Sanitizing the 21st Century’s Worst War Crime


Recently my wife, Eva and I were watching Jeopardy’s Teachers Tournament – the quiz show our evening ritual. This special competition was held in Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall – the atmosphere patriotically flavored by a wall-sized painting of the American flag wrapping around the stage. One of the Jeopardy categories was about “feelings.” As I recall, and am paraphrasing here, the statement to be answered was: “The two conflicting feelings that describe the beginning of the Iraq war.” The answer: “What are ‘shock and awe’?” Jason Sterlacci, a 6th grade English teacher from Union, New Jersey, gave the correct response, and went on to win the one hundred thousand dollar grand prize. An award-winning, 26 million viewers’ trivia quiz game, in its 32nd season, that reduced to trivia the worst war crime of the 21st Century.

What barbarism! Sanitizing American criminality by turning the horrific “shock and awe” brutalizing of the Iraqi people into an intellectual game show question. This normalization of horrible warmongering accomplished in a hallowed, star-spangled hall, before an enthusiastic, clapping audience.

“What are ‘shock and awe’? ” Those are the feelings the Iraqi people experienced when then President George W. Bush gave the order for 21,000-pound “mother of all bombs” and hundreds of cruise missiles to reign down on Baghdad and other cities. A Pentagon official, with knowledge of the first strike plan was quoted as saying, “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad. . . . The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.” The pre-emptive battle plan was to launch “airstrikes so devastating they would leave Saddam’s soldiers unable or unwilling to fight.” (“Iraq Faces Massive U.S. Missile Barrage,” By Sue Chan, CBS News, Jan. 24, 2003)

“What are ‘shock and awe’?” Ask the families and friends of the estimated one million Iraqi civilians killed in a war that UN Secretary General Kobe Annan said was “illegal.” Ask over one million widows in Iraq what “shock and awe” means to them. Ask some of the five million orphaned Iraqi children. Ask any of the over four million dislocated Iraqi people, fleeing for their lives when the bombs fell because “there was not a safe place in Baghdad.”   Their plight made worse by the American aggression triggering severe sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni citizens. Who, as reported, had lived in relative peace in Iraq, where, under Saddam Hussein, women enjoyed equal rights, and the country’s education system flourished until the US-controlled UN economic sanctions had their deteriorating effect. (See “Was life for Iraqi Women Better Under Saddam?,” By Rania Khalek,, March 19, 2913)

“What are ‘shock and awe’?” Ask the Iraqis who, rather than being stunned into submission by – or welcoming of – the Bush administration’s so-called ”Operation Iraqi Freedom,” fought back and finally forced the invaders from their country. Put the question to the loved ones of almost 5000 American soldiers who died in that unnecessary war, and to over hundred thousand more wounded in body and spirit.

“What are ‘shock and awe’?” When the bombing of Baghdad began, President Bush cloaked its justification in a lie, saying, “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.” He then declared, “We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.” (“U.S. President George W. Bush has announced that war against Iraq has begun,” Transcript,, March 19, 2003)

Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, nor ties to the 9/11 attacks against America. These were lies, told repeatedly by President Bush and members of his administration, to justify plundering Iraq’s mammoth oil reserves as well as other imperialistic aims.

“Outlaw regime?” In a 2015 interview, world-renowned political dissident and author Noam Chomsky “called the US invasion of Iraq ‘the worst war crime of this century.’ “ Chomsky referred to “it’s horrible effects; it spawned sectarian conflicts that are tearing the region apart . . . the very idea of invading is criminal.” However, Chomsky continued, “Try to find anyone who describes it as a crime. Obama is praised because he describes (the Iraq War) as a mistake. But,” Chomsky adds, “does he describe it as a crime, does anyone?” His final comment: “ ‘The idea that we have a right to use force and violence at will is accepted pretty much across the spectrum,’ meaning that any elected official will likely share this view.” (“Noam Chomsky: 2003 ‘Invasion of Iraq is the Worst Crime’ of 21st Century,” (, Oct. 28, 2015) The sanitizing of the 21st Century’s worst war crime.

“Outlaw regime?” In 2007, Paul Craig Roberts, journalist, professor, and former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy, wrote, “President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq is the greatest crime of the 21st Century.” Roberts defined “shock and awe” this way: “Try to imagine all the lives, careers, hopes, and families that Bush has destroyed. Try to imagine,” he went on, “the fate of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, the departure of educated and skilled Iraqis from Iraq, the ultimate horror of civil war that is only beginning.” (“The Crime of the Century,”, Jan. 31, 2007)

Now heading the Institute for Political Economy, Dr. Roberts stated that “the Bush regime lied and fabricated ‘evidence’ that was used to deceive Congress, the American people, and the United Nations.” He said, “The invasion of Iraq under false pretenses comprises solid grounds for impeaching both Bush and Cheney and for turning them over to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.” Roberts believed that Democratic leaders were “armed with a powerful moral case against Bush, whose lies are responsible for a war that has caused thousands of U.S. casualties and killed vast numbers of Iraqi civilians.” But, he lamented, ”democratic leaders are damning Bush’s war because it did not succeed!” (Ibid) The sanitizing of the 21st Century’s worst war crime.

“What are ‘shock and awe’?” According to Yale Literature Professor David Bromwich, “the phrase ‘Shock and Awe’ derives from the nineteenth-century German military theorist Clausewitz,” and “was brought to the United States by Dr. Harlan Ullman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a man of deep influence in the Bush administration, whose acumen as a strategic thinker has been lauded by Colin Powell.” Ullman is quoted: “Our ability ‘to turn the lights on and off of an adversary as we choose, will so overload the perception, knowledge, and understanding of that adversary that there will be no choice except to cease and desist or risk complete and total destruction.’ “ (“The Meaning of Shock and Awe,”, Nov. 25, 2013)

The man who brought the “shock and awe” battle plan to the U. S. was “lauded by Colin Powell.”   Sanitizing the 21st Century’s worst war crime is seen in a recent New York Times op ed age piece that lauds Colin Powell. In a column, called “The Immigrants Turned Away,” Timothy Egan refers to the distinguished immigrant families that would have been kept out “in Trump’s America”: the “famine reject” Kennedys who “gave us the first Irish Catholic president,“ the “German-born Jew Albert Einstein” with “uncertifiable political views,” Andrew Carnegie of “radical” Scottish heritage, and Alexander Hamilton with his “dubious parentage.” Egan also cites Colin Powell:  “Sure, Colin would become a four-star general and secretary of state, but the parents? Would they have been living in the South Bronx if they could show ‘an ability to be financially self-sufficient?’ Not so sure about that.” Egan ends his column by emphasizing a truism: that the “O’Shaunessys and Riveras and Naccaratos and Goldbergs and Chens and Khans . . . having seen the worst that life can offer [have] become the best” in America. (New York Times, Sept. 3, 2016)

President Bush “dispatched the widely reputable soldier-statesman Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Security Council to sell his administration’s criminal war against Iraq to the American people and the press.   Powell presented the administration’s compelling evidence of Saddam Hussein’s “mushroom-cloud” threatening weapons of mass destruction aimed at America. He said to the UN Security Council members: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” (“Lie After Lie After Lie: What Colin Powell Knew Ten Years Ago Today and What He Said,” Jonathan Schwartz,, Apr. 7, 2013)

Secretary of State Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council was extolled my many mainstream media. A New York Times editorial stated that “Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations and a global television audience yesterday with the most powerful case to date that Saddam Hussein stands in defiance of Security Council resolutions and has no intention of revealing or surrendering whatever unconventional weapons he may have.” (“The Case Against Iraq”, Feb. 6, 2003) A Washington Post editorial called “Irrefutable,” began, “After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” (Feb. 6, 2003) And a Boston Globe editorial stated, “With evidence from satellite photographs and intercepts and information from defectors and detainees, the secretary of state made a persuasive case that Saddam continues to conduct an elaborate concealment operation.” The editorial asserted, “Sadly, inspectors and containment haven’t worked to end his acquisition of poisons or his determination to develop nuclear weapons.” (“HUSSEIN DETERMINED TO KEEP HIS WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION,” Feb. 6, 2003)

The Boston Globe editorial was wrong: the UN weapons inspectors were effectively doing their job. In his memoir, The Age of Deception, Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief UN nuclear weapons inspector, reported on, “an October 2, 2002 meeting he and inspector Hans Blix had with Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others, at which the Americans sought to convert the U.N. mission into a ‘cover for what would be, in essence, a United States-directed inspection process.’ ” ElBaradei wrote that he and Blix “resisted, and their teams went on to conduct some 700 inspections of scores of potential weapons sites in Iraq, finding no evidence to support the U.S. claims of weapons of mass destruction.”  He said that, “Bush and his aides have never explained why the U.S. position was not changed as on-the-ground U.N. findings came in before the invasion.” Thus he stated, “Bush administration officials should face international criminal investigation for the ‘shame of a needless war’ in Iraq.” (“ElBaradei suggests war crimes probe of Bush team,” By Charles J. Hanley,, Aug. 22, 2011)

Colin Powell is reported to have said that his UN Security Council speech, “in which he gave a detailed description of Iraqi weapons programs that turned out not to exist, was ‘painful’ for him personally and would be a permanent ‘blot’ on his record.” However, “he has never expressed any regret about the war itself.” (“Powell Calls His U.N. Speech a Lasting Blot on His Record,” By Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2005)

Colin Powell’s expressed concern was not that the U.S.-led invasion of defenseless Iraq is a terrible war crime. Rather, his quoted misgiving is that the U. S. did not use enough “shock and awe.” “What we didn’t do in the immediate aftermath of the war,” he said, “was to impose our will on the whole country with enough troops of our own, with enough troops from coalition forces or by re-creating the Iraqi forces, armed forces, more quickly than we are doing now.” (Ibid)

The words of a Secretary of State for whom the war against Iraq became “painful,” not because of the massive unnecessary pain and suffering and death inflicted on the Iraqi people, but because the “shock and awe” pre-emptive battle plan did not succeed in paralyzing them into submission. The words of the former Secretary of State, who, in one of his leaked emails, “praised his former boss, President George W. Bush,” as he ‘knew what had to be done’ ” in the war against Iraq, but was stymied by two advisors “plan for Iraq.” (“Powell: Trump is ‘an international pariah,’ ” By Eli Watkins,, Sept. 14 2016) Nevertheless, Colin Powell is cited in by Timothy Egan in a New York Times column as an example of immigrant families who have “become the best” in America.

Today, reported leaks of Colin Powell’s emails reveal that he has called Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump a “national disgrace and an international pariah.” (“Powell: Trump is ‘an international parish,’ ” By Eli Watkins,, Sept. 14, 2016) Words that are so true. But words now from a Secretary of State who dutifully served the imperialistic ambitions of the worst war criminal of the 21st Century.

The sanitizing of America’s battlefield crimes is also being played out on the football field. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is being widely condemned for refusing to stand for the National Anthem, in protest against the repeated police killings of black persons. He said, “I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” (“Colin Kaepernick protests anthem over treatment of minorities,” news services,, Aug. 28, 2016)

The Star-Bangled Banner, America’s National Anthem, is inextricably linked to America’s Armed Forces. Thus Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality is automatically interpreted as showing disrespect for the military, which is protecting his “freedom and security.” Supposedly, the military is protecting his very constitutional freedom to protest grievances by not standing for the National Anthem. In actuality, the military, with its some 800 bases encircling the world, is not protecting Colin Kaepernick’s – or other Americans’ – “freedom,” but the freedom of America ‘s corporations-controlled bi-partisan government to exercise exploitive domination over other countries. The attempted censure of a prominent NFL quarterback is actually an attempt to protect the sanitizing of the American Empire’s continuation of its “bombs bursting in air.”

Sanitized also is the history and words of America’s National Anthem itself. Most of us Americans are only familiar with the Anthem’s first stanza. There is a third stanza that is kept hidden, as its words would soil patriotic fervor. That stanza reveals something of America’s racist history and mindset of the Anthem’s author, slaveholder Francis Scott Key, who composed the Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812 against Great Britain.

In an article on “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery,” Jon Schwarz writes in The Intercept, “We don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.” He says that “one of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves, promising them freedom in exchange for their service in the British Army. This tactic resulted in “whole families” running away from their slaveholding masters, joining the British Army, forming a vaunted regiment called the Colonial Marines,” and “participat[ing] in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington.” The slaves’ flight to freedom by joining the British led a vengeful Francis Scott Key to compose a third stanza to the Star Spangled Banner, which Schwarz cites:

No refuge could save the hireling and the slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
(Aug. 28, 2016)

Jon Schwarz also states that when “the U.S. and British signed a peace treaty at the end of 1814, the U.S. government demanded the return of American ‘property,’ which by that point numbered about 6,000 people. The British refused. Most of the 6,000 eventually settled in Canada.” Schwarz says that much later, as a district attorney in Washington, D.C., Francis Scott Key indicted an abolitionist newspaper for writing, “There is neither mercy or justice for colored people in this district.” Schwarz ends by saying that “maybe . . . Kaepernick is right, and we really need a new national anthem.” (Ibid) (For an informative article on the Star-Spangled Banner’s history, see Jason Johnson’s, “Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem,, July 4, 2016)

The sanitizing of the 21st Century’s worst war crime is seen in the deafening silence of many people of faith. Many were not silent in the beginning, as the Bush administration’s leaders mounted their fear-mongering about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. People of faith opposed the impending war, some strongly. But American boots on the ground and time has had a muting effect. The success of sanitizing such “shock and awe” evil depends on the silence of America’s moral leaders; and it has worked so far. Especially with America’s now pervasive militarized culture that declares, “Shut up and pray.”

Still, there is the inspiring example of a faith leader who spoke reality and moral truth to political and denominational power. The Rev. Dr. Andrew J. Weaver, a United Methodist minister who died of a heart attack in 2008, led an unsuccessful movement in Methodism to prevent the George W. Bush Memorial Library and Museum from being erected on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Fourteen United Methodist Bishops, more than 600 ministers and over nine thousand church members signed a petition opposing this monument to the 21st Century’s worst war criminal. In leading this admirable effort, Rev. Weaver said, “We’ve had an outpouring of support so far . . . from those who don’t wish to have their beloved church associated with a man who has authorized torture and a lie-based war of aggression against the people of Iraq. The comments on the petition are a modern epistle to the church and the 45 million Methodists worldwide, pleading for justice.” (“Methodists Opposing Bush Library and Think Tank at SMU,” By Frederick Clarkson,, Feb. 1, 2007) Sadly, Weaver and the other petition signers were no match for enterprising chaplains of the status quo in that hierarchically-controlled denomination.

Rev. Andrew J. Weaver was about purifying his Church, not sanitizing it. He provides an inspiring model for all people of faith.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is