From the Archive: Last week’s decision by a U.S. military court to give no jail time to the sergeant in charge of troops at the Haditha massacre of 24 unarmed Iraqis means no serious penalties for anyone associated with what, in 2006, Robert Parry called “Bush’s My Lai.”
By Robert Parry (Published on May 30, 2006)
The alleged murder of two dozen Iraqis by revenge-seeking Marines in the city of Haditha appears likely to follow the course of other Iraq war-crimes cases, such as the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib – some low- or mid-level soldiers will be court-martialed and marched off to prison (although it turned out, by 2012, even that didn’t happen).
George W. Bush will offer some bromides about how the punishment shows that the United States honors the rule of law and how the punishment is further proof of America’s civilized behavior when compared with the enemy’s barbarity. It’s also likely the U.S. news media won’t place too much blame on Bush.
(Update: Five years later, even those bromides weren’t necessary because of the eight Marines implicated in the killings, only Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was punished at all and only for dereliction of duty which carried a reduction in rank but no jail time.)
But the common thread from the bloody invasion of Iraq in 2003 through Abu Ghraib to Haditha is that Bush cavalierly sent young Americans into a complex and frightening conflict with false and alarmist rhetoric ringing in their ears.
Through clever juxtaposition, Bush’s speeches linked Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and later blurred the distinctions between Iraq’s home-grown insurgency and the relatively small number of al-Qaeda terrorists operating in Iraq.
Again and again, in 2002-2003, Bush rhetorically fused the names Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as Bush rushed the United States into war. Then, in fall 2005 – around the time of the alleged Haditha atrocity on Nov. 19, 2005 – Bush was framing the Iraq conflict as a war to stop terrorists from creating “a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia,” which would threaten the American mainland.
Though these claims lacked credible intelligence – Hussein and bin Laden were bitter enemies and al-Qaeda remains a fringe player in the Muslim world – Bush’s messages apparently sank in with impressionable young soldiers and Marines trying to understand why they needed to kill Iraqis. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Latest Iraq War Lies.”]
As a result of Bush’s incessant propaganda, a poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq – taken in January and February 2006 – found that 85 percent believed the U.S. mission in Iraq was mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.” Seventy-seven percent said a chief war goal was “to stop Saddam from protecting al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
Bush had not only misled the American public, but he had confused the American troops assigned to carry out the complicated occupation of Iraq, a nation with a history, language and culture foreign to the vast majority of U.S. soldiers. By exaggerating the threat that Iraq posed to the United States, Bush also set the conditions for atrocities.
While every soldier is responsible for his or her own actions in a war, it is the duty of the top levels of the chain of command – including the Commander in Chief – to take every possible precaution to ensure that troops on the ground do not commit war crimes.
Indeed, commanders and politicians who lay the groundwork for abuses often are held responsible along with the actual perpetrators. The late Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial at The Hague not for direct participation in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the 1990s, but for aiding and abetting the crimes.
Milosevic’s violent rhetoric and deceptive propaganda were two factors cited in his indictment. One count alleged that the fiery Serb leader “controlled, manipulated or otherwise utilized Serbian state-run media to spread exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by Bosnian Muslims and Croats against Serb people intended to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs.”
In Bush’s Iraq case, his legal responsibility is parallel though the facts are far from identical. The Yugoslavian conflict was essentially a sectarian civil war which involved ethnic cleansing and massacres.
Bush’s Iraq invasion violated international law and longstanding principles, including the Nuremberg ban on aggressive war and a similar prohibition in the United Nations Charter to which the United States was a founding signatory.
In 2002, however, claiming a unilateral American right to invade any country that may pose a threat to U.S. security in the future, Bush took the law into his own hands. He brushed aside requests from allies, even from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to get clearance from the U.N. Security Council before launching the invasion.
Bush and his neoconservative advisers judged that U.S. military preeminence in the post-Cold War world put them beyond the reach of international law – and that public acclaim for a successful conquest of Iraq would silence any remaining critics.
But Bush’s actions put U.S. troops in a particularly difficult and dangerous predicament. Not only would the entire U.S. chain of command be implicated in an illegal aggressive war, but there would be fewer legal safeguards in the event civilians were killed, a certainty given the level of firepower.
Though rarely mentioned by the major U.S. news media, this additional danger for U.S. troops was noted by some Internet outlets, including Consortiumnews.com, which published an editorial on March 17, 2003, two days before the invasion, stating:
“If George W. Bush orders U.S. forces to unleash his ‘shock and awe’ onslaught against Iraq without United Nations sanction, he will be opening American servicemen to a kind of double jeopardy. First, they will be risking their lives in a combat strategy far riskier than is publicly acknowledged. Second, any significant taking of civilian life could leave both officers and enlisted men liable for future war-crimes charges.”
Not surprisingly, there were violations of the rules of war from the outset, such as the aerial bombing of a civilian Baghdad restaurant where faulty U.S. intelligence suggested that Hussein might be having dinner. As it turned out, Hussein was not there, but the attack killed 14 civilians, including seven children. One mother collapsed when rescue workers pulled the severed head of her daughter out of the rubble.
Other U.S. bombings inflicted horrendous death and destruction on civilians. In one attack, Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters – Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 – who had been the center of his life. “It wasn’t just ordinary love,” his wife said. “He was crazy about them. It wasn’t like other fathers.” [NYT, April 14, 2003]
The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. Ali’s father, Ali’s pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, Ali said he would rather die than live without his hands.
The slaughter extended to the battlefield where the outmatched Iraqi army sometimes fought heroically though hopelessly against the technologically superior U.S. forces. Christian Science Monitor reporter Ann Scott Tyson interviewed U.S. troops with the 3rd Infantry Division who were deeply troubled by their task of mowing down Iraqi soldiers who kept fighting even in suicidal situations.
“For lack of a better word, I felt almost guilty about the massacre,” one soldier said privately. “We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?”
Commenting upon the annihilation of Iraqi forces in these one-sided battles, Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe said, “We didn’t want to do this. Even a brain-dead moron can understand we are so vastly superior militarily that there is no hope. You would think they would see that and give up.”
In one battle around Najaf, U.S. commanders ordered air strikes to kill the Iraqis en masse rather than have U.S. soldiers continue to kill them one by one. “There were waves and waves of people coming at (the U.S. troops) with AK-47s, out of this factory, and (the U.S. troops) were killing everyone,” Radcliffe said. “The commander called and said, ‘This is not right. This is insane. Let’s hit the factory with close air support and take them out all at once.’” [Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2003]
Three weeks into the invasion, Hussein’s government collapsed, but Bush’s short-sighted plan for the occupation left U.S. forces stretched thin as they tried to establish order. Sometimes, jittery U.S. soldiers opened fire on demonstrations, inflicting civilian casualties and embittering the population.
In Fallujah, some 17 Iraqis were gunned down in demonstrations after U.S. soldiers claimed they had been fired upon. Fallujah soon became a center of anti-American resistance.
As the Iraqi insurgency began to spread – and Americans began dying in larger numbers – military intelligence officers encouraged prison guards to soften up captured Iraqis by putting them in stress positions for long periods of time, denying sleep and subjecting them to extremes of hot and cold.
Some of the poorly trained prison personnel – like those on Private Lynndie England’s night shift at Abu Ghraib – added some of their own bizarre ideas for humiliating captured Iraqis, like forcing them naked into pyramids.
But even some of those strange techniques, such as adorning Iraqi men with women’s underwear, could be traced to wider practices against other detainees. Army Capt. Ian Fishback and two sergeants alleged that prisoners were subjected to similar treatment by the 82nd Airborne at a camp near Fallujah and that senior officers knew. [See Human Rights Watch report.]
Fishback blamed the pattern of abuse on the Bush administration’s vague orders about when and how Geneva Convention protections applied to detainees, a problem that extended from the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a network of shadowy U.S. prisons around the world.
“We did not set the conditions for our soldiers to succeed,” said Fishback, 26, who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We failed to set clear standards, communicate those standards and enforce those standards.” [NYT, Sept. 28, 2005]
Even Bush’s boast that he closed Hussein’s torture chambers and “rape rooms” lost its moral clarity.
A 53-page classified Army report, written by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, revealed that abuses at Abu Ghraib from October to December 2003 included use of a chemical light or broomstick to sexually assault one Iraqi. Witnesses also told Army investigators that prisoners were beaten and threatened with rape, electrocution and dog attacks. At least one Iraqi died during interrogation.
“Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees,” said Taguba’s report. [See The New Yorker’s May 10, 2004, issue.]
Bush’s contempt for international law has long been an open secret. On Dec. 11, 2003, when asked by a European reporter about the need for international law to govern the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Bush joked, “International law? I better call my lawyer.”
In 2004, Fallujah was back in the news after Iraqi insurgents killed four American security contractors and a mob mutilated the bodies. Bush ordered Marines to “pacify” the city of 300,000 people.
The U.S. assault on Fallujah transformed one soccer field into a mass grave for hundreds of Iraqis – many of them civilians – killed when U.S. forces bombarded the rebellious city with 500-pound bombs and raked its streets with cannon and machine-gun fire. According to some accounts, more than 800 citizens of Fallujah died in the assault and 60,000 fled as refugees.
In attacking Fallujah and in other counterinsurgency operations, the Bush administration again resorted to measures that critics argued amounted to war crimes. These tactics included administering collective punishment against the civilian population in Fallujah, rounding up thousands of young Iraqi men on the flimsiest of suspicions and holding prisoners incommunicado without charges and subjecting some detainees to physical mistreatment.
But the Abu Ghraib scandal, with its graphic photos of naked Iraqis posed in fake sexual positions, became the iconic representation of American mistreatment of Iraqis. When the photos surfaced in 2004, the images fueled anti-Americanism across the Middle East and around the globe.
Back in Washington, the Bush administration tried to defuse international outrage by blaming a few “bad apples.” Bush said he “shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated.”
The Abu Ghraib scandal led to military convictions against nine reservists who were sentenced and marched off in shackles. Lynndie England, a 22-year-old single mother who had been photographed holding an Iraqi on a leash and pointing at a detainee’s penis, was sentenced to three years in prison.
Bush has continued to cite the Abu Ghraib case as one of a handful of mistakes that he will concede occurred during the Iraq War. At a joint press conference with Tony Blair on May 25, 2006, Bush said, “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.”
Now comes the Haditha atrocity in which several Marines are alleged to have gone on a killing spree in the insurgent-dominated town on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died from an improvised explosive device.
According to published accounts of U.S. military investigations, the Marines retaliated for the bombing by pulling five men from a cab and shooting them, and entering two homes where civilians, including women and children, were executed. Some of the victims reportedly were praying or begging for mercy when they were shot.
The Marines then tried to cover up the killings by claiming that the civilian deaths were caused by the original explosion or a subsequent firefight, according to investigations by the U.S. military and human rights groups. One senior Defense Department official told the New York Times that of the 24 dead Iraqis, the number killed by the bomb was “zero.” [NYT, May 26, 2006]
The Haditha killings are likely to draw comparisons with the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, when a bloodied unit of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division stormed into a village known as My Lai 4 and slaughtered 347 Vietnamese civilians including babies.
Though the number of dead at Haditha is less than one-tenth the victims at My Lai, the scenarios are eerily similar: U.S. troops – fighting a confusing conflict against a shadowy enemy – lash out at a civilian population, killing unarmed men, women and children.
If the Marines at Haditha are found guilty of committing the atrocity, they can be expected to receive severe punishment for murder, which under military statutes could include their own executions. Yet, while these Marines may face severe punishment for violating the laws of war, the political leadership back home – up to and including George W. Bush – remains immune from any meaningful accountability.[Update: As it turned out, the cases against six Marines were dismissed, one was acquitted, and Sgt. Wuterich admitted to a relatively minor infraction and thus avoided jail time.]
For his part, President Bush even won sympathy from some commentators for joining Blair at the May 25, 2006, news conference at the White House where the two leaders took turns admitting a few errors in the Iraq War. Bush focused his self-criticism on a couple of tough-talking comments, including his taunt to Iraqi insurgents in 2003 to “bring ‘em on.”
The New York Times noted that when Bush mentioned the Abu Ghraib scandal, “his voice was heavy with regret.” [NYT, May 26, 2006]
But the scales of justice may demand more from Bush and Blair than a few limited apologies that ignore the original crime of launching a war in violation of international law against a country that was not threatening their nations.
As the war’s chief instigator, Bush would seem to bear the heaviest blame. To justify the war, he also stoked up the emotions of Americans – both civilian and military – with false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Hussein’s links to 9/11 and connections between Hussein’s secular regime and al-Qaeda’s Islamic fundamentalists.
Bush’s lies also didn’t stop after Hussein’s regime fell. On June 18, 2005, more than two years into the war, Bush used a radio address to tell the American people that “we went to war because we were attacked,” continuing the subliminal connections: Saddam/Osama, Iraq/Sept. 11.
Bush’s rhetorical excesses, though primarily designed to build and maintain a political consensus behind the war at home, had the predictable effect of turning loose a thoroughly propagandized and heavily armed U.S. military force on the Iraqi population.
Pumped-up by Bush’s false claims linking Iraq to 9/11 and his later warnings about al-Qaeda’s scheme for a global terrorist empire, U.S. soldiers have charged into Iraqi towns and cities with revenge on their minds. Bush thus put both American soldiers and the Iraqi people in harm’s way.
In the first three-plus years of war (as of May 2006), nearly 2,500 U.S. soldiers had died along with tens of thousands of Iraqis. Thousands more have been grievously maimed.
As the laws of war require the punishment of any individual soldier who murders civilians, international principles also call for holding accountable their superiors – both military and political – who contribute to the crime.
In that sense, the atrocity at Haditha – and the tens of thousands of other unnecessary deaths in Iraq – can be laid at the door of Official Washington, where some Democrats and nearly all Republicans voted to authorize the invasion and where leading news organizations uncritically transmitted administration propaganda to the American people.
But the principal blame must rest at the feet of George W. Bush, the self-proclaimed “war president” who considers himself beyond the bounds of any law. In that larger sense, Haditha and all the other carnage in Iraq can be viewed as Bush’s My Lai.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.