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“Humility and Restraint”: Barack Obama, Don Corleone, and the Ongoing Record of U.S. War Criminality

“Recall,” Barack Obama intoned during his first Inaugural Address, “that earlier generations [of U.S. foreign policymakers] faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.  They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.  Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint… We are the keepers of this legacy.  Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.”

Obama was taking a not-so veiled shot at his predecessor George W. Bush atrocity-laden invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“The tempering qualities of humility and restraint” in “the prudent use” of American power.” Those were curious words to apply to the United States’ monumentally mass-murderous and unnecessary atom-bombing of hundreds of thousands of “Jap” civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – monstrous war crimes meant to warn the Soviets not to cross the new global hegemonic power Uncle Sam in Asia or anywhere else. Committed after the defeat of German and Japanese fascism, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities were really the first shots in the U.S. Cold War against Soviet “communism.: US President Harry Truman had an interesting comment when news of the Hiroshima bombing reached him: “This is the greatest thing in history!”

Consider another U.S. massacre of nonwhite others intended as a message to Russia and the rest of the world at the other end of the Cold War: the U.S. incineration of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops as they retreated from Kuwait on February 26 and 27, 1991. It would be remembered as “The Highway of Death.” The Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac testified that:

“U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one U.S. pilot. On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun…for 60 miles every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely… So many jets swarmed over the inland road that it created an aerial traffic jam, and combat air controllers feared midair collisions…. The victims were not offering resistance…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people…”

How was that for “humility and restraint” in the “prudent use” of force by a great nation whose imperial leaders “understood that [their] power…[did not] entitle [them] to do as [they] please[d]”? As Noam Chomsky noted in 1992, reflecting on a different U.S. crime, “No degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists.”

Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush clearly expressed the underlying cold and imperial significance of Operation Desert Storm (the first U.S. war on Iraq) and the aerial massacre. It was meant to let the world that “What we say goes” in the emergent post-Cold War era, with now Russia back on its heels. The words were spoken like those of a Mafia Don.

Less than a year later, the elder Bush proclaimed that, “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power, and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.” In reality, then as now, the world regarded the U.S. as a rogue superpower and the greatest threat to peace on Earth – with good reason.

Between Hiroshima and the Highway of Death, useful markers for the Cold War era, the U.S. military committed countless atrocities across the planet. During the so-called Vietnam War (a curious term for a one-wised invasion and slaughter conducted against a peasant nation by the most powerful industrial state and military empire in history), Uncle Sam’s benevolent military liquidated more than 4 million Indochinese – regularly labeled “gooks” and other racist names by U.S. troops. Untold thousands of Vietnamese died in criminal civilian massacres like the one exposed in My Lai. Forty thousand alone died in a CIA torture program called Operation Phoenix.

Another shining moment in U.S. “humility,” and “restraint” came in 1988, when the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus flying in a commercial air route through Iranian airspace. All 290 aboard were killed. In 1990, the Vincennes’ commander was rewarded with the Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” during the period when he blew hundreds of civilians out of the sky. The elder Bush offered some interesting commentary on the carnage: “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are…I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

Which brings us to Barack “Kill List” Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize and the direct, personal overseer of the CIA targeted assassination and drone war programs. He has always been a big fan of the elder Bush’s Persian Gulf War. After taking his opening “dovish” shots at Bush Junior, Obama kept the U.S. military “machine set on kill” (Alan Nairn). Under his administration, Washington has killed thousands of civilians in drone, bomb, and Special Forces attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. When his forces of “humility and restraint” killed 140 civilians, including 93 children (many of the literally blown to pieces) in early May of 2009 in the western Afghanistan village of Bola Boluk, Obama refused to apologize.

The most recent US war crime in the Age of Obama took place a month ago in the Afghan city of Kunduz, where “just” America bombed a hospital, killing 22 people, including patients, three children, and medical personnel from Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF). U.S. forces consciously, repeatedly, and precisely targeted the MSF hospital, an egregious war crime under the Geneva Convention. MSF provided the American military its exact GPS coordinates on multiple recent occasions, including on September 29th. There was a nine-foot flag on the roof identifying the building as a hospital. After the first strike, MSF contacted U.S. officials and pleaded with them to stop the carnage. Nothing doing: a U.S. AC-130 gunship persisted in pounding the medical facility for more than an hour, burning patients in their beds and butchering doctors and nurses as they worked. The hospital was targeted because it treats all injured persons, including those fighting the U.S.-backed Afghan government and thereby resisting Washington’s crime-boss dictum: “What we say goes.”

There’s nothing like “humility and restraint” in the “prudent use” of U.S. power.

Obama has broken with his standard U.S. No Remorse policy and apologized in this case because it was a widely popular Western-based organization that got targeted and a big media outcry arose over the Kunduz massacre. MSF’s white and European identity makes its medical staff casualties into victims deemed considerably more worthy than the anonymous Muslims the U.S. routinely slaughters in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Still, the U.S. client and ally Saudi Arabia bombed MSF hospital in Yemen just five days ago. This criminal assault was conducted in coordination with the U.S. military intelligence.

But with Russia’s forceful and effective entrance into the war against U.S.- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists in Syria and on the side of the U.S.-targeted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, “What We Say Goes” seems to be have hit a snag. That’s should give civilians and medical personnel pause across the Middle East. A wounded Mafia Don with Uncle Sam’s firepower is a dangerous thing indeed.

This essay originally appeared on teleSur English.

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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