By Scott Ritter
Editor’s Note: Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, and his latest is “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement” (Nation Books, April 2007).
I joined the American Legion a few years back. As a veteran of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, I was eligible to do so for some time but always hesitated, perhaps out of a sense of trying to deny that my days as an active-duty combatant were long past. Every year, on Memorial Day, my fellow firefighters and I would gather in the basement of the local American Legion hall before we paraded before the town we protect. I would look around at the uniforms and faded patches and ribbons worn by the veterans who joined us in the hall and realize that they, too, were deserving of a great deal more support than simply being wheeled out once a year to participate in a parade. So I sent in my application and was accepted.
One of the fringe benefits of membership in the American Legion is a subscription to its monthly journal, The American Legion, billed as “the magazine for a strong America.” It quickly became apparent that The American Legion magazine was a sounding board for many holding quite militaristic and jingoistic opinions based on their rather limited personal experiences, many dating back to World War II. The war in Iraq, together with the overarching “global war on terror,” seems to be viewed by many in the American Legion as an extension of their own past service, and much effort is made to connect World War II and the Iraq conflict as part and parcel of the same ongoing American “liberation” of the world’s oppressed.
It’s a shame for these Legionnaires that the Iraqis couldn’t have turned out to be blond, blue-eyed Germans who looked like us, and whose women could be wooed with chocolate and nylon stockings by the noble American liberator and occupier. Or, short of that, passive Japanese, who freely submitted their women to the massage parlors and barracks of their American conquering heroes while their men rebuilt a shattered society. The simplistic approach of many of the American Legion’s most hawkish advocates for the ongoing disaster in Iraq seems to be drawn from a selective memory which seeks to impose a carefully crafted past experience dating back to the last “good war” (i.e., World War II), expunged of all warts and blemishes, onto the current situation in Iraq in a manner which strips away all reality.
It turns out that the Iraqis aren’t like German or Japanese people at all, but rather a fiercely independent (if overly complex) nation deeply resentful of a so-called liberation which has brought them nothing but pain and agony, primarily at the hands of those who have, unbidden, “freed” them from their past. The fact that the Iraqis resent the ongoing American occupation, and choose to express this resentment through violent resistance instead of submissive passivity, is in turn resented by many of the Legion’s membership. “War has been declared on the United States by those who are envious of our freedom, and they won’t stop until we are under their heel,” writes one Legionnaire in a letter published in the May 2007 issue of “the magazine for a strong America.” The juxtaposition of Iraq with those who perpetrated the events of Sept. 11, 2001, implied in this statement is reflective of a level of ignorance that boggles the mind. Iraq never declared war on the United States, the salesmanship exhibited in our promotion of “freedom” in Iraq leaves nothing to envy, and the Iraqis will stop resisting when we leave their country. Don’t try telling that to the blustery former Marine who authored the letter in question, however. He, like the majority of the Legion, is tired of hearing about “Bush’s war.”
“Death, Not in Vain” is the title of the feature article of the May 2007 issue. The story revolves around how the parents of one Marine who died in Iraq seek to define their son’s sacrifice. “People may not agree with the reason we went to war,” the mother of the fallen Marine is quoted as saying, “but while our troops are over there, we can’t be telling the world what they are doing is wrong. If we say we support them, we have to support what they are doing.” Of course, the nature of the “disagreement” surrounding the Iraq war is never fully articulated in the article. There is no mention made of the discredited claims by President Bush and other war advocates about weapons of mass destruction or connections between Saddam Hussein’s government and al-Qaida. Instead, the reader is told repeatedly about how fallen American service members gave their lives for America and a “free Iraq.” Quoting their fallen sons, the families of Marines killed in Iraq speak proudly of bold statements such as “We need to be there, but it’s going to be hard, and it is going to be a long time.” Yet they never explore the actual “need” cited.
“We’ve got to support the troops and the mission,” the article quotes one family member as saying. “The two are dependent on each other.” I’m all for supporting the troops. But blind support for a mission of such nebulous origin? This is a much different matter, one requiring more introspective investigation. I don’t think it was the magazine’s intent, but a foundation of such an investigation was laid in the very same issue. In his article “Minimizing the Holocaust,” Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz slams those who seek to dismiss Nazi Germany’s effort to commit genocide against Europe’s Jews. It is a very difficult article to digest, not because of the legitimate premise that those who seek to deny or minimize the Holocaust are deserving of condemnation, but rather for the ease with which the moralistic Dershowitz explains the bombing of Dresden in 1945 as a “legitimate act of belligerent reprisal for the relentless bombings of civilians in London and elsewhere,” or the dismissive waving-off of the systematic starvation of 1 million German prisoners of war by the United States after the surrender of Germany as an inconvenient result of a “food crisis across Europe, a result of the continent’s decimation,” and being a “far cry from the 6 million innocents who perished at the hands of the Nazis with absolutely no military justification.”
I would be curious to know how Dershowitz would judge how the families of German soldiers deployed in combat operations should have viewed the Second World War. What if a mother of a young panzer grenadier fighting on the Russian front was to say, “The troops are the mission, and we cannot separate our support for either”? Should blind support for the fighting men likewise have blinded the families of German soldiers to the illegitimacy of their cause? Certainly Dershowitz would favor the “good German,” one who would have sought to deny facilitation of the Holocaust by refusing to support the war which empowered it. Would he so favor the “good American,” one driven by a sense of moral responsibility to speak out against acts perpetrated in Iraq and elsewhere by American fighting forces ostensibly in support of freedom, but in reality an extension of illegitimate policies reeking of global hegemony and American empire? Or would he choose to explain away Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, the CIA’s secret gulag of torture as “legitimate acts of bellicose reprisals” for the events of Sept. 11, 2001? In Dershowitz’s tortured legal brain the events at Haditha and elsewhere, including the Marine massacre of civilians in Afghanistan, likewise assume legitimacy in this newfound legal defense of “legitimate bellicose reprisal.”
In the end, Dershowitz’s opinions are irrelevant. The disturbing reality, however, is that his mind-set is not limited to the soap box he enjoys as a teacher of jurisprudence at one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning but rather is increasingly embraced by American service members deployed in harm’s way. A recent U.S. Army survey shows that some 40 percent of American soldiers and Marines support the use of torture as a means of gathering intelligence. Some 66 percent would refuse to turn in a fellow soldier or Marine for abusive actions against civilians, and less than 50 percent believe that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. Ten percent of those surveyed actually admitted to abusing civilians and their property for no reason whatsoever. While acknowledging that this mind-set is at complete odds with official policy concerning the conduct of military personnel in a combat zone, the Pentagon did its best to portray the survey results as clear evidence that there was, in fact, “good leadership” in place, since the desires of the troops had not manifested themselves in large-scale acts of abuse or torture. True, but the survey is also clear evidence that when such abuse or torture does occur, it is not the result of a few “bad apples,” so to speak, but instead indicative of a trend that could easily spiral out of control on any given day.
The survey results should not come as a surprise to anyone. The innumerable home movies shot in Iraq and Afghanistan, some immortalized on YouTube, some in documentary film, some simply shared with friends and family, all show the same disturbing trend. Whether it is a Marine singing the lyrics to the self-written “Hadji Girl,” or soldiers speaking disparagingly about “ragheads” or “sand niggers,” or any other dehumanizing remark imaginable, the reality is our troops aren’t in Iraq to liberate the Iraqi people. We’re there to kill them and we do an extraordinarily good job. The British government recently certified as “sound” the methodologies used by the study published in the medical journal The Lancet which estimates the number of deaths (as of 2006) that can be directly attributed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath at 655,000. If anything, this number has grown by leaps and bounds since the study was conducted.
One can point to sectarian violence as a major contributor to this total, but as an American I tend to reflect on the American-on-Iraqi violence, such as the barely mentioned deaths of Iraqi children in a recent air-delivered bomb attack against suspected Iraqi insurgents. I’m sure Dershowitz and those American service members desensitized to their own acts of depravity can explain the deaths of these innocents as “legitimate acts of bellicose reprisal.” I call it murder, even if these deaths occurred in time of war.
Every mother and father of every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine deployed in Iraq should reflect on this as well. “Little Johnny” may write home about what he says is a “just war” that “needs to be fought,” but before one embraces the words of someone in harm’s way in desperate need of self-justification for the things he has seen and done, re-examine the area of operations your loved one is serving in or, worse, has perished in. Are they “living among the Iraqi people,” as some would have you believe? Or are they sequestered away in base camps or fire bases, forced to conduct patrols out among a population that for the most part hates them and wants them gone from Iraq? Does “Johnny” himself call the Iraqis ragheads? Does he give a frustrated kick at the Iraqi male he just apprehended, not because of any crime or offense committed, but simply because he was there? Does he point his rifle and scream expletives at the mother or wife or daughter who cries out for a loved one? Does he break a lamp or table to emphasize his point? Or does he do worse, allowing his emotions and frustration to break free as he beats, shoots or rapes those he now hates more than anything else in the world? Freedom? Get real. The mission of our military in Iraq is survival, and that is no military mission at all.
The war in Iraq is as immoral a conflict as the United States has ever been involved in. Past wars were fought in a day and age where information was not readily available on the totality of issues surrounding a given conflict. One could excuse citizens if they were not equipped with the knowledge and information necessary to empower them to speak out against bad policy. Not so today. For someone today to proclaim ignorance as an excuse for inactivity is as morally and intellectually weak an argument as can be imagined. The truth about those who claim they simply “didn’t know” lies in their own lack of commitment to a strong America, one founded on principles and values worth fighting for, and one where every American is committed to the defense of the same. Ignorance is bad citizenship. In this day and age, bad citizenship carries ramifications beyond the environs of our local communities. Given America’s dominant role in the world, bad American citizenship has a way of manifesting itself globally.
I’m not calling the parents of those who have fallen in Iraq and who continue to voice their blind adherence to the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq bad citizens. I understand their need to come to grips with their loss the best way possible, which is to try and extract some meaning from the sacrifice their family has had to make. But I draw the line when these families allow their suffering to translate into blanket suffering for others. As The American Legion magazine quoted one such individual who advocated in favor of the Bush administration: “Are more servicemen and women returning the way my son did, in a casket, as a result of our words and actions? I believe the answer is yes. The perception of a weak American military, should we lose, will make our enemy stronger than we ever imagined. Because we don’t want to be at war any more doesn’t mean the war is over.”
Thus, in a blind effort to find meaning in her son’s death, this mother is willing to inflict suffering on other American families. This may sound like a harsh indictment, but she indicts herself. The same mother concludes the article with the following quote: “I told President Bush last summer that the biggest insult anyone could hand me would be to pull the troops out before the job is complete. If we’re going to quit, at that point I’ll have to ask, ‘Why did my son die?’ ” The question she should have been asking long before his death was, of course, “Why might my son die?” That she failed to do so, and now seeks to send others off to their death in a cause not worthy of a single American life, is where she and those of her ilk stop receiving my sympathy and understanding.
The American Legion magazine, in its May 2007 issue, belittles those who speak out against the war. “While our forefathers gave us the right and privilege to challenge our leaders,” one father of a fallen Marine writes, “the manner and method that some people have chosen to use at this time only emboldens the enemy.” Reading between the lines, freedom of speech is treasonous if you question the motives and actions of those who got us involved in the Iraq war. Alan Dershowitz can only wish that there had been more “good Germans” speaking out about the policies of Adolf Hitler before the Holocaust became reality.
I yearn for a time when “good Americans” will be able to stop and reverse equally evil policies of global hegemony achieved through pre-emptive war of aggression. I know all too well that in this case the “enemy” will only be emboldened by our silence, since at the end of the day the “enemy” is ourselves. I can see the Harvard professor shaking an accusatory finger at me for the above statement, chiding me for creating any moral equivalency between the war in Iraq and the Holocaust. You’re right, Mr. Dershowitz. There is no moral equivalency. In America today, we should have known better, since we ostensibly stand for so much more. That we have collectively failed to halt and repudiate the war in Iraq makes us even worse than the Germans.