There is only one taboo left in the United States and it has nothing to do with kinky sex or mind-altering drugs. God knows, in America’s ever-coarsening popular culture, you can get away with all manner of perversion and usually end up with your own television show so you can share it all with the nation.
No, this taboo is something so heinous that a politician dare not utter it, a school dare not teach it, a patriot dare not think it. It is criticism of the US military, of ‘our men and women in uniform’. Even good liberals have to pay due homage to ‘our brave troops on the ground’, lest they be accused of sedition. Now, such praise may be appropriate if you’re talking about the Americans who liberated the Buchenwald Nazi death camp in 1945 (contrary to many an American myth, it was the Russians who liberated Auschwitz) or the guys who took back Iwo Jima from Japanese imperialists the same year. But frankly, it’s been all down hill for the American military since then.
In the past sixty years, we have seen the development of parallel trends within the US armed forces: a reckless cowboy culture on the ground and an arrogant, unaccountable culture at the top. It was on display – yet again – last week with the killing of an Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, by trigger-happy US troops as he escorted the popular Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena out of captivity in Iraq. The Americans – defensively – claim that it was all a terrible accident, prompted by the Italians’ failure to stop at a US checkpoint. But we now know the car had already cleared a coalition checkpoint and was authorised to be travelling in the zone. Calipari took a bullet to the head and died in Sgrena’s lap, while, ironically, Sgrena, who had survived a month-long captivity by Iraqi insurgents unscathed, was seriously wounded by those who were supposed to be on her side.
Was it deliberate? Probably not, although it’s easy to see why the American authorities wouldn’t like Sgrena, who writes for a defiantly leftist, but respected, Italian newspaper that has campaigned against the war in Iraq. But even if it were an accident, it is symptomatic of the attitudes that prevail in any country where US troops have trodden in the past half-century. The people of those lands are dehumanised.
Remember how the Vietnamese were ‘gooks’, how up to four million innocent non-combatants were killed by American bombs and machine guns in that dirty war? Remember how at least 500 women, children and old men were slaughtered with particular relish one day in 1968, in a south Vietnamese village called My Lai, by up to eighty American troops? One of the butchers, Lt. William Calley, even testified that, in the middle of their bloody work, they sat down to enjoy lunch.
What was the up-shot of My Lai? A mass court martial of the soldiers and their superior officers? Death sentences, which the Americans so dearly love for mentally-retarded criminals, for crimes against humanity? No. Calley was the only man convicted and within a few months President Richard Nixon had ordered his release and sent him back to barracks to spend the next three-and-a-half years under ‘house arrest’. Much of the nation seemed more concerned for the welfare of Calley, with dozens ‘Rallies for Calley’ held across the deep south, than for his victims.
(Here I’ll stand corrected and admit there have been some post-war American military heroes, namely Hugh Thompson Jr, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta, the servicemen who intervened to stop any further slaughter, only to spend the next thirty years reviled as ‘traitors’ until Bill Clinton gave Thompson and Colburn (Andreotta was killed in action) the Soldier’s Medal. Another young soldier also distinguished himself around that time, a decorated hero named Lt. John Forbes Kerry, who testified before congress to the crimes committed by his compatriots. What a tragedy that three decades later, while running for president, he tried to run away from his finest hour.)
Since My Lai, of course, the rate of US war crimes has only worsened. Last year I was in Central America, with a friend who is an official of the US Peace Corps, one of those people who, in their own way, redeem their nation’s honour. He told me about the uniformed top brass who still boast about living it up in the region’s best hotels back in the 1980s, while working as ‘military advisers’, wearing one of those knowing smiles as they use the term. Would they be the same ‘military advisers’ who propped up Roberto D’Aubuisson’s reign of terror in El Salvador as it – among a multitude of other atrocities – raped and murdered five American nuns and assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero?
Where it has not wielded the bullet and the bayonet itself, the US military has ‘outsourced’ its gruesome tasks. For fifty five years, between 1946 and 2001, it ran an outfit in Fort Benning, Georgia, called the School of the Americas, which trained D’Aubuisson and Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri, the architect of the Dirty War who ‘disappeared’ thousands of innocents. The school boasts – well, it’s probably rather coy these days – thousands of other blood-drenched graduates.
It has since been rebadged as the Western Hemisphere Institute For Security Co-operation and its courses must focus on ‘leadership development, counter-drug operations, peace support operations, disaster relief, or any other matter the Secretary [of Defense]deems appropriate.’ The current Secretary of Defense, by the way, is one Donald Rumsfeld – which brings us inevitably back to Iraq.
In the finest tradition of his predecessors, Rumsfeld refused to resign over the Abu Ghraid prisoner abuse scandal. According to a lawsuit filed in January by the American Civil Liberties Union, he gave the sly nod and wink to the ‘unlawful interrogation techniques’ – that’s torture to you and me – at the prison in Baghdad, but he’s kicked the responsibility down the line. A few hillbillies from the Appalachian mounties, who were undoubtedly guilty of getting their jollies by watching some Iraqi men forced to simulate sodomy, have gone to jail, but they’re not the only guilty ones.
At the start of the ‘official’ Iraq war, and in the months of intensive insurgency that followed, I watched on TV as US troops were interviewed by the ‘imbedded’ reporters travelling with them. Quite often, they would work themselves into a frenzy over how many Iraqi soldiers they had shot. One lamented that he was too far back in the convoy to see the explosions over Baghdad. These kids are not intrinsically evil but they’re so pumped up on George W. Bush’s rhetoric about ‘evil doers’, so infatuated with Republican Party righteousness, that they are denying the very humanity of the Iraqi people.
And, of course, with the US refusing to sign onto the International Criminal Court, they can act with complete immunity.
Nicola Calipari was not murdered by American troops but he was martyred – martyred to an ideology that says the world’s greatest power, and its surrogates, do not have to account for their mistakes or their crimes.
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation: www.benning.army.mil/whinsec/
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