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Checking out the news I came across a news article from AFP describing charges recently filed against four US servicemen who were stationed in Iraq in 2007. The charges included conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, among others. According to the military press release, these four soldiers conspired to kill Iraqi detainees while they were serving in the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry (Regiment). Besides the fact that this sounds like another attempt by military brass to blame low ranking GIs for their screwup, there is the greater fact that if these men are charged with conspiring to murder Iraqis, then shouldn’t there be some other folks facing the same charge? It’s not like these four GIs went over to Iraq by themselves, set up a prison and decided to kill some of the Iraqis detained there.
No, they were there because the Pentagon sent them there after starting a war and occupation ordered by the White House and certified by Congress. These men and women in Washington knew that their war and occupation would kill Iraqis. In fact, they counted on this fact in the hope that they would achieve their goals of destroying the government of Saddam Hussein and replacing it with one willing to do Washington’s bidding. The fact that they have yet to achieve the latter goal is a big reason why the GIs charged with the aforementioned conspiracy charges were in Iraq in the first place. It is not my place to determine the guilt or innocence of these four men, but I’m pretty certain that if those in Washington and Virginia who planned and funded the war in Iraq were charged with conspiracy to murder Iraqis, there would be no question of their guilt.
When I used to argue against the US war in Vietnam with my father and some of his officer pals, the argument would often turn to the morality of that war. Napalm, Agent Orange, carpet bombing – these constituted premeditated murder in my mind. The officers arrayed against me, being religious men for the most part, would argue that my perception was wrong. The deaths of civilians, they explained, was unintentional and the deaths of combatants was justifiable. Nowadays, we call those unintentional civilian deaths "collateral damage" – refusing even to acknowledge their humanity. Like so many Jesuits arguing for the rightness of killing heathen savages in the New World, the officers would insist that there was a difference between killing in war and killing in other circumstances.
My response was one shared by many people opposed to the war and argued quite convincingly by Howard Zinn in his book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. That argument goes like this (I paraphrase Zinn here): Since killing civilians is inevitable in modern warfare it cannot be called an accident. Bombers and helicopter pilots don’t necessarily intend to kill civilians, but when they attack villages and crowded city streets they know that civilians will be killed. When soldiers and Marines on the ground cannot tell the difference between a civilian and an insurgent and are told to clear an area, they will kill civilians. This killing may not be deliberate, but it is not an accident. Zinn sums it up with this sentence: "It (this killing) is not part of the war. It is the war." I don’t know if this line of thinking ever convinced my dad or any of his friends, but it certainly applies to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you doubt this, check out some of the testimony from Iraq and Afghanistan vets on the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) website.
Once one accepts the argument made by Zinn and a multitude of others, then there is no question that if the soldiers on the ground and in the air are involved in manslaughter and murder (whether they believe they are or not), the those who sent them there to commit these crimes are involved as well. So, whether the four servicemen charged with conspiracy to murder Iraqis are convicted or let off like the men involved in the massacre at Haditha, there can be no real justice until the men and women responsible for them being there are also charged not only for conspiring to kill Iraqis, but also to kill Afghans and Americans.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org