Has murder become
standard procedure
in the U.S. military?

Congress: Probe U.S. combat practices;
Ask why Pentagon condones war crime;
Use your constitutional power: set rules

A WALL commentary

    War crimes are rampant among the armed forces of the United States in action abroad.

     Recently a military video was leaked to Wikileaks.com: Soldiers firing machine guns from attack helicopters fatally shoot a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters news employees. An injured victim being rescued is killed along with his rescuer. Two children are wounded.

      The military calls the attack, in 2007, a combat operation against a hostile force. “But the video does not show hostile action. Instead it begins with a group of people milling around on a street…,” The New York Times reported (4/6/10). The pilots “aim and fire at the group, then revel in their kills.” One says, “Look at those dead bastards.” Response: “Nice.” A van to remove the wounded man is hit: “Right through the windshield! Ha ha!”

       The Times of London reported (12/29/09) that U.S.-led troops dragged innocent Afghan children from their beds and shot them in a night raid, one of many. The victims were eight school children, seven of them from one family, official Afghan investigators said. A school headmaster said most had been handcuffed.

       The same newspaper reported (4/5/10) that Afghan investigators accused U.S. special forces of covering up a killing of civilians last February at a party celebrating the naming of a newborn baby in Khataba village near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. Two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a policeman, and his brother were shot when their home was stormed by the U.S. forces and Afghan counterparts.

        The U.S. soldiers dug bullets from the bodies and lied that they discovered the bodies, the investigators said. Later, a special forces commander, Vice-Admiral William McRaven, went to the survivors’ home to apologize for “accidentally” killing their innocent relatives (ibid., 4/9/10).

       Two passenger buses in Afghanistan were attacked recently. Helicopters of the U.S. Special Operations forces struck one of them in February in Oruzgan province, killing more than twenty civilians. U.S. soldiers strafed another bus on April 12, killing four civilians and wounding eighteen in Kandahar province.

        In a hospital (the Washington Post reported, 4/13/10), President Hamid Karzai met a 4-year-old boy who had lost both legs in the first bus attack. Carrying him to a courtyard, Karzai asked, “Who injured you?” Helicopters passed overhead. The boy pointed at the sky and wept. Twelve days later, Karzai denounced the U.S. and allies.


       Hundreds of war-crime reports have appeared in the press since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. These are just a few of their many headlines:

       US accused of killing over 100 villagers in air strike (Guardian, UK, in Kabul, 1/1/02); US troops ‘shoot civilians’ (Evening Standard, UK, in Baghdad, 6/19/03); Atrocities in Iraq: ‘I killed innocent people for our government’ (Sacramento Bee, interview with ex-marine, 5/16/04); Army Details Scale of [fatal] Abuse of Prisoners in an Afghan Jail (NY Times, 3/12/05); Iraqi police report details civilians’ deaths at hands of U.S. troops (Knight Ridder, 3/19/06); U.S. Killed 90, Including 60 Children, in Afghan Village, U.N. Finds (NY Times, 8/26/08).


       In 81/2 years in Afghanistan and 7 years in Iraq, U.S. forces have committed acts like these repeatedly: slaying and torture of civilians and war prisoners; shootings of civilians in public places and at their homes; aerial and ground attacks on undefended communities, homes, and buildings, including hospitals; use of poisoned and cruel weapons like uranium shells, napalm, white phosphorus, and cluster bombs; and outright massacres, e.g. Haditha.

        The invaders took the lives of many thousands of Fallujah residents in 2004. When four Blackwater mercenaries were killed there, U.S. forces responded by rocketing a mosque and killing forty worshippers. After resistance erupted, a collective punishment was imposed on the city. It became a free-fire zone, in which people were indiscriminately attacked. Water, food, and medical help was kept out. The independent reporter Dahr Jamail interviewed Fallujah survivors. A few of the accounts follow:


·   Many refugees told of having seen U.S. troops killing injured people, including fighters and noncombatants alike. “I watched them roll over wounded people in the street with tanks,” said a Fallujah resident, Kassem Mohammed Ahmed. Two other witnesses told similar stories.

·   One Abu Hammad said he watched people attempt to swim across the Euphrates River to escape the siege, whereupon “Americans shot them with rifles from the shore…. Even if some of them were holding a white flag or white clothes over their heads to show they are not fighters, they were all shot.” An Associated Press photographer, Bilal Hussein, saw American helicopters kill a family of five trying to cross the river.


·   An Iraqi journalist, Burhan Fasa’a, said U.S. soldiers did not have interpreters with them, “so they entered houses and killed people because they didn’t speak English.”

·   A man named Khalil said he had witnessed the shooting of civilians who were waving white flags as they tried to escape the city. “They shot women and old men in the streets…. Then they shot anyone who tried to get their bodies.”


       U.S. treaties, including The Hague Conventions (1907) and Geneva Conventions (1949), prohibit all of the above acts and those described below. The top penalty in the U.S. Code is death (18, Section 2441). But few face justice, and if there ever is any punishment, it is usually light.


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Slaughter to order

Army man Hart Viges participated in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, “laying down mortar fire on this town full of people…. I don’t know how many civilians, innocents, I’ve killed, helped kill.”


His lieutenant colonel gave him an order he could not believe. “Excuse me?” Viges said. “Did I hear you right? Fire on all taxicabs?” The officer answered, “You heard me, trooper. Fire on all taxicabs.”


That GI was among some 200 veterans and active military personnel who unofficially testified during four days in 2008 at “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan,” sponsored near Washington, DC, by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). It was an echo of the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation in Detroit, where over 100 veterans told of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam. The news media’s reporting of both events was scant.


 In the later hearing, veterans said they engaged in or witnessed shootings and beatings of civilians, including children; torture of prisoners; and carrying of “drop weapons” to plant on the bodies of wrongfully killed civilians.


Testimony is recounted in the books Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent by Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd (Sausalito, CA: PoliPointPress, 2009) and, in more detail, Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan by IVAW and Aaron Glantz (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008). Among witnesses quoted, besides Viges, are these dozen:


Jon Michael Turner. In 2006 he killed an Iraqi boy, in front of his father, with two shots. His commanding officer congratulated Turner and offered a four-day pass to anyone stabbing an enemy to death.


            Jason Washburn. “… Most of the innocents that I actually saw get killed were behind the wheel of a vehicle, usually a taxi driver. I’ve been present for almost a dozen of those types of people that got killed just driving.” In cities or towns that were known to be threats, “we were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted ... and opened fire on everything.”

A woman with a big bag approached. “So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries…. She had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it.”


              Jason Hurd. In Iraq in 2004: “Individuals from my unit indiscriminately and unnecessarily opened fire on innocent civilians as they’re driving down the road on their own streets.”

            Jason Moon. An Iraqi man was selling soldiers soda out of a motorcycle; a child of 7 or 8 was in a sidecar. “When the man refused to go away, the MP on patrol put him to the ground with a gun to his head and started stripping his vehicle and searching it. They then took the child, picked it up into the air, and threw it full force onto the ground. I didn’t see the child get up.”

            Clifton Hicks. As a tank driver, he watched a plane strafe a five-building apartment complex filled with civilians.

            Ian J. Lavalle. In Iraq in 2005, “We dehumanized people. The way we spoke about them, the way we destroyed their livelihoods, their families, doing raids, manhandling them, throwing the men on the ground while their family was crying.” Doing such things so upset him, he attempted suicide.


Patrick Dougherty. On going to Iraq in 2003, he saw no will to win Iraqis’ hearts and minds. “… We treated our detainees like animals, kept them in hot sun all day.”


Bryan Casler. Fellow marines urinated and defecated in food and gave it to Iraqi children.

            Vincent Emanuelli. He described how U.S. soldiers treated the dead Iraqi people: “Standard operating procedure was to run over them or take pictures.”

            Garret Reppenhagen. When he served in the Army in 2004 and 2005, there were no rules of engagement for Iraq. Individual units made up their own rules.

            Adam Kokesh. “During the siege of Fallujah, we changed our rules of engagement more often than we changed our underwear.”

            Jason Lemieux. As a marine sergeant, he got this order from his commander: “Kill those who need to be killed and save those who need to be saved.” Rules of engagement became almost nonexistent; e.g. anyone who stepped outside a door or held a shovel was considered hostile.

           “I was ordered multiple times by commissioned officers and noncommissioned officers to shoot unarmed civilians if their presence made me uncomfortable,” ex-Sergeant Lemieux said. He made that statement at a similar hearing in the Capitol before the Congressional Progressive Caucus four months after the Winter Soldier hearings.

           Another witness before the caucus, Luis Carlos Montalvan, a captain who served directly under General David Petraeus in 2005 and 2006, said he witnessed GIs carrying out waterboarding. It is a torture technique, hence a war crime, forbidden by law.


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Congress has the power

       The armed forces are unlikely to reform themselves. The Administration has shown no interest in stopping the outrages; if anything, it has stepped up the killings in the two occupied countries and also in Pakistan. It is up to our senators and representatives in Congress.

     Congress should (1) investigate U.S. combat practices, in the light of our treaty obligations and customary international law, and (2) enact reforms to punish and prevent war crimes.


     Note that Congress has the constitutional power to make rules for governing and regulating armed services. (See Article 1, Section 8, Clause 14 of the Constitution.)

      Let investigators interview present and former military people, from privates to generals, as well as victims or their families. These are some questions for the investigators to bear in mind:


        Is the commission of war crimes standard operating procedure in contemporary warfare? Is the military’s concern for law and lives in practice usually minimal, notwithstanding official rules?


        Will a unit kill dozens or scores of civilians on the chance of getting one combatant? Does the number of civilians expended vary wih the perceived importance of the combatant sought?


        How frequent are the mistaken raids? Where are all the false tips coming from? How common is it for the military to lie that the civilians killed were militants? How common is the falsification of post-mortem evidence?


        When an attack on civilians has been exposed, how often has it been excused as an “accident”? Can it truly be accidental when under civilian law an intentional, malicious killing — even of the wrong person — is considered murder?


        How widespread is the torture and slaying of prisoners and the shooting of those trying to surrender? In view of the fact that these are capital crimes, why are convictions of the perpetrators so few and penalties so light?

        How does the military justify orders to “shoot everything that moves”; the use of forbidden weapons; countless attacks on homes, cars, and gatherings; and doing away with basic human essentials like food, water, and medical help?


        How common is outright assassination — which has been banned for over a century by The Hague regulations? How high up does the responsibility go?


        To what extent are the brass covering up? To what extent are they positively encouraging war crimes? What do officers know about the laws of war? Are the upper ranks being let off the hook by the hierarchical military system?


        How can the U.S. carry out the Nuremberg principle that “I was just following orders” is no excuse for heinous acts? How can it be made easier for GIs to refuse illegal orders — and easier to turn in superiors who issue those orders?


        How do the military’s training methods — designed to incite hatred and produce killers — lead to the commission of war crimes?


         What is the effect on America’s reputation — and American safety — of its exporting of crime?


        Our nation needs answers. Justice does not end at the water’s edge.


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OK the1977 Protocol


    Concerned about the innumerable reports of U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, the War and Law League (WALL), with the moral support of several other organizations, has been seeking a congressional investigation of American combat practices for over five years.

          In May 2007, WALL’s coordinator, Jeannette Hassberg, delivered letters with supporting documents on the laws and their violations to offices of some important members of Congress. Response was nil.

        Besides the investigation, WALL sought belated Senate approval of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, signed by the U.S. under President Carter but inexplicably shelved by the Senate. The original conventions had been fully approved.


      The Protocol expressly bans attacks on civilians or vital civilian objects and indiscriminate attacks that harm civilians along with military targets, and it considers violations war crimes (Articles 51 and 85). Some 167 nations accept it among their treaties. Why not the U.S.A.?


       Amnesty International contends that international law regards the Protocol as binding on all countries in the custom and conduct of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross considers it an instrument of international humanitarian law, binding on all parties to all armed conflicts. Official material of the U.S. Army does not contradict such an interpretation of legal obligations. This is from the Army Field Manual, FM 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare (1956 as amended in 1976):


        “Customary international law prohibits the launching of attacks (including bombardment) against either the civilian population or individual civilians as such.” The manual points out that the law of war, whether derived from custom or treaty, is binding on members of the armed forces.


        Among treaty provisions, it echoes The Hague regulations by forbidding “Bombardment of Undefended Places,” militarily “Unnecessary Killing and Devastation,” assassination, shooting of those surrendering, use of weapons that are poisoned or cause unnecessary suffering, and so on.


        Of course rules need to become reality.




May 1, 2010