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Meditation on Haditha

The malevolent Bush administration has started to act like a cosy clan of CEOs, dishing out government booty to favoured corporate coffers and remoulding public policy to suit the narrow interests of key donors. It frequently overreaches and gets away with it. The latest example is that of Haditha, where US Marines systematically slaughtered two dozen Iraqi civilians last November.

Meditation on Haditha

The malevolent Bush administration has started to act like a cosy clan of CEOs, dishing out government booty to favoured corporate coffers and remoulding public policy to suit the narrow interests of key donors. It frequently overreaches and gets away with it. The latest example is that of Haditha, where US Marines systematically slaughtered two dozen Iraqi civilians last November.

KURT JACOBSEN, SAYEED HASAN KHAN

“People with power have the right

to do to us anything we can’t stop

them from doing”, is how the late Joseph Heller summed up his superb tragicomic novel Catch-22, a tale populated by predatory authorities out to swindle or snuff the hero in the name of patriotism. That is exactly the predicament we all are in regarding George W Bush’s hegemonic follies. What is harrowing for Americans at home as well as targeted people abroad is the sheer lawlessness with which this US administration serenely behaves. When challenged, the neo-conservatives simply trot out a band of suitably obsequious lawyers who champion not the American constitution but an updated “fuhrerprinzip” which permits the president to do anything he likes to anyone. Since all three branches of government are in Republican Party hands, there is very little one can do to resist – at least until the November elections. This malevolent administration from the start has acted as little more than a cosy clan of CEOs dishing out government booty to favoured corporate coffers and remoulding public policy to suit the narrow interests of key donors. Bush and his savvy handlers overreach endlessly because, after 9/11, they know they can get away with it.

The latest sordid example of this chronic and unchecked overreaching is news of Haditha, where US Marines systematically slaughtered two dozen innocent Iraqi civilians last November. It was hardly a unique event. The mainstream US media typically went into energetic apologetic mode saying, at first, that Haditha was exaggerated, then that it was a one-off tragedy, and, anyway, that those civilians were asking for it because they looked just like insurgents. One of us heard a former soldier on American radio say, the only way to gain “respect” in Iraq is to behave much worse than the enemy. (Are the Marines handing out scimitars yet for beheading foes?) Yet if Iraqi people, whatever their creed or ethnicity, are treated no better than the armed resistance then why exactly are US forces still occupying Iraq? To build a shining new democracy in west Asia, as the White House fairy tale goes, or to show them who’s the boss whilst seizing their resources? A majority of Americans today at last realise the answer is most likely the latter.

This summer the US clearly acted as nothing more than an eager accomplice, and arms peddler, in the Israelis’ crazed and counterproductive pulverising of southern Lebanon. It is becoming difficult to tell whether right wing Israeli belligerence is infecting US policy attitudes, or whether Bush administration bellicosity is guiding what Israeli governments do. The two blinkered governments are so alike that it hardly matters who influences whom. American media don’t believe there is any other side to a west Asia story but that of the Israelis; so American citizens, for the most part, remain befuddled by what plainly was a campaign entailing inevitable civilian atrocities and war crimes.

What should disturb US citizens is that whatever happens overseas always spills over at home eventually. The Bush crew, eyes fixed only on their wealthy, or rabidly pseudo-religious constituencies, treat ordinary Americans in the very same contemptuous manner as they would treat any irritating foreigner who gets in their way. Al Qaida cannot hope to destroy, or even dent, American democracy; only Bush can. The only point that is debatable is whether Bush’s cronies are now operating in total confidence that they control their own fate (via, perhaps, a rigged electronic voting system – a suppressed story in mainstream media) or whether they are desperately playing “smash-and-grab” with everything in sight while Bush remains in office and the grabbing is good. Who cares about “collateral damage” in Haditha? Don’t sweat the small stuff, is the White House attitude. Trust us.

American troops do not do massacres: only wicked enemies do.

Massacre in Vietnam

We have been here before. When the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers – which, routinely, was covered up by the military – finally was disclosed more than a year later through tips from a concerned soldier, the reaction was pretty much the same. The massacre – one of many, according to the testimony of anti-war US veterans at the 1971 “Winter Soldier” investigations – sprang straight out of standard counter-insurgency doctrine, where “winning hearts and minds” is nothing but a strategically fragrant phrase to smother the ugly stink of truth. The cruel logical conclusion to the conduct of “low intensity” warfare is to exterminate everyone who supports, or imaginably supports, the guerrillas. Everyone.

The perpetrators? No one is so brainless, conformist and brutal as a gang of testosterone-fuelled teenage boys, except for the same lads when they join some of the greatest gangs of all – the Marine Corps or US army – and are unleashed among oddlooking people whom they are encouraged to view as wretchedly subhuman. What a CNN broadcast laughably labelled “Marine misconduct” is precisely what these soldiers are trained so intensively and expensively to do. One may be grateful that such people were available to fight fanatical imperial Japanese soldiers in the Pacific in the second world war, but why on earth deploy razoredged killers among modern day civilians? A young navy veteran named John Kerry, way back in April 1971, testified before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee that troubled veterans confessed they had “personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam”.

A recent book reveals that, as a branch of the indiscriminately murderous Phoenix assassination programme, a deliberately crafted “rogue” American unit killed and tortured whomever they pleased in a rampage throughout the Central Highlands in 1967. The late colonel David Hackworth, an organiser of the now notorious “Tiger Force” unit and a noted author, told the New York Times frankly that “Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go” and that

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 “there were hundreds of My Lais”. The initial public reaction to My Lai, incidentally, was highly protective of low-ranking soldiers not because they were innocent but because they did not conscript themselves, did not equip themselves, did not pay their own fare to south-east Asia to kill peasants, and did not decide among themselves over a drop of sherry that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime had to be propped up by American arms.

Protecting the Guilty

The system worked, as the system always works, to protect high level decision-makers from the consequences of their actions. How, they plaintively ask, could they do their jobs otherwise? The investigation snared no one higher than a captain eager for promotion according to “body count” rules set by superiors, and convicted no one higher than feeble-minded lieutenant William Calley. The troops, even the genuine sadists among them (and most refused to join the massacre), were pawns. Only Calley was found guilty and he was soon pardoned by president Richard Nixon (who later was pardoned for his own crimes against the US constitution by Gerald Ford). The favourite way that nervous but canny elites shield themselves from investigations, ironically enough, is tirelessly to accuse their critics of showering blame only upon the miserable soldiers. The technique: confuse the issue, divert attention, muddle the audience, hurl a multitude of accusations. It works like a charm.

Still, there was at the time, a degree of accountability for leadership, which is anathema to Bush. The whole point of power, after all, is not to be accountable. So the current administration has rewritten Iraqi laws to excuse not only officials and military personnel but any private US corporation from legal liability. Private security forces enjoy a virtual licence to kill, maim and plunder in Iraq. The US clearly aims to dig in at its new “crusader castle” embassy and at vast military bases, with the help of private forces, forever – or until they all are driven out. The Bush “business” administration clearly is willing to wreck the entire US economy in order to subsidise their own band of cronies. As 18th century economist Adam Smith, whom conservatives love to invoke but rarely read, realised, pure capitalism is nothing but pure thievery, conspiracy and extortion. Capitalism only works for the greater good of the entire population to the degree that it is regulated.

The origins of the new Bush arrangement in west Asia are eerily familiar. Until the rebellion of 1857, the East India Company – that lawless “empire within an empire” – ruled much of India with a rowdy private contingent that outnumbered regular British troops. Atrocities were just an everyday by-product of colonial exploitation. The more this violence was farmed into the “private sector” the easier it was for authorities to ignore, and profit from it. “If it were not for the rupees, I would not stay in this confounded country for an hour”, a company “soldier” told a Times correspondent. The same sentiment – though about different currencies – certainly holds true for ravaged Iraq.

Avarice vs Public Good

The real war being waged today is not against “terrorism” but is one of private avarice against the public good. The rich, and only the rich, have grown richer. Bush has done his job. Many Americans still can’t detect, or stomach, the dirty motives behind all the rhetoric they hear daily about nobly promoting national security and free enterprise. Ignore the words and look at the deeds, is always wise advice. Since Bush made his braggart speech beneath that “mission accomplished” banner on a carrier deck, private security forces have been second in number only to American troops among so-called “coalition forces”. These mercenaries, as they should be called, are paid many times the regular soldiers’ salaries and yet they and their corporate employers are protected by the same US troops. That tells you what the real mission in Iraq is. There is one private thug for every 10 troops, and about a third of war funds go to these men unencumbered by any semblance of military discipline, such as it is. A private company harassing, maiming and killing civilians does not rate a media peep, let alone come up on any criminal charges. Where then is Bush moving on the great historical stage? Backwards, implacably, to a hi-tech reincarnation of the East India Company, only in west Asia.

EPW

Email: jkjacobs@uchicago.edu

Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

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