America: Where War Crimes Are A Way of Life

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Originally published in the Harvard Crimson.

Imagine for a moment a horrific scenario: eight men are walking door-to-door in a small town, knocking down doors and shooting anyone they find. By the end of this violent rampage, they have murdered a total of twenty-four people at close range for no reason. They are arrested and subsequently found guilty in court of massacring civilians in cold blood. In a twist of fate, however, the same court decides that these men should be acquitted, giving no reason, and rules that there will be no possibility of appeal.

This nightmarish scenario became a reality for dozens of families a few weeks ago after a Southern California military court allowed a marine convicted of massacring 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in their homes to go free with only a minor pay dock and demotion. The seven other marines involved in the 2005 massacre in the Iraqi town of Haditha, meanwhile, had previously been acquitted or had the charges dropped, despite the overwhelming evidence of their participation in the killings.

Sergeant Frank D. Wuterich, the marine who led the bloodbath, ordered his troops to shoot first and ask questions later, and because of this many were holding out hope that despite letting seven of the killers off the hook, justice would be served. This faith in the American justice system was severely misguided.

The case’s verdict confirms something that has become frighteningly clear over the last decade: American troops will not be held responsible for the crimes they commit abroad. Americans have long conceived of their fighting forces as a noble lot who uphold values of integrity and justice in their conduct. While this does generally hold true, the unwillingness of the military to meaningfully punish those who engage in atrocities against citizens of other nations means that the United States military is complicit in the crimes against humanity being committed in our name.

It is important to note that the Haditha Massacre did not occur in isolation, but has followed years of atrocities committed at various levels of the United States Armed Forces with a shocking degree of official complicity. In 2006, U.S. forces killed ten members of a single family in their home in Al-Balad without punishment. Additionally, the torture of thousands of detained Iraqi civilians at Abu Ghraib has been well documented, with few consequences for the perpetrators.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, U.S. soldiers and unpiloted drones have killed thousands of civilians over the last few years, including nearly a hundred people at Granai alone and another forty seven civilians at a wedding party in Deh Bala. As of yet, no one has been punished for any of these massacres.

The dehumanization of Afghan and Iraqi civilians that these massacres entail—one soldier who raped and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killed her and her family said “I didn’t think of Iraqis as human”—is, in fact, consistent with the wars themselves and the way in which the American public has come to see the Middle East. While the U.S. government speaks at length about the humanitarian impulses behind the wars—“saving” Iraqis and Afghans—the fact that the military thinks little of killing civilians en masse reflects the hollowness of this rhetoric.

The war crimes committed by U.S. troops have been met with little outcry domestically—jingoistic calls to “support our troops,” have not been qualified with “…unless they commit war crimes.”

Soldiers who have blown the whistle on atrocities committed by others in uniform, meanwhile, have been subjected to the full force of the government’s wrath. Since 2008, six soldiers have been charged with espionage for revealing information to journalists about atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers. When Private Bradley E. Manning sent Wikileaks a video of U.S. soldiers gunning down civilians in Iraq, he was arrested, and he has been detained in inhumane conditions in solitary confinement since. As Mazahir M. Hussain noted, “Bradley Manning should’ve really considered committing some war crimes instead of exposing them, [it] worked well for Frank Wuterich.”

The horrifying perversion of justice that Wuterich’s trial represents is, unfortunately, not as surprising as it should be. As long as the United States is not held accountable for its warmongering and aggression abroad, it makes little sense for the military to punish individuals who commit war crimes within its ranks. Our inability as a society to put the wars themselves on trial means that there is little chance of justice for their innocent victims in the foreseeable future.