Agency (NSA), which was established in secrecy in 1952 and now spies on U.S. citizens.[2] Meanwhile cold war policies for combating the Soviet Union such as NSC-68 fostered war mobilization, more secrecy and unaccountability.

The national-security establishment eventually embedded itself ever more deeply in the bureaucracy, the economy, the universities, and the Congress. Presidential wars of choice from Korea to Vietnam accelerated this process. As war became an end in itself, America’s imperialism grew more destructive. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only external restraint on our leaders’ display of imperial hubris disappeared, leaving concerned citizens and foreigners as the main public accusers of U.S. war crimes.

Yet schematic characterizations of the nature of the American state fail to take us far enough. Another explanation of the increasingly savage nature of U.S. policy and war conduct may be found in changes in legal ideas and attitudes among ruling elites, stemming from (a) the rise of the national-security state, (b) the tradition of legal positivism, which regards international law as the will of the state ungrounded in morality, and (c) the Machiavellian perspective of pro-war decision-makers who manipulate international law for military and political goals. Long before the 9/11 attacks, narrow-based political elites had rejected the idea of international law as a restraint on the use of force. They had come to view the rule of law, instead, as a way of projecting U.S. power and ratifying U.S. imperialist behavior.[3]

The Bush cabinet and its advisors had utter disdain for international law as an institution to check the abuse of power, inscribed in the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. Thus they suspended international law, legitimizing (in their own view) aggression, assassination, and the torture of those whom they placed outside the pale of “civilization” by labeling them “unlawful enemy combatants.” And the UN Security Council quickly abased itself by becoming and remaining the servant of the U.S., granting it occupation rights and legitimizing its war crimes.

Rumsfeld and Cheney expressed the administration’s contempt for law by authorizing and getting personally involved in torture. Rumsfeld’s deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued a Defense Department directive on March 25, 2002 that “loosened the rules against human experimentation on prisoners” and was later used on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay torture prison.”[4] Wolfowitz’s order meant that the U.S. no longer required strict compliance with the Nuremberg Directive for Human Experimentation. Meanwhile the “Bush Six” lawyers serving in the executive branch — Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Baybee, William S. Haynes II, and Douglas J. Feith (not a lawyer) — aided the Bush administration’s relapse into barbarism both in its war conduct and its characterization of the enemy.

A third way to view the underlying causes of the American reversion to barbarism is offered in John W. Dower’s Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, a comparative history of Japanese and American strategic follies. Dower analyzes the conformist, closed, provincial, partisan mindsets of the Bush administration’s top policy makers. He shows how the elites in the Bush administration, together with those in the corporate media who shared their thinking, ignored the war’s critics and rushed the nation into war against Iraq. Dower ends his reflections by noting that the American descent into criminality in Iraq occurred in tandem with stepped-up economic exploitation at home and abroad and with a more general loosening of ethical and moral standards among Washington politicians and Wall Street financiers. Common to both military and economic elites, soldiers and corporate leaders, was their kinship in crime and self-delusion. Their “faith-based” thinking, contempt for the law, and lack of self-reflection led to decisions and mistaken judgments that have caused enormous suffering and deaths.[5]

The root of the illegal behavior of American political, economic, and military leaders lie in the corporate political economy, centered on the “war-making machine” called the Pentagon.[6] Here economic, political, and military projects are integrated, governmental and private power merge to the advantage of the giant corporate profit-makers. In each bureaucratic hierarchy top officials — ”militarized civilians”–rotate positions, going from government departments and agencies to corporate executive positions and consultancies, or acting as lobbyists for corporations doing business with the government. Taxing and regulating big capital and ultra-high-income earners so that they contribute far more in proportion to their income than the rest of society might, for a time, alter American economic priorities and indirectly contribute to a less bellicose foreign policy. But that is unlikely to happen and, by itself, will never suffice to reshape the militarized U.S. economy.

Explanation of the American people’s tolerance of the war criminality of their leaders requires us to address many other equally important issues. The Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, spreads hatred of the United States. For Washington is the enabler of and co-actor in Israel’s wars, assassinations, and detentions of Palestinians without charges or trials. It abets Israel’s ongoing theft of Palestinian land and is also the protector of Israel from any degree of UN sanction. Americans simply cannot confront their own war crimes while continuing to justify Israel’s serial violations of international law.[7] Even more disturbing, many American supporters of Israel endorse its terrible policies based on a convergence of positions with the Obama war policies that began in 2009.

Another issue is the propaganda role of the profit-seeking corporate-media conglomerates in keeping citizens safely within the bounds of the establishment consensus on issues of war and peace. CNN, NBC, MSNBC, NPR news, Fox, and their officially-approved media personalities and pundits skew the news on a daily basis in order to shape and direct public anger, keep the people politically passive, and enlist them on the government’s side. They encourage citizens to believe the lies of government officials and act out of fear and insecurity. For mouthing the rhetoric and talking points of the ruling elites some, who call themselves “journalists,” earn multi-million dollar salaries. 

Most journalists, however, do not need to be bought off by business people with money. Shared ideology and values guide them in defining “threats,” in reporting on shifts in world power, and in selecting as “newsworthy” certain events and not others. Their ideas and susceptibility to group-think integrate them into the national-security state. Self-censorship and a narrow range of permitted views characterize the news reporting of the U.S. media. Print media’s misreporting of the news and bias where America’s demonized enemies are concerned is well known. It has been scathingly analyzed in classic studies by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, and Howard Friel and Richard Falk.[8] 

For example, in Iraq before the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation, which editorial writers and journalists of the New York Times actively promoted, U.S. and British policies destroyed the Iraqi economy and caused the mortality rate among all Iraqis to soar. As Joy Gordon notes in Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (2010), “the majority of the studies over the course of the sanctions regime strongly suggest that, for the period from [April] 1990 to [March] 2003 . . . at least 500,000 children died of malnutrition and disease who would most likely have otherwise lived.”[9]

Edward S. Herman and David Petersen’s analysis of how the U.S. media and establishment intellectuals treated the pre-invasion bombing campaign and the trade sanctions, known as the “oil for food program,” offer a different interpretation of data. They rightly stress that the U.S. print media either blithely dismissed charges of “genocide” as a direct consequence of the U.S. policy of “regime change” through economic sanctions, or simply failed to acknowledge the Iraqi civilian deaths and suffering as genocide because Washington and one of its client states was doing it.[10] Skillful propaganda prevented this horrendous crime from ever registering in the American conscience. Hence the Iraq sanctions earn the label “constructive genocide” as opposed to other categories that the media labeled differently.

Yet some slightly hopeful trends exist that counter the growing savagery and irrationality of U.S. militarism. For the moment the battlefield has shifted to the internet. Here the invaluable Wikileaks and other pro-democracy websites that follow its example have been multiplying the ways of impeaching war crimes and government corruption, enhancing the possibilities of democratic change, as in Tunisia, and revealing the truth of American imperial policy and its support of Middle East dictatorships that succor U.S. and European corporate interests.

For its part, the Obama government is trying to sustain the post-9/11 fear-of-death-climate, which historically has functioned to motivate violence. Yet in Afghanistan, where Obama insists on continuing his lost war, the descent into barbarism of U.S. armed forces compels deepening armed resistance. All over the world people have lost respect for the United States and learned to ignore the hypocritical rhetoric of its government; while at home more Americans are awakening to the innately flawed nature of their constantly warring national-security state. It is a false idea, contributing to a false national self-understanding, to go on imagining the United States as a functioning democracy when, on issues that matter most to American citizens, it is the very antithesis of a democratic government, let alone a republic.


1. Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 53.

2. Herbert N. Foerstel, Freedom of Information and the Right to Know: The Origins and Applications of the freedom of Information Act (Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 115.

3. Anne Orford, “A Jurisprudence of the Limit,” in Orford, ed., International Law and Its Others (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), p. 24; David Kennedy, “Reassessing International Humanitarianism: The Dark Sides,” in Orford, ed., International Law and Its Others, pp. 145-6. Also see Richard A. Falk’s fine review of this essay collection in American Journal of International Law, Vol. 104, No. 3 (July 2010), pp. 543-8.

4. Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye, “Treating Detainees Like Guinea Pigs,” posted Oct. 14, 20010 at Consortiumnews.com.

5. John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/ Hiroshima/9-11/ Iraq (W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 446.

6. The term is Seymour Melman’s. See his Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970).

7. For an example of the nationwide campaign to raise the level of American public understanding of Israeli criminality, see Edward Mast, “‘Israel right or wrong’ crowd advocates censorship in Seattle,” Seattle Times, De. 31, 2010.

8. On media bias see, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon Books, 1988) and their earlier study, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (South End Press 1979); Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Records of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso 2004).

9. On the human toll of the sanctions see, Joy Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Harvard University Press, 2010). For the quote and a synopsis see, Anthony Gregory, “Understanding the Iraq Sanction,” posted Jan 19, 2010.

10. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Press, 2010).

Herbert Bix is the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. This article is drawn from a  talk delivered at the American Historical Association conference in Boston on Jan. 9, 2011.


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