Saturday, May 01, 2004

War crimes galore

I've been somewhat surprised by the amount of outcry the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have evoked. Yes, the images are shocking and disturbing, but not any more so than several other events that have dotted the landscape of America's post-9/11 crusade to rid the world of evil.

The happenings at the Baghdad prison need to be viewed in a larger context. I fear that the focus on this single atrocity comes about only because there are pictures to pass around. In reality, the term "war crime," like it or not, is pretty much synonymous with how the US has waged its alleged "war on terror."

Take what happened in Afghanistan. The carpet bombing of the Afghan countryside "softened up" ground targets, but the military realized soon enough that there weren't many "high value" targets that could be hit. It was concluded early on that the only way to wage the war would be to insert small, mobile units that could fight the Taliban's ground soldiers and, more importantly, enlist rival warlords to join the fray. So in addition to Special Operations forces, the US sent in a mini-army of CIA operatives packing guns, satellite phones, and suitcases full of cash.

And what did these operatives do? For the most part they went around buying off warlords and prominent figures in the tribal regions of Afghanistan, as I suggest above. They also were charged with the bulk of intelligence gathering, primarily by interrogating suspects who were seized by the US military or warlords (more often the latter). And, lo and behold, these interrogations were frequently akin to torture. You know the drill: guns to the head, beatings, and promises to be released into the hands of enemy warlords, where prisoners would no doubt face even harsher degrees of torture. This is, after all, precisely why "American hero" Mike Spann was killed. He pushed detainees to the brink, and, well, they pushed back.

There's also plenty of evidence that torture was/is rather routine at the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul. A number of released captives have testified to it, and the US military even acknowledged that two prisoners died from beatings received during interrogation.

As for the infamous events at Dasht-E Leili and Qalai Janghi, I won't go there right now. I think they speak for themselves.

And I won't even venture a guess as to what's going on at Guantanamo. Frankly, nobody knows what's really happening down there, although released prisoners have described torture and abuse as being par for the course, as one would expect.

Turning to Iraq, it's been clear for some time that the war was illegal and unjustified. In a sane world, the Anglo-American architects of the assault would be standing before the dock, similar to what we saw at Nuremberg. So in one very important sense, the entire military operation is a "war crime" -- in fact, the "supreme international crime."

But if you don't find that compelling, let's just focus on what has happened in the past month. Reports from the ground and the non-American (particularly Arab) press indicate that massive war crimes have taken place in Fallujah. Nasty stuff, like sniping civilians, occupying hospitals and preventing the treatment of wounded, shooting at ambulances, using cluster bombs, and so on. The fact of the matter is that the events of the past four weeks are what should have Americans in an uproar, not the release of a few relatively tame photos.

Thus, anyone shocked at the display at Abu Ghraib should know that it is merely the tip of the iceberg. Thankfully, those of us living in this great land of liberty do not have to put up with such unpleasantries in our media too often. And, when they do appear, as in this case, they are swiftly seized upon, isolated, and dealt with by the "proper authorities," no doubt so Americans can continue believing in the nobility of "the cause."