Only Losers Get Tried for War Crimes


Three days before Operation Iraqi Freedom (sic) was launched, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration had “identified nine senior Iraqi officials, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons, who would be tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity after an American-led attack on Iraq.” The issue of U.S. war crimes is rarely broached, of course, but how does the record of un-indicted U.S. war criminals stack up against those who have paid the highest price for their brutality? Of the 185 Nazis indicted at Nuremberg, only 24 were sentenced to death. Among those two dozen was the German High Commissioner in Holland who ordered the opening of Dutch dikes to slow the advance of Allied troops. Roughly 500,000 acres were flooded and the result was mass starvation. Less than a decade later, the United States Air Force bombed the dams during the Korean War in order to flood North Korea’s rice farms, a move designed by the USAF to bring about “starvation and slow death.” During the Vietnam War, the bombing of dikes in South Vietnam was an uncontroversial measure. Our history books teach us: Vanquished war criminals must and will be brought to justice in unbiased tribunals. The key word here is “vanquished,” because only losers face indictment. The highest-ranking Nazi defendant at Nuremberg, Hermann Goering, stated it plainly: “The victors will always be the judges, the accused the vanquished.” Other accused Nazis wondered aloud: “What about Dresden? What about Hiroshima?”

But the Germans and the Japanese lost in 1945 (as Serbia lost in 1999). The undeniable transgressions of these and other criminal regimes have been well-documented elsewhere and some of those responsible for war crimes have been prosecuted. It was the war planners in the nations that defeated these regimes that sat in judgment. General Curtis LeMay, commander of the 1945 Tokyo fire bombing operation that killed 672,000 Japanese, understood this paradigm well. “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal,” he said. “Fortunately, we were on the winning side.” So far, the U.S. has always ended up on the winning side and therefore hasn’t had to accept responsibility for more than two centuries of its own atrocities…many of them against civilians.

Civilians die during war, everyone knows that, but not all of the dead civilians are mere “collateral damage.” In many cases-particularly when invasions provoke guerilla warfare-civilians are perceived as the enemy and are treated as such. This practice stands in defiance of the Geneva Conventions. Article 50 states: “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered a civilian… The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations… Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.” In addition, the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal define “crimes against humanity” as: “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population.” Examples of civilians killed by the American military could fill volumes. For the purposes of this essay, three Asian nations will serve as examples.

Philippines In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. fought a brutal war of conquest against Filipinos. By 1900, more than 75,000 American troops-three quarters of the entire U.S. Army-were sent to the Philippines. In the face of this overwhelming show of force, the Filipinos turned to guerrilla warfare. The February 5, 1901 edition of the New York World shed some light on the U.S. response to Filipino guerilla tactics: “Our soldiers here and there resort to terrible measures with the natives. Captains and lieutenants are sometimes judges, sheriffs and executioners. ‘I don’t want any more prisoners sent into Manila’ was the verbal order from the Governor-General three months ago. It is now the custom to avenge the death of an American soldier by burning to the ground all the houses, and killing right and left the natives who are only suspects.” In an eerie presaging of Vietnam’s hamlets, Filipino villagers were herded into concentration camps called “reconcentrados.” Captive Filipino soldiers and civilians alike were submitted to the “water cure.” According to the Philippine-American War Centennial Initiative, this method “consisted of forcing four or five gallons of water down the throat of the captive whose body becomes an object frightful to contemplate, and then squeezing it by kneeling on his stomach. The process was repeated until the ‘amigo’ talked or died.” And if those amigos struck back, the U.S. was ready to up the ante. When a U.S. platoon was wiped out in an ambush, Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith, a veteran of the Wounded Knee massacre, issued orders to kill “all persons of 10 years and older.” “The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness,” Smith declared. “I want no prisoners, I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.” “The My Lai massacre had its predecessor in the Philippines in 1906,” says Howard Zinn. “The American army attacked a group of 600 Moros in southern Philippines-men, women, and children living in very primitive conditions, who had no modern weapons. The American army attacked them with modern weapons, wiped out every last one of these 600 men, women, and children.” The commanding officer responsible for this war crime received a telegram of congratulations from Theodore Roosevelt.

Korea “On summer nights when the breeze is blowing, I can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming,” said Edward Daily. This U.S. Army veteran of the Korean War was talking about the killing of hundreds of refugees, mostly women, children and old men at No Gun Ri in Korea on July 26-29, 1950. “According to Korean survivors’ and victims’ relatives,” says Norm Dixon in Green Left Weekly, “following a surprise U.S. air raid that killed about 100 villagers who had been evacuated from their village by U.S. troops, 300 other villagers, overwhelmingly women, children and old men, had taken refuge in a narrow culvert beneath the bridge.” “The bloody atrocity at No Gun Ri, a hamlet 100 miles south of Seoul, has been known in South Korea for decades,” adds journalist Esther Galen, “but a series of pro-U.S. military dictatorships suppressed any public protest or investigation.” The incident came to light when veterans of the U.S. Army First Cavalry Division told their stories to the Associated Press in 1999. Veterans of No Gun Ri told AP that Captain Melbourne C. Chandler, “after speaking to superior officers by radio, ordered machine-gunners from his heavy weapons company to set up near the bridge tunnel openings and open fire. U.S. commanders had claimed there were ‘infiltrators’ among the villagers.” Chandler told his men: “The hell with all those people. Let’s get rid of all of them.” Survivors of the massacre told of the experience. Park Hee-sook, a girl of 16 in 1950, said, “I can still hear the moans of women dying in a pool of blood. Children cried and clung to their dead mothers.” Chun Choon Ja, 12 years old at the time, said the U.S. troops, “dug into positions over hundreds of yards of hilly terrain” where they could fire on the civilians. “The American soldiers played with our lives like boys playing with flies,” said Chun. “The U.S. Armed Forces Claims Service told AP that there was no evidence that the First Cavalry Division was in the area,” Dixon says. “AP reporters using map coordinates from declassified documents have established that four First Cavalry Division battalions were in the area at the time.”

The AP investigation unearthed other U.S. war crimes against Korean civilians. “On August 3, 1950,” Galen reports, “a U.S. general and other army officers ordered the destruction of two bridges, as South Korean refugees streamed across, killing hundreds of civilians. One bridge ran across the Naktong River at Waegwan.” That same day, 7,000 pounds of explosives were used to destroy a steel-girder bridge crowded with “women and children, old men, and ox carts with their belongings.”

“These two incidents were not aberrations or the product of exceptional circumstances, but rather characteristic of the entire American military intervention in Korea from 1950 to 1953, one of the bloodiest chapters in U.S. history,” says Galen. Un-indicted war criminal and U.S. Air Force commander in Korea, General Curtis LeMay concurred with this observation, boasting that U.S. warplanes “killed off twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure.”

Vietnam “In all my years in the Army I was never taught that communists were human beings,” said Lt. William Calley. “We were there to kill ideology carried by-I don’t know-pawns, blobs of flesh. I was there to destroy communism. We never conceived of people, men, women, children, babies.” The date was March 16, 1968. “Under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley, Charlie Company of the Americal Division’s Eleventh Infantry had ‘nebulous orders’ from its company commander, Captin Ernest Medina, to ‘clean the village out’,” explains historian Kenneth C. Davis. All they found at My Lai were women, children, and old men…no weapons, no signs of enemy soldiers. Calley ordered villagers to be killed and their huts destroyed. Women and girls were raped before they were machine-gunned. By the end of the massacre, hundreds of villagers were dead. When the truth about My Lai was eventually revealed, Henry Kissinger sent a note to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman: “Now that the cat is out of the bag, I recommend keeping the President and the White house out of the matter entirely.” Nixon, for his part, blamed the New York Times, what he called “dirty rotten Jews from New York,” for covering the story. Perhaps what had the White House on edge was best articulated by Colonel Oran Henderson, charged with covering-up the My Lai killings, who explained in 1971: “Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai hidden someplace.” “This was not the only crime against civilians in Vietnam,” Davis states. “It was not uncommon to see GIs use their Zippo lighters to torch an entire village.” Indeed, My Lai was not an aberration. On the very same day that Lt. Calley entered into infamy, another U.S. Army company entered My Khe (a sister subhamlet of My Lai) and killed a reported 90 peasants. One of the My Khe veterans later said, “What we were doing was being done all over.”

In his book, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, Telford Taylor, chief United States prosecutor at Nuremberg, suggested that General William Westmoreland and others in the Johnson administration could be found guilty of war crimes under criteria established at Nuremberg.

The information presented within this article is not buried (except in mounds of spin) by the guilty. Anyone with a search engine or a library card can construct a convincing war crimes case against the United States. Acutely aware of this reality, Washington has refused to sign on to the recently proposed International Criminal Court (ICC).

Established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court on July 17, 1998, the ICC is the “first ever permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to promote the rule of law and ensure that the gravest international crimes do not go unpunished.” The United States is not happy about the ICC and Human Rights Watch explains why: “The Bush Administration is attempting to negotiate bilateral impunity agreements with numerous countries around the globe. The goal of these agreements is to exempt U.S. military and civilian personnel from the jurisdiction of the ICC.” The need to protect its soldiers is the common U.S. justification for not signing on, but an “anonymous top Bush official,” quoted in the Sept. 7, 2002 New York Times, articulated the real reasons: “The soldiers are like the capillaries; the top public officials-President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell-they are at the heart of our concern.”

Currently the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton further explained the U.S. position in 1998. “Much of the media attention to the American negotiating position on the ICC concentrated on the risks perceived by the Pentagon to American peacekeepers stationed around the world,” said Bolton, in his role as head of the American Enterprise Institute. “Our real concern should be for the president and his top advisers. The definition of ‘war crimes’ includes, for example: ‘intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities.'”

Of course, war crimes can be made to disappear. On April 6, 2003, the New York Times reported of a post-war U.S. plan aimed at “demilitarizing” the Iraqi curriculum. “Iraqi textbooks, such as this one for sixth-graders, tout Iraqi weaponry and war prowess and cite the United States as an enemy,” reporters David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens state without irony before explaining that the Bush administration hopes to “have in place wholesale revisions to textbooks that have taught a generation of Iraqis to be ready to die for Saddam Hussein.” A few paragraphs into the article, we learn that the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) is “preparing to award education-related contracts worth an estimated $65 million” with the front-runner being Creative Associates International of Northwest Washington, the architect of a similar “educational reform” in Afghanistan. “One of the most important things [taught] is the bearing of arms and the constant readiness to fight enemies,” said former National Defense University professor Phebe Marr, presumably with a straight face. “The definition of the nation and your identity is very much tied up with the military… All the way through the texts, you are supposed to be ready to fight for and defend your country.” Imagine that…

MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be reached at:


Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.