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U.S. in Iraq: Returning to the Scene of the Crime

The American occupation in the context of war crimes

| Tue Apr. 4, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

[This piece is adapted from Chapter 2 of Noam Chomsky's newest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).]

In 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales passed on to Bush a memorandum on torture by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). As noted by constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson: "According to the OLC, ‘acts must be of an extreme nature to rise to the level of torture… Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.'" Levinson goes on to say that in the view of Jay Bybee, then head of the OLC, "The infliction of anything less intense than such extreme pain would not, technically speaking, be torture at all. It would merely be inhuman and degrading treatment, a subject of little apparent concern to the Bush administration's lawyers."

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Gonzales further advised President Bush to effectively rescind the Geneva Conventions, which, despite being "the supreme law of the land" and the foundation of contemporary international law, contained provisions Gonzales determined to be "quaint" and "obsolete." Rescinding the conventions, he informed Bush, "substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act." Passed in 1996, the act carries severe penalties for "grave breaches" of the conventions: the death penalty, "if death results to the victim" of the breach. Gonzales was later appointed to be attorney general and would probably have been a Supreme Court nominee if Bush's constituency did not regard him as "too liberal."

How to Destroy a City to Save It

Gonzales's legal advice about protecting Bush from the threat of prosecution under the War Crimes Act was proven sound not long after he gave it, in a case far more severe even than the torture scandals. In November 2004, U.S. occupation forces launched their second major attack on the city of Falluja. The press reported major war crimes instantly, with approval. The attack began with a bombing campaign intended to drive out all but the adult male population; men ages fifteen to forty-five who attempted to flee Falluja were turned back. The plans resembled the preliminary stage of the Srebrenica massacre, though the Serb attackers trucked women and children out of the city instead of bombing them out. While the preliminary bombing was under way, Iraqi journalist Nermeen al-Mufti reported from "the city of minarets [which] once echoed the Euphrates in its beauty and calm [with its] plentiful water and lush greenery… a summer resort for Iraqis [where people went] for leisure, for a swim at the nearby Habbaniya lake, for a kebab meal." She described the fate of victims of these bombing attacks in which sometimes whole families, including pregnant women and babies, unable to flee, along with many others, were killed because the attackers who ordered their flight had cordoned off the city, closing the exit roads.

Al-Mufti asked residents whether there were foreign fighters in Falluja. One man said that "he had heard that there were Arab fighters in the city, but he never saw any of them." Then he heard that they had left. "Regardless of the motives of those fighters, they have provided a pretext for the city to be slaughtered," he continued, and "it is our right to resist." Another said that "some Arab brothers were among us, but when the shelling intensified, we asked them to leave and they did," and then asked a question of his own: "Why has America given itself the right to call on UK and Australian and other armies for help and we don't have the same right?"

It would be interesting to ask how often that question has been raised in Western commentary and reporting. Or how often the analogous question was raised in the Soviet press in the 1980s, about Afghanistan. How often was a term like "foreign fighters" used to refer to the invading armies? How often did reporting and commentary stray from the assumption that the only conceivable question is how well "our side" is doing, and what the prospects are for "our success"? It is hardly necessary to investigate. The assumptions are cast in iron. Even to entertain a question about them would be unthinkable, proof of "support for terror" or "blaming all the problems of the world on America/Russia," or some other familiar refrain.

After several weeks of bombing, the United States began its ground attack in Falluja. It opened with the conquest of the Falluja General Hospital. The front-page story in the New York Times reported that "patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs." An accompanying photograph depicted the scene. It was presented as a meritorious achievement. "The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties." Plainly such a propaganda weapon is a legitimate target, particularly when "inflated civilian casualty figures" -- inflated because our leader so declared -- had "inflamed opinion throughout the country, driving up the political costs of the conflict." The word "conflict" is a common euphemism for U.S. aggression, as when we read on the same pages that "now, the Americans are rushing in engineers who will begin rebuilding what the conflict has just destroyed" -- just "the conflict," with no agent, like a hurricane.

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