US Wars are for Empire, Not for Profit

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Yemen is being destroyed. A US-backed “Saudi Coalition” has been bombing and shelling Yemen for 16 months. The UN puts the civilian death toll at 3700, but (aside from the question of why combatants’ lives apparently only count if they are Western soldiers) this probably vastly under-represents the death toll by both direct violence and by the indirect effects of the war. Most of the country has no reliable access to clean water and people, particularly young children, are dying of disease and deprivation.

On August the 22nd, two eminent commentators gave interviews on Yemen. Harper’s magazine editor Andrew Cockburn (author of a book on drone assassinations called Kill Chain) was interviewed on Democracy Now! Later in the day Medea Benjamin (prominent activist co-founder of Code Pink and also author of a book on Drone Warfare) was interviewed on KPFA’s Flashpoints.

Cockburn and Benjamin were in complete agreement about two very important facts. This first is that this is a US war. As Cockburn wrote in a Harper’s piece:

Thousands of civilians – no one knows how many – have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.

This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.)

The second important fact is that Saudi violence is is targeted against civilians and civilian infrastructure. To quote Cockburn again: “They’ve destroyed most of the health system. They destroyed schools. Human Rights Watch did an excellent report pointing out that they’ve attacked—consistently attacked economic targets having nothing to do with any kind of war effort, but like potato chip factories, water bottling factories, power plants. It’s an effort to destroy Yemen. And … we are part of that. This is our war, and it’s shameful.”

The type of warfare Cockburn is describing, systematic violence against a national group and systematic destruction of a nation-state, is exactly what was meant by Raphael Lemkin when he coined the term “genocide” (as you can read for yourself here) and it is clearly covered by the UN Convention against genocide which prohibits any intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a national group by:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

I will return to the significance of the concept of genocide in due course, but there is a third very significant thing on which Benjamin and Cockburn agree, and that is that the US motive in participating is to make money. In response to Kevin Pina’s opening question as to why the US is involved, Benjamin answered: “That’s a pretty simple one: money; greed; US weapons industries. The Saudis have become the number 1 purchaser of US weapons.” In this case, however, I must vehemently disagree with Benjamin and Cockburn (and on this subject it often feels like I’m disagreeing with the entire Western world). Blaming greed, or the power of profit, is a dangerous delusion. If opposition to permanent warfare continues to be dominated by this trope then we will never be able to end these ongoing massacres. Nor, for that matter, will we be able to halt the war on the domestic front – the intrinsically linked increase in militarisation, surveillance, and state violence (actual and potential) that is the other side of the permanent warfare coin.

There are many things that make me angry about the wide-held belief that US foreign policy is shaped by the profit motive. It is facile; it is intellectually cowardly; it is self-defeating; it is chauvinistic (or more specifically Usacentric) and thus unavoidably racist; and it is embarrassingly credulous. Nicholas J S Davies recently published an excellent article on the “normalisation of deviance” which causes US foreign policy elites to embrace a worldview of vast cognitive dissonances, in which realities of illegal and inhumane US practices are subsumed (and thus made possible) in the oceanic assumption of fundamental existential US benevolence, benevolence of US purposes, and benevolence of US intents. My contention is that Benjamin, Cockburn, and others I shall name are part of a constrained and disciplined dialectic of opposition that condemns the individual dissonant actions but actually accommodates and reinforces the US exceptionalist worldview that creates the “normalisation of deviance”.

There are two things that are very crucial to understand. One is that the US exceptionalist worldview is hegemonic throughout the West and, to a lesser extent, globally. What this means is that when judging the actions of the US government we project our own self-image onto imagined or real agents (such as the US President). We assume that the motives behind their actions are sane and rational and not malevolent in intent (unlike those of demonised enemy leaders who are often assumed to be acting out of irrational or diabolical intent). That is not to say that the claim is that US foreign policy is rational, but rather that irrationality is created by the system, while US leaders are personalised as rational beings who mean well in exactly the way that enemies of the West are personalised as irrational and/or malevolent in intent.

The second thing to understand is that without the widespread “normalisation of deviance” US military interventions would be impossible. Many US personnel would not follow the flagrantly illegal orders which they currently enact without a second thought. Other countries would not continue to cooperate with the US except when necessary and they would make war crimes prosecutions an unsurpassed priority of public and private diplomacy.

The idea that “war is a racket” and that wars are fought to line the pockets of profiteers is part of a tradition that comes out of an ideological consensus that is so widespread as to be nearly invisible. This is a materialist consensus between Marxists, liberals, conservatives, and others which embraces economic determinism (meaning roughly that economics shape society rather than society shapes economics). Note that Marxists often reject economic determinism as merely “vulgar Marxism”, but the fact remains that the very terminology of Marxism, much of which is used by non-Marxists, ensures that they remain shackled to that basic position. Free-market liberals, conservatives, neoliberals, and libertarians are ultimately just as tied to economic determinism, not least because they embrace the notion of capitalism which (as we tend to forget) comes from Marx. The point about this materialist consensus is that creates a common language in which people can intelligibly argue about the fine details of a fundamentally nonsensical construct. Disputants on both sides find that the path of least resistance lies in affirming the underlying orthodoxy and working with that, and the prefabricated arguments that come with it. The fatal flaw is that dissent becomes limited and impotent to affect change.

People who cite the military-industrial complex and profiteering as being a cause of US foreign policy often seem to be rather smug with what seem to me to be an unjustified sense of bravery and insight. I think people find it satisfying because they have the sensation of having pierced a veil, or having clambered over the thorny hedge that surrounds the a meadow of classroom platitudes. Such people, presumably, feel good about themselves for being clever. They will generally only be challenged by people who still cling to an even less tenable analysis so they need never interrogate these beliefs.

There is also a certain calculus of dissent. If you reject the mainstream view in the most obvious and easy fashion, you can be sure that you will have a cohort of like-minded semi-dissidents. However, if you then question and reject the easy critique, you will most likely find yourself isolated and deprived of the common language and shortcuts shared between the mainstream and semi-dissenting viewpoint. Usually someone will be quite young when they reject idealistic notions of politics and embrace a sense of amoral economic determinism and human greed or self-interest as driving forces behind the exercise of power. Once they have that conviction it will be a foundation on which rests all of their political analysis that they develop through life and thus it becomes an ingrained unexamined habit of thought.

However, when it comes to war, the centrality of profit/profiteering becomes a big problem. There are some exceptional circumstances, such as the interests of US financiers in World War I, in which powerful individuals may have a strong profit-motive that leads them to agitate for war. On the whole, however, wars do not create wealth, they destroy wealth. Some interests may profit, but fighting wars will reduce overall profits (except in as much as they may allow an upward redistribution of wealth through the disbursement of tax money and government bond money (which is the tax money of future generations)).

In the US context people may mistakenly believe that they have a more robust analysis than “war is a racket” because they can cite the existence of the military-industrial complex. The problem with that is that is presumes that the military-industrial complex just created itself. On Waatea 5th Estate, for example, Henry Rollins opened an interview by explaining the whole thrust of US politics since Reagan as being caused by the needs of the military-industrial-complex and the prison-industrial-complex. In fairness, he did go on to show that he understood the prison-industrial-complex to be a dynamic mechanism (situated in history) for reproducing the racialised “caste” system that subjugates African Americans. However, he shows no such insight into the military-industrial complex, though its historical roots are, if anything, more strikingly functional than those of the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex exists to maintain a domestic social order through violent subjugation and the military-industrial complex exists to maintain imperial hegemony and an international social order through even greater violence and subjugation.

The term “military-industrial complex” was coined by Dwight Eisenhower at the end of 8 years in the White House. The forerunners of the complex can be seen in the British Empire. Thus, in trying to diagnose the British Empire at the end of the 19th century, John A. Hobson noted that the Empire was an economic drain, but that it benefited “certain sectional interests”. He specified that these interests were the finance sector plus the shipbuilding, boiler-making, and gun and ammunition making trades”. In those days of British naval supremacy shipbuilding and boiler-making were the equivalent of the aerospace industry in the US today. Hobson, like today’s aficionados of the military-industrial complex, treated the whole thing as if it were some sort of scam – an unfair and vastly disproportionate way of fleecing the British people and the colonies. But the disproportionality itself showed that profit could not be a driving factor. Why, after all, would wealthy landowners and traders sacrifice their own wealth, as Hobson claimed, for sectional interests? If those interests had taken control of policy, why and how?

The key to understanding this “empire complex”, as I will call it, is that these “certain sectional interests” were, alongside the military and some other parts of the British state structure, the governing structures of the Empire (and the informal empire). This rose from a deliberate blurring of the lines between state and private power. For example, in Century of War F. William Engdahl writes of 3 “pillars of the British Empire” (finance, shipping and control of natural resources) and gives this example of interpenetration between private interests, government and British intelligence:

Britain modelled its post-Waterloo empire on an extremely sophisticated marriage between top bankers and financiers of the City of London, Government cabinet ministers, heads of key industrial companies deemed strategic to the national interest, and the heads of the espionage services.

Representative of this arrangement was City of London merchant banking scion, Sir Charles Jocelyn Hambro, who sat as a director of the Bank of England from 1928 until his death in 1963. During the Second World War, Hambro was Executive Chief of British secret intelligence’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Government’s Ministry of Economic Warfare, which ran war-time economic warfare against Germany, and trained the entire leadership of what was to become the postwar American Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence elite, including William Casey, Charles Kindelberger, Walt Rostow and Robert Roosa, later Kennedy Treasury Deputy Secretary and partner of Wall Street’s elite Brown Brothers, Harriman.

The US military-industrial complex took things further than its British forerunner. When Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” he was referring to something with long historical roots and antecedents, but nevertheless he was referring to something new; something only a decade old. In earlier drafts of Eisenhower’s farewell address it was referred to as the “military-industrial-Congressional complex”. In retrospect it was unfortunate that the word “Congressional” was omitted, because he nature of Congressional involvement shows a level of premeditated planning. Military contracts were distributed to every possible Congressional district so that every representative would be vulnerable to losses of jobs and income in their district. Politicians were being deliberately tied to the complex, so that it would be possible to either direct or replace any who spoke out against the interests of the complex. This was all happening at the time when NSC-68 became policy, creating what we know as the Cold War.

NSC-68 was a policy document signed by President Truman in 1950. It halted the post-WWII demobilisation of the USA and put the country on a permanent wartime footing. Though top secret, the 58 page document is stuffed full of propaganda that painted a fictitious picture of the USSR as a military threat to the USA. It states: “The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat to the conflict between idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin … and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis.” NSC-68 is full of fake figures and outright lies about Soviet capabilities. The document was probably not intended to persuade lawmakers and administrators as much as it was to give them a Party-line and talking points. These were words, phrases and arguments that could sell a new brand of USA to the people living in the USA itself and the strongest dissenting voices were soon silenced by McCarthyism.

Military spending tripled in the three years after NSC-68. An armistice was signed in Korea in 1953, but the military spending remained at wartime levels, and has never significantly decreased since.

The military-industrial complex was purposefully given a lever to control Congress and this tells us something about the intentionality of its creation, but I must point out that the complex has other levers to pull. Like other big industries which rely on government contracts and/or a lucrative legislative and policy environment, the private interests in the complex spend vast amounts on lobbying and campaign donations. This alone gives them “unwarranted influence” far in excess of what Eisenhower might have envisaged (at least in the fact that that influence is ineradicable by any means short of revolution). It gets even worse, however, because elected officials in the US are heavy investors in weapons and aerospace, and House and Senate members are not prohibited from insider trading. Between 2004 and 2009 19 of 28 members of the Senate Armed Services committee held stock in companies to which they could award contracts. They are only: “precluded … from taking official actions that could boost their personal wealth if they are the sole beneficiaries.”

The circle of venality tying politicians to the military-industrial complex works through bonds of greed and self-interest, but it has nothing to do with the profit mechanisms of “capitalism” as it is usually conceived. The complex was partly the product of historical processes shaped by power relations, but more importantly it was a conscious artifice. At the same time that food companies were developing the “TV Dinner”, US political elites created a TV Dinner military hegemony which went with a new TV Dinner empire. They pulled back the foil on their instant empire by announcing the doctrine of Cold War “containment”. Modelled on the 19th century “Monroe Doctrine”, by which the US gave itself the right to intervene in any Western hemisphere country, “containment” meant that any time the US had the power and desire to intervene they would simply claim that there was a Communist threat.

The military-industrial complex was created to tie government to the project of empire, however it did not remain static once created. Because this is an empire, success within the system is not determined by market forces, as much as market forces are twisted, wrangled and beaten into a shape that feeds the semi-private arms of imperial power. They are profitable, but that is incidental.

Both the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex are subsumed within a greater empire complex. This model of government corruption (campaign financing, lobbying, revolving door appointments, intellectual property legislation, no-bid contracts, cost-plus contracts, bail-outs, etc.) creates a whole class of industries that are co-dependent with government. These are not random concerns, they are tied together by a shared characteristic. Such industries include arms; aerospace; finance; agribusiness; pharmaceuticals; health; oil and energy; infrastructure; media and communications; and security/policing/prisons/mercenaries. What ties them together is that whoever controls these things controls nations and peoples.

The imperial complex creates a situation where it becomes inevitable that the business of empire is empire, and nothing else unless it is in the service of empire. The government of the USA is so integral to the empire complex that, in foreign policy, it is purely devoted to the extension and maintenance of imperial power. In fact, the model of governance imposed on the empire by the public-private branches of the empire complex, widely known as “neoliberal”, increasingly provides the model of domestic governance. The US is colonising itself. The empire complex has evolved to control, not to build, nurture or protect. Like empires of the past, it has become the tool of a narrow elite whose interests are not truly tied to the motherland any more tightly than they are to the colonies.

This brings me back to the claim that the US is behind the bombing in Yemen because it feed the profits of the military-industrial complex. The claim is 100% wrong. None of this is for profit. It was a system intentionally constructed to maintain and extend imperial hegemony. It’s subsequent evolution has not in any way made it capitalistic, but has alarmingly broadened and deepened the governance structures.

There is an underlying assumption by Cockburn, Benjamin and other such critics of US foreign policy that the money factor has perverted foreign policy from its true course. This implies that uncorrupted by money (and nefarious foreigners) US foreign policy would revert to being a largely benevolent practice directed by concern with national security, the national interest, and the prosperity of the homeland. The frustrating thing about this is that it is a complete refusal to simply attempt to analyse an empire (which many critics US foreign policy gladly admit that it is) as an empire. It is sad that trenchant critics of wars (and the bloodthirsty elites who wage them) are stuck with such a childish mentality. They evince a faith that the proper purpose of the system itself is akin to that of a parent (whether loving or stern) and that Dad just needs to sober up from the intoxication of money.

Most critics of US foreign policy assume that it is a dysfunctional branch of nation-state politics, rather than even entertaining the idea that it might be a very rational and functional arm of imperial politics. For example, they assume that provoking terrorism against US interests and people is a failure of policy, but there are no concrete reasons for believing this. In contrast, one can argue that the US provokes terrorism on purpose in order to justify foreign interventions and erosions of civil liberties. That is a reasoned position that explains US actions with a clear motive. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but let us consider conventional assumption that provoking terrorism is a mistake. In that case the contention is that an observed repeated pattern of behaviour (the various violent provocations such as invasions, bombings, torture, kidnappings) is a continual series of errors due to systemic dysfunction. To support this you must create a complex analytical apparatus showing that some essentialist cultural characteristics (a blend of ignorance, arrogance, and the desire to do good) cause US officials and personnel to keep repeating the same mistakes and never learn their lesson. All of this, a massive offence against the principle of parsimony, rests on the assumption that there can be no intent to foment terrorism because those same officials and personnel are collectively inclined to protect Usanians and US interests. This all falls down though, in the very obvious fact that the US government only protects US citizens when forced to. In the policies environment, public health, health, economy, trade, infrastructure, civil defence and (let us not forget) foreign intervention the US government shows that it will happily sacrifice the lives of its citizens. Terrorism deaths are a drop in the bucket compared to those caused by the insufficient healthcare in the US. Moreover, if you pre-ordain that non-interventionism and demilitarisation are not allowable foreign policy options, then you will not allow a policy that keeps people safe from terrorism. In practical terms that is a conspiracy to foment and harness terrorism for foreign interventions because the results are foreseeable and unavoidable.

Accompanying the infuriating belief that the natural state of Western governance is enlightened self-interest is the more repugnant and hypocritical belief that non-Western foreigners act in ways that need no explanation other than their hatred, brutality, and irrational violence. We endless ask ourselves where the US went “wrong” over various acts of mass violence, but no one feels the need to agonise about what part of the Qatari national character causes them to keep making the “mistake” of thinking they can bomb terrorism out of existence. The only analysis you need put forward is that they hate Iran, or hate Shi’a or (if you are really sophisticated) hate republicanism, then there is not need to explain why this translates into bombing or invasions or torture or any form of violence. When non-Westerners commit such acts it is treated as no more remarkable than the sun rising.

When Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen with US weapons, few entertain the notion that the Saudi Arabia might be acting as a US proxy, even though the US must approve enough to keep supplying the bombs. Instead we have a frankly racist discourse that suggests that Saudi Arabia is by some means dragging the US into a conflict in contravention of US interests. This whole “tail-wags-dog” trope really pisses me off. The US has been using the supposed rebelliousness and truculence of its puppets as an excuse for its actions going at least as far back as Syngman Rhee, the dictator they installed in South Korea after WWII. Everywhere that they possibly can, the US installs leaders who are unpopular enough with their own people that they are dependent on the US military to stay in power. That is how you run an empire. Sometimes it is in the US interest that such people make a show of anti-imperialist defiance, but when they really are defiant they tend to find themselves exiled, dead or imprisoned in fairly short order.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, an oligarchy of royals rules in defiance of the public will and the public interest. That is the classic recipe for a client regime, and probably differs little from a standard Roman client regime 2000 years ago. Iraqi-American analyst BJ Sabri has been posting a multi-part analysis of Saudi subjugation for over some months and argues that Saudi dependency is very deep, perhaps unusually so. In Part 2 of the series Sabri wrote:

On one side, we have the Saudi deference to the United States. I view this deference as follows: (1) confluence and reciprocal opportunism of two different but oppressive ideologies —Wahhabism and imperialism; (2) oil and petrodollars, and (3) a long history of secret deals—since the day Franklin D. Roosevelt met Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1945. On the other, we have a supremacist superpower that views Al Saud as no more than a backward tribal bunch whose primary function is providing special services to the United States. These include cheap oil, buying US weapons, investing oil money in the US capitalistic system, supporting US hegemonic quest, buying US national debt, and bankrolling its covert operations and wars.

To drive the point, I argue that the combination between lack of means, lack of resistance, and other forms of dependence (US political and public relations support, for example) has created a situation of dependency. It incrementally forced the Saudi regime into a mental subordination to the United States similar to an occupied mentality.

Of course, others will tell you that the US must be acting at the behest of Saudi Arabia because they have no motive of their own. As Cockburn reports, “no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. ‘Honestly,’ he told me, ‘I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.’”

When people like Cockburn make reference to “our national security” as if it were a factor in US military interventions I have to check that I haven’t been whisked to a parallel dimension. When has US national security ever been a consideration in a US decision to attack another country? This is the most interventionist state in the history of humanity and from an historical perspective the only differentiation in terms of national security is whether the US government puts a lot of effort into lying about having a national security interest (e.g. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Korea, Iraq); puts on a minimal or pathetic show (e.g. Grenada, Laos, Syria, Libya); or doesn’t really bother with the pretence at all (e.g. Haiti, Somalia, Panama).

Implying that a given US military intervention is aberrant because not does not serve national security is gross intellectual cowardice. It is a way of critiquing US policy without ever suggesting that the US might itself be worthy of criticism. Notions of exceptionalism are not challenged but rather are enforced by the implication that each act of mass violence is a departure from an unspoken norm. These are criticisms that sanitise and conceal US agency and intentionality by using the equivalent of the passive voice.

Gareth Porter is a fine critic of US policy when it comes to challenging the lies of officials who are gunning for war. He has written extensively to debunk the nuclear scare tactics used by US officials to threaten war against Iran and to impose cruel sanctions. But Porter is also an exponent of this passive voice historiography. His 2005 book Perils of Dominance documented the fact that the US had an unassailable strategic hegemony and lied to create the impression that the USSR was a threat to national security. It is a very useful book (although I would dispute his exculpation of Lyndon Johnson), but the way Porter frames facts, indeed the central “thesis” of the book, is that not having any genuinely security fears caused the US to invade Viet Nam. It is rather like framing a story of spousal abuse by focussing on the fact that the perpetrator was induced to beat the victim because of a large difference in size and strength.

The reason I bring Porter up is because in a recent interview with Lee Camp he said we need to go beyond the military-industrial complex and look at the “national-security complex” and the “permanent war state”. At first glance you might think that he and I were on the same wavelength, but despite admitting to long years of “committing the liberal error of opposing the war, but not the system”, he refuses to relinquish his central delusion. He reprises the same analytical framework that was very common after the US withdrew from Viet Nam under titles like Quagmire Theory or Stalemate Theory. The idea is that bureaucratic systems running on their own logic become the determinants of foreign policy. This allows people like Arthur Schlesinger (himself an official under Kennedy) to state that the war in Indochina was “a tragedy without victims” and talk of “the politics of inadvertence”. This apologism can be seen in book titles on US war that emphasise benign intent or lack of agency such as Nobody Wanted War, or the book by one of the US officials who help destroy Iraq whose lame excuse is We Meant Well.

Discussing Syria (though it could just as well be Yemen) Porter says US actions point to “the total inanity and irrationality of US policy”. This is the critique of someone who wants to go on record as opposing US warmongering but wants the least possible challenges and repercussions for doing so. It resonates easily with people, but it simply does not hold up to any intellectual examination. US aggressions, as Porter admits, fit a pattern of behaviour, so are they irrational? Irrational would imply self-defeating, but the US has been destroying countries, Balkanising them, destabilising them, killing and impoverishing in many places. They have created an ever-lengthening string of failed or near-failed states in actions so momentous that they have created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Why would irrationality be so consistent and have such a strong impact?

I do not have the time and space here to detail the intrinsic links between genocide and imperialism here, but let us not be unnecessarily stupid and deny that empires profit from Balkanising, partitioning and destroying countries that are strategically inconvenient. That is well established as part of history, and there is no reason at all to think that the US should be any different. The US empire, despite its internally generated weakness and contradictions, goes from strength to strength in foreign policy. The USSR is gone and NATO is on Russia’s border. China is besieged by the “Pacific pivot” and the TPP. Independent nationalist regimes that reject the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” (which is the surrender of economic sovereignty to the US empire) have been picked off one by one. In global terms the US has never been more powerful.

How many times do we need to see the same intentional destruction of a country and its people by the US before we call it what it is – genocide. This is intentional destruction of “nations and peoples” and it is exactly what the term genocide was coined to describe.

The US empire is hollowing itself out. As it fails internally it will be ever more driven to impose control globally. As the 2016 Presidential campaign enters its crucial stage, we are entering the most dangerous period of history since the Cold War. We cannot afford to cling to delusions. We need to oppose US wars; evict US military bases; end mass surveillance and intelligence co-operation; reject neoliberalism and pro-corporate trade deals; and we need to reject the propaganda and discourse of US exceptionalism and apologism. When I say “we”, I mean every single person on the planet (including people in the US itself). The empire has to be beaten back on all fronts, because otherwise there are two horrific options: either it collapses, or worse still it doesn’t.

My Conspiracy Against the UK Government

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I started a conspiracy to harm Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (HMGUKGB&NI). I wanted to deal as much damage to them as possible so I conspired with a poet to plant an explosive and incendiary petition right in the heart of their own website. It was a petition to make the UK Government respond or debate the question of appearing before the International Court of Justice and allowing it to rule on the case of the Chagos Archipelago.

At issue is the terrible injustice to the Chagossians and their descendants who were arbitrarily evicted from their homeland with trickery or brutality. It was the US that decided the negative repercussions of this crime were a reasonable price to pay for a completely depopulated archipelago in which to put a naval and air base. The US gave the order to their British subordinates in a now notorious 3 word telegram: “ABSOLUTELY MUST GO”.

At issue also are the rights of Mauritius. The UK broke international law by detaching Chagos in the lead-up to decolonisation but refuses to have the question adjudicated. Her Majesty’s Government takes the position that Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for “defence” purposes. So far they have “needed” Chagos for 50 years and there is absolutely no reason to believe that they will not “need” the military base on the island of Diego Garcia for another 50 years.

The plight of the islanders, who continue to live in deprivation, is a worthy cause, but we allow it to distract us from what is most important. Our natural sympathies and our psychology as activists is used to make the issue into a lightning rod. We pour our energy into that, and the UK Government directs it safely away from its edifice of imperial violence. Ultimately this is not only turning our backs on the victims of US military violence, it is also useless to the Chagossians. The fact is that no one can argue against the proposition that an injustice was perpetrated against the Chagossians, but they and their supporters are forced to fight the same battle over and over again, and each time they win it gains them nothing. To understand why we need to understand that human rights discourse is dominated by establishment voices who are unquestioningly subservient to power.

Take the example of this educator and human rights professional. She writes:

Considering the crucial importance of the military base for the USA and having in mind all the conflicts that are currently taking place in the Middle East and Asia and those that might be coming soon, it is difficult to believe that even if the Chagossians win again, they would be allowed for real to resettle the islands again.

The case of the Chagossians is interesting precisely because of its complexity and the many factors that have to be taken into consideration when examining it: the interests of both American and British governments, international politics, diplomacy and security, are most certainly factors that could not just be disregarded. So how do human rights enter the picture? Are they taken into consideration when they are opposed to international security? Could they change the course of events? They should definitely influence it. And here comes the question – is something as important as international security worth risking, so that human rights are not violated?

This creates a false dichotomy between human rights and “international security”. The author clearly cedes precedence to security as the superior concern, but without devoting even a single atom of examination to what it might mean. The embedded presumption is that the US and UK can unilaterally decide what constitutes “security” and that their actions are necessarily in favour of “international security”. On a very basic level this violates logic by suggesting that killing people and wreaking destruction in a region geographically distant from both countries is somehow in the service of “security” when there can be no immediate threat from the victims of that violence and destruction. If that basic flaw is unconvincing then there is the fact that US/UK interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia seem to have spawned incredible amounts of insecurity. If “security” is defined as being the physical security of human beings, or even UK citizens, it seems quite a stretch in these times of instability and crisis to say that US/UK military actions have been in the service of security, but to simply stipulate that this is the case without even giving some form of argumentation is ludicrous and unforgivable nonsense.

The political discourse of UK foreign affairs relies on unchallenged assumptions and areas of inquiry where silence is enforced. Like their US counterparts the UK establishment cultivates and inhabits a world of parochial narrow-mindedness and mirror-blindness where they never need to ask themselves why they consider it their right to take lands and resources from others by force. The assumptions are based on exceptionalist notions that presume a fundamental benevolence of nature and benevolence of purpose as the foundations of Western civilisation. These assumptions take on the character of articles of faith and challenges to those articles are greeted with hostility as being heresy. For those that would oppose unjust actions by HMGUKGB&NI it is made much easier to challenge on narrow grounds by suggesting that a particular crime is an exception, while they affirm the rule. That is why it is acceptable to criticise the UK for injustices perpetrated on the Chagosians or even on Mauritius, but it is not permissible to state that their purposes in doing so are themselves criminal, arrogant, imperialistic, militaristic, illegitimate and morally repugnant. In fact even bringing up the subject is offensive, because the facts are so clear. The UK has no right to be in the Indian Ocean and no right to use territory there in support of killing people in the Middle East and Africa.

It is easy to see, therefore, why well-meaning people are attracted to the easy option of treating the issue of the Chagos Islands as separate from the acts of mass violence that are facilitated by the base at Diego Garcia, but it becomes a trap, The callousness of the treatment of those deprived of a homeland is infuriating and exasperating by design. Both openly and behind closed doors officials will fight every step of the way to avoid any admission of wrongdoing. They will make challengers fight and fight for every little admission and then finally, when the time is right and the fullness of consciousness is invested in the blatant injustice, they will admit regret and cite “strategic necessity” for “defence purposes”. In practical terms neither an individual nor a movement can change track at that point. Leaders of the cause, such as crusading parliamentarians, will effectively be subverted or left in a halfway position of campaigning to moderate rather than end overt wrongdoing.

At the same time the voices of the dead of 50 years of mass killing cry out. Diego Garcia is a base for long-range cruise missiles and bomber aircraft as well as communications and logistical support. Even leaving aside the questions of its naval and nuclear role, it is the source of incalculable death, destruction and suffering. This is not potential or theoretical. Another 50 years of “defence purposes” will mean hundreds of thousands killed. The very nature of the weapons systems is such that “defence purposes” can only mean imperial aggression. These are true weapons of mass destruction. Despite pretences, they are not and cannot be used in a pure military sense against a chosen Hitler-of-the-month dictator and their armies, they are weapons that attacks “peoples and nations” – which is the original defining trait of genocide.

Since the end of World War 2 the most indiscriminate and obscene weapon of war to be used has been the B-52 bomber. After smaller aircraft and ground artillery had had created a 20 km traffic jam on the Mutla Ridge early in 1991, it was B-52s which carpet bombed those trapped there, massacring them in a period of hours. This became known as the “Highway of Death” and the B-52s which were responsible for the slaughter flew from Diego Garcia.

Most B-52s that flew in the 1990-1 “Gulf War” were based in Diego Garcia. The near obsolete bombers dropped one third of the aerial tonnage and every time they dropped ordnance it was, by the very nature of the weaponry, a war crime of disproportionate and/or indiscriminate killing.

Paul Walker wrote:

B-52s were used from the first night of the war to the last. Flying at 40,000 feet and releasing 40 – 60 bombs of 500 or 750 pounds each, their only function is to carpet bomb entire areas. … B-52s were used against chemical and industrial storage areas, air fields, troop encampments, storage sites, and they were apparently used against large populated areas in Basra.

Language used by military spokesman General Richard Neal during the war made it sound as if Basra had been declared a “free fire zone”…. On February 11, 1991, Neal told members of the press that “Basra is a military town in the true sense…. The infrastructure, military infrastructure, is closely interwoven within the city of Basra itself” He went on to say that there were no civilians left in Basra, only military targets. … Eyewitness accounts Suggest that there was no pretense at a surgical war in this city. On February 5, 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the air war had brought “a hellish nightime of fires and smoke so dense that witnesses say the sun hasn’t been clearly visible for several days at a time . . . [that the bombing is] leveling some entire city blocks . . . [and that there are] bomb craters the size of football fields and an untold number of casualties.”

This was the opening of a period of genocide against Iraq. In 1998, during the sanctions period which was estimated in 1996 to have cost 500,000 children’s deaths, B-52’s from Diego Garcia launched 100 aerial cruise missiles as a major part of Operation Desert Fox. While officials, wonks and security studies hacks are triumphal about the efficacy of strikes against “regime” targets this comes from the long-standing habit of conflating civilian and military targets.

The patently false stated aim of Operation Desert Fox was to “degrade” the mythical WMD programme. The targeting of “command and control”, WMD industrial and “concealment” sites, and the Basra oil refinery were all deleterious to the people of the stricken country. Only retrospectively did the think-tank pundits decide that the real aim must have been regime destabilisation not WMD, but as with the sanctions inflicting misery and hardship on Iraqis only strengthened the governing regime. From 600-2000 civilians died along with an unknown number of military personnel who were attacking no one and had no chance to defend themselves or fight back.

In 2001, Diego Garcia was the most important base in launching attacks on Afghanistan. This was a high-altitude no boots-on-the-ground approach by the US which led predictably to a power vacuum, rampaging warlords, insoluble instability, refugee crisis, food insecurity and everything else we have since seen unfold. Like Iraq, the country is being slowly tortured to death. In 2003, Diego Garcia was once again central to US efforts against Iraq. Readers are probably somewhat familiar with what has happened in the area since.

Diego Garcia has never had legitimate “defence purposes”. It is a strategic asset of empire and it is used to maintain control over the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa. The base is there primarily for the purpose of killing large numbers of people at once when other means of exerting power are unsuitable, undesirable or unavailable. Its role is distinctly and inescapably genocidal.

Here’s the thing: it is difficult for activists to recruit people by accusing the government of war crimes, let alone mass-murder and genocide. A web search will show that even antiwar websites and writers tend mention Diego Garcia’s role in bombing only in passing while focussing either on its role in torture and “extraordinary renditions”, or on the injustice perpetrated against the islanders.

It is easy to see why the plight of the Chagossians appeals in the same way that seeing rabbits tortured in testing cosmetics was so rousing in the 1980s. The moral dimensions of the issue are readily apparent and very few people need to re-examine their ideology, challenge their beliefs, or question their loyalties. The Chagossian cause is just, but it is not right to ignore other crimes which are even more monstrous. It is not right, and it is not wise. Without undermining the “strategic necessity” argument then there can never be a victory. The Chagossians have already won in court – several times – but they remain in exile. Why? Because “defence purposes”.

People may not want to hear the truth about imperial aggression and the suffering inflicted in their names, but they can at least understand that giving the US a base in the Indian Ocean from which to bomb people has not made the United Kingdom in any respect safer. No one can suggest that carpet bombing Iraq reduced the threat of terrorism or Saddam’s WMD. If we do not accept that there are valid “defence purposes” then there are no legally or morally valid “strategic” reasons for keeping the Chagos Archipelago. That is something that we must always bear in mind when working in this cause – there is no strategic justification and the UK has no right to be there at all.

The cause of Mauritius is also just. They are the rightfully sovereign country deprived due to “strategic” decisions taken in 1964-5 which were no more defensible than the depopulation decisions of 1970-1. Mauritius recently won a case against the UK in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, but the UK denies the jurisdiction of the court and the court cannot rule on the issue of sovereignty. Mauritius is taking the case to the International Court of Justice for an “advisory” ruling, but that is only as good as the publicity it generates. They need allies, especially among UK activists who can keep the issue on the agenda at home.

For this reason I contacted Mhara Costello, an activist and poet who uses the pen name Tamerishe. Along with her poem “Once Upon a Palestine” she also wrote “Just a Word” which deals with the abuse of the term “terrorist”. It seemed an appropriate qualification. We formulated a petition that would incorporate a direct challenge to the narrative frame which ensures that critiques always remain atomised, specific and isolated – hermetically and prophylactically sealed away from infecting the self-righteous self-love of civilised Britons.

The characters allowed for e-petitions to HMGUKGB&NI are predetermined and restrictive, and this is what Mhara posted:

HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.

The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.

At issue is more than sovereignty. The UK forcefully removed the inhabitants of the islands and leased Diego Garcia as a US military base. The treatment of the islanders is cruel and unjust, and has been ruled unlawful. The US military base sends bombing sorties which cause countless deaths and may constitute crimes of aggression or terrorism. The base is also implicated in torture, illegal rendition, and concealment of illegal munitions. More at: http://johnpilger.com/videos/stealing-a-nation.

The first response was silence. The after prodding the following belated reply:

Dear Mhara,

Thank you for your email. I apologise for the length of time it has taken to process your petition. We can accept the central request of your petition, but we cannot publish the second paragraph because it does not comply with our rules. This means that your petition would read:

HMG should agree with Mauritius to an ICJ case regarding the Chagos Islands.

The Republic of Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, but that claim is disputed by the UK. If the UK government agrees the International Court of Justice can hear and judge the issues as a “Contentious Case” in accordance with international law.

If you could let me know that you are happy with this, we could publish your request immediately.

To which Mhara responded:

No, I am not happy removing the second paragraph. I would be willing to amend it. Can you be more specific please, regarding your objections? In what way does the petition not comply with the rules? Please cite which rules have been breached? I am unable to identify any (inadvertently) I may have overlooked.

She then sent a second reminder and eventually received a longer email including the following:

We cannot publish the second paragraph of your petition, because we have not been able to establish that the very serious allegations you make are true. I hope you will understand that we cannot publish allegations of unlawful conduct. We would be happy to look at alternative wording for this paragraph, if you would like to propose some. It would need to be worded moderately and fall within our rules. You might reasonably say, for example, that many people believe that the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands have been very badly treated by the Governments of the UK and the USA, and that this ought therefore to be examined by the ICJ. 

They are saying that you can’t detail allegations that you want addressed in court, because you have to prove the truth of the allegations before petitioning to have the matter adjudicated. This response is a bureaucratic Catch-22 piece of nonsense. It must be assumed that, as intended, the petition itself is troubling. The offending paragraph deliberately broadens the issue as much as possible within the character limit. One petition is unlikely to really shake the UK establishment, but it may yet frighten them because it takes matters into a realm which they cannot control. What is more, there is a hook in it.

When they commit crimes or act unjustly the greatest vulnerability of the authorities is their perceived legitimacy. When they are forced to overtly display illegitimacy it breaks their support structure. Even in the face of mass popular condemnation, a government can act with blatant injustice as long as they have a cover story – a lie which, however unconvincing, allows those who really want to give them unconditional support to believe in benign intent or even the ineffable divine schemes of “security”, which lie beyond mortal ken. In this case the UK might be in an awkward position if the question were debated because it does not want to negotiate directly with Mauritius. To explain why they do not wish the matter adjudicated by the ICJ the UK government might either have to say it prefers bilateral talks or it would have to say that it does not think its actions should be subject to adjudication under international law because “defence purposes”. That would bring the spotlight back onto the criminal uses of the criminally acquired Chagos Archipelago.

Right at the moment the “perceived legitimacy” of the UK government may already be close to breaking. Foreign entanglements must surely seem even less attractive to the UK public than February 2003, when a million marched in London to protest the looming invasion of Iraq. The sordid aftermath of shame from that act continues while the ongoing Balkanisation of the oil rich Arab world is surely one of the most inglorious blood-lettings in the unpleasant history of conflict. Even for those who do not understand that US/UK intervention created the fractures and fervour that wrack the region, it is hard to see any nobility in backing the Saudis, the Israelis and the “moderate” forces that fight alongside al-Nusra.

Meanwhile, the establishment seems to have to put the UK public in its rightful place of silent subjugation more often than it would normally need to. It seems that every time that there is a popular consensus in the general population or some significant segment of it, they need to be reminded that their democratic voice must be conveyed through a mediating wah-wah pedal that is under the foot of their social superiors. Whether it is giving Thatcher an appropriate send-off, or naming a sea-vessel, or when Labour Party members mistakenly choose a leader whose views coincide with those of ordinary people. Much more of this and people will start demanding that the hollow sham of modern democracy have some populist stuffing shoved back in it, and once government’s start giving in to popular demands it just encourages more; things could spiral out of control and before you know it you are dealing with a sovereign self-emancipated people who do not want a society run by and for a controlling greedy and/or power-obsessed few.

That is why even an e-petition can frighten Her Britannic Majesty’s mighty Royal Government. They need people to continue to be their own worst enemies. They need people to sabotage their own efforts. They need people to think that those within the establishment have a greater understanding of issues and how to tackle them. They need them to make their own protests against specific injustice into an embrace and an endorsement of the system itself.

Let’s show them that we won’t play that stupid game any more.

Viet Nam Lost the American War (as did Laos and Cambodia)

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photographer-philip-jones-griffiths-in-vietnam-21-638

Photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths © Philip Jones Griffiths / Magnum Photos

[G]enocide is a new technique of occupation aimed at winning the peace even though the war itself is lost” – Raphaël Lemkin, 1944.

In 2008 I wrote a post-graduate research paper about the “Vietnam War”. I believe I showed quite clearly that Viet Nam lost its war with the United States by any reasonable criteria apart from the most obvious surface events. We are now at the 40th anniversary of the time when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. Christian Appy has just published a piece criticising a popular revisionism that misrepresents the events of 40 years ago as an uncontextualised brutal Communist takeover. But what if our misapprehensions go deeper than Appy implies? What if we insist the Viet Nam won the war for ideological reasons and ignore the very compelling evidence that they lost the war, despite their military victory in the field? Drawing heavily on that past work, but giving it a new angle, I will show that the US actually won the “war” because all along their true energies were devoted to visiting destruction on Vietnamese, Cambodians. And Laotians. The word for this behaviour is “genocide”.

Genocide is a concept with an explanatory power that has been ignored and surpressed. It has been misrepresented and it is now generally used simply to indicate extreme condemnation – even more so than the word “terrorism”. Yet it does have a specific meaning, one which provides great insight into the nature of historic events. The problem, if anything, is that it explains things too well, whilst the US is heavily reliant on confusion and obfuscation to escape the moral censure and determined anger it should face for the mass-killings and mass-destruction it has carried out.

US citizens in particular, but Westerners in general, seem to have a gut fear of any suggestion that US actions in Indochina had a coherent rationale. Key beliefs about the fundamental nature of the civilised West and the US in particular are destroyed when we are forced to face the fact that the savage violence that we all must admit was undertaken was in fact part of the project, not an unintended by-blow. Moreover, those who oppose US military violence have been indelibly imprinted with notions of military and political incompetence. As if instinctually, they seem to fear that any suggestion that the US achieved a strategic success would empower the triumphalism of the ‘Murican meatheads they seem to feel surrounded by.

40 years ago the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and the Pathet Lao were beginning the last phase of taking control of Laos. On April 30, 1975 tanks from the People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) entered Saigon. It was the end of the Second Indochina War – known in Indochina as the “American War” and known in the US as the “Vietnam War”. The Communists, and some other anti-imperialists who worked under their leadership, had won.

But what sort of victory was this? Throughout the course of fighting the US grew constantly in wealth and strength, while Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos were weakened in ways they have never recovered from. In relations after the war the US clearly took on the role of victor imposing terms on the defeated. Despite an overblown, if not hysterical, public discourse of defeat and anguish in the US there was never any real question of substantive material damage to the US, nor any possibility that the US Government (USG) would have its actions dictated by Indochinese governments.

The Communist led movements and governments defeated the US militarily, but the shrieks of dismay uttered by US “patriots” and “liberals” alike about their defeat have little to do with reality. In every possible substantive material way the post-War history of Indochina is that of weakened defeated countries that would eventually submit to the hegemony of the US under the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”. What happened?

In this article I will show how much the war waged by the US hurt the countries of Indochina and how this in itself became the basis of a US victory. To understand how this happened we need to put aside some preconceptions and re-appropriate the term “genocide”. When Raphaël Lemkin first coined the term genocide he described it as a war not merely against states and their armies but against peoples.”[1]

Once I have clarified the distinction between military war and genocide, the nature of US actions will become clear. This is not about a secret conspiracy to commit genocide, US officials overtly rejected military contestation and opted for attacking the peoples of Indochina without feeling the need to conceal a genocidal intent. They openly embraced tactics which caused mass civilian deaths without any embarrassment.

Many contemporary observers commented on the genocidal nature of US mass violence in Indochina. Some used the term “genocide”, some didn’t, but they have all been effaced from the historiography of the Second Indochina War. Apart from a few easily dismissed Leninistic anti-imperial analyses, the orthodox criticism of US policy was created by Washington elites and amounts to little more than a skein of propaganda stitched together by insider gossip and coloured by a sickening lurid coat of racially informed chauvinism and mirror-blindness.

Pyrrhic Victory or Defeat?

On April 30, 1975 PAVN tanks rolled through the streets of Saigon. When Republic of Viet Nam (RVN) leader Duong Van Minh offered to officially relinquish power, tank commander Col. Bui Tin famously responded: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.” In that respect this was a classic total military victory – the annihilation of the political power of the opponent.

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz defined tactical victory as possession of the field of battle.[2] Possessing the entire contested territory at the end of hostilities would seem to signal victory in war. But Clausewitz didn’t believe that there was such a thing as strategic victory. He is best known for contending that war was “a continuation of policy by other means” and his wisdom is proven by the case of Indochina. His vision of war was of a limited and circumscribed aspect of violent contestation within a strategic dynamic relationship. Clausewitz knew the military action he theorised about could only ever be part of a greater picture.

It must also be noted that the RVN regime wasn’t the real enemy of the PAVN. It was an entity created, shaped, controlled and sustained by the US – as was Lon Nol’s regime in Cambodia and, to a large extent, the Lao regime under Souvanna Phouma. The Second Indochina War really was the “American War”. The US was the real enemy but the PAVN tanks never rolled into Washington DC; they never broke down the gates of the White House; and however much we might regret it, Bui Tin was never in a position to sneeringly depose Richard Nixon.

Moreover, the progress towards the victory in the field had been horrendously destructive. Each of the Indochinese states, and the people therein, have suffered immensely, whereas the US has no loss that is even remotely comparable. In deaths, for example, the US losses relative to population are less than 0.4 per cent of Cambodian losses (that is excluding the losses after 1975);[3] less than 0.5 per cent of Vietnamese losses;[4] and less than 0.3 per cent of Laotian losses.[5] If we estimate total Indochinese deaths as 4.5 million, of an estimated population of 42 million we get a figure of well over 10 per cent of the population killed, equivalent to 20 million US deaths.

Then there is the economic situation. The US GDP more than doubled in constant dollar terms between 1954 and 1975 and continued strongly afterwards, doubling again by 1997.[6] By contrast, Cambodia didn’t really have an economy by 1975. In fact it had been largely destroyed by the end of 1970, primarily this was caused by a massive influx of US “aid”.[7] By 1973, of less than 7 million Cambodians, an estimated 3,389,000 had been made refugees.[8] The bombing and civil war had reduced the capacity for growing food to such a level that the “sources close to the U.S. government” calculated that if the US government cut all food aid (which they did) 1 million deaths would result.[9] Whatever chances Laos had for development, they were surely crushed by a destructive and divisive war, and Laos remains one of the poorest places on the planet.[10] As for the Vietnamese, the war and subsequent US economic sanctions were devastating. By 1990 the per capita GDP was only $114.[11]

In 1990 Viet Nam began extending economic reforms known as doi moi (renovation). Under doi moi, Viet Nam has achieved much greater formal economic activity (GDP), but only by submitting to the “Washington Consensus”.[12] Among other things this means no price supports for staples such as rice, which in turn means that the real income of the poorest has dropped.

Former US military commander in Viet Nam, Gen. William Westmoreland, characterised doi moi as proof of US victory.[13] He also once said: “We’ll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations. They will have to reassess their position.”[14] The one major asset the Vietnamese gained from the war, massive scrap metal resources, was privatised causing government steel mills to stand idle (banned by law from importing scrap) while Viet Nam’s scrap steel was exported at “substantially below world-market values”.[15]

Some perspective on these decades of poverty is given by economists Adam Fforde and Suzanne Paine. Their analysis is that the DRVs “neo-Stalinist” economic approach was highly suitable for a united Viet Nam in the 1950s, but not so for North Viet Nam alone and not, after the destruction of the war and two decades of separate development, suitable for a reunified Viet Nam.[16] In other words the “American War” and the sanctions that followed meant the difference between a relatively prosperous populous nation with a degree of industrialisation, and a dysfunctional underdeveloped economic backwater that was forced to join the international economic order as a provider of cheap labour for the light manufacturing requirements of tax-averse and wage-averse multinationals. The implications are sickening.

In the meantime, the US claimed that it was trying to prevent the rise of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV) as a regional military hegemon. But its actions belied those words. I do not have the space and time to detail this but the key points are: 1) The US drove the very reluctant DRV to war; 2) The US was antagonistic to negotiated settlements throughout; 3) Equally the US was extremely antagonistic to neutralism in Laos, RVN and Cambodia; 4) The US was antagonistic to political pluralism in RVN. These factors all far outweigh any efforts by the US to attrit PAVN military strength. The famous bombing campaign “Rolling Thunder”, for example, had the effect of strengthening civilian support for war against the US while increasing DRV dependence on Soviet aid.[17]

In essence the US manufactured the military victory of the North under a monolithic Communist regime – like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am not saying that Hanoi’s Communist leaders did not themselves work to consolidate power, nor that they would not have eventually seized power after the war. But that is speculation.

Effectively, the US role was to transform the political hegemony enjoyed by the Communists during the First Indochina War, into a military hegemony. This makes perfect sense as a deliberate strategic move. Indeed, throughout the Cold War the US was clearly quite comfortable with poor repressive Communist dictatorships which were dependent on the Soviet Union. In contrast, it hated and crushed regimes that had pluralistic governance that were Communist or Socialist led, or were independently nationalistic and inclusive of left-wing political factions. Of course the US claimed that it was acting against an impending totalitarian takeover, but its actions declare otherwise.

You might still think that this all mean that the Communists won, but that it was a Pyrrhic victory. On paper, Viet Nam won the right to $3.3 billion in reparations payments (diplomatically referred to as reconstruction “aid”) from the US. But the post-War years revealed who was really the victor.

Viet Nam wanted to normalise relations, but they also wanted to get that money. They tried using the issue of cooperation over POW, MIA, and KIA remains repatriation as a negotiating lever, but of course this was just a propaganda gift to the US. They tried to tie normalisation to the payment of the promised “aid”, but the US trade embargo on Viet Nam was hurting them far more than it was hurting the US. Far from paying them money, the US forced Viet Nam to spend huge amounts of its meagre finances on finding remains of US servicemen – an estimated $US1.7 million in per body in 1994 currency. The US lifted its trade sanctions in 1994, once Viet Nam was firmly part of a US dominated system of globalised economic and trade governance.

Impoverished Laos was never placed under sanctions, but Cambodia’s nightmare is also that of a defeated power, not a victor. In April 1975 years ago, with food production devastated and roughly half of the population crowded into Phnom Penh, units of Khmer Rouge began a brutal cleansing, emptying the overcrowded city completely. The forces that occupied the capital were predominantly very young, impressionable, and traumatised. Many were teens who had lived through five years of brutal warfare and who were commanded by an extremist political leadership who were already halfway to the crescendo of paranoid lunacy they would reach by 1978. The country was an unbelievable mess, and the “victors” were deranged ideologues dealing with circumstances which were themselves completely insane.[18]

Even without knowing what atrocities the Khmer Rouge would later commit, does it really seem that they were victorious over the US in 1975? And what about the people of Cambodia? It is important to distinguish between the people and their rulers because the US began secretly supporting the Khmer Rouge at the height of their violence[19] and continued to support them when they fought a guerrilla war against the Viet Nam backed government that had replaced them. Cambodia, like Viet Nam, was thence subject to US sanctions. I think that it is fair to say that although the Khmer Rouge defeated the US on the battlefield, the US soon began supporting them because they were demonstrable enemies of the Cambodian people.

It was the US that destroyed Cambodian neutralism. They claimed to be fighting communism, but their action were to spread communism whilst destroying Cambodia and killing its people to no discernible military end. A Finnish Inquiry Commission designated the years 1969 to 1975 in Cambodia as Phase 1 of the ‘Decade of Genocide’.[20]

Destroying Cambodia

In some respects US actions in Cambodia were the clearest and most successful expression of the model of genocide used in Laos and the RVN. US officials never made any cogent case for their actions in military terms. In a normal politico-military sense, US actions were very predictably counterproductive.

Before US intervention there seemed to be little threat of a communist takeover of Cambodia. The Cambodian Khmer Issarak (insurgents who had strong ties with, but formal independence from the Vietminh) had been unrepresented at the 1954 Geneva Conference and hence, unlike the Pathet Lao and the Vietminh, went unrecognised in the settlement.[21] Most of the Khmer Issarak (over 2000) left Cambodia with Vietnamese anti-colonial forces (Vietminh) who had been operating in Cambodia and based themselves in North Vietnam until their return after 1970.[22]

Although not immediately threatened by armed and trained leftists, Prince Norodom Sihanouk (the head of State from 1955 until 1970) adopted a neutralist position. He could not afford to be enemies with the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, under Sihanouk there was one serious leftist rebellion after his refusal to endorse candidates in the 1966 election closed the doors of electoral struggle to the left wing. The 1967-68 “Samlaut Rebellion” resulted in perhaps 10,000 deaths; greater than those incurred by Cambodians in the First Indochina War against French rule.[23] Although Sihanouk often viciously repressed the left of his own country, any concrete moves against the forces of the DRV or the NLF would have brought about his downfall. The US was, however, less than understanding of the delicate position – at least in its deeds. Although publicly supportive of neutralism, Washington worked hard to destabilise and cripple Cambodia, its actions driving Sihanouk into an ever closer relationship with Hanoi, Beijing and the NLF.[24]

The US “Studies and Operations Group” conducted attacks with US Special Forces personnel in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. In 1967 these were institutionalised as “Salem House” (later known as “Daniel Boone”). This programme was kept secret from the US congress and conducted a total of 1,835 missions. Their primary activity appears to have been the laying of “sanitized self-destruct antipersonnel” mines anywhere up to 30 kilometres beyond the border. Their supposed mission was intelligence gathering, but throughout the whole programme they only captured 24 prisoners.[25] The Special Forces troops usually disguised themselves as PLAF fighters and sometimes attacked civilians in “false-flag” operations.[26]

In 1970 Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak with tacit support from Washington and probable assistance by the CIA. The US had developed ties with Lon Nol in the 1950s and by 1970, according to CIA officer Frank Snepp, he was one of two candidates being groomed by the CIA to take Sihanouk’s place.[27] Washington recognised the new regime within hours.[28] So fast was recognition of Lon Nol’s government that it must have precluded any possibility that the changes on the ground were being assessed, which strongly suggests that the US must have had detailed foreknowledge in order to have any confidence in its judgement.

Sihanouk’s overthrow made civil war unavoidable. Many, including US personnel, thought that part of the reason for overthrowing Sihanouk was the fact that he allowed arms to flow to the PLAF,[29] yet the supply of arms coming from Cambodia to the PLAF was often conducted by pro-US officers,[30] including Lon Nol, and it continued unabated once Sihanouk was overthrown.[31] As I detail below, the US had created a system in Indochina where its own clients were suppliers of arms to its enemies.

In 1969, before the above events, the US began bombing Cambodia in what was known as “Operation Menu”. From Saigon, US General Creighton Abrams insisted that he had “hard evidence” that the Central Office for South Vietnam headquarters (COSVN HQ) had been located in the “Fish Hook” salient of Cambodia.[32] The problem was that no such place ever existed, though for years the US had mounted operations to crush it when they claimed it was located in South Vietnam.[33]

Once under way, Operation Menu spread to other areas. Despite the carpet bombing of area supposed to contain COVSN HQ, in April 1970 Abrams claimed that the headquarters still existed as a fortified underground bunker with 5000 personnel.[34] In May US and RVN forces invaded Cambodia, the action justified in part as an attempt, yet again, to wipe out the COVSN HQ “which had become the Holy Grail of the American war”.[35] The US/RVN invasion simply, and predictably, drove communist forces deeper into Cambodia.[36]

The results of the bombing were those of generating an enemy by killing civilians, a recurrent practice of the US. Ben Kiernan repeatedly cites evidence in numerous consecutive instances that US/RVN aerial bombardment strengthened the Khmer Rouge insurgency, and, more specifically the anti-Vietnamese faction of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.[37] In 1969, the Khmer Rouge consisted of perhaps 4000 – an ultimately unthreatening insurgency. By the end of 1972, they were able, with DRV logistical support, to “hold their own” against Lon Nol’s armed forces, which, at US instigation, had been enlarged to between 132,000 and 176,000 (not counting “ghost” soldiers, who existed only on the books of the corrupt officers who collected their pay) and had massive US/RVN air support.[38] In William Shawcross’s words, “the new war was creating enemies where none previously existed”[39] and by this stage, Lon Nol’s regime was already reduced to the control of shrinking and fragmenting enclaves.[40]

Within a year of Lon Nol’s coup the economy of Cambodia was virtually destroyed, not only by bombing, but also by US aid. Aid was channelled to the import of commodities and surplus US agricultural goods. It also underwrote the Cambodian government and armed forces: “By the end of 1970, the government was spending five times its revenue and earning nothing abroad.”[41] Most of the population became reliant on US aid to eat, and rice supplies were kept at the minimum level needed to prevent food riots. By 1975, malnutrition was widespread and many children starved to death before the Khmer Rouge victory.[42]

Less than two months after the coup that brought Lon Nol to power, the US invaded Cambodia, along with ARVN forces. They did not bother to forewarn Lon Nol who found out after Richard Nixon had announced the invasion publicly.[43] This invasion along US and RVN bombing and the civil war made refugees of nearly half of the Cambodian population.[44] Lon Nol was outraged by the invasion and when later briefed by Alexander Haig (then military assistant to Kissinger) about US intentions he wept with frustration. According to Shawcross, “He wished that the Americans had blocked the communists’ escape route before attacking, instead of spreading them across Cambodia. … The Cambodian leader told Haig that there was no way his small force could stop them. … [Haig] informed Lon Nol that President Nixon intended to limit the involvement of American forces…. They would be withdrawn at the end of June. The the President hoped to introduce a program of restricted military and economic aid. As the implications of Haig’s words for the future of Cambodia became clear to Lon Nol, he began to weep. Cambodia, he said, could never defend itself.”[45]

US actions, particularly in bombing, were directly responsible for creating the communist enemy which overthrew Lon Nol. The bombing between 1969 and 1973 took up to 150,000 lives.[46] If averaged out, over 33 tons of ordnance were used to kill each Khmer Rouge insurgent.[47] Despite the fact that Vietnamese pilots bombed any Cambodian they could, which aided only the Khmer Rouge, Lon Nol acceded to a US demand that he request an increase in VNAF bombing in 1971.[48] By May 1972, the Lon Nol regime had control of perhaps 10 per cent of the country and continued to lose territory which was thereafter fragmented into ever smaller enclaves.[49] The result was by that stage foregone, and yet the war dragged on for three years with the greater part of the 1 million casualties occurring after that point.

In 1970, when Henry Kissinger briefed Jonathan “Fred” Ladd, who was slated to conduct the war in Cambodia, he told him, “Don’t even think of victory; just keep it alive.”[50]

When the US Congress finally blocked aid to Cambodia and South Vietnam, it was with the belated realisation that such aid would not give any hope of victory or improve a bargaining position. Senator Mike Mansfield spoke out, “Ultimately Cambodia cannot survive…. Additional aid means more killing, more fighting. This has got to stop sometime.”[51]

Ooops, we destroyed your country. Our bad :-(

Because the violence in Cambodia was a “sideshow” with little official acknowledgement, US officials did not have complex explanations for their actions. Historians have largely concluded that the US was in the grips of irrationality, but their evidence of irrationality is, in a nutshell, that the US acted in a militarily counter-productive and genocidal manner. They automatically rule out the possibility that US actions were cogent acts of genocide. They build a framework of knowledge by applying that presumption to various historical events and thus generating the historical “evidence” of systemic irrationality and dysfunction among US decision-makers.

Moreover, people like Lyndon Johnson ensured that history recorded how reluctant they were to fight. The reluctance was more apparent than real. Johnson made a very vocal show of having his hand forced. He famously referred to the conflict as that “bitch of a war”.[52] In addition, he called it a “god-awful mess”, and himself as “hooked like a catfish”[53] and “trapped”.[54] He had a habit of thinking out loud with regard to the war, wondering “how he could maintain ‘his posture as a man of peace’” and making it clear that all the options available to him were unpalatable.[55] He would have frequent theatrical outbursts of indignation against hawkish advisers and, on one occasion, the constant changes of regime in the RVN which his own administration engineered.

According to Schulzinger, “The succession of military regimes drove Johnson nearly apoplectic. ‘I don’t want to hear any more of this coup shit,’ he exploded to aides”. Johnson was not the only one to have the audacity to condemn the US brokered coups; Maxwell Taylor, who as US Ambassador to Saigon had first forced a change of Government on the US installed Nguyen Khanh, then had partaken in the destabilisation of Khanh’s second government. When the utterly predictable coup resulted, Taylor is reported to have railed at the coup leaders ‘we Americans [are] tired of coups,’.[56].

The most bizarre Johnson outburst I have come across is an instance where a Major was, for no apparent reason, made to hold a map during a meeting between Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Satff (JCS), becoming “an easel with ears”. Later he described the event to Christian Appy. First the JCS made some recommendations. “At that moment, Johnson exploded. I almost dropped the map. He just started screaming these obscenities. They were just filthy. It was something like: ‘You goddamn fucking assholes. You’re trying to get me to start World War III with your idiotic bullshit – your ‘military wisdom.’ He insulted each of them individually. ‘You dumb shit. Do you expect me to believe that kind of crap? I’ve got the weight of the Free World on my shoulders and you want me to start World War III?’ He called them shitheads and pompous assholes and used the f-word more freely than a marine in boot camp. He really degraded them and cursed at them. The he went back to a calm voice, as if he’d finished playing his little role….”[57]

Frederik Logevall describes Johnson’s behaviour as a “charade” undertaken because “Johnson wanted history to record that he agonised.”[58] But Johnson was not the only one. Not only was John Kennedy also in the habit of thinking out loud with regard to Indochina, but so was Eisenhower.[59] Kennedy would frequently profess peace whilst in the midst of making arrangements for escalation.[60] This conscious and consecutive manipulation of public and historical perception makes any expression of reluctance at any level of US government or military of extremely dubious evidential value.

Moreover, other US officials – notably Westmoreland, Nixon and Kissinger – were far more forthcoming about their genocidal intents. Noam Chomsky has said this: “On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. “I want them to hit everything,” he said. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.”

These sorts of statements, revealing an intent to target civilians or civilian infrastructure, are commonplace among officials at all sorts of levels. Westmoreland personally encouraged personnel to kill civilians.[61] He also approved the Phoenix programme which, by its inescapable nature, involved the murder of civilians (namely “non-combatants” as defined in international law).[62]

Historians might ignore or minimise statements of genocidal intent that they would never ignore had they come from, say, a Rwandan Hutu leader in 1994. In fact, a great deal of effort has gone into trying to find such statements, but the ICTR has found no clear expressions of genocidal intent until after the genocide was in progress. The way people discuss the 1994 genocide in Rwanda you would think that the inverse was true. But rhetorical pronouncements are actually less significant than orthodox historiography would have you think. What is clear from Indochina, and is also absent in the case of Rwanda, is that there was clearly articulated genocidal policy that was acted upon – as opposed to “stated policy” which is mere rhetoric. There were policies that either overtly evidenced genocidal intent or tacitly evidenced genocidal intent in a manner that was impossible to mistake.

In the next section I will show policies that either seemed designed to deliberately cause mass civilian deaths or made mass civilian deaths inevitable whilst promising little or no military benefit and ultimately being inherently counterproductive. Before I do, however, I want to showcase an overtly genocidal policy known as “graduated response”.

Graduated response” was not important as a military strategy so much as it was as a public relations strategy. Graduated response was an Orwellian construction – the rationale given was that by bombing North Vietnam the US would force the DRV to negotiate. This was based on three completely specious assertions – the first being that the insurgency in the South was a result of “communist aggression” and therefore controlled by Hanoi; the second is that the US would itself have negotiated in good faith; the third, and most breathtakingly baldfaced, is that the US began small and got bigger, initially only bombing the DRV to show the DRV that they would bomb the DRV.

In 1965 McGeorge Bundy explained graduated response in a memorandum, although “explained” might be too strong a word. Bundy states: “We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal [graduated response] will succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam…. At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all we could have done….” Bundy also talks of showing “U.S. willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency….” It is worth remembering that this “new norm” in “counter-insurgency” is not interdiction bombing of supply routes, it is strategic bombing of the DRV, guaranteed to bring massive suffering to the civilian population.[63]

The military objected strenuously to graduated response, under the misapprehension or pretense that the given rationale was all true.[64] The military objections existed within a discourse of callous but pragmatic militarists and of concerned but naïve civilians who underestimate Hanoi’s legendary willingness to sacrifice its own people.[65] No doubt, many officials debated earnestly in these racially informed terms, but they were debating the merits of one fiction over the merits of another.

The air war in Indochina bore no resemblance in practice, to that which was espoused in theory. For a start, it could only be applied to the bombing of North Vietnam which was the recipient of less than one sixth of the bombs dropped by the US during the war.[66] Secondly, what actually occurred bore no resemblance to the increasing “slow squeeze” that is central to the story. Admittedly the tempo did increase between the initiation of the bombing campaign “Rolling Thunder” in April 1965 and the end of that year, but this was due to the US committing more and more resources to the air war. Bombing in Laos and South Vietnam increased at a far greater rate than in North Vietnam.[67]

Nor could the bombing campaign against North Vietnam be considered “limited” by any standards other than those of the bombing of Laos and South Vietnam. The campaign ran for 3 years and dropped an average of one 500 pound bomb every 30 seconds. By the end 860,000 tons had been dropped, three times as much as was dropped on Europe, Asia and Africa in World War II.[68] Whatever industrial capabilities that were not destroyed outright had to be decentralised at very high costs to efficiency. Agriculture was also affected and it is estimated that the campaign destroyed 10 to 15 years of economic growth. Three major cities and twelve of twenty-nine provincial capitals had been flattened. According to Robert McNamara’s estimate, at one point in 1967 1000 civilians were being killed each week.[69]

Nor can it truly be claimed that the US sought a negotiated settlement. Lyndon Johnson twice expressed a wish to negotiate, once offering “unconditional talks”, but these offers were not addressed to the DRV regime, but rather to US domestic audiences in speeches.[70] Not surprisingly, Hanoi took these offers with a grain of salt, when they heard of them, and released a list of its aims, presumably hoping that the US would respond by saying that none of the DRV’s desires were negotiable.[71] Instead the US government held up the list of points as proof that Hanoi did not want to negotiate, and when Hanoi tried to clarify that it was in fact willing to negotiate, it was ignored by the US government and media. In fact Hanoi had made several moves to try an institute negotiations which the State Department and even the hawkish Ray Cline (at the time, acting Director of Central Intelligence) agreed were probably real.[72]

Because the US was not actually willing to negotiate, “graduated response” is not really a strategy, and provides no actual rationale for US behaviour. By claiming to seek negotiations which the US would not itself allow, the US could continue bombing without any military strategic rationale, without having to give a reason. To maintain the illusion the Johnson administration would periodically cease bombing before any planned escalation. James William Gibson writes that the, “sense in which the [bombing] pause was for political appearances only can be discerned in most memoranda.”[73]

The really striking thing about “graduated response”, though, is that there was no real pretense that the bombing was designed to degrade military capabilities to improve military outcomes in the field. If the point was to drive the DRV to negotiate by “reprisal” then it is obvious that this is not a military exercise at all. The inevitable non-combatant casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure and property is no longer “collateral damage” in an attack on military targets, it is part of the intentional target. So even if the US had been trying to force the DRV to negotiate, there were using genocidal means to do so and they showed genocidal intent. It is a very clear breach of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) which prohibits the intentional destruction “in whole or in part” of a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Mass Murder in Viet Nam

There is no denying that the US visited systematic destruction on Laos, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. Those who deny the genocides usually do so on the grounds that the US did not have a genocidal intent. As I showed, the policy of graduated response shows that genocidal intent existed. But even genocide scholars often seem to think that “genocidal intent” only exists when that genocidal intent is itself a motive. This is the equivalent of saying that if I kill you in order to steal your watch I am not guilty of murder because I am was just using deadly means incidentally, as a means of acquiring your watch.

Genocide scholars are by no means above splitting hairs over intentionality in order to keep Western atrocities free of the stain of being labelled genocide. They largely reject even-handed simplicity. A straight-forward approach would inevitably force them to take intellectual stances that are politically uncomfortable with regard to settler-colonial history, US foreign policy, globalisation and neoliberalism, and, last but not least, Israel. Instead of maintaining clarity, these scholars tie themselves in knots of obfuscation, and in doing so they add more and more elements of unnecessary subjectivity to increasingly unreal and ornate theoretical constructs. They do so whilst complaining that the subject itself is too taxing and slippery for even the greatest of minds.

Mark Levene, to pick one example, described Spanish acts towards indigenous people at Potosí as the wholesale destruction of their political structures and autonomous power so that, suitably subjugated, their populations could be put to enforced work, in effect enslaved, in order to enrich their new Castilian masters.”[74] According to Levene, this is merely “hyper-exploitation” because it lacks exterminatory intent. He writes, “this was not a policy or strategy geared towards killing the natives or their replacements outright but extracting as much labor out of them as possible….”[75] This statement is quite simply wrong. These people were intentionally worked to death just like millions Jews, Slavs and Roma were worked to death by the Germans. There is no recognition given by Levene that up to 8 million people in Hispaniola were completely exterminated by the same empire using the same institutions,[76] even though he acknowledges their extinction as a result of contact with Europeans. Instead he merely writes, “There are conditions in which extermination may also emerge out of hyper-exploitation, most obviously when native peoples revolt against their oppressors, leading to the latter’s retributive over-kill.”[77]

Levene is formulating a typical expression of Western exceptionalist doublethink. He acknowledges acts of near inconceivable savagery, but then creates an interpretation which suggests that this savagery is only the accidental by-product of a far more essential Western rationality. This is nothing but conventional self-replicating racism. Levene automatically seeks evidence of rational self-interest on the part of Western actors, which then over-rides any evidence of racial animus and appetitive savagery. Conversely, when dealing with non-Western actors he seeks evidence of animus which then effaces issues of rational self-interest.

The irony is that Levene does an excellent job elsewhere of analysing the Revolutionary French genocide against the people of the Vendée when there was a counter-revolutionary insurgency. Therein he balances the passionate brutality and the cold calculations of a bureaucratic machinery of mass-murder. I assume that for someone like Levene it is somewhat easier to see savagery as a symptomatic part of Western culture if it is a revolutionary savagery. The funny thing is that historians of the period who are not familiar with the concept of genocide accuse him of imputing a genocidal motive because they can’t distinguish between intent and motive. I would laugh, if I wasn’t so busy raging ineffectually from the margins.

I have shown that in one policy, the US demonstrated genocidal intent towards Viet Nam, or at least the northern part of it. But one of the things that made the concept of genocide so brilliant from the first was that Lemkin always understood that genocide would, by nature, be expressed in many different ways. John Docker describes Lemkin’s conception as being “composite and manifold… a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group.”[78]

The genocide in South Viet Nam was more intense than anywhere else in Indochina, but also more complex and confusing. Much was similar to the situation in Cambodia. People were driven from the countryside to be concentrated in urban slums, a process Samuel Huntington described as “refugee generation”.[79] The RVN was also made economically dysfunctional by US “aid”. The result was a partly surreal country of militarism, consumerism, grief, poverty and degraded anomie. This was the society documented by Philip Jones Griffiths in his book-length photo-essay Vietnam Inc. which showed maimed civilians, beggars, drugs, and child soldiers. It showed that the war permeated everything. It was a world populated by a lost people ripped out of normality and placed in a new landscape strewn with alien protrusions of war machinery, billboards, craters, corpses and girly bars. Griffiths explicitly contextualised it all as a twisted form of business enterprise.[80] He later told Christian Appy, “The closer you got to the war… the more you objected to what you saw. Eventually I believed that what America was doing in Vietnam was genocide.”[81]

photographer-philip-jones-griffiths-in-vietnam-Little TigerCalled “Little Tiger,” rumored to have killed two “Vietcong women cadre”—his mother and teacher. Vietnam, 1968. Photograph by Philip Jones Griffiths © Philip Jones Griffiths / Magnum Photos

Here are some quotes from Lemkin that are apposite:

  • The destruction of the foundations of the economic existence of a national group necessarily brings about a crippling of its development, even a retrogression. The lowering of the standards of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms.”[82]
  • In order to weaken the spiritual resistance of the national group, the occupant attempts to create an atmosphere of moral debasement within this group. According to this plan, the mental energy of the group should be concentrated upon base instincts and should be diverted from moral and national thinking. It is important for the realization of such a plan that the desire for cheap individual pleasure be substituted for the desire for collective feelings and ideals based upon a higher morality. Therefore, the occupant made an effort in Poland to impose upon the Poles pornographic publications and movies. The consumption of alcohol was encouraged, for while food prices have soared, the Germans have kept down the price of alcohol, and the peasants are compelled by the authorities to take spirits in pay agricultural produce. The curfew law, enforced very strictly against Poles is relaxed if they can show the authorities a ticket to one of the gambling houses which the Germans have allowed to come into existence.”[83]
  • Their general plan was to win the peace though the war be lost, and that goal could have been achieved through successfully changing the political and demographic interrelationships in Europe in favor of Germany. The population not destroyed was to be integrated in the German cultural, political and economic pattern.”[84]

It might surprise people that Lemkin put so much emphasis on cultural, economic, political, social and moral destruction. He didn’t actually devote any more time to the physical destruction of group members than he did to the seven other “techniques of genocide”. When he first described genocide even his account physical destruction was not particularly focussed on killing. He was more detailed about the way in which differential access to food was being used to increase mortality rates. Nevertheless, our common understanding quite naturally leads us to link genocide with mass killings of civilians. Even today there is a degree of interest and attention paid to the intimate acts of murder and massacre that US personnel undertook. In 2003 Michael Sallah started reporting based on atrocities uncovered but kept quiet by the US Army Criminal Investigation Command (CIC). In 2006, with Mitch Weiss, he published Tiger Force, in which the eponymous elite military unit were revealed to have prolifically tortured, raped, murdered and mutilated.[85] In 2007 a German book was published by Bernd Greiner which drew heavily on the files of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group (VWCWG) to document how US actions became “a war against civilians”. An English translation was published in 2010.[86] The VWCWG was formed in response to the My Lai massacre. It was intended to ensure that the US military was never again caught unprepared by revelations of atrocities. Like the CIC it uncovered many atrocities, documented them and buried them again. Since 2004 most of their files have effectively been blocked from public access.[87] In 2005 Nick Turse published a doctoral dissertation based on VWCWG documents.[88] This led to a series of articles in the LA Times with Deborah Nelson, which formed the basis of The War Behind Me in 2008.[89] Last, but by no means least, came Turse’s book Kill Anything that Moves in 2013.[90]

Collectively these works reveal a horrifying pattern of war crimes – brutal intimate crimes of personal savagery. They add immeasurably to the often derided testimonies of dissident GIs and veterans who tried to tell people what was happening. But this emphasis on massacre at close quarters threatens to overshadow the greater picture of civilian deaths. Most US personnel did not personally kill civilians and most civilians who were killed by US personnel died without their killers ever being close enough to see the terror and pain on their faces. These acts were part of a larger picture of killing.

Bernd Greiner deliberately chooses to isolate acts of violence in “close proximity” from violence at an “anonymous distance”.[91] Instead of placing the situationally generated personal violence within the context of other systematic acts of mass murder, he contextualises the violence by regurgitating the orthodox scholarship that contends that everything the US did was the result of miscalculating, maladaptation and dysfunction. He even repeats the irrational, but common, contention that “assymetrical warfare” makes material superiority “more of a curse” than a blessing.[92] Like Levene he is artificially separating the intimate brutal mass-murder from the calculated dispassioned policies of mass-murder in order to explain each and abberations in terms which, without the artificial cognitive distance, would readily be revealed to be contradictory.

The real story is only understood by seeing how the distant mass murder and the intimate mass murder both fit within the context of “composite and manifold” acts of destruction of which they are only a part.

At one point Turse and Nelson travelled to part of Quang Nam province to find the site of a massacre detailed in US investigation files. They had an uncertain location. In three days of looking for the site they were shown a total of 5 massacre sites where a total of 8 different massacres had occurred, 5 committed by US personnel. They were unable to find the site of the massacre:we thought we’d be looking for a needle in a haystack of hamlets, not a haystack of massacres.”[93] The factors which lead to such widespread mass murder were not cultural but rather systemic results of deliberate choices. US personnel were primed through indoctrination and then situated in such a manner as to generate a predisposition towards atrocities. US personnel were placed in what Robert Jay Lifton has referred to as “atrocity-producing-situations”. The problem is that even after 40 years of consistently creating these “atrocity producing situations” even Lifton himself will not entertain the notion that the atrocities are an intended result.

I will begin, then, by printing the testimony of S. Brian Willson. He was one of very few people who was forced to confront intimately the results of an airstrike on a village. The Vietnamese farmers had extraodinarily strong ties to their land and practiced a Confucian reverence for the shrines of ancestors. So, predictably, when a free-fire zone was declared many would remain behind, sleeping in bunkers and often living with the nightmare of nightly shelling. Those people faced the further risk of aerial bombardment. S. Brian Willson was assigned to guard Bin Tui, an airbase in South Vietnam, in which position he was given the duty of helping assess bombing missions, in April 1969, to ensure that pilots were not deliberately missing their targets. His description of the first such mission includes, “…a sea of bodies. Probably 100 to 120 corpses. A few of them were moving, most were still. This was 15 minutes after the bombing.” The village had been bombed in the middle of the day, when the healthy adults were at work in the fields, so the victims were all the children, the elderly, the infirm and childminders. The military situation was such that just two officers were able to arrive 15 minutes after the bombing without any endangerment to themselves. Willson’s companion, an VNAF Lieutenant replied to Willson’s protestations: “They’re communists, this is a victory,” and they left the wounded to die. Willson believed there was some mistake, but soon discovered that, because the entire province had been declared a free-fire zone, the villages were systematically being destroyed without reference to whether or not there was intelligence of enemy activity. Willson described this as “a deliberate systematic plan to wipe out the civilian population.”[94] In a written account of the same event, Willson adds, “At one dramatic moment I encountered at close range a young wounded woman lying on the ground clutching three young disfigured children. I stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. Upon closer examination, I discovered that she, and what I presumed were her children, all were dead, but napalm had melted much of the woman’s facial skin, including her eyelids.”[95]

Free-fire zones unavoidably make a mockery of Greiner’s attempt to keep intimate and distant violent separate. In South Vietnam the number and extent of free-fire zones kept expanding. By the beginning of 1967, according to Neil Sheehan: “Free-fire zones proliferated so rapidly with new red lines on maps for laying waste that it was no longer possible to keep track of their number and the total area they encompassed.”[96]

The spread of free-fire zones was only made possible by the fact that US armed forces did not actually occupy or “pacify” rural South Vietnam, a circumstance which will be examined below. By 1969 they encompassed 75% of South Vietnam.[97] Though the Rules of Engagement (ROE) officially specified otherwise, examples abound of the military authorities encouraging troops to consider all persons in a free-fire zone to be a legitimate target. Weiss and Sallah detail multiple instances where it is clear that Tiger Force had been led to believe that “free-fire” meant that they had complete discretion and could legitimately kill whoever they wanted.[98] Eventually the Orwellian logic predominated to such an extent that Westmoreland, in 1969, was able to baldly claim that absolutely no civilians had ever been killed by the US in designated free-fire zones, because no-one in a free-fire zone was a civilian, by definition.[99]

This had been building for a long time. For many years the US had used militarily counterproductive tactics which systematically killed civilians and were a major impetus in fuelling the armed insurrection against the US-installed regime in Saigon. As early as 1962, with the war continually gaining momentum, US Colonel John Paul Vann observed an ARVN tactic of randomly shelling and bombing civilian structures which “kills many, many more civilians than it ever does VC and as a result makes new VC.”[100] When he and Colonel Daniel Boone Porter confronted Westmoreland’s predecessor, General Paul Harkins, with an appeal “to stop this self-defeating slaughter”, in Neil Sheehan’s words, “he turned out to be as dense in his own way as the Saigon commanders. Instead of using his influence to put a halt to the bombardments he was furthering them.”[101]

It should be noted here that with respect to major military policies, doctrines and significant recurrent tactics, the ARVN followed the dictates of the US military. The US exercised veto power over their allies actions because they were so essential a point of supply. As Roger Warner observed this gives the US complete power over the strategy of dependents like the Hmong forces in Laos.[102] In 1969 ARVN General Cao Van Vien said: “We Vietnamese have no military doctrine because the command of all operations in Vietnam is in the hands, is the responsibility, of the American side. We followed the American military doctrine.”[103] The fact is that the US simply dictated to the various RVN regimes what numbers and what kinds of forces it desired,[104] and when a regime was insufficiently compliant it was overthrown.

As it happened, despite further years of experience which confirmed Vann’s prognosis that randomly killing civilians would increase the numbers of the NLF, the US armed forces and those of their allies employed a virtually identical method of employing artillery, which they termed Harassment and Interdiction (H&I) fire. This was unobserved artillery fire, usually employed every night on places such as cross-roads in designated free-fire zones. It was not until the US had been doing this for 3 more years that General Creighton Abrams (who replaced William Westmoreland) urged his commanders to reduce the amount of H&I fire.[105]

In fact, the H&I tactic was only one way in which the US either directly or indirectly assured that civilians would be injured or killed by US ordnance. The most obvious being the free-fire zones. These were essentially identical, in terms of logic, to the way the Saigon commanders had justified their “butchery and sadism” to John Paul Vann in 1962, by the assertion that geographical location was proof of sympathies, and sympathy with the “Viet Cong” made for a legitimate target.[106] Before the term free-fire zone was invented, the phrase used was “solid VC areas” and by 1963 some US personnel had adopted the logic behind the characterisation: the USAF 362nd Squadron began shooting civilians for sport in these “de facto free-fire zones”.[107]

The way free-fire zones worked was through the way actions were allowed under the US armed forces ROE. US troops on the ground were still bound, in theory at least, to respect civilian life, but any person who ran, regardless of age, was a “VC”, and hence was to be killed. Philip Caputo, a USMC Lieutenant who was later to become a reporter and antiwar activist, asked the obvious question at the time: “Why should the act of running identify someone as a communist?”[108] Note that he is not questioning the rightness of killing someone unarmed because they had a particular political orientation. Turse finds the “purest expression” of the ROE logic on a death certificate which lists external cause of death as “Running from U.S. forces.”[109]

For those operating machine-guns in helicopters or boats, and for those able to strafe with aeroplanes, this rule became a license for mass-murder among those who wished to commit such an act. Gibson gives the example of testimony by a helicopter gunner:

“We had another rule, the use of evasive action. Anyone taking evasive action could be fired upon. Evasive action was never explained to me. It normally entailed someone running or trying to evade a helicopter or any fire.

“My unit, the gunships in my unit had installed MP sirens. Police sirens on the helicopter and we used these for psychological effect, to intimidate people.

“There is one incident I recall where we new over a large rice paddy, and there were some people working in the rice paddy, maybe a dozen or fifteen individuals, and we passed over their heads and they didn’t take any action, they were obviously nervous, but they didn’t try to hide or anything. So we then hovered a few feet off the ground among them with the two helicopters, turned on the police sirens and when they heard the Police sirens, they started to disperse and we opened up on them and just shot them all down.”

Gibson gives another such example before concluding: “United States forces thus consciously created conditions specified by rules of engagement to open fire and produce a body count.”[110] It would not take a lot of such behaviour before, predictably, the Vietnamese would run as soon as they saw a US helicopter or boat. Herman and Chomskly quote the “pro-Western” Japanese journalist Katsuichi Honda who described machine-gunners “firing away at random at farmhouses” and “using farmers for targets as if in a hunting mood”.[111]

In terms of the scale of suffering and death the actions of machine-gunners are nearly insignificant when compared with the consequences of aerial bombardment. For both air and ground artillery purposes anyone within a free-fire zone was a legitimate target. When a new free-fire zone was declared, leaflets were dropped on the villagers instructing them to assemble at certain points to be taken away by helicopter to a new life, generally in a camp or as a refugee. What followed the leaflet drop was known as the “mad minutes” because after as little as an hour had elapsed since the leaflets were dropped, the US would begin artillery bombardment.[112]

Another institution which promoted the killing of civilians was the body count. As Joanna Bourke said: “The ‘body count’ of the Vietnam War formalized psychological processes of dehumanisation….”[113] It should be said at the outset that “body counts” and “kill ratios” are not some logical outcome of an attrition policy. Attrition is about destroying an enemy’s forces and given the situation in South Vietnam[114] it would have made far more sense to emphasise achieving this by the capture or destruction of weapons and supplies. The body count in Vietnam was not just about facilitating violence against enemy combatants, it also created an incentive and inclination to kill civilians. Marilyn Young concluded thatlogic seemed to have no end short of the progressive elimination of the population of the South.”[115]

The practice of counting civilian dead as the enemy was known as the “mere gook rule”, and was the direct result of “pressure from on high for ever larger body counts”.[116] Jonathan Neale summarises the logic: “In effect, the American plan was to kill the Vietnamese until they gave up. The pressure for this was relentless. The Pentagon demanded statistics. In some rear unit’s the officers chalked the cumulative kills on a board. Officers knew their careers would depend on their numbers. And although the officers seldom said, ‘Kill all the civilians you can,’ they seldom criticized anybody for doing that, and often praised them.”[117] According to Gibson: “Producing a high body count was crucial for promotion in the officer corps. Many high-level officers established ‘production quotas’ for their units, and systems of ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ to calculate exactly how efficiently subordinate units and middle-management personnel performed.”[118] There were often rewards for kills as a former GI recalls: “There was a real incentivizing of death and it just fucked with our value system. In our unit guys who got confirmed kills would get a three-day in-country R and R.”[119] Perhaps more significantly, a failure to meet a “production quota” could sometimes mean being returned immediately to dangerous duty.[120]

A further institution which promoted the killing of civilians was the “search and destroy” mission. The search and destroy mission is mainly notable as an inherent part of of the ‘Fire-power/Attrition’ strategy, but such things are all inter-connected. The significance of search and destroy missions in terms of killing civilians is very well summed up by Michael Bernhardt, who was present at the My Lai massacre: “I think something like My Lai probably had happened many times before. It was just a matter of scale. Here’s the thing. The whole war effort was built on three pillars-the free-fire zone, the search-and-destroy mission, and the body count. The free-fire zone means shoot anybody that moves. The search-and-destroy mission is just another way to shoot anything that moves. I call it the portable free-fire zone – you tote it around anywhere you go. And the body count is the tool for measuring the success or failure of whatever you’re doing. When you’ve got those three things it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how it’s going to end up.”[121]

These circumstances, along with the abovementioned institutions, created a situational predisposition to kill civilians which might be strongly at odds with the actual values of the individual serviceman. Gibson insists that “atrocities against Vietnamese routinely resulted from the production logic in which the war was conceptualized and fought.”[122]

A very significant circumstance was the endemic racial animus amongst US troops, usually against East Asians as a whole. In training US military personnel were taught to hate their enemy in explicitly racial terms such as “gook”, “slope”, “dink”, “gooner” and “zipperhead”. These terms did not, of course, distinguish combatant status, nor political affiliation, nor even nationality and ethnicity. The result was that even Asian American’s were in danger of being shot because in the belief that they were Vietnamese (one was advised to dye his hair blond and whistle dixie when it got dark).[123] Many, if not most, combat troops came to see all Vietnamese as the enemy, but ironically there was considerable respect for their actual armed opponents, the PLAF and PAVN.[124] Contempt and hatred was particularly extended to their allies: “Many [US Troops] now regarded the ARVN, indeed all Vietnamese, with open contempt. At the same time they came to think of the VC/PAVN as a resourceful and able foe.”[125]

Adding to this was the sense of fear that derived from sense of being universally hated and the hysteria generated therefrom. eale, before detailing the common ways in which US troops would commit serious acts of violence against children for sport, writes: “The old soldiers told the new soldiers the truth [sic]: those children hate us. They know where the mines are. They want us to die.” Having established this “truth” Neale goes on to detail the common practice of throwing full cans of c-rations at childrens heads to split them open.[126] Other such “truths” about the local population would spread amonst the troops, including the belief that Vietnamese children sold poisoned Coke,[127] that the Vietnamese would rig their own babies with explosives to kill GIs, and that prostitutes would boobytrap their vaginas with broken glass.[128]

These rumours are symptomatic of a larger sense of panic and insecurity, and their infantile nature should not distract from the deadly seriousness of the mental condition of the US troops. Former medic George Evans describes the circumstances under which two young boys had died: “I found out they’d been hit by an American military truck and that there was this kind of game going on in which, supposedly, guys were driving through town gambling over who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like ‘gook hockey’.”[129]

Such behaviours are both a result and a cause of an alienation, a massive gulf between Vietnamese and US servicemen, but one of the greatest reasons for that separation lay in the US policy of 1 year tours of duty. As a former ARVN interpreter explains: “The GIs didn’t understand anything at all about Vietnam. They always talked about being here for just one year. Look at their calendars- XXX every day. Everywhere GIs lived they had their calendars, marking off every day, counting the days. By the time they had some understanding, it was time to leave.”[130] The whole culture of the US personnel was one in which Vietnam was not even real, while the US was the “World”.

Just as soldiers of other nations have been, US military personnel were desensitised to violence, fear, pain, and death as part of their formal training. A sample of boot camp experiences is given by Gibson:

“We were told that “the only good gook is a dead gook, and the more gooks you kill, the more slant-eyes you can kill in Vietnam, that is the less you will have to worry about them killing you at night.”

“Now in this training they referred to the Vietnamese as dinks or gooks. The impression was that they were something less than human. I had a drill sergeant in AIT [Advanced Infantry Training] reply to a question, ‘What is it like over there?’; and he told us, he said, ‘It is like hunting rabbits and squirrels.’

“…the main word was, ‘Kill. Kill. Kill.’ all the time, they then pushed it into your head twenty-four hours a day. Even before you sat down to eat your meals, you had to stand up and scream ‘Kill’ before you could sit down and eat.”[131]

Gibson also prints some of the chants used in drill, such as: “VC, VC, kill, kill, kill. Gotta kill, gotta kill, ’cause it’s fun, ’cause it’s fun.”[132] Obviously desensitisation not only facilitates the killing of the enemy, but it is a blunt instrument which also promotes killing per se. One of the most famous of all boot camp cadences from the Vietnam era had the refrain: “Napalm sticks to kids!” Perhaps this particular desensitising phrase was relevant to the conditions that the personnel were about to face, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with combat and the ability to perform the role of a soldier.

It is also a departure from normal military practice to induce unreasonable fear in the soldiers being trained. One former air hostess described the men en route to Vietnam: “These were boys destined for combat and they had been told in training what their expected mortality rate was. I remember an air force Blue Beret actually told me they were trained to die. He didn’t expect ever to go home.”[133] Actually, US casualties were extremely light in the Second Indochina War with less than 2% of those who served in or over Indochina being killed. Naturally the burden was not even and some faced a much higher risk. Nevertheless, in comparison with the odds faced, even by their own countrymen and women, in World War II, these were not in themselves figures which should have induced despondency.

Nevertheless, the sense of peril permeated everything. William Calley, who massacred civilians at My Lai, had this to say about his training: It was drummed into us, ‘Be sharp! On guard! As soon as you think these people won’t kill you, ZAP! In combat you haven’t friends! You have enemies!’ Over and over at OCS we heard this, and I told myself, I’ll act as if I’m never secure. As if everyone in Vietnam would do me in. As if everyone’s bad.”[134]

The fear felt by US troops was increased by the failure or outright refusal of their commanders to create securely policed occupied territory. Instead massive base camps were constructed which were like small cities, such as one Long Binh which “boasted movie theaters, slot machines, steam baths, restaurant complexes, lawns and flower beds….”[135] This was another factor which kept the US personnel segregated from the local population (except in I Corps where the Marines referred to their compatriots as ‘ice-cream soldiers’),[136] and created a situation where there were highly Americanised islands of safety in a sea of Vietanmese hostility and danger.

Another effect of US tactics at this time was that when on patrol or Search and Destroy missions, ground forces were essentially being used as bait. They would walk until making “contact” (which the US’s own figures indicate was almost always a case of coming under fire from the enemy) and then radio in air and ground artillery strikes.[137] Actually, this manner of emphasising fire-power may have been an effective way of minimising US casualties,[138] but it led to a strong sense of spatial insecurity. Spencer Tucker wrote: “The dominant idea was to locate its enemy using infantry as a reconnaissance force and then destroy him with artillery and air power. Notoriously wasteful of matériel resources, this indiscriminate method meant that innocent civilians often got caught in the crossfire. It also lead to ‘firebase psychosis’ whereby US commanders grew reluctant to commit troops beyond the range of firebase support.”[139] All of this, for the actual ground troops, must have created a complete sense of demoralising powerlessness.

There was also a sense of futility generated. The author Tim O’Brien told Christian Appy: “It was just a blur of going from village to village through paddies with no sense of destination, or mission, or purpose. You’d just wake up and go to a village, search it, and leave. Somebody might die or not, and you’d come back a month later to the same damn village and do it again. It was like going in circles and not really achieving anything. You weren’t winning hearts and minds and you weren’t winning ground. You didn’t know who to shoot unless they were shooting at you. The enemy seemed to be everywhere and nowhere.”[140] The result was that, in one former infantryman’s words, “…slowly as fear mounted frustration and rode down a crippled confidence, as callousness started taking over from condescension in our attitude to the Vietnamese, our vision blurred, clouded over, and refocused. Where before we had found it difficult to see the enemy anywhere, now we saw him everywhere. It was simple now; the Vietnamese were the Viet Cong, the Viet Cong were the Vietnamese. The killing became so much easier now.”[141]

Of course, atrocities committed by troops on the ground contibuted only a tiny part of the overall suffering in south Vietnam, let alone Indochina as a whole. But they must have played a very significant role in encouraging people to take up arms against the US. They also give insight into the US military effort as a whole. What is striking about accounts of atrocities is that frequently there is no trigger as such, merely a momentary failure of will against ongoing pressures which effectively made murder the path of least resistance. Tiger Force (an elite unit) were pressured into being “productive”, through the usual means, but as their habitual killing of civilians became known to superiors they were actually consciously used as a death squad (I can think of no other term) by battalion commanders. Sallah and Weiss give considerable detail about this process which is too complicated to summarise here, but on at least 8 occasions they highlight the centrality of orders coming from officers not in the field.[142]

Genocidal logic or Military Illogic?

I think it is safe to reduce my thesis here to the following: The US committed genocide in Indochina and because of that Viet Nam lost the “war” in far more substantive ways than it won by achieveing a military victory. In some ways you could say that both sides won in the terms on which they chose to fight. But the US, a global hegemon, had the luxury of playing the longer game and was also able to force the each of the Indochinese regimes (ally, enemy or neutral) into a internationalised high-tech industrial conflict that none of them would have chosen.

I should note here that though much of this article is copied from a post-graduate research paper I wrote in 2008, there is much of relevance in that dissertation that I have not relayed here. The most important is that the US forced its opponents to fight, despite considerable reluctance. It shouldn’t surprise anyone really, but no one wanted to go to war with them most powerful military on the planet.[143]

Another thing which is detailed throughout the paper is the way the militarily counterproductive actions of US forces helped maintain and sustain their enemies. I have alluded to the fact that killing civilians helps recruit enemies, and as it happens Ben Kiernan has just this week published, with co-author Taylor Owen, an article reitierating: “During the four years of United States B-52 bombardment of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, the Khmer Rouge forces grew from possibly one thousand guerrillas to over 200,000 troops and militia.”

The US also acted in ways which ensured that their enemies were well armed. An indication of how crucial the US was in arming the PLAF can be gotten from the figure given by investigative reporter I. F. Stone, who revealed estimates that in 1965 97.5 per cent of PLAF weapons were of non-communist origin.[144] Some of these may have been captured weapons from the Korean War, transshipped via China, but this is nevertheless an eye-opening figure.

Insurgencies do tend to arm themselves by raiding, but the US military facilitated this inestimably. They maintained a series of easily over-run watchtowers which advisers such as John Paul Vann, believing them to be a result of ARVN stupidity, actually referred to as “VC supply points.”[145] These watchtowers were remnants of the First Indochina War and had been a disastrous burden on the French war effort, tying up 70% of French forces. By 1953 even the French knew that the towers were worse than useless. Bernard Fall described them as “downright ridiculous”.[146] And yet they remained in place right through to the Americanisation of the war. Philip Caputo was astounded to see them in 1965: “If this was a real war zone what were those anachronisms doing here? Their only conceivable us would be as registration points for VC mortar batteries.”[147]

Trading with the enemy also played a very large role in supplying insurgents. US aid was often known to go directly to the enemy. Gibson asks the question, “Why would the war-managers willingly acquiesce in the theft of so much American aid, especially when it sometimes ended in the grasp of the enemy?” The possible answers he provides are that it was either the price the US had to pay for GVN officials to co-operate or that the US could not intervene because to do so would belie the pretence of RVN sovereignty.[148] Neither of these explanations comes close to sufficing because, as Gibson’s own exposition reveals, the system was one created by the US from scratch. The US was also unconstrained by the pretence of sovereignty, and RVN sovereignty was only ever an excuse for not taking actions that were considered undesirable but which it behoved the US to evince support for. Finally it should be noted that GVN officials could have been bought off quite sufficiently without fostering an arms supply for the NLF. ARVN corruption was largely a result of pathetic pay rates – pay rates set by the US.[149]

US profligacy with fire-power also helped the PLAF – a Captain from the tunnel complex at Cu Chi said: “We hardly received any… weapons from the North. … We needed explosives and fortunately soon found them lying all around us on the ground.”[150] Tucker, writing of the earlier parts of the war, summarises the situation with these words, “new weapons that the US provided the ARVN merely meant that the VC would now capture newer, better American weapons….”[151]

Not content with arming and supplying their enemies, it can be argued that the US even contrived to provide them, rest, recreation and medical facilities which also provided sanctuary from the US military’s own offensive operations. I refer here to the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) programme, putatively set up to facilitate defections from the PLAF. This programme was administered by the GVN, but designed, overseen and funded by the US. It consisted of centres spread around South Vietnam where defectors could safely go. It is generally considered to have been a great success because of the large numbers of defectors reported and because of its “cost-effectiveness”, reportedly only $125.12 per “returnee”.[152] But a social psychologist sent in 1966 to study US “psywar” efforts later wrote, “there was no way to know if the so-called ‘defectors’ were what they claimed to be. Anyone who showed up at one of these centers and claimed to be a ‘defector’ was given a bed. We do know that some genuine VC moved into these centers whenever U.S. Army divisions began military operations in their area. Thus the centers became ‘safe havens’ when the heat was on and even provided medical treatment to those wounded in action….”[153]

It is often said that the Vietnamese used their cunning oriental Sun Tzu-inspired military ways to turn US strength against itself. The US is generally represented as being almost stupidly and obtusely plain and open. Gabriel Kolko, for example, said that US officials didn’t really have a concept of historical trends.[154] The truth is almost the complete opposite. The US applied a great deal of abstruse and convoluted ideas which often employed deception. In fact the US had highly sophisticated intelligence and strategy formulation systems. They applied psychosocial and anthropological disciplines rigorously. The US produced large “Psychological Operations” reports on each of the three Indochinese nations in the late 1950s (note well that they produced one report for Vietnam) which the material, social, cultural and psychological milieu of each nation and how to exploit it. However parochial the viewpoint may have been, the US was therefore working with complex and highly informed rather than ignorant and simple-minded premises.[155] Incidentally, the US was also able to bring considerable anthropological acumen to bear when it came to working with the Hmong of Laos[156] and the Montagnards of Vietnam.[157]

In contrast, the PLAF and PAVN were almost completely confined to strictly military actions attacking the physical and moral military strength of their enemies. Their most important military leader, Vo Nguyen Giap, was a keen student of Clausewitz, of T. E. Lawrence, and of Mao Tse Tung who was also heavily influenced by Clausewitz.[158]

The most bitter irony is not the racism of those who assume that Vietnamese leaders would never employ strategic and tactical thinking from Western theorists, but rather that the relative weakness of the DRV regime meant that they could not afford anything but a fully committed outright military struggle. The French, whose war was paid for by the US, would make no concessions to the Viet Minh until they were clearly defeated. But what they won on the battlefield was stripped from them at the negotiating table. The DRV was in dire economic straits due to the ravages of war and colonialism, which, ultimately, was the reason that they even allowed Vietnam to be divided at the Geneva Conference despite having shown they were capable, if the war continued, of winning a complete politico-military victory.[159] The Viet Minh occupied most of Vietnam and Laos and had won a major victory at An Tuc near the 14th parallel. They wanted a temporary division at the 13th or 14th parallel and knew that by accepting a division at the 17th parallel they were facilitating a partition.[160] Douglas Pike, a US official as well as a scholar, puts it forthrightly: “Ironically the agreement in Geneva benefited all parties except the winners.”[161]

So ultimately, despite racial stereotyping, the enemies of the US could do nothing but fight a relatively straightforward military struggle, using the best tactics available to them, until the self-fulfilling prophecy of Communist tanks entering Saigon came to pass. It was the US that exploited Hanoi’s own strengths against it, making the 1973 peace agreement akin to the 1954 peace agreement. This time, however, when the US did not live up to the deal it was inevitable that the DRV would finish the military conquest, creating “visuals” that appeared as the conquest of an aggressor, not an act of liberation or reunification.

The US left to the military victor a deeply divided country which they had partitioned for 21 years. The economy was stretched thin in the North and fragmented, poisoned and half-immolated in the South. Kiernan and Owen write that the latest research suggests that “from 1961 to 1972, American aircraft dropped approximately one million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, and much more on rural areas of South Vietnam – approximately 4 million tons of bombs, 400,000 tons of napalm, and 19 million gallons of herbicides.”

The evidence that the US committed genocide in Indochina is overwhelming. There were statements of clear genocidal intent; there were policies that embodied genocidal intent; every other major policy, practice, or common tactic seemed to belong to a system which maximised the death and destruction visited on the peoples of Indochina. This system seemed equally to be hostile to military efforts, and US actions also blocked all avenues to peace apart from total conquest by Communist-led anti-US forces. This left 3 countries bearing enormous physical, psychological, cultural, social, political, ecological and biological wounds.

To clarify, I think it is safe to reduce the possibilities to two interpretations. A) The US was trying to fight a war, but was for various reasons unable to act in a logical politico-military manner and despite its material superiority was defeated by a weaker but more coherent enemy. B) The US was always engaged in the business of genocide. Recurrent decisions were made on the basis of the desirability of inflicting varying forms destruction on the peoples of Indochina as such. This destruction included, but was not limited to, mass physical violence on a scale which cannot be explained in military terms. The genocide gave the US an effective victory over Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam despite the military defeat suffered by the US.

We can think of these as hypotheses A and B. Obviously these are not experimentally falsifiable in the way that the ideal scientific hypothesis is. We can’t re-run the entire war and see if it looks different if we ensure there is no genocide, but it is still illuminating to put these in the context of what is considered meritous for hypotheses in science. Most important among those meritous qualities are explanatory power, parsimony and predictive ability.

So how do they stack up?

Hypothesis A doesn’t actually explain events very well. It does explain why Khmer Rouge soldiers took over Phnom Penh 40 years ago, and why Bui Tin told Minh he had no power to surrender. However, it doesn’t really explain the events leading up to that conclusion. US militarists are fond of saying that the US was never defeated in the field in Vietnam. That is utter nonsense, of course, but they never lost anything to force of arms that they couldn’t get back (except morale). There is a very clear disjuncture between all of the years of military success and the finalé of defeat that doesn’t comport with hypothesis A.

Hypothesis B explains a surprising amount. It isn’t a complete explanation for everything, but almost everything the US did in Indochina fits within the framework of genocide. To name a few such things: cluster munitions; strategic hamlets; Operation Speedy Express; Operation Menu; one-year tours of duty; the Phoenix Programme; Agent Orange; child soldiers and ghost soldiers.[162]

Hypothesis A is very far from parsimonious. In fact in important respects, hypothesis A is not a hypothesis at all, but a presumption which has spawned innumerable ornate theories or theorycules about US politics, culture, decisionmaking, psychology, dysfunction, and so forth. For example, I have documented four different variants of quagmire thesis, all of which are distinct from concepts of stalemate, inadvertence, groupthink, and imperial presidency.[163]

According to common perception Hypothesis B might seem to lack parsimony. In the common imagination a project of genocide is something hatched by maniacal plotters behind closed doors and enacted by brutal fanatics. One could argue that this is a perfect description of what occurred in Indochina, but it is subjective. It presupposes that the observer will see the plotters and those who execute the plots as the “other”. It makes people think that they have to reconceptualise the way that US society works because they believe, by definition, that the ordinary functioning of US political power precludes a series of officials all systematically choosing to commit genocide over a period of time. They believe that it would involve special secrecy and Byzantine conspiracy. The reality is far more banal. The maniacal plotters are rational and ordinary men and women, just as the Nazi leaders were. The brutal fanatics are also just ordinary people – frighteningly so. There was a lot of secret conspiracy, that has been well established particularly with regard to the Nixon administrations, but much that was genocidal was simply done in the open.

In fact, hypothesis B requires only a partial corollary. The corollary is that even if the main thrust of US activity was defined by a project of genocide, many personnel, if not entire institutions, engaged earnestly in counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds and trying to establish democarcy and prosperity. The reason that this is only a partial corollary is that any such substantive effort was systematically undermined or subverted. Every bright idea that was fed into the US came out twisted into another interation of genocide. Efforts at “pacification” for example, spawned genocidal operations like Speedy Express. “Inkblot” counterinsurgency became “strategic hamlets”, “enclave strategy” and “refugee generation”. For any scholars of the 2nd Indochina War who still harbour doubts over the genocide, ask yourself whether it is really possible that all of those well-meaning and often very clever sounding military, political and civil actions somehow all came to inflict damage on the people they were supposed to help or co-opt.

Finally, I will turn to the predictive power of the hypotheses. Obviously this is not 1975, and it is not scientifically valid to make “predictions” in retrospect. But I am not doing science here, I am using concepts that are applied to science in order to show that the commonly accepted orthodox view of the 2nd Indochina War is hopelessly pathetic. That said, let us imagine what hypothesis A would predict. It would predict the “Vietnam Syndrome” and the massive reorganisation of the US military that followed the war. It would be highly consonant with the advent of the Powell Doctrine. In other words, the US military itself behaved very much like it had been defeated in a war. But in other respects the US did not seem like it had lost a war. As mentioned, it was not in any way subject to the power of the victors. In terms of international hegemony the US continued to grow in strength with its financial hegemony actually improving after it dropped the gold standard. The “Third World” – meaning the non-aligned countries – became the “Third World” – meaning impoverished debt-vassals to Western capital. The US won the Cold War and the Laos, Viet Nam and Cambodia embraced the “Washington Consensus”.

More strikingly, though, is the fact that with some reluctance on the part of the US military, the US has started making exactly the same “mistakes” repeatedly and for very protracted periods. Since 2001, the US has been on a spree of war-fighting “mistakes”. In fact, even whilst the war was still happening in Indochina, they were making the same “mistakes” in Latin America and continued to make those “mistakes” for as long as they could.

To put this in perspective there is no country on Earth that comes close to the US in its experience of fighting against insurgencies and irregular warfare once you account for Indian Wars, Cuba, Philippines, every Marine campaign from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, The Pacific War, Korea, Indochina, the entire Western hemisphere, “advisors”, “trainers”, schools, AFRICOM, CENTCOM and more besides. In fact, I dare say that all other countries in the history of humanity put together have not equalled the US in the sheer number of person hours devoted to counter-insurgency. So how then do we accept the constant diagnosis given by respected analysts who explain US “failures” in terms of their inability to fight insurgencies? Are we that stupid?

Now the counter-insurgency and conventional military “failures” are proliferating, and they all happen to experience the social, cultural, economic, ecological and political destruction, along with mass deaths, that signify genocide. Places like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Somalia resemble Lemkin’s description of the effects of German genocide very closely.

Hypothesis B might lead one to predict all of this. It could predict that genocidal events would occur in the Western hemisphere admixed with genuine counter-insurgency and politicidal violence by established comprador oligarchs. It would predict that client minorities in Apartheid South Africa and Israel would use the same tactics. It would predict that, as much as possible, the US would avoid the public and military morale problems that meant that it could not indefinitely continue violence against Indochina. In that vein, hypothesis B strongly resonates with actions such as declaring no-fly zones such as that imposed on Iraq during the sanctions period. It would predict that the US would often avoid “boots on the ground” of they were likely to cause exponentially mounting opposition. But where it had found them worthwile once, it would want to keep sending them back even after they had been withdrawn.

Hypothesis B would predict that once the hegemony of the US was threatened on a global scale its genocidal practices would spread. It would militarily intervene in ever more countries in order to weaken the nations and the peoples that threatened to break free of its control. It would exploit the weakness and instability it created in each intervention to perpetuate further destruction creating further weakness and instability which would allow further destruction. This would continue and proliferate until stopped by a fundamental change – either the complete collapse of US power altogether or a change in public perception which causes the genocidal acts to be clearly seen as genocidal and morally unacceptable. US military and economic power is immense and will not simply vanish overnight, so the first option is a guarantee of years of continued destuction, immiseration and death.

A or B?

[1] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, pp 80-1.

[2] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, 2.2.29. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p 93.

[3] Estimates of Cambodian deaths resulting from the 1970-75 war range from Vickery’s 500,000 killed (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 263) to a credible 1 million excess deaths Sorpong Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia: Towards Democracy? Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p 54. Given that the Cambodian population was an estimated 6 or 7 million in the period of the Second Indochina War, this gives us a figure of between 1 in 6 and 1 in 14 of all Cambodians killed. The US lost around 59,000 (Gibson, A Perfect War, p 9) out of a population around 200,000,000; or 1 in 3390. This gives a range of between 0.18 and 0.41 per cent.

[4] Between 1.8 and 3.2 million Vietnamese died (Neale, A People’s History, pp 75-6; S. Brian Willson, ‘Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity, the Crime of Vietnam and the Historic Pattern of US Imperialism’, in Adam Jones (ed.), Genocide, War Crimes and the West, p 169; Robert K. Brigham, ‘Why the South Won the American War in Vietnam’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 98) giving a range of between 1 in 9 and 1 in 16. This gives US percentages as being between 0.27 and 0.47 percent.

[5] Laos is extremely problematic in terms of counting the lives lost. The New York Times gives an estimated figure of 350,000 (Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 260). That is around 1 in 9, but the figure may be too low when one considers that, in addition to civil war, the Laotians in this period were subjected to 500,000 bombing missions which dropped over 2 million tons of bombs (Willson, ‘Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity…,’ p 168).

[6] Bureau of Economic Assessment, “Current-Dollar and “Real” Gross Domestic Product” [Computer spreadsheet file]. Retrieved 25 January 2008 from http://www.bea.gov/national/xls/gdplev.xls.

[7] William, Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia. London: Fontana, 1980 (1979), pp 220-1.

[8] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996, p 19.

[9] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 264.

[10] It ranks 139th on the Human Development Index, which is two places below Cambodia (United Nations Development Programme, ‘Country Fact Sheet – Lao People’s Democratic Republic’. Retrieved 21 April 2015 from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/cdp/ldc/profile/country_103.shtml Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index#Low_human_development).

[11] Hy V. Luong, ‘Postwar Vietnamese Society: An Overview of Transformational Dynamic’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, pp 12, 14.

[12] Nicholas Minot; Francesco Goletti, ‘Export Liberalization and Household Welfare: The Case of Rice in Vietnam’ in American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Nov., 1998), p 743. Minot and Goletti actually (to their own evident surprise) projected a slight overall drop in poverty, but they do so on the basis of changes in real income which do not take into account that rural persons are better able to acquire food without income expenditure. They also slightly underestimate the level of urbanisation – they use the 1990 figure of 20 per cent, when by the time of their writing the figure was over 23 per cent (Michael DiGregorio, A. Terry Rambo, Masayuki Yanagisawa, ‘Clean, Green, and Beautiful: Environment and Development under the Renovation Economy’ in Hy V. Luong (ed.), Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, p 189.) and do not account for future urbanisation. Michel Chossudovsky suggests that the Vietnamese did, in the actual event, become considerably poorer (Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order. Shanty Bay, Ontario: Global Outlook, 2003, p 168).

[13] Gilbert, ‘Introduction’, p 26.

[14] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, pp 77-8.

[15] Some of the metal was actually sold back to Viet Nam by a Japanese conglomerate at market rates (Chossudovsky, The Globalisation of Poverty…, pp 172-3).

[16] Adam Fforde and Suzanne H. Paine, The Limits of National Liberation. Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm, 1987, pp 127-8.

[17] Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp 172-3.

[18] John Pilger, “Year Zero” in John Pilger (ed.), Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, London: Vintage, 2005, pp 120-157. See also Alexander Laban Hinton, Why Did They Kill? : Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005;

[19] Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 143; Spencer C. Tucker, Vietnam. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p 196.

[20] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 260.

[21] Wilfred Burchett, The China, Cambodia, Vietnam Triangle. Chicago and London: Vanguard Books and Zed Press, 1981, pp 41-2.

[22] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 238.

[23] Ben Kiernan ‘The Samlaut Rebellion, 1967-68’ in Kiernan, Ben, and Boua, Chanthou (eds). Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981. London: Zed Press, 1982, pp 166-172.

[24] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 52-3, 55-7

[25] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 64-5.

[26] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 18.

[27] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 114-5.

[28] William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (2nd ed.), Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2004, pp 137-8; Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, pp 125-6; Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 114-23;

[29] Partly because the MACV produced figures 5 times as high as the more likely CIA figure. The Central Intelligence Agency agreed there was a flow through Cambodia, but its National Intelligence Estimate in 1968 put the level at only two thousand tons. Pacific Command intelligence essentially accepted the CIA estimate. The State Department argued that “what reliable evidence is available does not suggest that the operation is of the magnitude MACV describes.”’ Even the Pentagon questioned MACV methodology. CIA analyst Paul Walsh conducted ‘quite a sophisticated’ study, arriving ‘at a figure of something like six thousand tons from 1967 to early 1970. By then MACV’s claims were up to about eighteen thousand.’ (Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, p 236.

[30] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 64.

[31] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 202, 221, 251.

[32] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 19.

[33] Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991 pp 72, 186; William S. Turley, The Second Indochina War. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1986, pp 79-80; Tucker, Vietnam, p 129.

[34] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 140.

[35] Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 245.

[36] Shawcross, 1979, p 151.

[37] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, pp 19-23. Also see Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia, p 128.

[38] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 73, 180, 194-5, 261.

[39] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 249.

[40] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 254

[41] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 220.

[42] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 317-9.

[43] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 149.

[44] Peou, Intervention & Change in Cambodia , p 127.

[45] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 163.

[46] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 24.

[47] Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p 19.

[48] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 186.

[49] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 254-5.

[50] Shawcross, Sideshow, p 169.

[51] Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won. London: Arcturus Publishing, 2003, p 213; William C. Westmoreland “A Look Back” (1988). Retrieved 25 April 2015 from https://ongenocide.com/material/.

[52] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 64.

[53] Edward Cuddy, “Vietnam: Mr. Johnson’s War. Or Mr. Eisenhower’s?” The Review of Politics, 65:4, Autumn 2003, pp 360-1.

[54] Frederik Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam”, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34:1, March 2004, p 100.

[55] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 146, 166.

[56] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 169-70.

[57] Christian Appy, Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History Told from all Sides. London: Ebury Press/Random House, 2006 (2003), pp 120-3.

[58] Logevall, ‘Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam’ p 101.

[59] Schulzinger, A Time for War, pp 99, 111; Fred I. Greenstein and Richard H. Immerman, ‘What Did Eisenhower Tell Kennedy about Indochina? The Politics of Misperception.’ The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 2. (Sep., 1992), p 584. These authors, I should point out, take the vocalisations and equivocating as a symptom of reluctance: “The events that culminated in United States military intervention in Vietnam were marked by continuing disagreement and ambivalence on the part of American policy makers, who sought to arrive at outcomes falling between what Eisenhower at one point described as the ‘unattainable’ and the ‘unacceptable.’”

[60] Schulzinger, A Time for War, p 111.

[61] Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Tiger Force. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006, pp 29-30

[62] Tucker, Vietnam, p 151; John Prados, ‘Impatience, Illusion and Assymetry’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 141.

[63] McGeorge Bundy, ‘Memorandum for the President, February 7, 1965,’ in Gareth Porter and Gloria Emerson (eds), Vietnam: A History in Documents (abridged). New York: New American Library, 1981 (1979), pp 295-9.

[64] Harry Summers, On Strategy: A critical analysis of the Vietnam War. New York: Presidio Press, 1995 (1982) pp 117-8.

[65] Many authors are happy to suggest that the US was mistaken because it thought that Hanoi would not be so complacent about the deaths of its own people. By this means the whole public relations paradigm of graduated response reverses victim and perpetrator in the same manner as a large bully using a smaller child’s hands to hit his face while saying, ‘stop hitting yourself.’ Jeffrey Record writes that the air campaign against the DRV failed because: ‘As a fiercely nationalistic totalitarian state prepared to sacrifice entire generations of its sons to achieve Vietnam’s reunification, North Vietnam was a very poor candidate for coercion through bombing,’ (Record, ‘How America’s Military Performance…’, in Gilbert (ed.), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, p 128). Cawthorne, referring to US use of fire-power more broadly reads into a Defense Department report that Hanoi calculatedly maintains a level of casualties just below its birth rate (Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 114). This sort of ‘analysis’ relies on unexamined racial notions and also the unexamined presumption that the DRV leaders were presented with any choices in regard to either war on the ground or the air campaigns.

[66] Turley, The Second Indochina War, p 87.

[67] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 330.

[68] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, pp 96-7.

[69] Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp 92-5.

[70] Qiang Zhai, ‘Opposing Negotiations: China and the Vietnam Peace Talks, 1965-1968,’ The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 1. (Feb., 1999), p 25.

[71] ‘The four points were: recognition of the fundamental rights of the Vietnamese people to peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, accompanied by unilateral American withdrawal and the unconditional cessation of military operations in South and North Vietnam; American respect for the Geneva Agreement of 1954 settlement of South Vietnamese problems by the South Vietnamese people in accordance with the program of southern revolutionaries without outside interference; and no foreign interference in the peace process leading to the reunification of Vietnam,’ (Pierre Asselin, ‘Hanoi and Americanization of the War in Vietnam: New Evidence from Vietnam,Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 74, No. 3, p 433, n 21.

[72] Logevall, ‘Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam’ pp 106-7.

[73] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 333-4.

[74] Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State, Volume II: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005, p 13.

[75] Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State: Volume II, p 13.

[76] Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, London: Routledge, 2006, p 71.

[77] Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State: Volume II, pp 10, 13.

[78] John Docker, Raphael Lemkin’s History of Genocide and Colonialism, Paper for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Washington DC, 26 February 2004, p 5.

[79] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Bases of Accomodation” in Foreign Affairs, 46:4, July 1968, pp 648-9.

[80] Philip Jones Griffiths, Vietnam Inc., Sydney: Phaidon, 2001.

[81] Appy, Vietnam, p 242.

[82] Raphaël Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944, p 89.

[83] Lemkin, Axis Rule, pp 89-90.

[84] Raphaël Lemkin, “Genocide”, American Scholar, 15:2 , April 1946, p 227.

[85] Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Tiger Force. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.

[86] Bernd Greiner, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, London: Vintage, 2010.

[87] Greiner, War Without Fronts, p 11.

[88] Nicholas Turse. Kill Anything That Moves: United States War Crimes and Atrocities in Vietnam, 1965–1973. Ph.D. thesis, Columbia University, 2005.

[89] Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, New York: Basic Books, 2008.

[90] Nicholas Turse. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013.

[91] Greiner, War Without Fronts, pp 12-3.

[92] Greiner, War Without Fronts, p 31.

[93] Nelson, The War Behind Me, p 127.

[94] This description is from a speech given in Los Angeles at the United Methodist Church in North Hills on July 20, 2003 which was recorded by the L.A. Sound Posse. S. Brian Willson, ‘US Intervention in Korea’. Los Angeles: 20 July 2003. Retrieved 28 April 2015 from http://www.radio4all.net/index.php?op=program-info&program_id=7485.

[95] S. Brian Willson, “Biography”. Retrieved 28 April 2015 from http://www.brianwillson.com/bio.html

[96] Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New York: Vintage 1989 (1988), p pp 617-8.

[97] Turley, The Second Indochina War, p 66.

[98] Sallah and Weiss, Tiger Force, pp 77, 164, 290-2.

[99] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 135.

[100] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, pp 106-111.

[101] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p 111.

[102] Roger Warner, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America’s Clandestine War in Laos, South Royalton, Vermont: Steerforth Press, 1996, p 82.

[103] Summers, On Strategy, p 168.

[104] Tucker, Vietnam, p 96; Shawcross, Sideshow, p 178.

[105] Tucker, Vietnam, p 150.

[106] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, pp 109-110.

[107] Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State, New YorK; New Press, 2003, p 21.

[108] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War. London: Arrow, 1985 (1977), p 74.

[109] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 138.

[110] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p 195.

[111] John Pilger, Heroes, London: Vintage, 2001, (1986) p 191.

[112] Helen Emmerich quoted in Gibson, A Perfect War, p 141.

[113] Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th Century Warfare. London: Granta, 1999, p 220.

[114] Briefly put, the US was running a very expensive interdiction campaign in the air and supplies were very difficult to move South from the DRV. The southern forces needed very little in the way of supplies to continue an insurgency whose pace they determined themselves, but it was nevertheless true that supplies and weapons were of inestimable value.

[115] Young, The Vietnam Wars, p 187.

[116] Jeffrey Record, ‘How America’s Own Military Performance in Vietnam Abetted the “North’s” Victory’ in Marc Jason Gilbert (ed), Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002, p 125.

[117] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 85.

[118] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 112.

[119] Appy, Vietnam, p 365.

[120] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 120.

[121] Appy, Vietnam, p 350.

[122] Gibson, A Perfect War, p viii.

[123] Appy, Vietnam, p 358.

[124] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 94.

[125] Tucker,Vietnam, p 152.

[126] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 96.

[127] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 107.

[128] Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, p 60.

[129] Appy, Vietnam, p 452.

[130] Appy, Vietnam, p 375.

[131] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 181-2.

[132] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 182.

[133] Appy, Vietnam, p 107.

[134] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 182.

[135] Record, ‘How America’s Military Performance…’, in Gilbert (ed.), Why the North Won the Vietnam War, p 127.

[136] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 65.

[137] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, pp 87-8.

[138] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 110-2.

[139] Tucker, Vietnam, p 131.

[140] Appy, Vietnam, p 543.

[141] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, pp 90-1.

[142] Sallah and Weiss, Tiger Force, pp 29-30, 240, 250, 261, 278, 279, 285, 292.

[143] See: Beyond Stalemate, pp 61-80.

[144] Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p 44.

[145] Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, p 101.

[146] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 61-2.

[147] Caputo, A Rumor of War, p 54.

[148] Gibson, A Perfect War, pp 258-60.

[149] Schulzinger, A Time for War, p 191.

[150] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War, p 100.

[151] Tucker, Vietnam, pp 92-3.

[152] Larry Cable, Unholy Grail: The US and the wars in Vietnam, 1965-8. London: Routledge, 1991, p 155.

[153] James O. Whittaker, ‘Psychological Warfare in Vietnam’ in Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 1. (Mar., 1997), p 168.

[154] Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of War 1940-1975. London: Allen and Unwin 1986, p 48.

[155] Shawcross, Sideshow, pp 56-8.

[156] Warner, Shooting at the Moon, p 108

[157] John Prados, The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995, p 74.

[158] Phillip Davidson, Vietnam At War: The History 1946-1975, Oxford: OUP, 1991, p 20.

[159] Kolko, Anatomy of War, p 64.

[160] Gibson, A Perfect War, p 67.

[161] Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organisation and techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968 (1966), p 51.

[162] All of which can be found in Beyond Stalemate.

[163] All of which can also be found in Beyond Stalemate.

The ICC Will Only Hurt the Palestinian People, Part 1: Brer Bibi’s Briar Patch

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Part 2

I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,” he called. “Born and bred in the briar patch.”

And Brer Rabbit skipped away as merry as a cricket while Brer Fox ground his teeth in rage and went home. – “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” retold by S.E. Schlosser.

I had hoped to be writing of his legacy, but sadly Binyamin Netanyahu is here to stay. Nevertheless, one thing is clear even from the flip-flopping Israeli premier, and that is his strenuous objection to Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute – the treaty governing the International Criminal Court. But all is not as it seems. The ICC is no real threat to Israel, nor its occupation, nor its illegal settlements and creeping annexation, nor the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Bibi is playing the role of Brer Rabbit – “Please don’t throw us in the ICC briar patch” – safe in the knowledge that the only people likely to be hurt by ICC thorns are the Palestinians.

A Move Against Israel?

Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have supported Palestine signing the Rome Statute – a treaty which will make Palestine subject to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is part of a tactic to establish statehood for Palestine be the establishment of de facto state credentials within multilateral institutions.

I am unsure what sort of fantasy land people inhabit, but supporters of Palestine seem, on this issue, to have decided that black is white and up is down. Their positivity relies on the potential for the ICC to become something which it currently is not, and the potential for Palestine to make use of this future development in some way which would currently be symbolic but somehow maybe might someday be more than symbolic in some manner that we cannot yet foresee. On the negative side of the equation we have the immediate reality that Palestinians are now subject to prosecution by the ICC and Israelis are not.

Just to make sure you get that: becoming signatories to the ICC means that Palestinians are subject to prosecution, not Israelis.

Yet Netanyahu and the US State Department are acting as if Palestinian accession to the Rome Statute were a move against Israel. It can only mean that Israeli and US leaders are deliberately objecting to the Palestine ICC membership as a way of giving credibility to a move which might otherwise greatly alarm supporters of Palestine. Netanyahu is trying to make us all think the the ICC briar patch is his greatest fear, but the ICC is certain to work against Palestinian interests. As I will detail below, the ICC is a tool of neocolonial oppression by design; it will embed a double standard which favours the powerful over the powerless in general, and Israel over Palestine in particular; it will fuel Israel’s self-justifying claims of persecution; and will continue the ongoing imperialist work of undermining the sovereignty of all nations which defy Western domination.

The (New) Scramble for Africa

The ICC throughout its existence has been a political tool of neocolonial oppression aimed specifically at the former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. 60% of its funding comes from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the former colonial powers in Africa. Naturally this gives them considerable control over the Court, but it is also under the direction of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Of the 5 permanent UNSC members two have themselves signed and ratified the Rome statute – the UK and France. Between them the British and French empires once ruled half of Africa, with Britain additionally exerting informal hegemony over other areas such as the Belgian Congo.

Normally even critics of the ICC acknowledge the “noble” sentiments and hopes with which the ICC was launched in 2002. I believe that to be a load of crap. The people behind the ICC are not noble at all. Anyone can fall to ignorance or false hope, but those actually involved are highly privileged elitists whose self-deception is only exceeded by self-righteousness, self-regard and self-congratulatory selfies. That may seem harsh, but my condemnation is not gratuitous, as I will explain later.

All 36 indictments issued by the ICC have been against Africans. People act as if its record thus far is some unfortunate aberration which will be rectified, but the politicisation is systemic. David Hoile has written an large comprehensive volume (Justice Denied: The Reality of the International Criminal Court) detailing things that are wrong with the ICC. I cannot do justice – so to speak – to this work, but here is a small sample from the introduction:

The court has claimed to be “economical”, yet it has cost close to a billion euros to conclude one deeply flawed trial. … The court has claimed to bring “swift justice” but it took several years to bring the first accused to trial for allegedly using child soldiers. … The court claims to be fighting impunity, yet it has afforded de facto impunity to several serial abusers of human rights who happen to be friends of the EU and the USA, and granted de jure immunity to non-member states such as the USA.

In the ICC, one has a court whose judges are appointed not because they are the best legal minds in the world, but because of squalid vote trading. Some are appointed because it is a cosy retirement job; some are washed-up politicians; some are diplomats; some use the court as a waiting room before greater things; others are appointed because their governments pay the ICC a lot of money; and some don’t even bother to show up for work because something better came along. We have judges making critical rulings on very difficult issues of law who have never been lawyers, let alone judges. We have judges who have pressed for legal indictments on the basis of what they have seen on CNN. We have judges who cite classical Greek mythology to justify prolonging Africa’s civil wars rather than to put peace before selectively retributive European law. We have judges who are political activists with little practical experience beyond abstract sloganising. And we have judges who have taught law in classrooms without any courtroom experience whatsoever.

The ICC has produced witnesses in several trials who recanted their testimony when in the witness box, admitting that they were coached by non-governmental organisations as to what false statements to make. We have seen prosecutorial decisions that should have ended any fair trial because they compromised the integrity of any subsequent process. We have seen trials stopped because of judicial decisions to add new charges halfway through proceedings. And most telling of all, the court brought into being in 2002 to punish the most serious crimes in the world, the most grave of which being waging a war of aggression, has consciously avoided meaningfully addressing aggression – managing to postpone any action for at least another decade. It has turned a blind eye to the invasion and occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan by Western military forces.

It certainly can be argued that there are plenty of indictable people in Africa, but indictability is not guilt. We tend to think that prosecutions of African “war criminals” are justified by the inevitability of their guilt, but these are political actors, and politics distorts narratives. What is more, evidence of guilt seems far less relevant to ICC decisions than political concerns. In global terms the cases pursued are not in any way the most urgent in terms of the gravity of the accusations nor the weight of evidence. For example, though it is difficult to summarise, the situation with regard to Kenya makes it very clear that ICC personnel are willing to act with shameless disregard for real issues of justice.

After elections in 2007 Kenya was wracked with communal violence. An estimate 1300 people were killed. The loser of the election was Raila Odinga. He disputed the election and violence followed. Most of the victims were supporters of his opponent. Raila Odinga is the most prominently pro-Western leader in Kenya – a supporter of neoliberalism and foreign investment. It was very clearly Raila’s claims of election fraud which triggered the violence, and I will repeat here most of the victims were supporters of Raila’s opponent. Despite this, the ICC has charged members of both sides as they were at the time. The indicted are charged with being indirect co-conspirators by having organised networks in advance which committed ethnic violence and retaliatory ethnic violence. Raila is not charged with anything.

The narrative that ICC prosecutors are trying to present, then, is that each side had conspired to bring about these acts of violence beforehand. So, for example, Uhuru Kenyatta is accused of having met with others to conspire to commit violence, but the violence was triggered by his political enemy, initiated by followers of his political enemy and was mostly carried out against those perceived as his political supporters. He is alleged to have paid and directed members of the Mau Mau inspired Mungiki – an organised criminal militia/gang which is normally a bitter and deadly enemy of the government – to commit retaliatory violence after the anti-Kikuyu violence begun by the election result. He is alleged to have coordinated police actions to give Mungiki the freedom to carry out the violence. When the a pre-trial Judge summarise the allegations in his dissenting opinion, they sounded rather far-fetched. According to David Hiole, the original key witness against Uhuru recanted, reportedly in early 2009, leaving only those who corroborate a story told by someone who no longer claims it is true. Nothing in the remaining testimony in any way indicates what Uhuru Kenyatta might have hoped to gain by organising mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing.

You might ask why Uhuru Kenyatta doesn’t just let the case go to trial, if it is so thin. One reason is that since being indicted Uhuru has been elected President of Kenya. It seems that a lot of people in Kenya were of the opinion that the ICC indictments were a political attack against opponents of Western interests and enemies of pro-Western Raila Odinga. Hoile quotes a Chatham House report suggesting that people believe that even the indicted political allies of Raila were, in fact, more rivals than allies. One defected and became Uhuru’s running mate in 2013 despite the ICC allegation that they were engaged in opposing conspiracies of ethnic violence. Both Western interference and the political nature of the ICC charges were more or less confirmed by the reaction of the EU and the US to the growing popularity of Uhuru in as the 2013 elections approached. Individually a number of EU nations threatened diplomatic and economic consequences should Kenyatta be elected. More jaw-dropping, though, was the extremely unsubtle threat that US Ambassador Johnnie Carson made in public by repeatedly telling the Kenyan people they faced “consequences” depending on the way they chose to vote in the election. This is from the representative of a country that passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act for the explicit purpose of preventing its own citizens from being held accountable for their incredibly large numbers of easily proven war crimes.

The other reason that Uhuru Kenyatta might want to avoid a trial is the legendary slow pace of the ICC. Jean-Pierre Bemba has been in custody for 7 years and he has still never been convicted. Now information has surfaced that members of his defence team have been harassed and interfered with.

Remember that a criminal court is supposed to either prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or acquit. The ICC is supposed to afford a presumption of innocence before conviction. In what universe, then, is it considered just to imprison an accused man for 7 years whilst trying to cobble together enough evidence to secure a conviction? Bemba may not actually be innocent, but justice requires that he either be convicted in reasonable time or be released.

To summarise, ICC proponents might see themselves as shining white knights, but everything that the ICC has done thus far has been squalid and foul. Whether or not the given accused are guilty, these are show trials made into grotesque parody by the fact that the lead actors are too stupid to understand the role they are playing. The ICC is the progeny of the equally execrable pantomimes of power that occurred at the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR). You can read more about that here.

Embedding Double Standards and Injustice

I used to work at a stall in a local market that was occasionally frequented by the former Prime Minister of my country, the Right Honourable Geoffrey Palmer QC, and I have often fantasised about what I might say to him in the entirely plausible event that I am able to address him. It is possible that I would use rude words because Palmer was the Chair of the 2010 inquiry by the UN into the Mavi Marmara incident.

The “Palmer Report” was a travesty. As Richard Falk explained, Palmer was not particularly knowledgeable about either the international law of the sea or the law of war. And incredibly, the only other independent member of the Panel was Alvaro Uribe, the former President of Colombia, with no professional credentials relevant to the issues under consideration, and notorious both for his horrible human rights record while holding office and forging intimate ties with Israel by way of arms purchases and diplomatic cooperation that was acknowledged by ‘The Light Unto The Nations’ award given by the American Jewish Committee that should have been sufficient by itself to cast doubt on his suitability for this appointment. His presence on the panel compromised the integrity of the process, and made one wonder how could such an appointment can be explained, let alone justified.”

The Palmer Report found that Israel used excessive force, but that its blockade was legal. However, in point of fact it was not really an investigation but rather a PR exercise that was a predetermined endorsement of Israel’s blockade of Gaza in particular and its occupation of Palestine in general. The terms of reference excluded the overall legality of the occupation and thus made it inevitable that the blockade of Gaza, an intrinsic part of the occupation, would be deemed legal. By analogy, if a bank robber shot someone during a robbery you wouldn’t accept a plea of self-defence on the basis that the victim lunged and caused the robber genuine fear. You can’t refuse to examine the context of the greater crime and make reasonable judgements. The fact that the shooter is robbing the bank cannot be excluded from consideration.

Let us be quite clear, accepting Israel’s claimed right to intercept the Mavi Marmara is much more insane than accepting a self-defence plea from someone who murders a hostage in a bank robbery. For a start it would mean that Israeli officials had reasonable cause to believe that there were weapons aboard the vessel. But the flotilla of the Mavi Marmara was an extremely public action, not a weapons smuggling operation. Israel’s rationale for its blockade is self-defence, but it doesn’t show any way in which this is linked to the interception of the flotilla. Israel does make claims about small arms and “paramilitary equipment”, but they are less to justify the raid itself than to justify the deadly violence.

The fact is that Israel claimed that this was a deliberate provocation aiming at destroying the blockade, but if Israel’s justification of the blockade is self-defence it cannot claim the right to enforce the blockade against vessels which it does not suspect of carrying weapons shipments. As it happens Israel cannot even legally invoke self-defence until it has ended its occupation – another factor conveniently overlooked by top legal thinkers like Palmer. I have previously described the limits on self-defence claims:

Israel claims the right of self-defence, but what does Article 51 of the UN Charter actually authorise? “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Well, the UNSC has indeed been apprised of this situation and has passed resolutions to restore international peace and security, but Israel will not comply with those resolutions. In order to claim the right of self-defence Israel would first have to relinquish all occupied territories, among other things. And that is a normal established understanding. An occupying force does not have a right to self-defence. Nor is it permissible to blockade a country and then “defend” against their armed resistance to that blockade. If these things were not true then you would have a situation where both sides can claim self-defence with each supposedly defending against the other’s defence.

The fact that Israel is using force to prevent humanitarian aid encapsulates the fact that the blockade is an illegitimate act of aggression which, in turn, gives legitimacy to armed resistance by Palestinians. You cannot judge the actions of any party in a conflict without examining the legal context of that conflict – or you end up spouting irrational victim-blaming nonsense like the Palmer Report.

Everything that applies to the Palmer Report in this regard also applies to the Goldstone Report. Law dealing with the legality of a conflict is called jus ad bellum, whilst law dealing with the legality of conduct during conflict is called jus in bello. By only dealing with jus in bello questions we end up in a morass of illogic, but we also inevitably privilege the most powerful party and the aggressor in any conflict as well as disadvantaging the party whose territory is the site of the conflict.

But jus ad bellum matters cannot be ignored. They are fundamental. People have a right to life and it does not just disappear because there is a war on. It is not legitimate to kill people in war, rather the illegitimacy and the criminal culpability are, all things being equal, located with the aggressor. The personnel that actually commit acts of violence are allowed to do so on two grounds, one is that there is reciprocal risk faced by belligerent personnel, and the other is that criminal responsibility for causing violent death and destruction lies with the aggressor.

This raises a side matter which is very relevant to the moral legitimacy of Israel’s state violence against Palestinians: Sebastian Kaempf argues that the moral legitimacy of the use of violence by combatants has been disintegrated by the asymmetry that exists in current warfare. The moral justification which allows a soldier to kill is based on reciprocal risk between belligerent personnel. One might argue that at least morally, and possibly legally, someone who is engaged in risk-free killing is not a “combatant” by any reasonable understanding of the term “combat”. A related legal question is whether UAV operators or even Special Forces personnel are entitled to “combatant privilege”, which is the legal basis for their violence and destruction. It was arguably stretched by powerful artillery and aircraft, but it is comprehensively broken by the one-sided and very low risk warfare engaged in by the US. This is especially so in the case of drones, but it is also true of helicopter gunships such as this one: or the Collateral Murder video; or the sequence at the end of Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre.

The technology allows US personnel to commit distant leisurely cold-blooded precision killing of people who have no chance of striking back and no chance of escape. Two of this videos show the deliberate murder of wounded people, but all of the victims here are effectively hors de combat. One might argue that these are war crimes on those grounds. Killing unarmed wounded people is definitely a war crime. Killing people on suspicion of being engaged in insurgent activity is murder in any respect. And when insurgents attempted to surrender to personnel in an Apache gunship, the crew were ordered to murder them an the ground that they were not allowed to surrender to airborne personnel – a crystal-clear example of a war crime.

Israel’s attacks on Palestinians fall into the same category. The moral justification for armed violence is destroyed by the disparity of risks, notwithstanding the number of fatalities sustained by the Israeli occupation forces. In addition the actual applications of force against alleged combatants become either arguably or inarguably criminal acts in and of themselves due to the incapacity of the victims. Also there is a prohibition on placing civilians at risk in order to reduce risk to your own personnel. We are aware of this with regard to the use of “human shields”, but it also applies to airstrikes which kill civilians in order to reduce risks to combatants.

Supreme Crime

The Nürnberg (Nuremberg) Tribunal ruled “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” This suited the victorious Allies, of course, but it also means that the law relating to war can be reconciled with the fundamental right to life. Anything else would mean that when if anyone rich or powerful enough to start a war decides that their ends are best served by war, then ordinary people’s lives are simply forfeit – to be taken without any repercussions. Wars kill people therefore, unless you think that the powerful have the self-arrogated right to take lives “for reasons of state”, wars must be illegal.

People seem to think that war is somehow morally distanced from the individual acts of violence which occur in war. We seem to have forgotten the lessons learned from German aggression and we have slid back into voluntarily abdicating our morality in favour of allowing authorities to make such decisions for us. We just follow orders.

A case in point is the ruling by judge Anne Mactavish [sic] in Canada against the application for refugee status by US deserter Jeremy Hinzman. “An individual must be involved at the policy-making level to be culpable for a crime against peace … the ordinary foot soldier is not expected to make his or her own personal assessment as to the legality of a conflict,” Mactavish wrote in her 2006 decision. “Similarly, such an individual cannot be held criminally responsible for fighting in support of an illegal war, assuming that his or her personal war-time conduct is otherwise proper.” This is directly contrary to the spirit of two the Nuremberg principles. She is basically saying that she is happy if he is coerced into committing violent crimes because he himself will not be prosecuted.

If the war wasn’t clearly illegal Mactavish would probably have cited arguments for its legality rather than ruling that legality irrelevant. Iraqis have the legal right to resist aggression and occupation and those who do so have a right to life. Mactavish is revealing that she doesn’t really care about the deaths of Iraqi combatants. These combatants are innocent as much as any non-combatant is innocent. They are engaging in legally sanctioned armed resistance. They are human beings whose nervous systems transmit pain as much as a civilians; who feel the same fear and grief; and who will be mourned as deeply. As far as I can ascertain, at base the only reason Mactavish doesn’t take this view is that she is a disgusting racist who has embraced the dehumanisation of any Arab who resists Western power. You cannot think the way she does without being a racist bigot at some fundamental level.

Naturally, this all relates to the situation in Palestine. The UN Partition Plan of 1947 was of highly dubious legality under the UN Charter itself. The subsequent ethnic cleansing and confiscations of Palestinian property during the Nakba were crimes against humanity. The Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine in 1967 is very clearly illegal. UNSC resolutions 242, 338, 446 reaffirm the patent illegality. As mentioned above, under this circumstance Israel’s only legitimate form of self-defence, under UN Charter Art. 51, is to first comply with the UNSC resolutions and end the occupation. The continuing occupation involves continual armed violence as well as other acts which fit the category of acts of war – to the extent that the term still has meaning – or crimes against the peace.

What this means is that armed violence by Palestinian resistance fighters is legally legitimate. They have what is called “combatant privilege”. They are legally allowed to kill people within the limits of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). (This is the jus in bello component which makes it illegal for combatants to target non-combatants and other such things.) The “combatant privilege” allows combatants to legally kill – not because the lives of those they kill are not afforded any protection under the law, but because the criminal culpability for any killing lies with the aggressor, not the specific combatant who physically carries out the act of killing.

Combatant’s privilege, by the way, does not require that the combatant be a uniformed regular in a state military branch. The requirements are: “(1) operating under military command; (2) wearing a fixed distinctive sign (or uniform for regulars); (3) carrying arms openly; and most important, (4) conducting military operations consistently with the laws and customs of war.” State belligerents always deny the applicability of combatants privilege to non-state resistance forces. The German did for the “Resistance” in Western and Northern Europe as much as they did for the “Partisans” in Eastern and Southern Europe. The British denied combatant status to anti-colonial rebels like the“Mau Mau” and far too many others to mention. At the turn of the 20th century erstwhile allies of the US in Cuba and the Phillippines became unlawful combatants. So too did erstwhile allies in the fight against Fascism after the end of WWII in Greece, Viet Nam, Phillippines (again), Indonesia, Korea, and Malaya. More recently, of course, the US has famously declared many more of its enemies to be “unlawful combatants”.

Both in history and in our own times, the only reason to deny combatant status en masse is in order to commit war crimes. Those declared “unlawful combatants” are subject to torture and summary execution in every historical instance. For example, one might argue that ISIS/Daesh personnel are not legal combatants, but what would be the practical purpose? A robust moral stance would be to treat captives as prisoners of war until the cessation of hostilities. After hostilities have ended it would be possible to charge them as criminals using normal legal proceedings. The only other legitimate approach would be to treat each suspect as a criminal suspect from the outset and accord them rights, such as habeus corpus, on those grounds. The only reason for conflating the ideas of criminality and combatancy, as the US does, is as a way of denying and circumvention human rights in order to commit atrocities.

It is true that a combatant who deliberately disguises their combatant status by feigning non-combatancy forfeits combatant privilege as such, but that does not mean that one can simply deny the right of armed resistance to those who cannot form regular military units. If people have the right to self-defence from foreign aggression and occupation that means that they have the right to armed resistance. That cannot legitimately be restricted in such a way that prevents the victim of aggression from resisting because they do not have the material capacity to fulfill certain predetermined criteria.

The right for irregular guerrilla forces to be considered combatants has been established clearly and indisputably, albeit against the wishes of the late nineteenth century Western imperial “Great Powers”. The response by the “Great Powers” then or now is to accuse their weaker opponents of hiding behind civilians. Whether it was the Prussians accusing the franc-tireurs or colonial regimes such as the French in Alegria, such accusations serve a dual purpose. The first is to delegitimise the armed resistance in order to use judicial and extrajudicial acts of incarceration, torture, maiming and execution. The second is to legitimise their own attacks on civilians. This itself works on two levels: suggesting that military necessity (namely, legitimate attacks on armed targets) requires the targeting of civilians who become “collateral damage” in a legitimate military endeavour; but at the same time the second element is to produce a schizophrenic ideological discourse which destroys the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. This is a technique, or a symptom, of genocide. Violence is inflicted on the target population by blurring combatant and non-combatant status and creating in people’s minds the vision of a weaponised people. But don’t take my word for it, this is what Adolf Hitler said: “This partisan war has its advantages as well. It gives us the opportunity to stamp out everything that stands against us.”

Israel frequently claims that its enemies hide among civilians. This is an excuse for killing civilians, but they also know that they must continue at all costs maintaining the international consensus that armed actions by Palestinian formations (“militants”) do not have the foundational legitimacy of military operations. Ironically, however, it is powerful militarised states like Israel and the US whose personnel may not have legitimate combatant privilege. In a journal article that complements Sabastian Kaempf’s reasoning on reciprocity of risk, international law scholar Jens David Ohlin argues that whether uniformed or not both drone operators and special forces personnel do not meet the requirements of lawful combatancy. There is nothing that prevents this logic being applied to any personnel, including ordinary grunts, engaged in a mission which is not that of a lawful combatant. In refusing to treat enemies as combatants, powerful states are themselves increasingly embracing paradigms of violent force that are morally and legally equivalent to paramilitary death squad activity.

All of this is outside of the jurisdiction of the ICC. Aggression was one of the four types of crime outlined in the Rome Statute, but it was undefined and hence outside of consideration. An amendment addressing this will come into force in 2017, but it must be individually ratified by each state.

But even if they can prosecute the crime of aggression the entire setup will militate against justice and will always favour the powerful against the weak. Aggression will not now become the missing context, but will rather just be another potential crime for Third World citizens to be charged with. The very nature of this criminal court is to pluck certain selected villains from immense complex and multifariously criminal circumstances of mass violence and to charge them in isolation from the masses. Of necessity this will always be a political process, even more so than ad hoc tribunals. In theory ad hoc tribunals such as the ICTY or ICTR could treat all belligerent parties even-handedly. They don’t, of course, but the ICC cannot in any conception be even-handed in its approach.

With jurisdiction over nearly half of the world’s war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocides prosecutions by the ICC are inevitably political. These are show trials and they fuel the Hitler-of-the-Month-Club demonisation of Third World leaders that forms the backbone of Western interventionist propaganda. That is true of the entire process even if a case never goes to trial or if the defendant is acquitted.

Can you imagine how much mileage the US State Dept. and the Israeli hasbara (propaganda) agents would get out an ICC indictment for, say, Khaled Mashal from Hamas? They would milk it for all its worth and that would be to the detriment of every single Palestinian alive, even those who despise Mashal. The ICC will help Israel justify killing Palestinians because it will help replace the image of a people with the image of a single demon, and when you want to conduct a war against a people, which is to say genocide, it is very useful to convince your own people that you are fighting a single tyrant.

Israeli Impunity, Palestinian Punition

By practicing its pious “end of impunity” criminal prosecutions the ICC ignores the context questions such as which belligerent is the aggressor and who is a legal combatant. Instead, its real contextualisation comes from the politics of neocolonialism. Theoretically these questions should not have much impact on the question of guilt or innocence in war crimes. Jus in bello applies to all combatants, right?

Actually, not right. The Nürnberg Tribunal ruled that Russian partisans, as resistance to aggression, could not be tried for war crimes. This has been an issue right up until 2010 when Latvia successfully appealed a prior European Court of Human Rights ruling which had ruled against their conviction of a Soviet partisan for a 1944 war crime.

I am not going to argue that armies of “liberators” should be able to commit mass murder, mass rape and war crimes with impunity. The law must reflect basic principles such as legal equality – even to victims of “liberators”. International humanitarian law precedes the Nürnberg Tribunal and has been developed and elaborated since. As far as I am concerned the mass rapes committed by the Red Army in 1945 were war crimes and many of the “strategic bombing” missions undertaken by the Western Allies were acts of mass murder.

When you are dealing with forces of resistance not recognised as combatants by the aggressor/occupier, the moral situation changes. For one thing, to immunise them from war crimes prosecutions is not to grant them impunity. If they are adjudged unlawful combatants by the occupier, by nature the more powerful belligerent, they are subject to all of those judicial or extrajudicial hazards outlined above – incarceration, torture, maiming and death. They have no impunity and even their friends, family and community may be at risk from retaliation, collective punishment or the violent technologies employed in extrajudicial executions.

Failure to treat resistors as lawful combatants highlights a certain moral coherence to the idea that it is the aggressor/occupier that is culpable for their war crimes. Legitimate acts of resistance are treated as crimes by the occupier which effectively destroys the rule of law with regards to war crimes. That does not mean that they cannot be culpable for some criminal acts, but they did not create the circumstances which prompted them. A court cannot ethically judge them if it does not seek to prosecute those responsible for the aggression. In that sense the principle that aggression is the “supreme crime” makes considerable sense.

The culpability of the aggressor for the war crime committed by the resistor is actually morally greater than that of the resistor because it is unmitigated – the original act which created the circumstances of the resistors crime was itself a crime. Once again we can use the analogy of an armed bank robbery with hostages acting in lawful self-defence but committing acts which are themselves crimes. Deliberately killing the child of the hostage taker is a crime, but if the robber has already killed 10 hostages by that point, the circumstance have a considerable bearing. It would be completely wrong to charge a hostage with murder but refuse to charge the robbers or consider the circumstances in which the crime was committed as relevant.

In fact, it is possible to argue that killing a child was justified and a court would would then decide whether, in the circumstances, that was “reasonable”. (I personally don’t think that in the real world it is ever reasonable to kill a child, but if you want to find people who do think it is reasonable the best places to look are not where slavering terrorists strap bombs to little girls but places like the White House where killing children is routine practice and they simply state that “the price is worth it”.)

Not only are basic legal principles important, but there is at least one part of international law that is even more fundamental than IHL, and that is the UN Charter. The ICC relies on the UN Charter for its authority. So does the UNSC. The UN Charter is fundamental to the notion that there is a modern international state system in which there is international law. People have described it as the global “constitution”. This is of considerable relevance to Palestinians because the ICC process will not put alleged crimes in that context.

For example, if people have a right to self-defence, then they must practically be allowed to exercise that right. A case in point is rocket fire from Gaza. It is not so much argued as screeched by Israel and their supporters that the rockets fired by Gazan militants into Israel violate the principle of discrimination which requires that combatants distinguish between military and civilian targets.

I want to look at the rocket fire issue from a couple of angles, but first let me remind people that it is a real possibility that this alleged war crime might be the cause of prosecutions. In our Orwellian world where “freedom” quite literally means “slavery” – as in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – “resistance” also means “aggression”. Everyone’s favourite Peace Prize-winning older and larger brother (Obama) said the following about rockets from Gaza: “…we strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza. No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.” He knows, of course, that the rockets from Gaza did not actually “target” civilians and that the real accusation is that they were not accurate enough to discriminate between targets as required by law.

Obama has used a simple two-step rhetorical technique to invert reality. First he turns allegedly indiscriminate rocket fire into “targeting civilians”, which provides a 90º angle. Second, he states that Israel has a “right to defend itself” which implies that it was Gazan militants who fired first (a lie) and obfuscates the nature of Israel’s actions over the long term. That provides another 90 degrees. Voilá, we have now turned 180 degrees to enter Oppositeland, where black is white and truth is lie. Obama can only do this because the news media are subservient vacuous apparatchiks, but it also shows that he and the US establishment are committed and implacable enemies of the Palestinian people. At a time when most of the world watched in horror as Gazans were mutilated and slaughtered by the hundreds, Obama chose to attack them. He gave arms to Israel in the middle of the slaughter so that they could kill more.

Take time to think about what that means. As children were being dismembered and incinerated every single day, this man, Obama, deliberately twists the facts in a calculated way to make the victims seem then perpetrators and the perpetrators seem as victims.

Meanwhile, in the UK David Cameron remained a staunch supporter of “oasis of freedom” Israel. He spouted exactly the same line as Obama even when members of his own caucus and cabinet objected. These are the most powerful Western leaders, and they are quite happily prepared to cold-bloodedly attack Palestinians during a time of intense suffering. They weren’t forced into it by the “Israel Lobby”; they are not scared of Netanyahu; they do not love Netanyahu. Nor does this have anything to do with party politics. Blair and Bush would have done the same, and they were from the putatively opposing parties. They do it because they are cold-blooded mass-murdering imperialists whose geostrategic ends are furthered by the deaths and suffering of Palestinians – just as they were furthered by the deaths of Salvadorans, Laotians, Indonesians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Guatemalans, Philipinos, Eritreans, Congolese and many many more.

Ask yourself what these Western leaders are going to do with the fact that Palestinians will be subject to ICC prosecution. What I foresee is that the next time Israel wishes to commit a genocidal slaughter in Gaza, Palestinian leaders will now “investigated” for their “crimes” no matter what they actually do or don’t do. The ICC brush will tar the entire Palestinian people and the Western public will be forced once again into a discussion which begins with the vehement declaration that Israel clearly must respond to the acts of militants. The result will be that the only allowable criticism of Israel will be to censure them for not making their attacks on the besieged overpopulated Gaza strip a bit less massacre-ish.

In summary, the most powerful Western leaders have shown that they will attack the Palestinians at every turn, even at the height of their suffering. The only thing that holds them back is the weight of public opinion, and the ICC will give them opportunities to shift sympathies away from Palestinians and to further obscure the basic rights and wrongs of the issue. The way Obama used and shamelessly twisted the issue of rocket fire illustrates the problem.

But what else could be learnt from the issue of Gazan militants firing what, by all accounts, were very basic rockets? What if I were to return to the bank robbery analogy? Gazan rocket fire is equivalent here to throwing paperweights in the direction of armed robber from behind a desk when children might be hurt. The robbers have already killed and can be expected to kill again. A moral or legal justification that this is a reasonable act of self-defence would require that the risk to innocents is outweighed, in the judgement of those throwing the paperweights, by the potential prevention of violence by the robbers.

One might argue that throwing paperweights in morally unacceptable because the throwers have no substantive grounds for believing that they will disable or deter the attacks but might just as easily aggravate them and increase their violence. That is a very nice argument against acts of violence that can hurt innocents, and it happens to be how I feel about rocket fire from Gaza. But no one, including the “end of impunity” bureautwats, can justify contemplating the morality and legality of the paperweight throwers until they have judged and punished the robbers for their crimes, which include murder.

Once again we are confronted with the fact that by isolating alleged war crimes from their context, ICC proceeding could promote injustice, enable crimes and embed impunity. We should ask, what sort of mad world is it when we judge the victim of an attack on the legality of their acts of self-defence, but we don’t judge the attacker? Gazans are imprisoned by two US client states, the number one and number two recipients of US military aid. Their lives are not as desperate as those of Warsaw Ghetto inmates, but the sickening comparison is impossible to avoid. If we interfere in any way with their ability to defend themselves, even with acts that would otherwise be criminal, we risk becoming the moral equivalents of those who deported Jewish refugees to Axis controlled Europe and near-certain death. An entrapped people are attacked by a superior power with weapons that kill, maim, traumatise, brutalise and immiserate. When we prevent defensive acts on the basis that they are prohibited in IHL, if we do not know for certain that our interference does not interfere with their ability to defend themselves then we risk becoming a party to acts of aggression. That is another reason that the idea, from the Nürnberg Tribunal, of making the aggressor culpable for the criminal acts of the collective victim actually makes sense in the overall scheme of things.

The Privilege of Power

Judging war crimes only by their conduct without the jus ad bellum context provides an obvious advantage to the aggressor. Usually the aggressor is the more powerful belligerent and they are more likely to retain the initiative, control the tempo of the conflict and be able to conduct operations away from their own territory, people and assets. The aggressor has all of the advantages and, all things being equal, for equivalent war aims they have a much greater ability to achieve their desires whilst constraining personnel within the letter of the law. In practice aggressors may commit many war crimes, but I am trying to point out that this is despite a real situational advantage. They commit prolific war crimes only because their war aims are more extreme and are often inherently brutal, criminal and genocidal.

But the ICC may choose to ignore war crimes altogether and yet still acts as a weapon against the people of Palestine. As we have seen when acting as a neocolonial tool against African countries like Kenya, the ICC has preferred charges of crimes against humanity. This too creates an inherent bias in favour of the powerful over the weak. The ICC is tasked with only taking on cases where the state in question is “unable or unwilling” to prosecute.

For those willing but “unable” to prosecute their own genocidaires, war criminals, or criminals against humanity, there is a mechanism called “self-referral”. Anyone who has studied the history of international relations would predict that no state ever would actually say that they have a criminal suspect who they would like to prosecute for crimes committed in their country but are so pathetic and useless we can’t actually hold our own trial and theye need better richer whiter people to do the job for them. Yet these “self-referrals” do occur. David Hoile explains the phenomenon thus:

“The myth of African self-referrals is just that. It is public knowledge that the ICC Prosecutor Luis Ocampo made the governments of Uganda and DR Congo an offer they could not refuse: refer your countries to the ICC and we will only investigate your rebels; refuse and we will indict you as well.”

If you are a strong enough country you can defy the ICC, but if you are an enemy of the West, that very defiance is a weapon to be used against you. But a strong state that is allied to the West like Israel? Quite aside from the fact that Israel has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute but, like the US, has also repudiated the initial signing of the treaty. More than that, however, the US State Department is quite satisfied when Israel investigates its own alleged war crimes and apparently that is more important to global officialdom than either public opinion or mere facts.

For example, after Operation Cast Lead Israel convicted two low-ranking soldiers of using a child as a human shield. They received suspended sentences of three months. This should have provoked screams of outrage that this stage-managed ersatz justice was far worse that doing nothing. Instead, the media printed the “reasoned” and respectable criticisms of people like Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem: “Although individual soldiers do bear responsibility if they have violated rules, this has to be accompanied by systematic examination of issues of policy – such as what constitutes a legitimate target, open fire regulations, types of weapons used and the targeting of public buildings. The main issues of concern that we have raised have not been dealt with.” In other words, forget slavering passionately about evil “war criminals” (as we do about African suspects) these soldiers have quite correctly been disciplined for having “violated rules”, but we should also tweak Israeli policy somewhat. An incoherent scream of rage is actually a more coherent response than that.

To criticise the manner in which Israel judges its own actions normalises the idea that Israel should be left to police its own war crimes. People also seem to accept the idea that it is right for the US and the UK to choose who, if anyone, will be held accountable even when the crimes are committed in other countries. These countries then use the selective prosecutions of low-ranking personnel to create a false image of lawfulness.

Worse still, Israel has used the fact that it went through a judicial sham and conducted some supposed investigations to further criticise Hamas because they haven’t conducted their own prosecutions. This is another two-step inversion of reality. First, you get people to accept the idea that there is some moral equivalence in the illicit acts of aggressor and resistance forces – twisting the first 90º – then you get them to accept that your abysmally deficient scapegoating of junior personnel is some sort of robust corrective. After these two simple steps you hand rotated into Oppositeland and you may now safely blame and demonise the victim of your mass murder.

And when we envision the future impact of the ICC regime on Palestine we must not, under any circumstance, fail to take into account the power of the political discourse which seeks to make enemy states into appendages of a near omnipotent villainous leader. Every crime committed by personnel from a state deemed inimical to the West is blamed directly on the leader of that country. Bashar al-Assad drops barrel bombs on civilians; Omar Bashir commits genocide; Muammer Ghadaffi even committed the massacre of political prisoners in one of his prisons. Theirs are the fingers on the triggers.

Ordinary people may likewise think that Donald Rumsfeld should been tried for torture, or Tony Blair for crimes against peace, or Ariel Sharon for mass murder, or Henry Kissinger for genocide. People in officialdom, however, claim to have a superior understanding of politics and power and are ever willing to concede limits to justice where powerful Westerners are concerned.

Convicting a couple of rather amateur torturers from Abu Ghraib and a few Blackwater murderers makes the US feel like it is superior, lawful, legitimate and civilised. US political and military leaders go free and the bureaupratts, security geeks and self-described “wonks” sneer at the inferiority of those who don’t accept a priori that Western leaders are untouchable. With regard to Third World enemy states it is the exact opposite. These same “wonks” now salivate with strident bloodlust. Justice is now an absolute and they can never compromise. The snide bespectacled weeds are now transformed into blood-drenched muscular Conan-esque warriors meting out righteous violence. They cheered when Osama bin Laden was supposedly killed: “We’re number One!” They howled in triumph when Ghaddafi died in the most grotesquely cruel manner and Clinton crowed: “We came. We Saw. He died.”

Part 2

Will the US Succumb To Another Bout of Usanity?

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A white male in a uniform brandishes an assault rifle, pointing it directly at peaceful protesters and journalists: “I will fucking kill you!” When asked his name, he responds “Go fuck yourself” earning himself the hashtag #OfficerGoFuckYourself

No one threatens the policeman, but his stance and his wide eyes betray his hyper-alert state. People stroll behind him without offering any sign of confrontation, but his adrenaline is pumping. He is in the grips of Usanity, and for him the world is suddenly full of threats and offenses.

http://youtu.be/8zbR824FKpU

Usanity is like a weaponized version of aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome. #OfficerGoFuckYourself has clear symptoms of both conditions. But Usanity is broader and more profound. Usanity is that syndrome which grips an entire diverse nation, the most heavily armed on the planet, and turns it into that cop with his rolling eyes and gun pointed: “I will fucking kill you!”

Lots of people are writing about the militarization of the US police, but the focus has often been on hardware. The police in the US, and many other countries, have also been induced to feel that violence is the appropriate response to an ever growing number of situations. Any challenge to authority, including questioning orders, is treated as grounds for physical coercion.

This actually follows a similar transformation in US military personnel. Some former military are pointing to the ways in which the police in Missouri and elsewhere are far less disciplined than they. But their own record of killing civilians in in similar encounters is astounding and shocking – yet it is almost entirely ignored and unknown.

Like the police and the military, the wider US population has been subjected to the forces that breed Usanity. It is a powerful mix of a sense of fear, a sense of being besieged, and a special sense of grievance. The grievance is that of a giant attacked by vicious, irrational, fanatical imps, but also that of a father facing defiance that cannot be ignored. Bill Maher exactly embodied the attititude with a special misogynistic twist when he tweeted: “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.”

A Nation of Cowards?

In the book Mainstreaming Torture Rebecca Gordon asks if if the US has become a “nation of cowards”. Allowing that the US is too diverse “in all its multicultural, polyglot glory” to be categorized so unitarily, Gordon goes on to discuss the growing tendency to accept and approve of torture, assassination and surveillance as ways of combating the threat of terrorism. Those who thought that waterboarding suspected terrorists was wrong dropped from 82 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2012. Those who thought that assassinating suspected terrorists was wrong dropped from 33 percent in 2005 to a mere 12 percent in 2012.

Fear of terrorists is only one aspect of this. People who visit the US are often struck by how fearful people are of many things – strangers, criminals, germs, and their own government to name but a few. More than other Western countries, people in the US have been bombarded with a sense of peril. This sense of endangerment is good for selling drama and it is good for selling newspapers, but it is even better for selling domestic and foreign policy.

The extravagant fears of the Cold War sold both authoritarianism at home and intervention abroad, and so it has remained to this day. People were told that the US was fighting in Viet Nam so that they wouldn’t have to fight in San Francisco. Then people were told that Cuban tanks would roll across the Rio Grande and, finally, that the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

In a way, these ridiculous hyperboles are really a way of convincing people that the act of exaggeration implies that there is a real threat. As Robert Fisk points out this is why there is now such silly talk about ISIS: “Apocalyptic.” “End-of-days strategic vision.” “Beyond anything we have ever seen.” “An imminent threat to every interest we have.” “Beyond just a terrorist group.” “We must prepare for everything.”

At the same time that fear was becoming such a crucial political tool for supporting repression at home and oppression abroad, fear was also becoming entrenched in the US military. In World War II US military authorities had taken the unusual decision to be permissive of fear, rather than to try to encourage fearlessness. Over the coming decades, though, this attitude would be exploited and twisted. US personnel were deliberately made fearful and that fear was weaponized. The fear became a major tool to break that barrier which stops ordinary people from becoming killers.

Circle the Wagons!

In both Viet Nam and in Iraq US personnel were made to feel that they were surrounded by a hostile and dangerous population. They built massive military bases that were like self-contained towns or cities. They were made to feel that there was a constant risk of attack outside of these zones of safety.

In Viet Nam, some areas were bad enough to be considered “Injun country”, but even in places like Saigon there was a sense that any Vietnamese could potentially be a source of sudden violent death. From reading dozens of personal accounts, most GIs seem to have heard and believed stories of young children killing US soldiers. They were constantly told that you couldn’t tell who was an enemy and who was a civilian. Most still believe to this day that the “Viet Cong” didn’t have uniforms. They thought that the guys in uniforms were all North Vietnamese “invaders” and that the VC wore the “black pajamas” which all of the rural population wore.

As it happens, local militias on both sides did wear the normal black farmers clothes. Sometimes local allies were killed when US personnel who were new to the country mistook them for the enemy. More often, however, this led to the deaths of rural civilians. Admittedly, most US personnel in Viet Nam never saw, let alone partook in, a lethal atrocity or even the accidental killing of civilians. The bulk of civilian deaths in Viet Nam were caused by US shelling and bombing. However, there were also many thousands killed by US small arms. Nick Turse’s book Kill Anything that Moves establishes without any doubt that massacres by US personnel were appallingly common. Many more will have died when GIs reacted out of panic – reacted out of that sense that everyone was the enemy.

The sense of vulnerability among US infantry must have been horribly exacerbated by the common tactic of sending patrols out in the deliberate hope that they would be ambushed which would then allow the enemy to be attacked by artillery. There are claims that this practice saved US lives, but it made the men on patrols feel like live bait and ultimately meant that the enemy always chose when and where to engage. It meant that booby traps became one of the leading causes of casualties, which caused huge anger because GIs knew that locals must often have known the location of the traps – once again increasing the sense that they were at war with an entire people and the sense that they must always be on guard. GIs were being trained in what was called “reactive firing”, where they were conditioned to pull the trigger in certain circumstances as an automatic process – without cognition.

In Iraq, there were less massacres than there were in Viet Nam. Fewer people would have been killed by bombing and shelling. And there is no doubt that many civilians lost their lives to the actions of enemies of the Coalition forces. But indications are that an absolutely extraordinary number of Iraqis were killed by US small arms fire. The numbers are so high that they demand consideration.

In 2006 a mortality study was published in the Lancet estimated excess deaths in Iraq based on cluster sampling. The furor over the estimation of total excess deaths through violence has prevented us from coming to grips with what the study indicated. The most common cause of violent death (56%) was gunfire. Where known, the cause of violent death originated from Coalition forces 57% of the time. Given that hundreds of thousands died of violent causes, this means that at the very least tens of thousands of Iraqis were shot dead by Coalition troops.

Many accounts from Iraq, both from US personnel and from Iraqis, highlight the risk to civilians of being killed due to the paranoia, confusion and insecurity of US personnel. This has become normalized in the sense that people tend to think of this as being in the nature of military occupations. That is not the case. When the Germans occupied France they were very ruthless and brutal, but they didn’t kill ordinary people going about their daily business. Children could go to school and adults could go to work. Workers would not be shot for failing to stop at an unmarked “traffic control point” that had been set up without their foreknowledge. Farmers wouldn’t be killed for carrying shovels.

By official doctrine the US (openly flouting international humanitarian law) deliberately displaced the risks of violence onto the civilian population of Iraq. Under the doctrine of “Force Protection” personnel were encouraged to ensure their own safety at any cost. Even the Rules of Engagement (which were uncertain, contingent and subject to frequent change up until 2007) were undermined by the final proviso that the ROE did not in any way prevent a GI from taking lethal action if they felt threatened. Even though it fomented hostility and, in the long-term, greater overall danger to US forces, personnel early on the the occupation were all but officially told to shoot first and ask questions later. Many people commented at the time that US forces making a very dubious short-term gain in security were killing innocent people, committing war crimes, and ultimately ensuring that more, not less, US personnel would die.

Moreover, in Iraq, even more so than in Viet Nam, there was often no real attempt to create secure areas. Instead of pacifying and securing areas, the US was in both cases obsessed with finding, fixing and killing enemies. This effective made both countries into giant battlefields with no frontline. Then they would send their own people out into this environment, having assured them that the populace hated them and that half of them were actively trying to kill them.

When Iraqis were killed because they did not know that they were supposed to stop some arbitrary point or in some other way violate unknown rules supposedly designed to protect US personnel, those who killed them would, quite naturally, place the onus of responsibility on the victims themselves for having undertaken the acts which forced the GIs to shoot them. Logically, they should really have been blaming the military and political leaders who had just used them as a weapon with which to murder civilians, but what would you expect people to tell themselves and each other when they have just killed innocent people? Of course they are going to remind themselves that they had no choice but to shoot, that it was the victims’ actions which forced their hand. But then, there were those who were callous about such things, such as the officer who proclaimed after the a family was killed for approaching a checkpoint too quickly: “If these fucking hajis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen”; or the helicopter gunner on the infamous Collateral Murder footage who, having shot two children, said: “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

The situation for the broader US population is also one of feeling besieged. Successive governments in the US have gone beyond the cartoonish vilification of Soviet Communism and the Global Communist Conspiracy. Now they like to suggest that everyone hates or potentially hates the US, and they try to make it come true by their actions. Under the Bush administration, especially in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US citizens all throughout the world were met with hostility.

We’re Number One!

Without a doubt the ugliest side of US culture is their collective sense of superiority. But it also the most pitiable in some respects. The US is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity. Its contributions to literature, music, arts and the sciences cannot be denied. There must barely be any people on the planet who have not derived pleasure from US films. Yet there is a sense of insecurity about their strident pride, as if they have something to prove. They fear that they might be, in Richard Nixon’s words, a “helpless giant”, and feel that those who are defy them are deserving of violent correction. But the real trap of Usanity is not just that sense of righteous fury, it is the sense that you cannot just walk away – you can’t let go of the crazy woman’s wrists or she will attack.

Once again, there is a direct parallel between the indoctrination and situational emplacement of the police, the military, and the entire country. In the military, once upon a time when an army captured enemies they might march them in columns with a guard for every ten prisoners or more. To secure them they might simply take their weapons and make them walk with their hands on their heads. I sometimes wonder if young people seeing seeing such scenes in a World War II film would think that they are inauthentic and somehow anticlimactic.

Of course imperialist wars are a little different and far less humane. In Korea, US troops felt that for security reasons captured guerrillas had to be stripped naked (or nearly naked if they were women) and marched though town. In Viet Nam it became imperative that the diminutive and unarmed captives have their hands tied and be blindfolded. In Iraq zip-ties and hoods were considered utterly indispensable. It is as if you need to be sure that your trained and heavily armed men aren’t attacked by unarmed prisoners because, as we all know, life is so cheap to these people that they will sacrifice their own lives to attack even if there is only a minute chance of inflicting damage on their captors.

Partly these processes of stripping, blindfolding or hooding were designed to dehumanize the captives. One of the most important ways of maintaining psychological distance is to prevent eye contact. When you are committing unjust acts, it is quite important that your victims be dehumanized. If US personnel in Iraq were constantly confronted with the fear, confusion and grief of their captives it would have broken down barriers and caused much larger numbers to question the rightness of their actions in Iraq.

More importantly these procedures are part of a system of exerting control. In Iraq prisoners were actually referred to as “persons under control” or “PUCs”. The emphasis on control was to make the GIs feel that everything that they did not control was a hazard. They were sometimes ordered to effect very close control over the movements of PUCs even down to such things as which way their heads were facing.

Sometimes the procedures used on PUCs as supposed security measures were simply ways of instituting positional torture, forcing the captives into positions that can often quickly become agonising and beating them for moving out of those positions. Even if this were not the case, the very situation is almost guaranteed to cause abusive treatment. If a GI who does not speak Arabic is to force a captive to take comply to close control, they must almost certainly use physical coercion – especially if gestures are unavailable because the captive is hooded. Repeated deviations from the requirements will be met with increasing levels of violence. Even though the GI might rationally understand that the PUC might not comply for perfectly innocent reasons, they have been so situated that in emotional terms every deviation feels like an act of deliberate defiance that requires, as well as justifies, violent correction.

Of course, how could the US authorities have foreseen that referring to people as PUCs, hooding them, and sending them along chains of custody like anonymous punching bags would lead to incidents of abuse referred to as “PUC-fucking”? I mean, who would guess? All I can say is that if you wanted to design a system which would encourage the maximum level of abuse, torture and murder without actually having to order personnel to commit those acts – this is exactly what it would look like.

Increasingly the US police are subject to similar pressures. They already have a common indoctrinated sense of being rightful and righteous authorities who, by nature of their very vocation, must restrict the actions of the citizenry. They are trained to feel apart from others, and to view them with suspicion. When they too are filled with the paranoid fear and the sense of being besieged then their need to control can become manic and violent.

Cops have always struck out at those who defy them, but now things are becoming far more lethal due to new ways in which they are trained and deployed. The ever growing number number of armed raids in the US are now mostly (70%) conducted to serve search warrants for suspected drug offenses. In these “SWAT” raids there is very little discrimination in the way the police treat people – be they suspects, victims, bystanders young, elderly, ill, or disabled. They must be made compliant and controlled. Just as with the Iraqi PUCs, any deviance is treated as dangerous. This attitude has spread to daily policing activities when officers feel confronted.

It is true that like military personnel, the police are often endangered. But once again these procedures are not specifically discriminating, so they are not aimed at those who pose a danger, but at those who are not compliant. The police often think highly of themselves, they are the authorities, and they are armed and dangerous – people must comply. People must comply without delay and without question. To do otherwise is to invite violence.

http://youtu.be/j-P54MZVxMU

Only 4 miles from where Michael Brown was killed Kajieme Powell was also killed. He was shot dead 15 seconds after police encountered him as he paced agitatedly near them with his hands at his sides telling the police to shoot him. To the shock of onlookers, they handcuffed him after he was dead. They kept guns trained on him after he was dead and in handcuffs. The man who filmed everything with his phone didn’t feel threatened by Powell at all, but the police by their acts are suggesting that even dead and in handcuffs Powell is some form of peril – a supernatural unrealistic threat.

The entire US is subject to the same horrified fantasy. The “war on terror” has made them into the self-appointed world police. They are not being allowed to turn and walk away from Iraq.

People generally don’t want the US to send troops, but they seem to think that dropping bombs on people is almost the equivalent of doing nothing. It is funny, because when one bomb went off at the Boston marathon it was quite a big deal to people in the US, but dropping hundreds on other people is apparently nothing of particular note. In the US media discourse it is almost as if bombing is a minor and reluctant act of charity: “We are not saying we’re responsible for the rise of ISIS, but we feel bad for the Iraqi people and so we are prepared to drop bombs on people in order to help them out at this difficult time.”

But ISIS has shown themselves only too willing to play the role of the crazed violent woman that needs slapping. Just when it seemed that nothing could get people in the US to back another major action in the Middle East, ISIS decides to stiffen US resolve by releasing a video showing the beheading of a US journalist and threatening to bathe the US in blood.

Now the people in the US are suddenly in that #OfficerGoFuckYourself headspace. They are angry that someone defies and mocks their beloved country, but also offended and belittled by the failure of ISIS to recognise their ability to unleash a fury of violence. Suddenly the “liberals” are writing and liking comments about how they need to finally kick that al-Baghdadi’s ass once and for all. And when they say “kick al-Baghdadi’s ass” they must know that that will mean killing lots and lots of people who are not al-Baghdadi.

The US people have their gun raised, will they shoot? I would not be the first to say that once again US violence can only give the illusion of greater security, but it will visit suffering and death and only increase the insecurity in the long term. Yes, they are armed, and yes, they are being defied, but pulling the trigger will not help. Sometimes you just have to accept doing nothing.

After this many repetitions of the same pattern, how can people continue falling for the same tricks? What good came from killing Ghadaffi, or Saddam Hussein, or arresting Milosevic? But we have been here before. The US media picks a Hitler-of-the-month and whips up the fury of anger over their defiance. The country staggers and swaggers in wide-eyed mania: “We will fucking KILL YOU!”. And eventually they get their guy. Months or years later. After how many deaths? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

And then, mission accomplished, they all chant “U S A! U S A!” And the world waits for the next bout of Usanity.

An Open Letter to an IDF Apologist at the BBC

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Ironic pic of Orwell at Big Brother Corp

After 10 years as a business reporter, Anthony Reuben is now the BBC News inaugural “Head of Statistics”. True to the spirit of 1984 he seems to take his role as being to remind people of such numerical truths as “2 + 2 = 5 fanatical Islamist terrorist Hamas militants”. In a report on what the statistics tell us about the recent fatalities in Gaza, he highlights the fact that a disproportionate number of young men are being killed. Another BBC report on Gaza casualties is quite shocking, but its impact is diminished by a link to Reuben’s article with the words “If the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women”

Someone else has already written an email to Reuben which is posted at the Media Lens message board. It covers some of the territory that I have, but I felt that I needed to add a few things in a missive of my own. I got a little bit carried away, but the result is heartfelt…

To Anthony Reuben,

I have to ask, just what sort of statistician are you? Surely one of the fundamental tenets in statistical thought is that correlation does not imply causation, yet without the implicit unsupported claim that a gender imbalance in fatalities indicates IDF discrimination, your article has no purpose.

When I write “no purpose” I really mean “no legitimate purpose”. It is a great propaganda point for Israel to use the deaths of “military aged males” to imply military legitimacy in their violence. Your work certainly goes a long way to helping the IDF promote its narrative. This means that you are helping them, and I hope you realise that you are therefore complicit in their actions.

Need I remind you that Srebrenica was primarily a massacre of “military-aged males” and that those who committed that genocidal act used the same excuse as the IDF? By itself that destroys the tacit premise of your article unless you also consider Srebrenica to be a legitimate military action. The fact is that it is normal that adult male civilians are targeted and murdered at far higher rates than women and children. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, including the psychology of those committing the murders. Military personnel find it easier to kill adult male civilians than others. Additionally, apologists such as yourself find it easier to muddy the waters over war crimes.

You breezily dismiss the issue of gender disparity in war casualties from other conflicts: “There has been some research suggesting that men in general are more likely to die in conflict than women, although no typical ratio is given.” With a flourish of misdirection, which seems to come naturally to the hack and the junk-merchant, you induce the reader to think that nothing of relevance is contained in the paper which you link to. You let people know that you have read it, but it really has nothing to illuminate the issue. However, the paper does establish that although there is a great deal of variation between conflicts, there is undeniable precedent for far greater numbers of male than female civilians being killed directly in conflicts. In other words, if you were half the statistician you claim, you would recognise that a disproportionate death rate amongst Gazan men is no evidence that more armed militants have been killed than Hamas claims, is not evidence that the IDF is practicing discrimination, and is not evidence that the IDF does not target civilians.

Moreover, the paper you cite is in itself too narrow in scope for the purposes of your article. There is relevant historical evidence which is denied by no one. Not one person who knows anything about the subject denies that there is a long standing practice of killing adult male civilians. It seems to be as old as human mass violence, and it is certainly as old as the phenomena we understand as war and genocide. It is a practice which falls under the category now given as “gendercide”. Like mass rape, the tactic of the mass killing of men is not merely aimed at the immediate victims, but is a genocidal tactic aimed at social cohesion. In a patriarchal society and/or one with high numbers of dependent children, the impact of killing a “military age male” – which is to say a “working age male” – is multiplied.

But perhaps the most important propaganda role you are playing is to access that moral and emotional numbness with which we have all been induced to view violence against young men. I have read many accounts of violence, and I will admit that the images that haunt me are those of violence against children. Yet I can also say that those who are close to the violent deaths of men do not view it with the equanimity that our public discourse accords the subject. These are human beings who love and are loved. They feel as much fear, pain, grief and guilt as anyone other human being in their last moments, whether they carry a gun or not. We project on to these dying men a sense that they are agents in their own deaths, as if war were some sort of shoot-out at high noon where every male carries a sixgun. The emphasis on “women and children” is an impulse of armchair humanitarianism by the insipid and the self-righteous.

Perhaps, to understand my point, you could watch and rewatch the video posted here of a young man being murdered by an Israeli sniper. Watch it and ask yourself, “what does my article say about this man’s death”? This is the death of a 20-29 year-old male, so if your article isn’t about this, then what on Earth is it about? I mean that seriously. Your holier-than-thou detached statistical conceits actually say nothing at all about the horrible death of this man except to suggest that somehow it doesn’t really count.

You are also making a big straw man out of the UN accusation of indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force. The real question is the systematic targeting of non-combatants. To date, Israel has targeted 7 UN schools being used as shelters. Fleeing civilians have also been targeted, as have rescue workers and UN personnel. This is based on 3rd party evidence and, quite frankly, only an idiot would give any credence to the IDF’s response to these accusations unless they were subject to cross-examination or were able to provide substantive evidence to back their claims.

But not only do you give unwarranted credence to IDF distortions, you are too lazy, stupid or evil to even check on the veracity of blatant lies. You quote an IDF spokesperson on the subject of Operation Cast Lead: “Hamas and Gaza-based organisations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600-700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF.” This is a double lie. Firstly, I wouldn’t think it would be too much to expect a BBC reporter to look up what the BBC itself reported about claimed casualties after OCL: “Hamas has said 48 of its fighters were killed. The Popular Resistance Committee says 34 died and Islamic Jihad said it lost 38 men.” Hamas not claiming only 50 combatants killed, it is claiming that only 50 of its combatants were killed. Lie number two, just as easy to sort out by an internet search, is that Hamas or “Gaza-based organisations” have “admitted” to a figure of 600-700. No they haven’t. You are either wilfully being played for a fool, or you are deliberately deceiving your readers.

You also repeat that Israeli claim given exposure by your colleague back in 2009 – that “when militants are brought to hospitals, they are brought in civilian clothing, obscuring terrorist affiliations”. I love this one because you have to be a moron to believe it, but also at least a bit of a racist. There are really two options here, one is that when combat breaks out Gazan militants change into civvies on the rather Pythonesque logic that they will make the evil Zionists pay by seeking matyrdom in mufti [sic]. The other possibility is that these hate-filled fanatic terrorists are so rabid, so irrationally rational, so innately cunning and conniving, that when their comrades are wounded or killed their first response is to give them a change of clothing – presumably remembering to tear, incise and or burn the clothing so that it matches the flesh beneath. Hamas probably has special units of crack combat-tailors giving makeovers to the dead and dying. While they are working I imagine that the legions of Pallywood specialists are digitally altering stock footage and stills so that every rabid mass-murdering terrorist arrives at the morgue with pictures and video of their tender family life of caring for young children and sickly elders.

Your fatuous hypothesis is that the disproportionate fatalities of young males suggests that Israel is only accidentally killing civilians in the legitimate pursuit of “terrorists”, and that the IDF, in fact, is practicing discrimination. This is based on four things – ignorance, stupidity, self-satisfied arrogance and the blatant lies of an IDF spokesperson. By privileging statistical evidence as being of a higher order than mere anecdote you manage to suggest that the evidence of our eyes themselves is somehow suspect. This is vulgar scientism. The fact is that a single anecdote can sometimes destroy a statistical hypothesis. The different sorts of evidence provide different sorts of information, one is not inherently better at revealing an objective truth. Statistical methods are frequently abused to create distorted pictures. Statistics provided by belligerents about their own actions are more or less worthless anyway, but sometimes it is perfectly valid to dismiss a statistical account on the basis that it diverges far too much from the collected reliable anecdotes. For example, US figures on civilian deaths in the second assault on Fallujah are risible. Anyone who actually followed the eyewitness accounts of what was occurring at the time knows that these “statistics” are worthless. We know from accounts of US personnel that dead civilians were simply labelled “insurgents”. It is an old practice, perhaps best known from Indochina where it was referred to as the “mere gook rule”.

The “mere gook rule” was elucidated as being “if it’s Vietnamese and dead, then its VC”. The reasons for this were many and varied. People often cleave to the cliché vision of ambitious officers trying to outdo each other by claiming everything conceivable as a kill. Behind that, however, were far more important systemic causes. We do not talk about such things in polite society, but the fact is that the US war machine systematically targeted civilians on the basis that being in a certain location made you a legitimate target deserving of death. They overtly wanted to attack the civilian population in NLF controlled areas on the basis that they were VC “infrastructure”. But to do so they actually redefined them as being combatants. Hence William Westmoreland, that charming man, was able to confidently proclaim that no civilian had ever been killed in a free-fire zone, because he had defined free-fire zones as places where no people were civilians. So when William Calley described his reason for killing women as being because they had “about a thousand little VC” in them, he was actually just expressing official US doctrine.

I feel that I must point out here, in case there is any confusion, that contrary to what seems to be broadly taken as true at the BBC, powerful officials do not actually define reality. I know that this is hard for you to understand, but just because a US General says that the victims of bombing and shelling were all combatants, including the children, it does not make it true. There is a legal definition of “combatant” and international humanitarian law doesn’t actually rely on an honour system where the perpetrator owns up for any acts of naughtiness (and that includes Israel’s activities in Gaza). The Nuremburg Trials, for example, did not consist of a series of cleverly posed questions designed to trap German leaders into admitting that they had started a war and killed civilians. But while we are on that subject, it is always important to remember that every act of mass violence by the Germans was defined by them as an act of war against the “enemy” who were sometimes defined as being a “terrorist population”.

If a normal conscientious human being wrote an article about the gender and age characteristics of fatalities in Gaza, they might at least mention the very prominent fact that the US is now applying a gender and age specific version of the “mere gook rule”. Perhaps you have been sequestered under a rock for the last few years, but there has been significant mention in the news that the US automatically defines anyone killed in their targeted killings who is a military age male as being a “militant” until proven otherwise. “Militant” is such a great word as well because it gives people the impression of legitimacy, but it does not actually specify that the targets were combatants. A study of Israeli targeted killings some years ago found not only that they killed four times as many bystanders as targets, but also that 50% of the “militants” they targeted weren’t actually part of any armed activities. These militants were community organisers, political organisers and union organisers – you know, “infrastructure”.

To recap, then: a military aged male is not necessarily a combatant, but they are frequently targeted as such. This is known as gendercide. Targeting civilians in this way is often accompanied with official semantic approaches which seek to legitimate the targeting of civilians, but by nature any repudiation of legal definitions is in itself a war crime constituted necessarily of the systematic targeting of civilians.

Given everything we see of IDF personnel murdering helpless civilians, what seem to be targeted attacks on medical and aid workers – including UN personnel – and what seem to be deliberate attacks on UN facilities being used as shelters by displaced people, only an Orwellian freak could possibly go along with the idea that the UNHRC’s accusation of indiscriminate use of force is the real issue. Nor is the systematic targeting of civilians even the worst crime on evidence here. Israel is quite blatantly committing genocide as it is defined in law in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG), and under the UN Charter it is guilty of criminal aggression. Genocide is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity” which parties to the UNCG are obliged to act to end, whilst aggression was defined at Nuremburg as the “supreme crime”.

I bet you think you know what the word “genocide” means. I bet that deep down in your guts you know that it was never meant to describe the way Israel treats Palestinians. You probably can’t exactly say what genocide means, but you understand its essence and you know that it is offensive and obscene to cheapen the memory of the dead by debasing the coinage with such politicised accusations. Save your indignant spluttering. The legal definition of genocide is quite clear and taking actions aimed at destroying “in whole or in part” the Palestinian people is genocide by definition. The expectation that genocide should always be manifested as a discreet orgy of violence is a vulgar misapprehension. Genocide is frequently a long process of sporadic, chronic violence in the midst of ongoing persecution. In fact, the slow nature of the Israeli genocide is what makes it so much less ambiguous or uncertain than most other genocides. The rhetoric, the strategic imperatives, the tactic, the doctrines and the policies in this case all align to make this an open-and-shut case with none of the usual difficult issues of intentionality. The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal not only found Israel guilty of the crime of genocide, but also found several named living Israeli officials guilty of genocide.

I know what you are thinking – you are thinking that the KLWCT is “political” and is motivated by “politics”. Let’s deconstruct that, shall we? In your twisted little world there is nothing “political” about the ICC which is an official body that just happens to spend almost all of its time prosecuting sub-Saharan African leaders who have angered the the US. Are these the worst war criminals in the world? No. Are they the worst war criminals in sub-Saharan Africa? No, not that either, certainly not on the basis of the numbers of victims killed. Apart from one token M-23 guy thrown to the dogs for the sake of appearances, the real crime of these people was that of defying Washington. The ICC, however, is “official”. In your grubby little corner of Oceania this means that it is not “political”. In the same idiom the US is an “honest broker” and John Kerry is a “credible authority”. In the real world, however, despite the involvement of Malaysian political figures, the KLWCT is constituted of independent scholarly and legal experts whose collective interest in the matter of Palestine is purely that of human beings who seek an end to injustice and suffering.

(Have you ever wondered about that? The way in which the pompous organs of the media reverse reality to say that the people who don’t have a vested interest are the suspect “political” voices, but the people who have immense power and money riding on the outcomes of events are considered at least respectable if not authoritative?)

The law may not be perfect, but often the fact that it is a codified standard which can be applied equally to each party is highly illuminating. Admittedly, by the time it reaches a court, international law is generally a selective disproportionate application of what amounts to victor’s justice. But we can independently examine issues in a legal light to get a good view of ethical dimensions of a situation. The question is this, in this instance who is the aggressor and who has the right of self-defence?

Israel claims the right of self-defence but what does Article 51 of the UN Charter actually authorise? “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Well, the UNSC has indeed been apprised of this situation and has passed resolutions to restore international peace and security, but Israel will not comply with those resolutions. In order to claim the right of self-defence Israel would first have to relinquish all occupied territories, among other things. And that is a normal established understanding. An occupying force does not have a right to self-defence. Nor is it permissible to blockade a country and then “defend” against their armed resistance to that blockade. If these things were not true then you would have a situation where both sides can claim self-defence with each supposedly defending against the other’s defence.

I know that it is heretical to even think such thoughts, but what if we spent as much time talking about Palestinian rights to self-defence as we do about the non-existent Israeli right to self-defence? When you actually apply international law, Palestinians have every right to use the arms that are available to them in resistance. They are the ones subject to occupation. Israel and its allies have used the statelessness of Palestinians to obfuscate their right to self-defence, but in law you cannot deny rights to individuals on the basis of statelessness which means that they have “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” until such time as the UNSC restores peace.

That brings me to something that I find almost as upsetting as seeing the bodies of children killed by “the most moral army in the world”. Those who take up arms against Israel are not legally or morally deserving of death. Most of them will have lost loved ones to Israeli violence. Every one of them suffers under the illegal oppression of the occupation. Deciding to fight back with arms is not some irrational fanatical decision. Yet in our media these men are treated as violent irrational ciphers in a way which both draws on and perpetuates a racist conception of Arab men. Nobody ever puts a human face on these fighters. They are tarred with the brush of Islamism, with its heavy freight of misogynistic savagery, but many of them aren’t even Islamists and those that are have not committed the sort of atrocities which Westerners claim come naturally to Islamists. We should at least remember who is and who isn’t killing babies here – that is not too much to ask is it? It is the IDF who are committing atrocities, and those who take up arms against them have the legal right to do so. They also have the right to life. They don’t enjoy dying, as the British used to claim about Arab tribesmen. They don’t eagerly seek martyrdom. Like isn’t “cheap” to them, as Westmoreland said of “Asiatics”. Those tropes are the worst kind of vicious racism. These fighters are human beings, and their deaths are legally and morally acts of murder.

Surely this doesn’t mean that Hamas can just fire thousands of rockets into Israel killing civilians, does it? Well, actually it does. Killing civilians is illegal, but the responsibility and culpability belongs with Israel’s leadership under the current circumstances. At Nuremburg it was adjudicated that Russian partisans could not be criminally responsible for atrocities carried out because they were in turn responding to the war crimes of the aggressor. Some argue that this Nuremburg precedent seems to give carte blanche to members of any attacked group. Perhaps jus in bello law must be equally applied to all parties no matter what, as a principle of equality under the law. But even if you take that position, was Kenneth Roth of HRW right to assiduously condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire when he recently discussed war crimes in Gaza? No. Roth is just being a scumbag. He is either acting as a propaganda agent to deliberately build a false equivalence, or he cares more about pandering and sounding “credible” than he cares for truth and justice.

Let me put this into some sort of perspective. It is, quite frankly ridiculous and wildly disproportionate to even suggest that we need to take steps over the supposed illegality of using insufficiently discriminating arms by factions in a besieged population when the harm to civilians is so much less that that caused to the civilians of the besieged population. Gaza’s rockets and mortars have killed 28 civilians in the last 13 years. [And don’t give me any crap about the wondrous “Iron Dome” – it didn’t even exist for most of that time and Theodor Postol has calculated that it does not work. It is a horrendously expensive PR ploy to maintain the deception that there is some sort of parity between Israeli and Palestinian violence.] Not only would it be a de facto abrogation of the Palestinian right to self-defence to restrict the weapons allowed to those that can only reach the enemy when the enemy chooses to come within range. Moreover, it is another point of law that you cannot accuse someone of a crime when you are also guilty of that crime. If Palestinian rockets and mortars are illegal then so are Israeli rockets and mortars – which kill more people. They share exactly the same properties of being inherently indiscriminate, as do air and ground artillery munitions. There is no qualitative difference between these inaccurate primitive rockets and any other explosives used around civilian populations except that they are a lot less deadly than most. This twisted and sick idea shared between Israel an the US that they can effectively exculpate themselves by saying – “yes, we kill more civilians, but we do it more accurately” is appalling.

The point is, though, not to say that Israel can’t accuse militants in Gaza of war crimes, but to say that none of us can. How can we, in countries that have shelled and bombed and killed so many, accuse Palestinian militants of anything? How could anyone from the US claim that Palestinian munitions are insufficiently precise and discriminating when their own government uses depleted uranium, cluster munitions, napalm, fuel-air bombs, white phosphorous, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. The very idea that any Westerner can level war crimes accusations at an desperately poor and ill-armed besieged people for using the only primitive weapons with which they can reach their attacker is sickening and obscene.

I don’t like the rocket attacks. I don’t think Israeli civilians deserve death. But as Osama Hamdan pointed out, when they stop firing rockets, it doesn’t stop Israel from killing and blockading their people. How long do you sit doing nothing while people are killed and while the land, the little strip of a prison, gets ever closer to becoming irreversibly uninhabitable. (There is the Zionist genocidal intent – a realist’s Eretz Israel with a non-citizen Palestinian helots living in controlled West Bank enclaves, while Gaza is a post-apocalyptic pile of polluted rubble.)

If you have actually read this far, you might be marshalling answers with your little weasel brain. Please don’t bother. To put it politely, this letter is in the spirit of a condemnatory open letter. To put it more honestly, I don’t care what a toxic freak like you has to say in his defence. For forty years the dissident voices of our society have taken on this crippling notion that we should “engage” people in “dialogue”, as if our goal is to show people like you the error of your ways. But even engaging someone like you is to give validity to your insane world-view. What sort of callous freak actually goes out of their way to throw condemnations of IDF actions in Gaza into question? Do you wake up in the morning and think, “I know what the world needs, it needs more geeky smug reasons for not having to feel compassion and the desire to end suffering”?

So, frankly, I don’t care what you have to say for yourself. I just want you to know that you are hated. A person half a world away, who is very well educated about the issues involved, hates you for the simple reason that you are the enemy of humanity and your work promotes the suffering of innocents.

All the best for you and your hack friends in your future self-congratulatory endeavours,

Kieran Kelly

 

Will There Be Another Deadly Assault on Fallujah?

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The Iraqi government has declared that Fallujah has fallen entirely into the hands of “Al Qaeda and Daash”. This follows over a month of US and Iraqi PR campaigning in the news media touting Al Qaeda’s ambitions to carve out an emirate in the region. It also comes just days after the revelation that the regime in Baghdad has received hellfire missiles and drones from the United States for the stated purpose of fighting Al Qaeda in the last month.

Behind the scenes, however, Shafaq News reports that some government sources admit that the claims are a deliberate deception. One source describes the government stance as: “Deliberate confusion in the information and attempts to create a dangerous atmosphere in the city to be dealt with in a militarily way in every way,” but in reality, “Fallujah and even other cities are still experiencing quieter days than before”. By citing Al Qaeda and linking it to the brutal terrorist mass-murder campaign as well as alleged ambitions to create an entire state, the Iraqi government may be working towards justifying unleashing high levels of military violence on Fallujah, but who really is controlling Fallujah?

Political revolutionaries affiliated with the protest movement in Iraq have been describing the anti-government forces in places such as Fallujah as “Tribal Rebels”. Many are from the “Awakening” who were originally opponents of the US occupation recruited and armed by the US to fight Al Qaeda. Clearly some in the protest movement are supportive of armed attacks against government forces, and that represents a large section of the Iraqi population. While Western media have been reporting the horrific and seemingly ever-increasing bombing campaign, they have neglected the massive peaceful protest movement that has been in action for a year. As The Common Ills reports, Iraqi reporters face death and serious government repression for reporting on such matters, but the Western media need only the will to write something that might contradict the official Western narrative on Iraq. Now it seems as if armed clashes between regime forces and militias are spreading and intensifying – perhaps enough to foreshadow bottom-up regime change in Iraq, but that too is not deemed newsworthy. Instead there is a deliberate and convenient conflation with the bombing campaign and the aforementioned supposed ambitions of Al Qaeda. One Washington blogger has already taken the opportunity provided by Baghdad’s claims about Fallujah: He rehabilitates George W. Bush and attacks Obama for letting Al Qaeda take over Fallujah again [sic] when Bush had done such a good job of eradicating them earlier.

However, far from being a threat such as presented by mass protests and armed insurgency, the principle Iraqi beneficiary of the terrorist bombing campaign is the regime of Nouri al-Maliki itself. It fuels and justifies government repression which includes disappearances, torture, unfair trials (in a court system created by the US) and many, many executions of “terrorists”. The regime’s political enemies are “terrorists” and rivals for power in place like Anbar province (where Fallujah is) are frequently assassinated or arrested. This too goes unreported in the Western media. The immediate trigger for this recent upsurge in armed militia violence was the arrest on December 28 of a Sunni member of parliament at his home ion Ramadi. The government claims that they were trying to arrest his brother for terrorism but were met with armed resistance (in which the brother was killed). The MP was thereafter arrested for attacking the security forces not as a terrorist as such

The principle overseas beneficiary of all of Iraq’s violence is the US. Unlike regional powers it is not threatened by the instability that it creates. In fact Middle Eastern instability maintains high oil prices which stabilise US global hegemony. (Admittedly this is at the expense of the “99%” in the US, but US foreign policy has never directed by concern for the US people and it is becoming ever less excusable to claim that it is.) Iraqis are ever more hostile to Iran, which a real rival/enemy of the US. The US officially supports the Maliki government and unofficially supports the Sunni Islamist militias who are part of the anti-government forces. Iran also supports the Maliki government, perhaps feeling they have no choice or perhaps not understanding how much this benefits the US. The repression they sponsor (in cooperation with the US) drives the extremism they fear. Iran would be better served by a democratic, tolerant and pluralistic Iraq (or, for that matter, a democratic tolerant and pluralistic Iran).

In Iraq the lines between “real” terrorism and “false flag” terrorism are blurred. Historically agents provocateurs have often blurred those lines, sometimes transforming revolutionaries into terrorists by their presence alone. In this instance we need no details of such infiltration to draw the same sort of conclusions. It is enough to know that the bombing helps maintain the power of the current government in Iraq and that their overseas backers are inevitably linked to the US which also backs their allies in Syria and simultaneously backs the Iraq government. Though it tries to maintain deniability (and apparently uses “a complex, shadowy system of weapons movement, with diverse, sometimes parallel, supply routes”) US involvement is too comprehensive to properly conceal. As with Syria, the US imperial interest is served by conflict and instability and the brutal truth is that US actions are crucial in creating and maintaining these conflicts.

Now, as it was in 2004, a whole city is being labelled “terrorist”, but it is first and foremost a city of resistance. In 1920, when it was only a small town, Fallujah was a centre of spreading resistance to British imperial rule and this seems to have been formative. In 2004, in response to the crimes of US personnel (including the murder of unarmed demonstrators) Fallujah rose in resistance to the US-led occupation. Any so-called “Al Qaeda” who entered the city thereafter were drawn by the strength of the resistance there, they were not the cause of the resistance nor were they the target of the US assaults. Now it seems that the current Iraqi government, a client of both the US and Iran, may be preparing to repeat the destruction and suffering wrought on the people of Fallujah in 2004.