The Iraq war may be over, at least for US troops, but the cover-up of the atrocities committed there by American forces goes on, even in retrospectives about the war. A prime example is reporting on the destroyed city of Fallujah, where some of the heaviest fighting of the war took place.
On March 31, 2004, four armed mercenaries working for the firm then known as Blackwater (now Xe), were captured in Fallujah, Iraq’s third largest city and a hotbed of insurgent strength located in Anbar Province about 40 miles west of Baghdad. Reportedly killed in their vehicle, which was then torched, their charred bodies were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Pictures and videos of Fallujah residents mocking the bodies, which, unlike the images of burned and mutilated Iraqi victims of American forces, were broadcast on American television and displayed on the front pages of American newspapers, created a wave of indignation and outrage in the U.S., and led the Bush/Cheney administration and the Pentagon to decide they needed to punish the city of over 300,000.
Accordingly, a few weeks later in April, a brutal assault was launched on Fallujah involving heavy aerial bombardment and house-to-house fighting by thousands of Marines. By the time the US forces had battled their way to the center of the city, the civilian casualties were so high that there were mass demonstrations in cities around the country, including in Baghdad where Iraqi workers held a three-day general strike. Under pressure from its own puppet regime in Baghdad, the U.S. withdrew its troops, leaving insurgents largely in control of the city.
In mid-October, however, the US, embarrassed by what was being portrayed by the Iraqi resistance as an American defeat in April, decided to go in again, this time with larger numbers and much more destructive force.
The plan, as explained by commanding officers interviewed by American reporters at the time, was to trap the insurgents in the city and wipe them out. To achieve that, an announcement was made on Oct. 14 to residents of the city that all civilians should
leave. The Marines, aided by units of the UK military’s Black Watch regiment, placed a cordon of troops around the entire perimeter of Fallujah. Those civilians desiring to leave what would become essentially a city-wide free-fire zone, had to pass through checkpoints to escape the looming carnage.
According to a widely published article written for the Associated Press by Jim Krane, however, all males of “combat age,” defined as being from 15 to 55, were turned back from those checkpoints to await their fate in the city. This despite an estimate by the Pentagon that there were only some 3-4000 insurgents in the city. Krane quoted one 1st Cavalry Division officer, whom he said “declined to be named,” as saying of the men and boys who were denied safe passage out of Fallujah, “We assume they’ll go home and just wait out the storm or find a place that’s safe.”
Easy to say but hard to do when some 10,000 buildings are being flattened.
Over 6000 residents of Fallujah were reportedly killed in the nine-day sacking of the city which followed, beginning on November 7. Given that the Pentagon concedes that many of the insurgents managed to slip out of the city before the attack, or to hide out until it was over, this means that thousands of civilians, including boys — many of whom had tried to leave before the attack — were slaughtered by invading American and British troops.
This past December, as the last American troops were pulling out of Iraq in what President Obama is terming a “victory” in the nine-year war launched by President Bush, several American news organizations published retrospectives on Fallujah, a city that was, according to various accounts, anywhere from 30% to 70% leveled by the two assaults in 2004.
Though some of these articles alluded to the brutal and devastating nature of the US assault on Fallujah, the general tenor of the stories was upbeat: By the end of 2011, Fallujah was coming back. Not one story in the mainstream corporate media mentioned the crucial point that what had been done to Fallujah was a massive war crime or really multiple war crimes: the collective punishment of a population for the actions of a few enemy fighters within their midst, the refusal to allow civilians to evacuate the scene of a battle, the wanton destruction of a city, etc.
The Nuremberg Charter, as well as the Geneva Conventions, drawn up in 1949 and approved by the US Senate, make it clear that collective punishment, as practiced widely, particularly on the Eastern Front in World War II by the Nazi Wehrmacht, is a war crime. As Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention puts it:
No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
Other Geneva Conventions were also violated by the US assaults on Fallujah, which featured the deliberate targeting of hospitals and ambulances, as well as the active refusal to allow male non-combatants to flee the scene of impending battle, the execution of wounded or captured enemy fighters, and the denial of protected status to boys under the age of 18 who were seeking to flee the scene of battle.
The New York Times retrospective (“At Iraq War’s End, Wounds are Still Fresh for Falluja”), written by Jack Healy and published on December 14, while focusing on the reopening of a famous kebab restaurant that was targeted and destroyed by American bombs early in the November assault, killing the owner’s sleeping son and two nephews, concedes that there remains much “anger towards Americans,” and notes that there is a “legacy” of the American assaults that “is visible in the concrete walls spangled with bullet holes and shrapnel scars, in apartment buildings still lying in heaps.”
But the article, while alluding to the capture and killing of the four “contractors” (it never refers to the Blackwater employees as the mercenary soldiers they were, though the U.K. Independent newspaper reported that they were all veterans of US Special Forces and were providing armed escort to a military supply convoy), and to the abuse of their corpses, never makes the point that the ensuing two assaults on the city were a military response to that incident, and that as such, they were almost certainly war crimes.
Instead, Healy wrote:
The images of the Americans, burned beyond recognition, surrounded by jeering crowds, deepened a growing sense of unease among Americans back home that the occupation was spiraling out of control. The United States military vowed to pacify Falluja. Two battles followed, in April and the end of 2004, that restored control but pulverized the city and left hundreds dead.
In fact, those assaults on the city left not hundreds, but thousands dead, but then the Times has consistently low-balled the civilian casualties of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as FAIR has reported in the past (See FAIR Action Alert, 11/16/20040).
USA Today, for its part, ran an article (Fallujah Kebab House is Testament to Iraqi Renewal), written by Jim Michaels and published on December 6, 2011, that curiously featured the same rebuilt kebab restaurant. In it, Michaels, like the Times’ Healy, cited the March 2004 killing of four US private “contractors,” not mentioning that they were actually armed Blackwater mercenaries. He then draws a direct connection between that incident and the subsequent destruction of Fallujah, writing that the abuse of the four men’s bodies “triggered a large-scale U.S. assault in April.”
But Michaels, while highlighting the causal link between the four mercenaries’ deaths and the assaults more clearly than did Healy at the Times, nonetheless like Healy ignores the war crime aspect of the American military’s response to the incident.
In the LA Times, photojournalist Luis Sinco’s retrospective (Goodbye Babylon: A Times Photographer Reflects on the End of the Iraq War) published on Dec. 25, is more negative about the war, but even he, when mentioning the US military’s use of prohibited white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah, excuses this war crime by accepting the Pentagon’s ludicrous claim (made after an initial denial that it was used at all) that the horrific weapon was “used on insurgents, not on civilians,” as if there were any way to separate the two.
The latest unwillingness by the American media as the US War on Iraq appears to be ending, to confront the crimes of the American war machine, continues a long record of the media covering up the brutal nature of America’s imperial wars.
As FAIR reported at the time of the second, larger Marine assault on Fallujah in November 2004, it began with an attack on the city’s main hospital, which was raided by Marines, who grabbed doctors away from patients in mid-operation, cuffing them and forcing them and other hospital personal onto the floor while patients were interrogated and in some cases removed from the facility.
The Times, FAIR reported, “matter-of-factly” reported that targeting of a hospital “because the American military believed that it was the source of rumors about heavy (civilian) casualties.”
In other words, the military attack on, and closing of the city’s only acute care hospital — a clear war crime under the Geneva Conventions — was for the Times simply a case of “message control” by the Pentagon, which clearly didn’t want a lot of embarrassing reporting about civilian casualties during its killing spree in the city.
The subsequent targeting and destruction of the Fallujah Central Health Clinic, which led to the death of 35 patients, 15 medics, four nurses and four doctors, and the bombing of a new hospital just about to be opened, were likewise not reported as war crimes in any of the US media.
Also never reported as a war crime was the US military’s deliberate entrapment in the city of all “combat-age” males, meaning those found to be between the age of 15 and 55. As Project Censored wrote about the assault, “The 50,000 citizens who either chose to remain in the city, or who were unable to leave, were trapped by coalition forces and were cut off from food, water and medical supplies…The US military…conducted the invasion as if all the people remaining were combatants.”
Requests for comment from reporters Healy and Michaels were not responded to. Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter at the time (he now is a staff writer for the New Yorker) who reported on the second Fallujah assault as an embedded journalist with a Marine combat unit, did not dispute Krane’s account but says he did not see male civilians, including boys, being barred from fleeing or ordered back into the city. “If I had seen that I would have reported it,” he says. Nor does Filkins say he saw his unit killing captives or injured enemy fighters, which he says he also would have reported. But Filkins, whose reportes told of the courage of the Marines he was attached to, never called the invasion itself a war crime. Nor does he claim to have witnessed any crimes by US forces.
Prof. Frances Boyle, an expert on the laws of war at the University of Illinois, says he’s “not surprised” that mainstream media reporters don’t write about American war crimes, or even bring the issue up where it seems clear a crime has occurred. “I get called for comment by corporate media reporters all the time,” he says, “but not when the issue involves American military war crimes.”
Boyle says that the US assault on, and destruction of Fallujah was “exactly what the Nazis did” in World War II. “Article 6B of the Nuremberg Charter clearly says that ‘wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages is not justified’ and is a ‘war crime.’” So too, he says, was denying evacuation to civilians, even if they were males of “combat age.”
“It has always been this way,” he says. “It was the same with Vietnam. The US media would not talk about war crimes in Indochina until My Lai, when they had to because of the report by Sy Hersh.”
Danny Schechter, a media critic who runs a blog called the “News Dissector,” says the embedding of journalists with US troops makes it less likely they will write about war crimes. “They become part of the units they are covering and see things from that perspective,” he says. But he adds, “The failure to report on war crimes like Fallujah should itself be a crime.”
DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new Project-Censored Award-winning independent online alternative newspaper. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.