The Crimes at Abu Ghraib Are Not the Worst

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Recent days have been hectic ones for the Supreme Rulers in Washington, D.C. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have ceased their accustomed swaggering, put on their most somber faces, and issued one apology after another for the mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. soldiers and mercenaries at Abu Ghraib prison. Although the government had known about these disgusting, sadistic, and idiotic amusements for a long time, Rumsfeld kept a close hold on the information, the better to brush it under the official rug. (We know that the government knew, because the International Committee for the Red Cross, which made several inspections of the prisons in Iraq, confirms that long ago it “told the Americans that what was going on at Abu Ghraib is reprehensible.”) Once the photos got out, of course, more than one kind of hell broke loose, and now the government’s top dogs all have their tails tucked shamefully between their legs. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham warned reporters after Rumsfeld’s Senate interrogation on May 7 that “there’s more to come” and “we’re talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges” against U.S. soldiers and civilian employees in Iraq.

Although Bush says that he is sorry for “the terrible and horrible acts,” and Rumsfeld says that he takes “full responsibility,” the president continues to express confidence in his defense secretary, and the secretary says that he has no intention to step down. Which is to say, neither of these men foresees bearing any real personal cost whatsoever, aside from the momentary embarrassment, the political discomposure, and the time expended in spinning the issue for Congress and the public. Meanwhile the administration is working overtime to pin the blame on some low-level patsies so that everybody can get on with campaigning for Bush’s reelection.

Although no principle stands higher in military doctrine than that the commander bears full responsibility for the actions of his subordinates, neither of these two top military commanders has the decency to resign — not just on account of the prison disclosures, of course, but also on account of the plethora of actions by which they have abused their constitutional powers and brought everlasting shame upon the United States — and nobody is in a position to dismiss them except the spineless Congress, whose members would sooner cut off their arms and legs than impeach Bush for his war crimes.

And make no mistake: plenty of war crimes have been, and continue to be, committed for which these men, along with many other civilian and military agents of the government, bear full responsibility. After all, in violation of the rule the Allies enforced against the Nazis at the post-World War II Nuremburg Trials, they chose to launch an aggressive, unprovoked, and unnecessary war against the Iraqi people, and during the past year they have undertaken to impose U.S. domination on the conquered people by rampant military violence. That many Iraqis have fought back against their occupiers in no way justifies U.S. actions. Everyone has a right of self-defense. What would you do if your country had been occupied by murderous and sadistic foreign troops?

The worst U.S. crimes in Iraq have received far less press than the photos of U.S. soldiers having fun and games with the prisoners at Abu Ghraib — not that the prisoners were anything but terrified by these vile amusements — but the truly terrible crimes have not gone totally unreported, especially in the news media outside the United States.

Last May 11, one of the thousands of such stories somehow made its way into the New York Times. It told how on April 5, 2003, a home in Basra had been hit by a U.S. bomb that exploded and killed ten members of Abed Hassan Hamoodi’s extended family. British military officials said they had received reports that General Ali Hassan al-Majid — the notorious “Chemical Ali” — was in the neighborhood. Of course, the attack, which demolished a number of houses and killed twenty-three of their occupants, failed to kill al-Majid. (In the phrase “military intelligence,” emphasis should always be placed on the word “military.”) But one of the bombs brought an end to most members of Hamoodi’s family.

“Ammar Muhammad was not yet 2 when his grandfather pulled him from the rubble and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but his mouth was full of dust and he died.” Seventy-two-year-old Hamoodi declared that he considered the destruction of his home and the killings of his family members to constitute a war crime, and he asked rhetorically: “How would President Bush feel if he had to dig his daughters from out of the rubble?”

How indeed?

U.S. forces have expended thousands of cluster munitions in Iraq, often in heavily populated places. (In the Karbala-Hillah area alone, U.S. teams had destroyed by late August last year more than 31,000 unexploded bomblets “that landed on fields, homes, factories and roads . . . many were in populated areas on Karbala’s outskirts.”) The toll among children, whose natural curiosity draws them to the interesting-looking bomblets, has been heavy.

Khalid Tamimi and four other members of his family were walking on a footpath in Baghdad when his brother, seven-year-old Haithem, spotted something interesting, picked it up and examined it, then threw it down. The bomblet’s explosion killed Haithem and his nine-year-old cousin, Nora, and seriously wounded Khalid, as well as the children’s mothers, Amal and Mayasa.

Last year the whole world learned about Ali Ismail Abbas, the twelve-year-old boy who was sleeping in his home in Baghdad when a U.S. missile struck and the explosion tore off both his arms and killed his parents and his brother. His heartrending photo appeared in news media around the world, as did reports of his anguished cries for help in getting his arms back.

Recently, the ferocious U.S. attacks on Fallujah have yielded hundreds of additional casualties among the innocent. There, as in many other places in Iraq, U.S. troops have fired recklessly and without adequate regard for the thousands of civilians they thereby placed in mortal jeopardy. “I’m sitting at the funeral of my only son, who was killed because of the U.S. Marines’ harsh manner in dealing with civilians,” Abbas Abdullah told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “They shot him in the head, and he died instantly.”

In the White House Rose Garden on April 30, President Bush, displaying his usual keen sensitivity, blustered as he often has on the campaign trail that because of the U.S. invasion “there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms or mass graves in Iraq.” The president made this claim even as the whole world’s press was featuring photos of the U.S. torture chambers at Abu Ghraib and reporting worse crimes against Iraqi detainees there and elsewhere, including rape and murder.

Moreover, mass graves have been filling up for weeks at Fallujah, for the most part with noncombatants. According to Dahr Jamail’s report in The Nation, “two soccer fields in Fallujah have been converted to graveyards.” Jamail also reported that “the Americans have bombed one hospital, and, numerous sources told us, were sniping at people who attempted to enter and exit the other major medical facility.” Snipers also shot ambulances braving the dangerous streets to bring the wounded to makeshift places of medical assistance.

Along a quiet residential street in Fallujah, nine-year-old Rahad Septi and other children were playing hide-and-seek when the pilot of a U.S. A-10 aircraft dropped a bomb there. Rahad, “little flower” to her father Juma Septi, was killed along with ten other children, and twelve other children were wounded. Three adults also were killed. Jamal Abbas was driving his taxi when the bomb fell. He found his eleven-year-old niece Arij Haki with “the top half of her head . . . blown off.” After half an hour of searching amid the devastation, Abbas found his daughter, eleven-year-old Miad Jamal Abbas, “her body bloody and ripped.” She died later at the hospital. “There was no military activity in this area,” said Saad Ibrahim, whose father Hussein was killed in his nearby shop by the same bomb blast. “There was no shooting. This is not a military camp. These are houses with children playing in the street.”

When Daham Kassim, his wife Gufran Ibed Kassim, and their four children tried to escape the hell of U.S. bombing in their neighborhood in Nasiriyah, they stopped on the outskirts of the city at a military checkpoint, where, without warning, U.S. tank crews blasted their car with machine-gun fire, killing three of the children and wounding all the other occupants of the car. U.S. troops, humanitarian as ever, then took the three survivors of the attack to a field hospital, treated their wounds, and let them rest in beds. On the third night, however, the troops expelled them from the hospital to make room for wounded U.S. soldiers. As Kassim relates the story: “They carried us like dogs, out into the cold, without shelter, or a blanket. It was the days of the sandstorms and freezing at night. And I heard [five-year-old] Zainab crying: ‘Papa, Papa, I am cold, I am cold.’ Then she went silent. Completely silent. . . . My arms were broken. I could not lift or hold her. . . . We had to sit there, and listen to her die.”

In Nasiriyah, only Kadem Hashem and his youngest daughter survived when a U.S. missile struck their house. His wife Salima, five of their children, and six other family members who happened to be in the house at the time were killed. Finding a photograph in the debris of his house, Hashem told reporter Ed Vulliamy of The Observer: “This was my middle daughter, Hamadi. I found her burnt to death by that doorway, she had shrunk to about a metre tall.” His one surviving daughter, Bedour, described now as “what remains of a beautiful girl,” lies on the floor of a relative’s house. “She is shrivelled and petrified like a dead cat. Her skin is like scorched parchment folded over her bones. Unable to move, she appears as if in some troubled coma, but opens her eyes, with difficulty, to issue an indecipherable cry like a wounded animal.” Hashem dug a mass grave for his family in a nearby holy city. “I collected them all and put them in a single grave at Najaf; my money was burnt, too, and I couldn’t afford to bury them separately.”

To my knowledge, neither President Bush, nor Vice President Dick Cheney, nor Secretary of State Colin Powell, nor Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, nor Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, nor Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, nor Richard Perle (who has worked for decades at the highest levels both inside and outside the government to bring about the present horrors in Iraq) — not a single one of them has apologized to any of the victims identified in the foregoing accounts.

What the U.S. government did at Abu Ghraib was bad, but what it did to Ammar Muhammad, to Haithem Tamimi, to Ali Ismail Abbas, to Abbas Abdullah’s son, to Rahad Septi, to Arij Haki, to Miad Jamal Abbas, to Zainab Kassim, and to Bedour Hashem was far far worse.

Their stories are but a very few of the tens of thousands that might be told if more complete information were available to provide the details associated with the gruesome statistics on deaths and injuries among the Iraqi population. Relatively few of the people slain were “terrorists,” Baathists, or even insurgents. Most were noncombatants; thousands were women, children, and elderly people. The military euphemism for these deaths is “collateral damage,” but they are actually murders. After all, they did not happen by accident; in the circumstances, they were as predictable as the sun’s rising in the east. By choosing to engage in the kinds of military actions that made these deaths inevitable, the U.S. government thereby chose to cause these deaths. The claim that they were not intended has no substance whatsoever.

Bush and Rumsfeld have been busy with apologies this past week, to be sure, and the prison hijinks at Abu Ghraib certainly cry out for apologies, as well as for a great deal of additional effort to restrain the sadists and sexual psychopaths among the U.S. troops in Iraq and to bring some measure of justice to those who have been wronged. Yet this whole mess, its powerful symbolism notwithstanding, has constituted a gigantic distraction from the truly monstrous crimes committed, and still being committed daily, by U.S. forces in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein now languishes in U.S. custody; his government has been overthrown; no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, and therefore “disarming” the Iraqis of such weapons proved unnecessary. In short, the declared U.S. mission has long since been accomplished fully. Why then does the U.S. government persist in slaughtering the Iraqi people?

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Against Leviathan.

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