The ugly truth of America’s history in war

Alternet recently published a piece headlined “The Mass Killing of Civilians, Now in Syria and Iraq, Is Part of a Long, Depressing Pattern of American War-Making“.

The third paragraph says what many know to be true, but rarely say out loud.

There are peace-loving nations in the world. The United States is not one of them. It never has been.

The author, Frank Joyce, focuses on how the Vietnam War was different in that there was strong public objection to the killing of civilians.

Fifty years ago, the very idea promoted by the Vietnam antiwar movement that civilian lives “matter,” was a complete rupture with what had gone before. That’s why the opposition to the opposition was so emotional. It still is.

The effort to recover from the war aversion known as “Vietnam syndrome” has been much discussed elsewhere. Suffice to say that Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the many wars since have firmly reestablished the legitimacy of permanent war as the American value that supersedes all others.

What comes along with that territory is regression to the mean of obsequiousness to all things military. We are expected to applaud soldiers on airplane flights, thank soldiers for their service, pay tribute to them at sports events and display other forms of worship ad nauseam.

Even so, honoring Vietnam veterans remains an ongoing and specific project.

There are people I know and respect greatly who served in Vietnam, and I don’t think one bit less of them for it. But I am uncomfortable with the idea that every soldier in uniform is by definition a hero, and that being anti-war is somehow synonymous with being anti-troops.

Our goal as a nation should be to use our military in combat situations only when absolutely necessary, and in such ways that they can serve honorably with respect for the lives of civilians.

We need to remember that being critical of your nation’s history does not mean you hate your country. We criticize because we love our country, and frankly the people of all the world, and want to uphold in actions the values our leaders so easily promote with words.

What would you do?

These short documentaries spotlight two famous experiments designed to learn about how people respond to authority. Both are quite frightening in their implications. Most of us like to think that we would stand up for our beliefs, even if it means defying authority. However, I’m not sure you can tell for sure until you’re placed in a particular situation.

 

Looking at consequences of AUMF

CNN looks briefly at how U.S. presidents now routinely use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as justification for military actions.

According to a May 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, there have been “37 relevant occurrences of an official record, disclosed publicly, of presidential reference to the 2001 AUMF in connection with initiating or continuing military or related action.” That includes “detentions and military trials,” like those carried out in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Let’s remember that California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee was the only member of either house of Congress to vote against the measure. Below is an interview Democracy New conducted with Lee regarding her vote and the AUMF. As you watch her speech, which is shown early in the clip, keep in mind that it was made days after the attacks of 9/11/01, when the mood of the American government, media and people made giving such a statement especially difficult.

Maybe “they” have a good reason to hate us

In an article titled “Why We’re Never Told Why We’re Attacked”, Joe Lauria lays out a brief history of Western powers such as the U.S. meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, and how terrorists are motivated to avenge such actions.

Despite such motivation being elucidated by those committing acts of violence, we often are told that the terrorist just hate us for who we are, not what we’ve done.

As Lauria concludes:

Wading into the psychology of why someone turns to terrorism is an unenviable task. The official Western view is that Islamist extremists merely hate modernity and secularism. That might be their motive in wanting to backwardly transform their own societies by removing Western influence. But it’s not what they say when they claim responsibility for striking inside the West.

To ignore their words and dismiss their violent reaction to the long and ongoing history of Western intervention may shield Americans and Europeans from their partial responsibility for these atrocities. But it also provides cover for the continuing interventions, which in turn will surely produce more terrorism.

Rather than looking at the problem objectively – and self-critically – the West ludicrously cloaks its own violence as an effort to spread democracy (which never seems to materialize) or protect civilians (who are endangered instead). To admit any connection between the sordid historical record and anti-Western terrorism would be to admit culpability and the price that the West is paying for its dominance.

Worse still, letting terrorists be perceived as simply madmen without a cause allows the terrorist response to become justification for further military action. This is precisely what the Bush administration did after 9/11, falsely seeking to connect the attacks to the Iraqi government.

By contrast, connecting terrorism to Western intervention could spark a serious self-examination of the West’s behavior in the region leading to a possible retreat and even an end of this external dominance. But that is clearly something policymakers in Washington, London and Paris – and their subservient media – aren’t prepared to do.

Peter von Hagenbach, first person tried and executed for war crimes?

The concept of war crimes is often considered a fairly recent development, with the Nuremberg trials after World War II being the most well known.

However, it can be argued that the first international trial for war crimes actually took place on May 9, 1474, when Peter von Hagenbach was tried, convicted and beheaded in the town of Breisach.

In 2012, ExecutedToday.com published a piece on Hagenbach, including an interview with Gregory Gordon, who at the time was a professor at the University of North Dakota law school.

Hagenbach’s case is significant in many respects, one of which was his unsuccessful attempt to defend himself on the basis that he had been following orders from a superior.

As Gordon indicates in the interview, the trial broke new ground in another way as well.

Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.

For a more in-depth look at the Hagenbach case, including differing opinions as to whether his reputation as a legendary villain of sorts was warranted, read Gordon’s academic paper on the subject.

From the conclusion of his paper (note that ICL stands for International Criminal Law):

But has the Hagenbach inquest left a larger legacy? Is it the world’s first international war crimes trial? Did it bequeath us the first primitive formulation of crimes against humanity? As this piece has demonstrated, given the relatively circumscribed writ of the Holy Roman Empire by the late fifteenth century, it is not unreasonable to classify the trial as “international.” And Burgundy’s hostile occupation of the Sundgau in the first part of 1474 means Hagenbach’s transgressions may arguably be recognized in contemporary terminology as war crimes. Moreover, the bailiff’s apparent widespread and systematic attack against the Alsatian civilian population (most clearly via rape and murder) – made with his commander’s knowledge of the attack – seems to qualify as crimes against humanity as it is understood today.

Whether, on that fateful Monday morning in the spring of 1474, Heinrich Iselin spontaneously and intuitively attempted to vocalize the raw concept of a new kind of atrocity crime – offenses violating “the laws of God and man” – may never be known for sure and, in any event, is beside the point. Since the modern birth of international criminal law in 1945, experts have perceived that the Swiss procurator articulated a new juridical concept that morning — crimes against humanity. That perception has undoubtedly had an influence, however subtle or attenuated, on the modern development of ICL. And it has lent the subtle sanction of ancient pedigree to jurists attempting to blaze new trails with respect to ICL theories of liability, defense, and procedure. This piece has shown that though they might be grounded in inaccurate or superficial understandings of history, modern perceptions of the trial are at least not based on unsubstantiated myth. Perhaps this piece will disabuse ICL of its one-dimensional portrait of Hagenbach as history’s consummate bogeyman. But it should also enhance appreciation for the important semiotic and iconographic space the Breisach Trial now inhabits in transnational legal discourse.

Are we falling into the trap?

A few days after the ISIS attacks in Paris, William R Polk wrote an interesting article for Consortium News headlined “Falling into the ISIS Trap“. He takes a look at the response to terrorism and insurgency, and how it often makes the problem worse.

The American-European and Russian strategies against guerrillas and terrorists have both relied primarily on military action. This was obvious in our campaigns in Afghanistan. The Russians are now at least in part repeating in Syria the strategy they employed in Afghanistan just as we repeated much of our Vietnam war strategy in our engagement in Afghanistan. The U.S., our allies and Russia are now apparently embarked on the same general strategy in Syria and Iraq.

The supposedly more sophisticated strategies (such as encouraging training, anti-corruption campaigns, “security” programs, jobs creation, various forms of bribery and other economic activities) are given relatively minor attention. Least attended is the political dimension of insurgency.

Yet, at least by my calculation, the reality of insurgency is the reverse of how we are spending our money and devoting our efforts. I have calculated that in insurgency politics accounts for perhaps 80 percent of the challenge; administration is about 15 percent; and the military-paramilitary component is only about 5 percent. A look at the program numbers shows that our allocations of money, political savvy, administrative know-how and military power are in reverse order.

Three reasons explain why these allocations which, although proven ineffective, are still employed: the first is failure to understand the political dimension of insurgency as I believe most of the counterinsurgency “experts” fail to do; the second is that “standing tall,” beating the drum and calling for military action win plaudits for political leaders; and the third is that arms manufacturers and the workers who make the weapons want to make money.

On that last point, President Dwight Eisenhower was right: the military-industrial complex (to which we have added the lobby-corrupted Congress) is “the tail that wags the dog” of American politics.

We don’t have to guess what the strategy of ISIS is. Their leaders have told us what it is. The Management of Savagery (using the Arabic word tawhish, which evokes a sense of dread and is applied to a desolate area, the haunt of wild beasts, where there is no humanity or softness but only savagery, terror or cruelty) specified the long-term campaign to destroy the power of those societies and states that ISIS calls “the Crusaders,” i.e., the Western powers, which ISIS identifies as imperialists, and to cleanse Islamic society of the turncoats who support them.

Some prevention of ISIS violence can be accomplished, perhaps, with increased security measures, but I suggest that a multinational, welfare-oriented and psychologically satisfying program could be designed that would make the hatred that ISIS relies upon less virulent.

Inadvertently, ISIS has identified the elements for us: meeting communal needs, compensation for previous transgressions, and calls for a new beginning. Such a program need not be massive and could be limited, for example, just to children by establishing public health measures, vitamins and food supplements.

Organizations (such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the Rostropovich Foundation, the Red Cross and Red Crescent) already exist to carry it out and indeed much is already being done. The adjustment is mainly in psychology – the unwillingness for nations to admit wrongdoing – as we have seen in the German “apology” for the Holocaust and the failure of the Japanese to apologize for the Rape of Nanking. It would cost little and do much, but, in these times, it is almost certainly a non-starter.

So, sadly, I fear that we are beginning to move toward a decade or more of fear, anger, misery and loss of basic freedoms.

Earlier, Polk had written two very interesting essays relating to the history of the Middle East: “Why Many Muslims Hate the West” and “Muslim Memories of West’s Imperialism“.

The three articles are not easy reading, and add up to more than 22,000 words. The Middle East is so complex and its history dates back so long, that no series of essays can completely capture it all. Polk does a good job of highlighting what he can, but he’s been studying the history and observing the unfolding events for decades. It’s much more difficult for those of us trying to make sense of it all without the experience of decades of study.

What’s frightening is the sense that many of our political leaders don’t have a great grasp of it themselves, and are more worried about looking tough for political reasons than they are understanding the events and the motivations behind them.

I’m certainly no expert, but the terrorism we’ve seen in recent years doesn’t seem to be a problem you can bomb and kill your way out of, any more than a fire is a problem you can solve with a can of gasoline.

White House meeting memo

If you’re ever tempted to believe that government officials are transparent and honest with their citizens about matters of war and peace, and that war is always seen as the absolute last resort, this short clip from Britain’s Channel 4 may snap you back to reality.

I’m not saying that leaders never believe that war is the best option. There may have been some who honestly believed that invading Iraq was justifiable. However, they rarely trust that public opinion will be with them if they present only a fair and honest presentation of the facts. So they find the justifications they believe will most galvanize public opinion in their favor.

A frightening time

I’m sure at every period in history, at least some people believed they were in the scariest, most dangerous era ever. Many people believe we are in the worst time in history right now.

If you are young enough to have not lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, watch this national address by President John Kennedy and imagine how it felt to see such a speech live, knowing that the human race could be near extinction at any moment. Luckily for us all, a combination of rational leadership and luck led to a peaceful solution, without which I might never have been born.

The second video is a civil defense film that was produced in 1951 and was shown in schools as part of the “duck and cover” campaign. Again, imagine seeing this as a child.

The man who saved the world

The Cuban Missile Crisis is as interesting and scary to me as anything I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction, probably because it actually happened. And it nearly brought about a nuclear exchange that may have prevented me from ever being born.
This video documents how a single individual, Vasili Arkhipov, likely staved off a confrontation that could have led to the end of the world as we know it.
This video also reminds us that members of the enemy’s military is human. They are not machines devoid of emotion, but people with families, pains and fears.

Where do we find our heroes?

The American film industry provided us with an interesting dichotomy this weekend. Today, on Martin Luther King Day, I went to see Selma. That movie largely focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom non-violent resistance was central.

In contrast, America Sniper was by far the top moneymaker at the box office this weekend. That film is based on the book by Chris Kyle, who was once president of a company that used the quote, “Despite what your mama told you … violence does solve problems”, in its logo.

The word “hero”is frequently used in conjunction with both King and Kyle, but not often by the same people.

It’s not a word I use often to refer to anyone, but if the title must be bestowed on any public figure, does it better fit a man of non-violence who criticized the Vietnam War and whose movement helped change the country in many ways, or a man whose claim to fame is how many people he was able to kill in a country that was the victim of an arguably illegal and immoral invasion and occupation?

How we answer that question as a nation could largely determine our future.

John F. Kennedy once summed it up well in a letter to a friend when he wrote, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”