May 31st, 2006

Voted for Dean

When America Goes to War, Do Our Values Go out the Window?

((Editorial note: I made a conscious decision not to write this on Memorial Day.))

For some reason I seem to have missed, the US Marine Corps massacre of civilians at Haditha in Iraq, in retaliation for the loss of one of their number to the insurgents, is back in the news. Until I hear some actual news, something that wasn't said and written months ago when the actual massacre happened, it can't distract me from something much more interesting and disturbing that hit the news last week. (Although that being said, finding out how high the orders behind the cover-up of Haditha would be interesting ... not that I have any confidence that we will, since officially we still haven't found out who ordered the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, or who ordered its cover-up, and that was almost 40 years ago.)

You see, there are new and very very sickening details about the massacre of civilians at No Gun Ri, Korea, during the American retreat from the Chinese during their counter-attack. Korean survivors and their relatives have been insisting for almost 60 years that American soldiers routinely shot and killed civilians during that retreat. No proof emerged, and the Army (and the soldiers accused) denied everything. Many years later, journalists were able to prove that one such massacre did happen, at the famous "bridge at No Gun Ri." American soldiers believed that the approaching refugees were Chinese or North Korean spies or soldiers out of uniform. So when shots fired over the refugees' heads failed to stop them (unsurprisingly since the whole Red Army was on their heels), they gunned them down. And until last week, that's all we knew ... until last week. Two Associated Press reporters have managed to unearth the actual orders, which came all the way down from the White House. The proof? A letter to the US ambassador to Korea from the Assistant Secretary of State, informing him that the Army had been given the order to shoot any civilians who wouldn't turn back after warning shots. We violated the rules of war because we assumed the other side was doing so, too. Oddly enough, no plain-clothes Chinese or North Korean soldiers were found in the process. It was, in fact, only us who committed the war crime.

This isn't any random war crime. This is a war crimes policy, exactly the kind of thing that the United States has always stood against. Or have we? We gave "free fire zone" orders in Vietnam, too, authorizing the military in several heavily populated areas to kill anybody on sight, to assume that anybody (including children and the elderly) who was still in those areas after the warning to evacuate into refugee camps was a Vietcong soldier and kill them. Now put the blatantly illegal detention of civilians from our war in Afghanistan, and the recurring use of near-free-fire zones in Fallujah in this war, and first hand accounts of American soldiers firing freely into civilian areas in both Panama and Grenada, into that context. It's not entirely meaningful to talk about "war crimes law" prior to the 20th century, but Native Americans might tell you a thing or two about the lawfulness of Americans' behavior in wartime, from the the French and Indian Wars to the attacks on the American Indian Movement. The United States is the only nuclear power that's flatly refused to join the negotiations over a "no first use" treaty with respect to nuclear weapons; America believes that we and only we are allowed to initiate nuclear war, and anybody else who does so is barbaric. And rather obviously the Reagan Administration had a different opinion about state-sponsored terrorism (from one end of Central America to the other) than the Bush Administration has now that Afghanistan has (once) used state sponsored terrorism against us.

The latest word about No Gun Ri is finally the last straw that breaks the camel's back -- I am no longer ashamed of individual Americans. I am now officially ashamed of my country, and I'll tell you why. At this point, there simply are no remaining exceptions to the following generalization: to an American, the rules of war are something that both sides should obey when we're winning, and that only the other side should obey when we're losing. And that's madness. The world just doesn't work that way. If we reserve the right to barbaric behavior when we're losing, then we have to expect barbaric behavior towards us and our soldiers. The whole point of the laws of war is that these are barbaric acts that, if everybody does them, won't change the outcome of the war. If both sides use poison gas, the results are no different than if neither side does. If both sides torture prisoners, the results are no different than if neither side tortures prisoners. If both sides indiscriminately slaughter civilians, the results are no different than if both sides try to target only soldiers. In the latter side of each of those equations, the same side wins and the same side loses; the only meaningful difference is that civilization itself pays a much higher toll. And rather obviously, at this point, I have to say that Americans have never really understood this. They just lie, and say that they do. Truth be told, when America starts losing a battle or a war we really conclude that the world needs us to win more than it needs us to obey the rules of war -- as if everybody didn't think that. And I'm truly ashamed of that.