“Our treaty stipulations should be observed with fidelity and our legislation should be highly considerate of the best interests of an ignorant and helpless people.”
— President Benjamin Harrison referring to the Sioux Indian Nation, First Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1889
“The outbreak among the Sioux, which occurred in December last , is as to its causes and incidents fully reported upon by the War Department and the Department of the Interior. That these Indians had some just complaints, especially in the matter of the reduction of the appropriation for rations and in the delays attending the enactment of laws to enable the Department to perform the engagements entered into with them, is probably true; but the Sioux tribes are naturally warlike and turbulent, and their warriors were excited by their medicine men and chiefs, who preached the coming of an Indian messiah who was to give them power to destroy their enemies.”
— President Benjamin Harrison, Third Annual Message to Congress, December 9, 1891
The “outbreak” sandwiched between those two Presidential messages to joint sessions of Congress is now known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. At least 250 and as many as 300 Native Americans (mostly women and children running from rifle and cannon fire) died. During the Indian Wars (as they are called in the official history) of 1865 to 1890, the US government awarded 426 Medals of Honor. According to most sources, at least twenty of those medals went to soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who participated in the massacre on December 29, 1890. The massacre was initially called a battle. The citation for one of those medals reads, “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private Thomas Sullivan, United States Army, for conspicuous bravery in action against Indians concealed in a ravine on 29 December, 1890, while serving with Company E, 7th U.S. Cavalry, in action at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.”
On April 4, 1969, the Chairman of the House Armed Services committee received a letter from a Mr. Ron Ridenhour of Phoenix, Arizona, describing what sounded like a massacre in a Vietnamese hamlet referred to by the Army as Pinkville. Apparently, Mr. Ridenhour had made the acquaintance of former members of the 11th Infantry Brigade who had provided him with eyewitness accounts, map coordinates of the hamlet, and the names of people allegedly involved. That letter sparked investigations. What the US government learned as a result of those investigations was that on March 16, 1968, (over a year before the letter arrived) one of the worst massacres of the Vietnam war occurred in a hamlet known as My Lai (aka Pinkville). Initially reported as a great victory by the commanding general of US forces in Vietnam, it would not explode into the international media scene until November 1969 when a reporter named Seymour Hersh broke the story. Several hundred Vietnamese civilians were murdered by US Army soldiers. The military court martials that ensued convicted only one member of the leadership responsible for the massacre. He spent three and a half years under house arrest.
In 1986, I was having lunch in an Army mess hall in West Germany with one of the senior officers from the unit I was assigned to. He had been a captain in the same Army division as the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre eighteen years before, though he was not at the scene of the crime. He told me and several other young lieutenants, enthralled being in the court of a Vietnam veteran, that My Lai did not — say again, did not — happen. It was a press stunt aimed to demoralize Americans and erode support for the war. He was dead serious. I have no idea why he felt compelled to tell us that lie, but he did. I marked it off as his not wanting to be remembered as part of that unit when he told his grandkids what he did in the war.
At least nobody got a medal.
In an interview with Democracy Now on the 50th anniversary of the massacre, Hersh reported he first heard of the events from an acquaintance in Washington, DC, who said he’d heard the story from an “enlisted guy who went crazy.” During the interview, Hersh referenced something he called the Russell Tribunals. He’d read the Tribunal’s reports and found them filled with spectacularly horrific accounts. He then interviewed one of the American soldiers who’d testified at the Tribunal and, thus, believed what he was hearing about American atrocities in Vietnam. He pursued the story, and the rest of the world finally discovered what the US government had learned.
Largely forgotten, the Russell Tribunals played an outsized-role in their day. In 1966, a group of intellectuals led by philosopher and Nobel prize winner Bertrand Russell convened the International War Crimes Tribunals. Jean Paul Sartre assumed its presidency a year later. The purpose of the Tribunal, which met regularly until 1975, was to examine whether the United States was committing war crimes in its prosecution of the Vietnam War.
The need to hold the US accountable arose when it became clear to Russell and others that no government had the will or the courage to do so. “If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes,” Russell observed, “they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” In October 1967, the International War Crimes Tribunal concluded that the US was indeed engaged in war crimes in Vietnam.
As a private body, however, the tribunals lacked the enforcing authority of the Nuremberg trials, which had been organized as military tribunals by the Allies in the wake of the Holocaust.
Fast forward forty years to Afghanistan, and a study conducted by the US Institute for Peace, dated July 2008: “The low number of ground troops stationed in Afghanistan, combined with an increase in insurgent attacks, has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of air power from an average of 5,000 pounds of munitions per month in 2005 to an average of 80,000 pounds per month since June 2006, peaking at 168,000 pounds in December 2007. As a result, civilian casualties increased by 62% in 2008, compared to figures from the first six months of 2007. According to the Afghan government, an air strike by international forces on July 4 in Nangahar province allegedly killed 47 civilians, including 39 women and children, although NATO has claimed that those killed in the strike were insurgents.”
As has been related to me by Afghans who’ve walked the ground with US forces, official claims that insurgents were among the dead women and children have failed to mollify the anger and frustration of the strikes’ civilian survivors.
Despite the objectively quantifiable uptick in non-combatant deaths, (just as in Vietnam) only one soldier has been convicted of a war crime. Similarly, the one massacre that made the news and had a soldier’s name attributed to it occurred due to direct fire, not shelling or aerial bombardment. The take-away, then, is that to get away with murder in a war zone, it’s better to use bombs, not guns.
According to a Brown University study from March 2015, estimates of total civilian deaths in the countries where we have fought since 2002 (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen) are over 220,000, and these numbers are now four years old. The body count following our active participation in Vietnam (1955-1975) ranges from 250,000 to over 500,000 — around the entire population of Kansas City.
Between 2002 to 2019, across the Middle East and Asia, we — the citizens of the United States — have committed massacres the size of Wounded Knee or My Lai almost every month.
Recently, hope for accountability arose in the form of language in the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act. Section 936 of the gigantic defense spending bill included the following language: “Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy shall designate a senior civilian official of the Department of Defense within the Office of the Secretary of Defense at or above the level of Assistant Secretary of Defense to develop, coordinate, and oversee compliance with the policy of the Department relating to civilian casualties resulting from United States military operations.” As of the time of this writing, the person designated for this responsibility is the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Mr. David Trachtenberg. I cannot find any press releases where Mr. Trachtenberg explains how he intends to go about performing his newfound duties. Perhaps his silence is predicated on our president’s words and the tone they undoubtedly created regarding the implementation of Section 936.
Like Benjamin Harrison before, President Trump has done little to inspire belief that he might allow his government to reduce the likelihood of non-combatant deaths should those actions impede his sense of what must be done. In a statement issued on August 13, 2018, the President observed: “Several provisions of the bill, including sections 112, 147, 936, 1017, 1665, and 1689, purport to restrict the President’s authority to control the personnel and materiel the President believes to be necessary or advisable for the successful conduct of military missions. While I share the objectives of the Congress with respect to maintaining the strength and security of the United States, my Administration will implement these provisions consistent with the President’s authority as Commander in Chief.”
Nevertheless, on December 18, 2018, the stakeholders in the US Department of Defense held a two day table-top exercise intended to inform policy makers about how best to consider non-combatants who happen to be near one of our bombs when it explodes. The exercise was called “Profound Journey,” and included governmental and non-governmental agencies.
On December 20, 2018, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned. In his position, Mattis had tried to infuse some processes into the war machine intended to safeguard, or at least consider the plight of, those caught between warring factions. In the absence of any press releases or public account detailing the discoveries and conclusions reached by “Profound Journey,” it’s safe to bet that once Mattis left and the President identified section 936 as “restrictive,” everybody who wanted to keep their jobs quit talking about any policy protecting non-combatants.
How ought we, as a nation of laws, respond to allegations of war crimes committed by our military?
Recently, a panel of judges within the International Criminal Court rejected the ICC prosecutor’s request to investigate possible war crimes in Afghanistan. Without any irony, our president said in response, “This is a major international victory, not only for these patriots, but for the rule of law." Somehow, the rule of law is served by not conducting investigations.
What of the International War Crimes Tribunals of 1967? Might a similar body be summoned today? Yes. Members of civil society organizations (or universities or state bar associations or any group so inclined) can organize tribunals, forums, panels, and any number of other platforms intended to shine a light on the darker corners of America’s longest war, and invite those uniformed personnel who have seen synthetic hell on earth and wish to talk about it. Such an action produced a document that inspired Seymour Hersh to let the world know about what occurred at My Lai. Still, what compelled the US government to respond to accusations of our soldiers’ committing war crimes? A letter, and that may be our best course of action today.
Every innocent life lost in war leaves grieving family and friends. Over time, unacknowledged grief turns to rage, and the desire that somebody be held accountable. Survivors organize to ensure their grief and grievances are heard. Consider: with over 200,000 non-combatants murdered during seventeen years of war, hundreds, if not thousands, now wait their turn to strap on suicide vests.
Let it be said of us that we did not become that which we sought to destroy, namely, a mindless killing machine using the numbers of enemy dead and the cheers of fearful crowds as measures of our success. We as a nation refuse to make public apologies. Instead, we offer ex gratia payments to whoever can prove they are next of kin to the mass of fetid protoplasm under the rubble. Our only public statement is a warning to potential whistle-blowers: If anyone dare investigate allegations of a war crime, such an investigation “will be met with a swift and vigorous response.”
And our global game of Cowboys and Muslims continues, with no end of volunteers on both sides.