Genocide, War Crimes and the West
History and Complicity
By Adam Jones
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2004 Adam Jones
All rights reserved.
Introduction: History and Complicity
In April 2001, convicted mass murderer Timothy McVeigh — about to die in the first US federal execution in 150 years — sent a letter to a Fox News correspondent seeking 'to explain ... why I bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City,' killing 168 people. He referred to his terrorist action as 'a retaliatory strike' and 'counterattack' for the FBI attack against the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. But McVeigh then took a surprising analytical leap, turning to 'identifiable pattern[s] of conduct' by the US government in the international sphere:
borrowing a page from US foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the US hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations ... Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment.
There is no reason, of course, to question depictions of McVeigh as a murderous thug. His letter nonetheless raised some pertinent questions. Why was McVeigh's murderous thuggery and 'free-lance fanaticism' (Morrow, 2001) viewed as egregious and indefensible, indeed meriting the death penalty, while wholesale thuggery by his government tends to be seen as politics as usual? And was McVeigh's 'mindset ... of clinical detachment' any worse than the criminality and amorality that had turned the United States into the world's leading 'rogue state'? (See Huntington, 1999; Blum, 2001.)
Around the time McVeigh's letter was released, one long-buried, state-sponsored crime was making global headlines. Bob Kerrey, a former US senator and Democratic presidential candidate who later headed the New School University in New York, acknowledged that on 25 February 1969 he had led a commando unit of Navy Seals in an attack on the South Vietnamese coastal village of Thanh Phong. The Seals' primary task was 'kidnap or assassination missions, looking to eliminate Vietcong leaders from among the local population' (Vistica, 2001). Accounts differ as to what happened when the team arrived in the hamlet. According to Kerrey, the Seals came across a 'hooch' (house) that had not appeared in intelligence reports. 'We've got some men here, we have to take care of them,' Kerrey said he was told by members of his team. That meant collective killing: 'Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with. Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission.' Kerrey said he took no part in these initial killings. The team moved on to another cluster of dwellings, where, according to Kerrey, it came under fire, which was returned. Twelve hundred rounds of US ammunition later, Kerrey said he made a terrible discovery. In the 'hooches,' 'I was expecting to find Vietcong soldiers with weapons, dead. Instead I found women and children.'
Other testimony, though, suggested an even more grisly, and systematic, slaughter of civilians. Kerrey's Navy Seal comrade Gerhard Klann claimed that Kerrey had been fully aware that the unit's eventual victims were civilian women and children, and had given the order anyway to mow them down in cold blood. 'Klann says that Kerrey gave the order and the team, standing between 6 and 10 feet away, started shooting — raking the group with automatic-weapons fire for about 30 seconds. They heard moans, Klann says, and began firing again, for another 30 seconds. There was one final cry, from a baby.' In response, Kerrey claimed that even if Klann's account were true, the actions were defensible. 'Under the unwritten rules of Vietnam, we would have been justified [in killing civilians even] had we not been fired upon. You were authorized to kill if you thought that it would be better. ... We were instructed not to take prisoners' (Vistica, 2001).
The US media and public response to Kerrey's confession was striking: 'many Americans seem[ed] quicker to sympathize with the former war hero [Kerrey] and to lament the "horror of war" rather than focus on the real issues of crime and justice' (Goldhagen and Power, 2001). Time magazine emphasized not the victims of the US attack, but the 'private agonies' and 'aching experience' of 'physically and psychically scarred veterans like Kerrey,' for whom 'the war is never quite over' (McGeary and Tumulty, 2001).
Amidst the conservative bluster and liberal commiseration, a few commentators and organizations did call for a thorough investigation of Kerrey's alleged crimes, and the backdrop of US-sponsored atrocities — perhaps genocide — against which they occurred. For Human Rights Watch, Kerrey's revelations suggested that US military units 'may have directly violated the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and resulted in "grave breaches" of that Convention, or war crimes.' The organization called for US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld 'to initiate without delay a full and independent investigation to establish whether during the Vietnam War certain U.S. military policies, orders and practices ... constituted or led directly to the commission of war crimes by U.S. forces' (Human Rights Watch, 2001). Bruce Shapiro, writing in Salon (Shapiro, 2001), called for the establishment of a South African-style 'truth commission' to investigate US war crimes in Vietnam. 'Suppressed atrocity,' Shapiro wrote, 'haunts not just its victims and shadows not just its perpetrators, but distorts the political life of entire societies.'
The broader debate over Vietnam, after a decade or more of jingoistic posturing, re-crystallized around the figure of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (see the chapters in this volume by Mario Aguilar, Steven Jacobs, and Suhail Islam and Syed Hassan). Kissinger, and the administrations he served, were directly or indirectly responsible for some of the bloodiest crimes of the post-World War II era. They included the sustained US bombing campaigns against peasant societies in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in December 1975, which rapidly assumed genocidal dimensions; and the West Pakistani assault on what was shortly to become independent Bangladesh, in 970–71, a more gigantic slaughter still. On a smaller scale, but at a cost of thousands more lives, Kissinger encouraged, aided, and abetted the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.
Kissinger has retained a considerable cachet within the United States, as evidenced by his appointment to head the commission struck to investigate the events of 11 September 2001. (Kissinger accepted but subsequently withdrew, citing possible conflicts of interest.) A growing number of voices, however, have called for him to play a very different role: that of prisoner in the dock. The case for arraigning Kissinger for war crimes and crimes against humanity was made most prominently, and pithily, by the British journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose two-part series for Harper's magazine was subsequently published as a slender book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Hitchens, 2001). In the present work, three authors take diverse approaches to the Kissinger case, and consider its implications for the volume's central themes.
The United States was not the only Western country to play host to such controversies as a new century began.
In France, Paul Aussaresses, a former general in the Algerian war (1954–62), brazenly acknowledged that during the war 'he and his "death squad" tortured and killed twenty-four prisoners with the full knowledge and backing of the French government.' That government, said Aussaresses, 'was regularly informed about, and tolerated the use of, torture, summary executions and forced displacements of people' (Agence France-Presse, 2001; see Raphaëlle Branches chapter in this volume). Aussaresses was unrepentant about his involvement in the crimes. French President Jacques Chirac, who served in the army in Algeria, declared himself 'horrified' by the revelations; Chirac called for the general to be stripped of his Légion d'honneur and face military sanctions. Observers noted that the general's account, 'and [his] insistence that he is unrepentant, have reopened deep wounds from the most painful chapter of France's colonial past and revived a divisive debate over whether those responsible should or can be brought to trial' (Agence France-Presse, 2001).
In the end, Aussaresses was put on trial — but for 'complicity in justifying war crimes,' not for the crimes themselves, which were covered by a 1962 amnesty. In January 2002, Aussaresses was found guilty, and fined $6,500 — 'a sentence so trivial that it served only to underline the fact that his deeds were exempt from punishment, and that France had little interest in revisiting the past' (Shatz, 2002). Nonetheless, the public re-examination of a past grown stale was surely preferable to a blanket of silence — not least for those who had been on the receiving end, or their survivors, as Mariner notes:
Without a doubt, relatives of the thousands of suspects who were 'disappeared' during Algeria's independence conflict must take some satisfaction in seeing a French court formally condemn the French army's abusive practices, even if, from their perspective, the judgment is more than forty years late. The court's official acknowledgment that the abuses committed by the French in Algeria were war crimes and, as such, unjustifiable in any circumstances, marks an important step forward. Although much has been written about the systematic use of torture during the war, France has never apologized for its army's conduct, nor have French officials shown much interest in sanctioning an official reexamination of the period. (Mariner, 2002)
In Belgium, government authorities and intellectuals finally began to reckon with the country's often tawdry, sometimes genocidal, colonial past. The empire's 'heart of darkness' was in Congo, where independence in i960 was followed by the murder of the country's leading nationalist figure, Patrice Lumumba. In February 2002 the Belgian government, which had 'steadfastly denied any involvement until new evidence collected by a parliamentary commission confirmed the direct role of Belgian agents in carrying out and covering up the murder,' admitted its participation in Lumumba's assassination, and formally apologized (Riding, 2002; see Thomas Turner's chapter in this volume).
According to the New York Times, 'the motivation for the crime was to avoid losing control over Congo's resources.' Decades earlier, a similar preoccupation with the vast territory — seventy-five times larger than Belgium itself — had prompted Belgian King Leopold to seize Congo as his personal property, turning it into the grotesquely misnamed 'Congo Free State.' Between 1885 and 1908, millions of Congolese males were conscripted into forced labor, and driven deep into the jungle to gather rubber for export. The 'rubber terror' inflicted a staggering death toll on the laborers, and their protracted — or permanent — separation from wives and families exacerbated the demographic holocaust. Adam Hochschild's 1997 book King Leopold's Ghost exposed for a global public the astonishing scale and savagery of the killing; he estimated the overall toll (direct deaths plus demographic decline owing to the lowered birth rate) as approaching ten million Congolese (Hochschild, 1998).
In response to the furor that Hochschild's work generated in Belgium, the Royal Museum for Central Africa announced 'the first far-reaching review of Belgium's colonial past.' The initiative 'raises the broader question of a country's continuing responsibility for unsavory [!] actions carried out in its name generations or even centuries earlier. These range from promotion of the slave trade and annexation of territories to colonial repression and ransacking of natural resources' (Riding, 2002). Stated museum director Guida Gryseels: 'It is a reality which touches the deepest part of the Belgian soul. We really haven't coped with it, and the revelations came as a real shock. We were brought up knowing that we brought civilisation and good to Africa. [Allegations of brutality] weren't taught in schools' (quoted in Osborn, 2002).
Across the Channel in the United Kingdom, a penetrating re-examination of Britain's imperial role was also under way — one facet of the movement for reparations for Western exploitation of slave labor (see Francis Njubi Nesbitt's chapter in this book). The issue came to a head at the United Nations conference on racism in Durban in 2001, at which British representatives fought against declaring slavery a 'crime against humanity' (McGreal, 2001). Activists increasingly targeted municipal authorities, building on the success achieved in December 1999, when the municipal council of Liverpool, a city that had boomed during the slaving era, made 'an unreserved apology for the city's involvement in the slave trade,' acknowledging the 'untold misery' and its legacy for 'Black people in Liverpool today' (Nelson, 2002).
'Democrisy' and the dissident strand
'The standard of justice,' wrote Thucydides more than two thousand years ago, 'depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept' (cited in Bass, 2000, frontispiece). A profusion of modern-day examples in international politics reminds us that Thucydides' observation has legs. But today it also seems to require revision. The strong are sometimes constrained from doing what they have the power to do — or at least from doing it as and when they wish to. The end of settler colonialism and transoceanic slavery as 'acceptable' international conduct provide two examples. The US non-invasion of Central American countries in the 1980s, contrasted with an earlier uninhibited reliance on sending in the Marines, offers another.
Meanwhile, the 'weak' — the majority of the world's population and the governments that claim to represent them — have in recent decades shown less willingness to 'accept what they have to accept', at least without protracted and voluble struggle. Among other things, they have virtually eliminated (formal) colonialism from the face of the earth — an epochal and under-recognized achievement, even though the vanquished beast appears to be making a comeback with the Us occupation and administration of Iraq (Hartung et al., 2002; Sanger and Schmitt, 2002). Conceptions and institutions of international justice; national and international human rights movements; campaigns for truth and restitution — all these are now well-established features of international relations and domestic politics. Henry Kissinger, for one, could hardly disagree, despite his preference for Thucydidean realpolitik. The very factors that constrain Kissinger's foreign travel itinerary are those that, more and more, may be constraining the actions of the powerful around the world.
So this book forms part of a wider contemporary trend, in which the actions and atrocities of the powerful are under examination and public criticism as never before in history. But why the focus on crimes, or alleged crimes, of Western states? After all, they are hardly unique in their adherence to Thucydides' maxim. Genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity blight societies throughout the underdeveloped world, and domestic leaders and elites must often shoulder a large or dominant portion of the blame.
In my view, allegations of Western involvement in genocide and other crimes carry, and should carry, a special bite and resonance, especially for the Western citizens who will predominate as readers of this book. Such readers confront the phenomenon of democrisy, which I define as the stain of hypocrisy that attaches to regimes that are avowedly democratic in character, that allow comparative freedom and immunity from naked state violence domestically, but that initiate or participate in atrocious actions beyond their borders. This contradiction between domestic and international practice is far less stark in reality, as indigenous inhabitants and minority groups within Western states can attest. But the disparity between democratic ideals, comparatively well respected at home, and blatant depravity abroad clearly forms a foundation for most contemporary critiques of the West's role in atrocity. Consider, for example, this passage from Edward S. Herman's 1982 study, The Real Terror Network:
It is difficult to avoid a sense of outrage not only at the realities of this real terror network but also at western hypocrisy. An important element in that hypocrisy is the pretense of western non-involvement [in terror]. Thus, while the killings and torture in the NSSs [National Security States] are sometimes mentioned in the news media — as inexplicable background facts, like cosmic radiation, and for some reason not deserving indignation remotely proportional to the crimes in question — the U.S. role in establishing and maintaining the NSSs in power is generally suppressed altogether. This pattern of hypocrisy, aversion of the eyes, and absence of indignation at extensive and serious crimes can be rationally explained only in terms of a structure of [domestic] interests. ... A systematic dichotomous treatment can be found across the board, whereby huge crimes by state terrorists within the U.S. sphere of influence are either suppressed or given brief and muted treatment, [while] abuses attributable to enemies are attended to repeatedly and with indignation and sarcasm. (Herman, 1982: 8, 16) (Continues...)
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