It is hard to watch TV these days without seeing reports pertaining to the recent death of the elder George Bush — former president, CIA director, and whitewashed war criminal. I call him a “whitewashed war criminal” because there are inconvenient truths that the mainstream media would rather ignore in favor of the usual hero worship that accompanies the death of a popular politician (see also: coverage on the death of John McCainor, even more egregiously, Richard Nixon). Sprucing up our departed politicians, disgraced or otherwise, seems to be a nod to our most respected civil discourse values, but it’s not a favor to the truth and the whitewashing only makes it more likely to happen again.
Perhaps the most inconvenient truth relating to war crimes of Bush the Elder involves Panama in 1989. Under the guise of protecting democracy, then-President Bush illegally invaded a sovereign nation that posed no threat to the United States, calling it “Operation Just Cause,” in order to remove its ruler — with disastrous results. The U.S. government acknowledges that at least 300 Panamanian civilians were killed, but other sources have estimated that as many as several thousand were killed with tens of thousands displaced. At best you could call it an overreaction to Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking and a peculiar form of democracy promotion. The era of slaughtering civilians as acceptable collateral damage is over in the eyes of international law and simple decency. Bush could have resolved that contretemps without Panamanian children and other noncombatants dying.
At the time, Bush was facing criticism at home for being a “wimp.” Apparently, cutting civilians down removed that label and cleared a line of sight to his next adventure, into Kuwait and Iraq, where his forces engaged in a “turkey shoot”(the words of some of the aircraft gunners who mowed down defenseless fleeing Iraqi conscripts).
But those are simple examples from the George H. W. Bush White House years, a one-term run. What of the rest of his life? We’ve heard the encomiums, but the gaps and omissions that are not so flattering need to be a part of the record, if not harped on in the immediate time of a person’s funeral or memorial.
Bush was Nixon’s Chair of the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal, not a praiseworthy time for most ranking Republicans, and he committed some nefarious political acts in that role. His role in the war crimes committed by the Contra in Nicaragua is another very dirty, lethal episode, exposed briefly some 30 years ago.
So, please, yes, let’s be respectful at funerals and in first announcements, but when the truth is buried alongside the bodies it is of poor service to history, to American self-assessment, and to respect for the whole truth. We have little patience for Germans who deny their Nazi history, no fondness for Japanese who forget that they were brutal aggressors in the 1930s and ‘40s. We expect others to learn from studying both their accomplishments and their horrific mistakes. We can expect no less of ourselves.