It’s Time for the US to Face Up to Its War Crimes

Australia had to reveal heinous crimes its troops committed in Afghanistan, even after it prosecuted a whistleblower and raided a TV station. It’s time for the U.S. to launch serious investigations of its own conduct in war, writes Joe Lauria.

Collateral Murder video released by WikiLeaks.

By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News

The report of a four-year Australian government investigation into alleged war crimes by the country’s special forces in Afghanistan was published on Thursday, revealing unspeakable atrocities against civilians. 

The report details how at least 25 members of Australia’s Special Air Services (SAS) were involved in 39 murders of civilians.  The report’s description on page 120 of just one incident suffices to describe the nature of these crimes: 

“Special Forces would then cordon off a whole village, taking men and boys to guesthouses, which are typically on the edge of a village. There they would be tied up and tortured by Special Forces, sometimes for days. When the Special Forces left, the men and boys would be found dead: shot in the head or blindfolded and with throats slit.

Cover-ups. A specific incident described to Dr Crompvoets involved an incident where members from the ‘SASR’ were driving along a road and saw two 14-year-old boys whom they decided might be Taliban sympathisers. They stopped, searched the boys and slit their throats. The rest of the Troop then had to ‘clean up the mess’, which involved bagging the bodies and throwing them into a nearby river…”

Learning to Kill

The report on page 29 describes a practice known as “blooding”: 

“…the Inquiry has found that there is credible information that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding’. This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’. Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control. ‘Throwdowns’ would be placed with the body, and a ‘cover story’ was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence.”

 

Nineteen of the 25 soldiers involved face criminal prosecution. Their unit has been disbanded. As many as 3,000 soldiers will have their medals stripped and special forces in future will wear body cameras.  

These are the kinds of crimes that show an unbroken link to colonial barbarity dating back to the 19th Century, when Western soldiers, jacked up to kill their “inferiors” then as now, are unleashed on innocent populations in developing countries.  

 

Prosecution and a Raid

The Australian government was aware of such allegations when an Army lawyer in Afghanistan named Maj. David McBride came forward as a whistleblower. He recounted what he had witnessed up the chain of command and was ignored. He then gave his story and documents to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC reported the “Afghan Files” in July 2017.

“The documents also provide fresh details of some notorious incidents, including the severing of the hands of dead Taliban fighters by Australian troops,” the ABC reported, much like the photo in the tweet above from the Belgian Congo.

For his efforts, McBride was arrested and is being prosecuted for divulging classified documents (marked Australian Eyes Only). He faces life in prison. For its efforts, the ABC’s offices in Sydney were raided by Australian Federal Police (AFP) and copies of files were taken from newsroom computers.

The raid took place less than two months after the April 2019 London arrest of the Australian Julian Assange, WikiLeaks publisher, who had himself revealed war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  An ABC journalist, Dan Oakes, who was facing prosecution for publishing classified information (just like Assange), had his charges dropped on Oct. 15, just a month before the government report confirmed McBride’s story and Oakes’ reporting.

I wrote at the time of the ABC raid:

“While there is no direct connection between Assange’s arrest and indictment for possessing and disseminating classified material and these subsequent police actions, a Western taboo on arresting or prosecuting the press for its work has clearly been weakened. One must ask why Australian police acted on a broadcast produced in 2017 and an article published in April only after Assange’s arrest and prosecution.”

The prosecution of McBride so far continues. It would be an even bigger scandal than his arrest, if his charges aren’t dropped too.

It’s Your Turn U.S.

This could be a watershed moment for Australia, which has been shaken by the government’s report. It might rethink its military policy and perhaps its knee-jerk obedience to an order from the United States to join its wars.

John Howard

Howard getting 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom. (GW Bush White House Archives)

Australia was only in Afghanistan because of the U.S.  For his devotion to Washington in sending Australian troops far away to Afghanistan in 2005, former Prime Minister John Howard was rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush, who started the Afghan War in 2001.

What Australia has now finally done should be a lesson for its Five Eyes senior partner.  As it is, the United States has a very sparse record of prosecuting its own war crimes. 

While there were at least 10 known war crimes during the U.S. Civil War, (especially Sherman’s scorched earth drive to the sea) only four men, all confederates, were prosecuted after the war ended.  During the war against Native Americans, the U.S. government authorized raids, which often led to massacres. Rather than prosecuting, the government rewarded Americans for killing indigenous people. 

In the U.S. colonial war in the Philippines after the 1898 war against Spain, Brigadier General Jacob H. Smith was court-martialed and forced to retire after he told the commanding officer at Samar: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” 

A widespread massacre of civilians followed. Filipino historians say up to 50,000 people were slaughtered.  Mark Twain, who opposed the U.S. war in the Philippines, wrote: “In what way was it a battle? It has no resemblance to a battle. We cleaned up our four days’ work and made it complete by butchering these helpless people.”  It was not the only U.S. massacre in that war.

US soldiers pose with Filipino Moro dead after the First Battle of Bud Dajo, March 7, 1906, Jolo, Philippines. (Wikimedia Commons/Unknown Author)

The  Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 followed the Geneva Convention of 1864 as the first international war crimes laws.  All sides in the First World War, including the U.S., used poison gas, which was a violation of the Hague Conventions, but no one was prosecuted for it. 

According to History.com, “Future president Harry S. Truman was the captain of a U.S. field artillery unit that fired poison gas against the Germans in 1918.” It would not be the last time Truman was involved with unconventional weapons.

His dropping of two atomic bombs on civilians in Japan, opposed by top U.S. generals, is likely the biggest war crime in history. It was celebrated and not punished. There is a long list of documented U.S. and allied war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Second World War but the trials were reserved for defeated German and Japanese war criminals. 

A U.S. war crime during the Korean conflict was covered up for nearly 50 years, before the Associated Press revealed it in 1999.  U.S. soldiers massacred refugees at No Gun Ri in 1950. No one was ever charged. 

In the Vietnam War, massacres of civilians were routine, according to Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves.  But there were few prosecutions of U.S. soldiers. Only 203 U.S. military personnel were charged, 57 were court-martialed and 23 were convicted, not including the most well known case of My Lai. 

Photo by U.S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle on March 16, 1968 after the My Lai massacre.

The My Lai incident was revealed to the public in Nov. 1969 through the reporting of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. An army veteran whistleblower, Ronald Ridenhour, had first written in early 1969 to the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and members of Congress revealing credible details about the massacre. It lead to a military investigation. 

The probe found that U.S. Army soldiers had killed 504 unarmed people on March 16, 1968  in the village of My Lai, including men, women and children. Some women were gang-raped by the soldiers.  The military investigation led to charges against 26 soldiers.  Just one, Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a C Company platoon leader, was convicted. He was found guilty of the premeditated murder of 109 villagers. (Given a life sentence, he ultimately served only three and a half years under house arrest.).

But Calley’s conviction was largely covered up by the military until Hersh broke the story.  It was Hersh again, more than 30 years later, who would break the story of torture at the U.S.-run prison in Abu Ghraib. When the news media makes a splash with evidence of a U.S. war crime, the government is sometimes forced to act. Such was the case with the prison torture as the public was outraged, especially by the photographs. 

U.S. soldiers were acting in a post 9/11 environment in which U.S. leaders openly supported torture and White House lawyers and the then U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argued that detainees were “unlawful combatants” and not protected as prisoners of war by the Geneva Conventions, a series of war crimes conventions from 1864 to 1949.

Dec. 12, 2003. SGT CORDONA has dog watching detainee while SSG FREDRICK watches. (U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID). Seized by the U.S. Government.)

U.S. war crimes were becoming normalized legally, and, except for old school reporters like Hersh, not investigated by the news media. It has amounted to a sense of impunity for U.S. leaders to commit whatever crimes they need to commit during war.  Few people learn about them. As Harold Pinter said in his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: 

“My contention here is that the US crimes in the same period [the Cold War] have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. … the United States’ actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked….It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.” 

The American people did learn about Abu Ghraib, however, and an investigation had to be launched. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was hauled before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and said: “These events occurred on my watch…as Secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them and I take full responsibility…..there are other photos — many other photos — that depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.” 

George W. Bush didn’t apologized, but expressed remorse “for the humiliation suffered” by Iraqi prisoners. But the investigation only convicted seven low level soldiers in the prison. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw the prison, was merely demoted to colonel. When President Barack Obama came into office, he refused to investigate U.S. officials for torture, preferring to not “look back.”  In that way he added to American impunity.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. convicted one soldier for murder, put another on trial and demoted a third who was acquitted of murder.  But President Donald Trump pardoned the first two and restored the rank of the third, perhaps making him an accessory to a crime after the fact.  When the International Criminal Court announced in March that it would launch an investigation into alleged U.S. crimes in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted by threatening ICC officials with sanctions if they came to the United States. 

Unlike the reaction to Abu Ghraib, another revelation of prima facia evidence of a U.S. war crime in Iraq has been virtually ignored: WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video.

Still of opening scene of Collateral Murder.

Despite initial interest when it was released, nothing happened, as Pinter would say. Instead of prosecuting the soldiers involved in the Collateral Murder massacre, the U.S. government has arrested and put on trial Assange, the journalist who exposed it and imprisoned his source, Chelsea Manning. 

Having come clean on its own war crimes, Australia should at long last assert its sovereignty and tell the United States to send its citizen home.  To not do so would be to make a mockery of its report revealing its own war crimes.

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times.  He can be reached at joelauria@consortiumnews.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe

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18 comments for “It’s Time for the US to Face Up to Its War Crimes

  1. The Lion
    November 21, 2020 at 12:38

    Interestingly we see the Australian Conservative Government throw the soldier under the bus, and dont get me wrong, those that commit war crimes deserve it, we however do not see the Australian Government under Scott Morrison send their beloved former leader of their party the Photographed John Winston Howard, who has a war crimes dossier sitting on the bench gathering dust in the Hague. We also are mot seeing the Current President of the United States who he himself personally committed a grave breach of Schedule four of the Geneva Conventions, Articles 146 to 148 when he pardoned a Navy SEAL who had been convicted under the rules of the UCMJ and then reinstated his rank and privileges. Be clear what would the Allies have said at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, if the likes of Goering had have used the defense that The then Head of State Adolf Hitler before he was out of office pardoned him for any crimes he may have committed. What would the allies have said if the head of State of Germany had have threatened the future Judges of War Crimes tribunals with sanctions and threats against their families. I ask you to read the words of SCOTUS Associate Justice Robert H Jackson who acted as Chief Prosecutor of War Crimes in Nuremberg, “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” Donald Trump has committed War Crimes and he did it in a very public way. He also committed the War Crime of allowing a foreign country to annex land that is not theirs and allow the United States the ONLY country in the world to recognize that annexure, I speak of the Golan Heights, which Donald Trump publicly said was his idea on the campaign trail and his Secretary of State also declared as US Policy, an act which is in breach of the Geneva Conventions a treaty ratified by the Senate of the United States of America and as such US law. Until the US and Australia start to prosecute its leaders for flagrant violations of the Geneva Conventions and other serious War Crimes like breaches of the Hague conventions it is utter stupidity to prosecute the soldiers on the ground regardless of the crimes committed, and believe me they should be prosecuted. Criminal Politicians of Germany, Italy and Japan were prosecuted for War Crimes and I remind you of Justice Jackson eloquent quote……… we should be prosecuting those who commit war crimes from the leadership as well and they should be the ones that face the music first.

  2. Ram
    November 21, 2020 at 09:47

    They are “alleged” war crimes any longer.

  3. Zhu
    November 20, 2020 at 21:56

    American Exceptionalism : ourvwar crimes don’t count. :-(

  4. rosemerry
    November 20, 2020 at 13:44

    Thanks to Joe Lauria. One point I observe is all the “wars” in which these soldiers act with impunity. The war in Iraq, ie the invasion and occupation, still going on, was always completely unjustified. Even the “war on Afghanistan” was not to punish the “9?11” attackers (it started suspiciously too soon after the event and was obviously already planned) plus all the interferences in Latin America right up to the present for reasons which were for US domination of the people, not because the USA could be considered in any danger. Those claiming they “needed” to use violence were fooling themselves and the rest of us.

  5. vinnieoh
    November 20, 2020 at 13:22

    Echoing frank scott, Mike Madden, and Antiwar7. War is the summation of all evils and thus should be avoided at all costs. Coincident in time and concept: there is no recognized acceptance of the notion of “pre-emptive war.” That was just a momentary tool of propaganda to disguise the act of naked aggression that was committed. A necessary refrain of the official narrative, and now “it was just a mistake.”

    I know here at CN as elsewhere we’re all sort of marking time waiting for the partisan s#$tshow play out. But, with all due respect to Joe Lauria the US will never apologize, never admit wrongdoing, and never relent in assuming privilege. To do so would mean the collapse of the entire edifice. That collapse may eventually happen, but it will not be initiated from within.

  6. Nathan Mulcahy
    November 20, 2020 at 10:13

    Great reporting that should wake up everyone. But it won’t. War-Crimes-R-Us. Have always been – since the inception of this country. We can do little about what has been done in the distant past. How far back do you go? To Adam and Eve?

    BUT there is no excuse for now, meaning during our lifetime. All these war crimes do not happen in a vacuum. They happen, and can happen, ONLY with our complicity. One could even say with our approval. Not a single president or a congressperson fell from the sky and was imposed on us. We elected them. We elect them because we agree with them who should use which bathroom, because we hate the other candidate, because of our petty financial interests, etc.

    Let me repeat something that I had said before this election, even if some may find it provocative. The Germans voted for Hitler before he had committed war crimes. We vote for our political leaders both before and after they commit war crimes.

    • November 20, 2020 at 11:13

      I don’t know. As has been reported here at CN I seem to recall there is one very tough serious judge from some sort of global entity that is looking into the ignominy of the events that occurred in Afghanistan after the 9/11 tragedy. I support her and would never want to get in an argument with her because I think she is one serious and tough lady who means business. She is so much better than the magistrate proffered up out of the soon to be dissolved United Kingdom that will get what it gives. Think about it.

      Anyhow – Justice don’t play around. Real justice is always delivered – don’t you think?

      So Nathan M. please stop putting out there that it is inevitable that we will have to keep living the same ground-hog day experience of harming innocence in perpetuity. Get out in the sun and get you some vitamin D because you seem to be full of misery and there are some of us who are ready for the truth to be revealed for ALL even if it is full of ignominy (which it is).

      Let it be.

      BK

  7. David Brown
    November 20, 2020 at 04:17

    the USA is very careful to require immunity for its military …. including in Australia
    just try reporting to our police if one of their military guys rape or kill any of us

    also check with the Japanese who have long objected to the US colonisers

    Australia should do whatever we can to save Julian Assange from dying in US custody !!!!!

    save all of our whistle blowers

    #FederalICAC to control our politicians !!!!!!

  8. Rob Roy
    November 20, 2020 at 01:17

    Great reporting by Joe Lauria, one of his best. The hypnosis of Americans has been steady and evident ever since I can remember. It’s hard to make any kind of dent in it, even among relatives and friends.

  9. Antiwar7
    November 20, 2020 at 00:16

    Unfortunately, expecting the most evil government on Earth to police itself is a bit of a stretch

  10. Mike Maddden
    November 19, 2020 at 23:38

    The March 19. 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the entirety of the war thereafter, was a war crime. It was a crime 0f military aggression, the supreme war crime.

    But in the US media, it was never referred to as anything worse than a mistake. Rest in peace Harold Pinter.

  11. Raymond
    November 19, 2020 at 22:37

    In order to truly make it right, you have to go back and start with the French and Indian wars. If any crimes were committed, then their descendants can pay the price. Amirite? Can’t afford to leave anyone out.

    • Zhu
      November 20, 2020 at 22:02

      Don’t let present day rapists and murderers off wuth this excuse.

  12. November 19, 2020 at 22:25

    the very idea of war crimes is integral to the social degeneracy of war..drop a bomb and kill hundreds, thousands, crush skulls, blow body parts across space, create fountains of blood ? okay…but don’t hurt anyyne personaly or kill them with hate in your heart and soul, put there by learned educators who teach that people can be slaughtered in the hundreds, thousands and millions, but it must be done in the legal, civilized way, according to the rule book for civilized mass murder. war is the goddam crime, not the way it’s committed!

  13. Robert Emmett
    November 19, 2020 at 21:24

    Cogent, thorough & timely report, Joe L.

    I remember Rumsfeld admitting that. Said many more photos would be coming out that would horrify Americans. Depraved acts. Shock the conscience. And then…those reams of further evidence disappeared.

    In moments like that attempts at rational thought escape me while old lyrics ring in my ears. Like old flattop, grooving up slowly…hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease…

    That’s how we rolled under the Mission Accomplished banner as the mighty Wurlitzer whirled and whorled, warbled and woofed until it was deathly eye stares everywhere. And repeat after me, thank you for your service. And so they burbled and borbled and chortled in their joy. Except the ones who suffered were maimed or died.

  14. Tom Kath
    November 19, 2020 at 21:03

    Paul Keating was right last year when he remarked that “The nutters are in charge now.” – He was referring to the secret services, 5 eyes, CIA, MI6, and all these secretive agencies and their forces. – Any moves to expose them as the thuggish conspiracies that they are should be welcomed.

  15. November 19, 2020 at 18:58

    Just to be a cynic this could be Australia’s “opportunity” to break away from the influence of the “Western Empire”. You know….. rediscover what really matters to each of your every day citizens and their bread and butter. It is a “no-brainer”. New Zealand could make a difference here as well and guess what, I think that is what is going to happen. It is with China that Australia (and New Zealand) is more connected and with whom they should give deference for the sake of their own ongoing interest. Take a look at planet earth and the geography if you disagree with me. Some things are obvious.

    No matter what happens, take solace in this – there will be justice in the end. To me that is obvious as well.

  16. November 19, 2020 at 18:50

    very good and revealing article

Comments are closed.