Noam Chomsky: Scene of the Crime
- Returning to the Scene of the Crime: War Crimes in Iraq
Tuesday 04 April 2006
This piece is adapted from Chapter 2 of Noam Chomsky's newest book,
Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New
York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
In 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales passed on to Bush a
memorandum on torture by the Justice Department's Office of Legal
Counsel (OLC). As noted by constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson:
"According to the OLC, 'acts must be of an extreme nature to rise to
the level of torture Physical pain amounting to torture must be
equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical
injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even
death.'" Levinson goes on to say that in the view of Jay Bybee, then
head of the OLC, "The infliction of anything less intense than such
extreme pain would not, technically speaking, be torture at all. It
would merely be inhuman and degrading treatment, a subject of little
apparent concern to the Bush administration's lawyers."
Gonzales further advised President Bush to effectively rescind
the Geneva Conventions, which, despite being "the supreme law of the
land" and the foundation of contemporary international law, contained
provisions Gonzales determined to be "quaint" and "obsolete."
Rescinding the conventions, he informed Bush, "substantially reduces
the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act."
Passed in 1996, the act carries severe penalties for "grave breaches"
of the conventions: the death penalty, "if death results to the
victim" of the breach. Gonzales was later appointed to be attorney
general and would probably have been a Supreme Court nominee if Bush's
constituency did not regard him as "too liberal."
How to Destroy a City to Save It
Gonzales's legal advice about protecting Bush from the threat of
prosecution under the War Crimes Act was proven sound not long after
he gave it, in a case far more severe even than the torture scandals.
In November 2004, U.S. occupation forces launched their second major
attack on the city of Falluja. The press reported major war crimes
instantly, with approval. The attack began with a bombing campaign
intended to drive out all but the adult male population; men ages
fifteen to forty-five who attempted to flee Falluja were turned back.
The plans resembled the preliminary stage of the Srebrenica massacre,
though the Serb attackers trucked women and children out of the city
instead of bombing them out. While the preliminary bombing was under
way, Iraqi journalist Nermeen al-Mufti reported from "the city of
minarets [which] once echoed the Euphrates in its beauty and calm
[with its] plentiful water and lush greenery a summer resort for
Iraqis [where people went] for leisure, for a swim at the nearby
Habbaniya lake, for a kebab meal." She described the fate of victims
of these bombing attacks in which sometimes whole families, including
pregnant women and babies, unable to flee, along with many others,
were killed because the attackers who ordered their flight had
cordoned off the city, closing the exit roads.
Al-Mufti asked residents whether there were foreign fighters in
Falluja. One man said that "he had heard that there were Arab fighters
in the city, but he never saw any of them." Then he heard that they
had left. "Regardless of the motives of those fighters, they have
provided a pretext for the city to be slaughtered," he continued, and
"it is our right to resist." Another said that "some Arab brothers
were among us, but when the shelling intensified, we asked them to
leave and they did," and then asked a question of his own: "Why has
America given itself the right to call on UK and Australian and other
armies for help and we don't have the same right?"
It would be interesting to ask how often that question has been
raised in Western commentary and reporting. Or how often the analogous
question was raised in the Soviet press in the 1980s, about
Afghanistan. How often was a term like "foreign fighters" used to
refer to the invading armies? How often did reporting and commentary
stray from the assumption that the only conceivable question is how
well "our side" is doing, and what the prospects are for "our
success"? It is hardly necessary to investigate. The assumptions are
cast in iron. Even to entertain a question about them would be
unthinkable, proof of "support for terror" or "blaming all the
problems of the world on America/Russia," or some other familiar refrain.
After several weeks of bombing, the United States began its
ground attack in Falluja. It opened with the conquest of the Falluja
General Hospital. The front-page story in the New York Times reported
that "patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by
armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops
tied their hands behind their backs." An accompanying photograph
depicted the scene. It was presented as a meritorious achievement.
"The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda
weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of
reports of civilian casualties." Plainly such a propaganda weapon is a
legitimate target, particularly when "inflated civilian casualty
figures" - inflated because our leader so declared - had "inflamed
opinion throughout the country, driving up the political costs of the
conflict." The word "conflict" is a common euphemism for U.S.
aggression, as when we read on the same pages that "now, the Americans
are rushing in engineers who will begin rebuilding what the conflict
has just destroyed" - just "the conflict," with no agent, like a
Some relevant documents passed unmentioned, perhaps because they
too are considered quaint and obsolete: for example, the provision of
the Geneva Conventions stating that "fixed establishments and mobile
medical units of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be
attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the
Parties to the conflict." Thus the front page of the world's leading
newspaper was cheerfully depicting war crimes for which the political
leadership could be sentenced to severe penalties under U.S. law, the
death penalty if patients ripped from their beds and manacled on the
floor happened to die as a result. The questions did not merit
detectable inquiry or reflection. The same mainstream sources told us
that the U.S. military "achieved nearly all their objectives well
ahead of schedule," as "much of the city lay in smoking ruins." But it
was not a complete success. There was little evidence of dead
"packrats" in their "warrens" or on the streets, "an enduring
mystery." US forces did discover "the body of a woman on a street in
Falluja, but it was unclear whether she was an Iraqi or a
foreigner."?The crucial question, apparently.
Another front-page story quotes a senior Marine commander who
says that the attack on Falluja "ought to go down in the history
books." Perhaps it should. If so, we know on just what page of history
it will find its place. Perhaps Falluja will appear right alongside
Grozny [the destroyed capital of Chechnya], a city of about the same
size, with a picture of Bush and Putin gazing into each other's souls.
Those who praise or for that matter even tolerate all of this can
select their own favorite pages of history.
A Burnt-Out Shell of a Country
The media accounts of the assault were not uniform. Qatar-based
Al-Jazeera, the most important news channel in the Arab world, was
harshly criticized by high U.S. officials for having "emphasized
civilian casualties" during the destruction of Falluja. The problem of
independent media was later resolved when the channel was kicked out
of Iraq in preparation for free elections.
Turning beyond the U.S. mainstream, we discover also that "Dr.
Sami al-Jumaili described how U.S. warplanes bombed the Central Health
Centre in which he was working," killing thirty-five patients and
twenty-four staff. His report was confirmed by an Iraqi reporter for
Reuters and the BBC, and by Dr. Eiman al-Ani of Falluja General
Hospital, who said that the entire health center, which he reached
shortly after the attack, had collapsed on the patients. The attacking
forces said that the report was "unsubstantiated." In another gross
violation of international humanitarian law, even minimal decency, the
U.S. military denied the Iraqi Red Crescent access to Falluja. Sir
Nigel Young, the chief executive of the British Red Cross, condemned
the action as "hugely significant." It sets "a dangerous precedent,"
he said: "The Red Crescent had a mandate to meet the needs of the
local population facing a huge crisis." Perhaps this additional crime
was a reaction to a very unusual public statement by the International
Committee of the Red Cross, condemning all sides in the war in Iraq
for their "utter contempt for humanity."
In what appears to be the first report of a visitor to Falluja
after the operation was completed, Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil said he
found it "completely devastated." The modern city now "looked like a
city of ghosts." Fadhil saw few dead bodies of Iraqi fighters in the
streets; they had been ordered to abandon the city before the assault
began. Doctors reported that the entire medical staff had been locked
into the main hospital when the U.S. attack began, "tied up" under US
orders: "Nobody could get to the hospital and people were bleeding to
death in the city." The attitudes of the invaders were summarized by a
message written in lipstick on the mirror of a ruined home: "Fuck Iraq
and every Iraqi in it." Some of the worst atrocities were committed by
members of the Iraqi National Guard used by the invaders to search
houses, mostly "poor Shias from the south... jobless and desperate,"
probably "fan[ning] the seeds of a civil war."
Embedded reporters arriving a few weeks later found some people
"trickling back to Falluja," where they "enter a desolate world of
skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines and
severed palm trees." The ruined city of 250,000 was now "devoid of
electricity, running water, schools or commerce," under a strict
curfew, and "conspicuously occupied" by the invaders who had just
demolished it and the local forces they had assembled. The few
refugees who dared to return under tight military surveillance found
"lakes of sewage in the streets. The smell of corpses inside charred
buildings. No water or electricity. Long waits and thorough searches
by US troops at checkpoints. Warnings to watch out for land mines and
booby traps. Occasional gunfire between troops and insurgents."
Half a year later came perhaps the first visit by an
international observer, Joe Carr of the Christian Peacemakers Team in
Baghdad, whose previous experience had been in the Israeli-occupied
Palestinian territ?ries. Arriving on May 28, he found painful
similarities: many hours of waiting at the few entry points, more for
harassment than for security; regular destruction of produce in the
devastated remains of the city where "food prices have dramatically
increased because of the checkpoints"; blocking of ambulances
transporting people for medical treatment; and other forms of random
brutality familiar from the Israeli press. The ruins of Falluja, he
wrote, are even worse than Rafah in the Gaza Strip, virtually
destroyed by US-backed Israeli terror. The United States "has leveled
entire neighborhoods, and about every third building is destroyed or
damaged." Only one hospital with in-patient care survived the attack,
but access was impeded by the occupying army, leading to many deaths
in Falluja and rural areas. Sometimes dozens of people were packed
into a "burned out shell." Only about a quarter of families whose
homes were destroyed received some compensation, usually less than
half of the cost for materials needed to rebuild them.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler,
accused US and British troops in Iraq of "breaching international law
by depriving civilians of food and water in besieged cities as they
try to flush out militants" in Falluja and other cities attacked in
subsequent months. US-led forces "cut off or restricted food and water
to encourage residents to flee before assaults," he informed the
international press, "using hunger and deprivation of water as a
weapon of war against the civilian population, [in] flagrant
violation" of the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. public was largely
spared the news.
Even apart from such major war crimes as the assault on Falluja,
there is more than enough evidence to support the conclusion of a
professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College that the year
2004 "was a truly horrible and brutal one for hapless Iraq." Hatred of
the United States, he continued, is now rampant in a country subjected
to years of sanctions that had already led to "the destruction of the
Iraqi middle class, the collapse of the secular educational system,
and the growth of illiteracy, despair, and anomie [that] promoted an
Iraqi religious revival [among] large numbers of Iraqis seeking succor
in religion." Basic services deteriorated even more than they had
under the sanctions. "Hospitals regularly run out of the most basic
medicines the facilities are in horrid shape, [and] scores of
specialists and experienced physicians are leaving the country because
they fear they are targets of violence or because they are fed up with
the substandard working conditions."
Meanwhile, "religion's role in Iraqi political life has ratcheted
steadily higher since US-led forces overthrew Mr. Hussein in 2003,"
the Wall Street Journal reports. Since the invasion, "not a single
political decision" has been made without Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani's "tacit or explicit approval, say government officials,"
while the "formerly little-known young rebel cleric" Muqtada al-Sadr
has "fashioned a political and military movement that has drawn tens
of thousands of followers in the south and in Baghdad's poorest slums."
Similar developments have taken place in Sunni areas. The vote on
Iraq's draft constitution in fall 2005 turned into "a battle of the
mosques," with voters largely following religious edicts. Few Iraqis
had even seen the document because the government had scarcely
distributed any copies. The new constitution, the Wall Street Journal
notes, has "far deeper Islamic underpinnings than Iraq's last one, a
half century ago, which was based on [secular] French civil law," and
had granted women "nearly equal rights" with men. All of this has now
been reversed under the U.S. occupation.
War Crimes and Casualty Counts
The consequences of years of Western violence and strangulation
are endlessly frustrating to civilized intellectuals, who are amazed
to discover that, in the words of Edward Luttwak, "the vast majority
of Iraqis, assiduous mosque-goers and semi-literate at best," are
simply unable to "believe what for them is entirely incomprehensible:
that foreigners have been unselfishly expending their own blood and
treasure to help them." By definition, no evidence necessary.
Commentators have lamented that the United States has changed
"from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that
practices torture routinely." The actual history is far less benign.
But torture, however horrifying, scarcely weighs in the balance in
comparison with the war crimes at Falluja and elsewhere in Iraq, or
the general effects of the U.S. and UK invasion. One illustration,
noted in passing and quickly dismissed in the United States, is the
careful study by prominent U.S. and Iraqi specialists published in the
world's leading medical journal, the Lancet, in October 2004. The
conclusions of the study, carried out on rather conservative
assumptions, are that "the death toll associated with the invasion and
occupation of Iraq is probably about 100,000 people, and may be much
higher." The figures include nearly 40,000 Iraqis killed as a direct
result of combat or armed violence, according to a later Swiss review
of the study's data. A subsequent study by Iraq Body Count found
25,000 noncombatants reported killed in the first two years of the
occupation - in Baghdad, one in 500 citizens; in Falluja, one in 136.
U.S.-led forces killed 37%, criminals 36%, "anti-occupation forces"
9%. Killings doubled in the second year of the occupation. Most deaths
were caused by explosive devices; two-thirds of these by air strikes.
The estimates of Iraq Body Count are based on media reports, and are
therefore surely well below the actual numbers, though shocking enough.
Reviewing these reports along with the UNDP "Iraq Living
Conditions Survey" (April 2005), British analyst Milan Rai concludes
that the results are largely consistent, the apparent variation in
numbers resulting primarily from differences in the specific topics
investigated and the time periods covered. These conclusions gain some
support from a Pentagon study that estimated 26,000 Iraqi civilians
and security forces killed and wounded by insurgents since January
2004. The New York Times report of the Pentagon study also mentions
several others, but omits the most important one, in the Lancet. It
notes in passing that "no figures were provided for the number of
Iraqis killed by American-led forces." The Times story appeared
immediately after the day that had been set aside by international
activists for commemoration of all Iraqi deaths, on the first
anniversary of the release of the Lancet report.
The scale of the catastrophe in Iraq is so extreme that it can
barely be reported. Journalists are largely confined to the heavily
fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, or else travel under heavy guard.
There have been a few regular exceptions in the mainstream press, such
as Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn [of the British newspaper The
Independent], who face extreme hazards, and there are occasional
indications of Iraqi opinion. One was a report on a nostalgic
gathering of educated westernized Baghdad elites, where discussion
turned to the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan and his vicious
atrocities. A philosophy professor commented that "Hulagu was humane
compared with the Americans," drawing some laughter, but "most of the
guests seemed eager to avoid the subject of politics and violence,
which dominate everyday life here." Instead they turned to past
efforts to create an Iraqi national culture that would overcome the
old ethnic-religious divisions to which Iraq is now "regressing" under
the occupation, and discussed the destruction of the treasures of
Iraqi and world civilization, a tragedy not experienced since the
Additional effects of the invasion include the decline of the
median income of Iraqis, from $255 in 2003 to about $144 in 2004, as
well as "significant countrywide shortages of rice, sugar, milk, and
infant formula," according to the UN World Food Program, which had
?arned in advance of the invasion that it would not be able to
duplicate the efficient rationing system that had been in place under
Saddam Hussein. Iraqi newspapers report that new rations contain metal
filings, one consequence of the vast corruption under the U.S.-UK
occupation. Acute malnutrition doubled within sixteen months of the
occupation of Iraq, to the level of Burundi, well above Haiti or
Uganda, a figure that "translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children
suffering from 'wasting,' a condition characterized by chronic
diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein." This is a country in
which hundreds of thousands of children had already died as a
consequence of the U.S.- and UK-led sanctions. In May 2005, UN
rapporteur Jean Ziegler released a report of the Norwegian Institute
for Applied Social Science confirming these figures. The relatively
high nutritional levels of Iraqis in the 1970s and 1980s, even through
the war with Iran, began to decline severely during the decade of the
sanctions, with a further disastrous decline after the 2003 invasion.
Meanwhile, violence against civilians extended beyond the
occupiers and the insurgency. Washington Post reporters Anthony Shadid
and Steve Fainaru reported that "Shiite and Kurdish militias, often
operating as part of Iraqi government security forces, have carried
out a wave of abductions, assassinations and other acts of
intimidation, consolidating their control over territory across
northern and southern Iraq and deepening the country's divide along
ethnic and sectarian lines." One indicator of the scale of the
catastrophe is the huge flood of refugees "fleeing violence and
economic troubles," a million to Syria and Jordan alone since the US
invasion, most of them "professionals and secular moderates who could
help with the practical task of getting the country to run well."
The Lancet study estimating100,000 probable deaths by October 2004
elicited enough comment in England that the government had to issue an
embarrassing denial, but in the United States virtual silence
prevailed. The occasional oblique reference usually describes it as
the "controversial" report that "as many as 100,000" Iraqis died as a
result of the invasion. The figure of 100,000 was the most probable
estimate, on conservative assumptions; it would be at least as
accurate to describe it as the report that "as few as 100,000" died.
Though the report was released at the height of the U.S. presidential
campaign, it appears that neither of the leading candidates was ever
publicly questioned about it.
The reaction follows the general pattern when massive atrocities
are perpetrated by the wrong agent. A striking example is the
Indochina wars. In the only poll (to my knowledge) in which people
were asked to estimate the number of Vietnamese deaths, the mean
estimate was 100,000, about 5% of the official figure; the actual toll
is unknown, and of no more interest than the also unknown toll of
casualties of U.S. chemical warfare. The authors of the study comment
that it is as if college students in Germany estimated Holocaust
deaths at 300,000, in which case we might conclude that there are some
problems in Germany - and if Germany ruled the world, some rather more
Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political
works. His latest books are Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the
Assault on Democracy and Hegemony or Survival, both in the American
Empire Project series at Metropolitan Books. He lives in Lexington,
Massachusetts, and is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and
Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Readers who wish to check the sources for information and quotes
in this piece are directed to Noam Chomsky's new book, Failed States:
The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2006).
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