Of war crimes and whistle-blowers

Published: March 13, 2012
The writer is editor of The Express Tribune Magazine 

The writer is editor of The Express Tribune Magazine [email protected]

Once again, a US soldier goes ahead and massacres a bunch of civilians. Once again, the US government led by apologiser-in-chief Barack Obama calls it tragic, says the soldier’s actions are not representative of the US military and promises a complete probe. Can’t really disagree with Obama on the ‘tragic’ label; a massacre of sleeping children, some as young as two years is, at the very least, tragic. Personally, I’d label it a war crime, but it’s not like anyone would dare drag the US to the Hague, so what’s the point? As far as the incident being out of character for the US army, I’m going to have to beg to differ. This sort of thrill/revenge/just-for-the-heck-of-it killing is very much typical of the US military, as is the impending round of obfuscation, cover-up and eventual judicial slap on the wrist.

The fact is that in the US army, the torture and killing of ‘enemy’ civilians just isn’t considered a big deal. Case in point: in the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, the brave men of Charlie Company killed hundreds (504 if the official memorial is to be believed) of Vietnamese villagers. Fleeing children were shot dead and 13-year-old girls gang-raped before being killed. Flushed with ‘victory’, some of the soldiers even carved their company’s name into the bodies of the slain. Now, in a world where the US actually followed its sales pitch, the soldiers involved would have been given multiple life sentences for what were essentially multiple murders. Instead, only one man was given a life sentence, and he also actually served three-and-a-half years in what I imagine was a fairly comfortable house arrest. The US military tried every trick in the book to sweep this under the table. They would have succeeded but the US media hadn’t completely sold its soul at that stage.

But that was a different and much less enlightened time. Surely, that sort of thing couldn’t happen with the new and caring United States of America? Well, on November 19, 2005 a group of US marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians, none of whom posed any kind of threat to the soldiers. That is, unless you believe that a sleeping one-year-old child and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair can threaten heavily armed and highly trained marines. It took a year just to charge the marines involved. Two years later, only Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich was still in trouble, the others having been let-off. For a while it seemed that some diluted form of justice may well be served, until all charges against him were dropped, except for a single charge of dereliction of duty. So what was his final punishment for committing mass murder? Demotion and a paycut. During investigations, classified military transcripts obtained by the New York Times revealed that officers wouldn’t even bother to investigate civilian killings because, and I quote “It happened all the time”. The same goes for the infamous ‘Kill squad’, which staged the murders of Afghan civilians and collected trophies like fingers and skull fragments. Again, investigations revealed that ‘pretty much the whole platoon’ knew what was going on. It’s not like there weren’t any soldiers of conscience. In My Lai, it was a US soldier who reported the massacre, just as several soldiers also complained about the Kill Squad, but to no avail. It’s not that there were no whistle-blowers, but just that the brass simply didn’t want to hear it. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at its best.

Then there’s Bradley Manning, who’s currently serving a life term in solitary confinement with no possibility of parole. He is forcibly stripped naked every night, subjected to sleep deprivation, and searched every five minutes, just in case he tries to injure himself of course. What was his crime? He’s the courageous young soldier who leaked US documents, including footage of US copters strafing civilians, to WikiLeaks. Poor Bradley. If he had just killed some Afghan and Iraqi children instead of airing the US’ dirty linen, he’d probably be free right now. If someone bothered to report him in the first place, that is.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Mirza
    Mar 14, 2012 - 12:03AM

    Look who is talking? We cannot even openly discuss the atrocities of Pakistani army in East Pakistan. There was a gag order against that and Rehman Commission Report never saw the light of the day. We never even apologized for our actions against Bengalis. There are individual crimes and there are crimes by the whole army as a policy. What about rounding up of hundreds of educated top Bengalis and killing them just prior to surrender? All crimes must be equally condemned by everybody. This selective criticism is not fair to say the least.


  • Sindhvoice
    Mar 14, 2012 - 12:13AM

    What about innocent people being killed in Baluchistan and being kidnapped from Sindh and Baluchistan in the name of patriotism ?? and what about suicide bombers belonging to extremist groups who are killing innocent Muslims?? First we need to keep our house in order then we point out at others.


  • yousaf
    Mar 14, 2012 - 12:37AM

    PERHAPS Obama has taken some lessons from our way of doing things.After each mishap,form a commission,promise a thorough probe into the incident and let the TIME while away till everything is forgotten due to other “more important” issues


  • American Desi
    Mar 14, 2012 - 12:40AM

    @zarrar khuhro: This tragic event is could be due to the mental breakdown of a lone soldier and not sanctioned by the US and this fact is for everyone to see. This event will be investigated and the perpetrator will be punished!
    War crime is an atrocity which is carried out by the state and nearest example for you to understand is what Pakistan did to their Bengali brethren, where the state sanctioned perpetrators went scot-free.
    Having an influential pulpit doesn’t give you any rights to twist the facts and as a journalist your loyalty should be towards exposing truth! I do understand the soldiers regardless of their nationality will try to coverup to protect their own and that is where we need honest journalists.


  • S
    Mar 14, 2012 - 12:46AM

    Why only USA? Yes they deserve all the flak that come their way, but what about Pakistan’s own record, that too by official sanction? Doesn’t the elimination of Bangladeshis (1-3 millions depending on accounts) deserve a mention in an article on war crimes?

    Here, from the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh,

    “During the war, the Pakistan Army and its local supporters carried out a systematic execution of the leading Bengali intellectuals. A number of university professors from Dhaka University were killed during the first few days of the war. However, the most extreme cases of targeted killing of intellectuals took place during the last few days of the war. On December 14, 1971, only two days before surrendering to the Indian military and the Mukhti Bahini forces, the Pakistani army – with the assistance of the Al Badr and Al Shams – systematically executed well over 200 of East Pakistan’s intellectuals and scholars.”


  • Mrs. Butt
    Mar 14, 2012 - 1:42AM

    Sorry, you made but a miserable defense. Your tirade fails in turning the atrocities perpetrated by U.S. army any less severe – not individual crimes but crimes perpetrated by the whole army as a policy, especially when they happen all the time. You are most welcome to write an opinion piece on Pakistani army’s war crimes in East Pakistan (if there is anything left to write on this topic except an overdue apology) but you don’t have to push yourself towards an increasingly cautious, apologetic stance over this write-up. And there you talk about ‘selective criticism’ while your reply itself is a glaring example of what I should call an “automated defense mechanism” which, when it comes to writing, becomes equally selective.


  • Architect
    Mar 14, 2012 - 2:10AM

    Wow! that was Courageous. It seems that ET’s been hijacked by Islamic Fundamentalists. :D
    True, brave & well written


  • Cynical
    Mar 14, 2012 - 2:35AM

    American army’s record from Korean war through the Vietnam and Iraq (and many in between)is despicable, no arguement about it.
    But may be,just may be they have picked a few pages from our glorious history of Bin Qasims,Ghaznavis,Ghodis,Abdalis and Nadir Shahs, and learned the art and science of how to dehumanise the enemy.War crimes are as old as war is.It hurts when one is at the receiving end.


  • Sultan Mehmood
    Mar 14, 2012 - 4:21AM

    What a shame! Our Liberal maniacs can’t even condemn such an atrocity of Americans… What Pakistan did to Bangladeshis was wrong that doesn’t cut your balls to at least agree what US does is also wrong if not worse… Its a shame you can still live with a soul…


  • Mar 14, 2012 - 7:08AM

    A number of facts have been twisted out of context by the author. The deeds of the Afghanistan “Kill Squad” came to light because other US soldiers reported it. Those involved were punished with long prison sentences.

    In the current case, 1 soldier was involved. The author should at least familiarize himself with the meaning of the term “war crime”. It applies to a violation of the Hague Conventions and the Geneva Convention on the laws of war. So by what measure does this act meet the definition of “war crime”? Panetta has said that death sentence is on the table for the trial of this soldier.

    Undoubtedly, war is a dirty business and this one needs to stop. It is also true that a number of violations have occured some punished, others not punished enough and perhaps others that have gone unreported. In the 11 years of war in Afghanistan, this is the second incident of deliberate killing by US soldiers. So by claiming that “This sort of thrill/revenge/just-for-the-heck-of-it killing is very much typical of the US military“, the author in his rush to condemn has lost credibility.


  • Waiting
    Mar 14, 2012 - 10:40AM

    And just to save you guys the trouble, here’s the excerpt from Rolling Stone:

    ‘But a review of internal Army records and investigative files obtained by Rolling Stone, including dozens of interviews with members of Bravo Company compiled by military investigators, indicates that the dozen infantrymen being portrayed as members of a secretive “kill team” were operating out in the open, in plain view of the rest of the company. Far from being clandestine, as the Pentagon has implied, the murders of civilians were common knowledge among the unit and understood to be illegal by “pretty much the whole platoon,” according to one soldier who complained about them. Staged killings were an open topic of conversation, and at least one soldier from another battalion in the 3,800-man Stryker Brigade participated in attacks on unarmed civilians. “The platoon has a reputation,” a whistle-blower named Pfc. Justin Stoner told the Army Criminal Investigation Command. “They have had a lot of practice staging killings and getting away with it…”

    Any more questions? Or is Rolling Stone a Taliban publication?


  • Furkan
    Mar 14, 2012 - 1:19PM

    Compelling and articulate.


  • Aristo
    Mar 14, 2012 - 2:26PM

    The blood of the innocent two year olds gunned down in their sleep will not go in vain. I do not have an iota of a doubt in believing it is incidents like these that change the course of history and bring huge empires down on their knees in due time.


  • usman
    Mar 14, 2012 - 3:43PM

    nice article…i agree that nothing is going to happen,they ll show grievances but nothing to be done in reality..


  • Dr Shakil Akhtar
    Mar 14, 2012 - 5:11PM

    I fail to understand why our liberals even fear criticizing the US for all the attrocities they do, I believe this was an act of a manic person not necessarily endorsed by the people in top brass or in US army, but its a well known fact that they dont hold into account those people who have been found guilty of killing innocent civilians in the past conflicts and present. Its just collateral damage as they would say and I dont agree with it, no matter who you are, you should be held accountable to what you have done, is my doctrine. Allah will surely take into account what we have been doing. He is the best Judge.The writer at no point absolves us or any others at what we have done and what our armies have done in East Pakistan and oblivious of the fact that there was mass killing on a scale not known before with no apologies from our generals, we should always encourage everyone to say whats wrong and whats right. We havent been angels ourselves and the public at large is equally responsible at not speaking up against the atrocities done by our elite to our less fortunate citizens not just in East Pakistan but elsewhere.


  • Maroof Mehboob
    Mar 15, 2012 - 6:34PM

    @ American Desi without identity. Nobody denies what happened in Bangladesh but should that stop us from reporting the current state of affairs and ground realities as they stand ? the fault of the Afghans and Pakistanis in all this is their lack of care and fear of diplomatic fallout i.e. money !!

    The question i’d like to see a vote count on is “Is an American life worth more than a Pakistani or Afghan or Vietnamese ? ” If 20 odd Americans were bombed at their border they would simply go to war with that country, as simple as that.

    It is good to see that there are people addressing issues related to atrocities being committed by the US Army against Pakistanis and people in our region which have a direct impact on our lives directly and indirectly.

    Taxi to the dark side an Oscar winning documentary in 2008 explores similar themes, you can read about it at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0854678/


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