“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and 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.” Justice Robert Jackson International Conference on Military Trials, London, 1945, Dept. of State Pub.No. 3080 (1949), p.330.
In March 2003 I like many of us on active duty at the time saw the nation embark on a crusade to overthrow an admittedly thuggish criminal head of state, Saddam Hussein. The images of the hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were still relatively fresh in our minds. The “evidence” that most of us had “seen,” the same that most Americans and people around the world were shown led many of us to believe that Saddam was involved in those attacks in some manner and that he posed a threat to us.
Now it wasn’t that we didn’t have doubts about it or even the wisdom of invading Iraq. It didn’t matter that there was also credible evidence that maybe what we were being told was not correct, and it didn’t matter that some of our closest allies voted against a mandate to invade Iraq in the United Nations Security Council. We were emotionally charged by the events of 9-11 and “we knew” that Saddam was a “bad guy.” We also believed that we could not be defeated. We had defeated the Iraqis in 1991 and we were stronger and they weaker than that time.
We really didn’t know much about Iraq, its history, people, culture and certainly we paid little attention to the history of countries that had invaded and occupied Iraq in the past. T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia wrote in August of 1920 about his own country’s misbegotten invasion and occupation of Iraq, or as it was known then Mesopotamia.
“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Bagdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.”
The sad thing is that the same could have been written of the United States occupation by 2004.
But even more troubling than the words of Lawrence are the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Somehow as a historian who has spent a great deal of time studying the Nazi period and its aftermath I cannot help but look back in retrospect and wonder what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and the other Nuremberg prosecutors would have done had they had some of our leaders in the dock instead of the Nazis.
The indictments against the Nazis at Nuremberg are chilling if we were to be held to the same standard that we held the Nazis leaders at Nuremberg. True, we did not have massive death camps or exterminate millions of defenseless people, nor did we run slave labor factories, but we did like they launched a war of aggression under false pretense against a country that had not attacked us.
At Nuremberg we charged twenty top Nazi political officials, as well as police and high ranking military officers with war crimes. The indictments included:
Count One: Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War: This count addressed crimes committed before the war began, showing a plan by leaders to commit crimes during the war.
Count Two: Waging Aggressive War, or “Crimes Against Peace” which included “the planning, preparation, initiation, and waging of wars of aggression, which were also wars in violation of international treaties, agreements, and assurances.”
Count Three: War Crimes. This count encompassed the more traditional violations of the law of war already codified in the Geneva and Hague Conventions including treatment of prisoners of war, slave labor, and use of outlawed weapons.
Count Four: Crimes Against Humanity, which covered the actions in concentration camps and other death rampages.
While count four, Crimes Against Humanity would be difficult if not impossible to bring to trial because there was nothing in the US and Coalition war in Iraq that remotely compares to that of what the Nazis were tried, some US and British leaders could probably have been successful prosecuted by Jackson and the other prosecutors under counts one through three.
The fact is that none of the reasons given for the war by the Bush Administration were demonstrated to be true. Senior US and British officials knowing this could be tried and very probably convicted on counts one and two. We also know that some military and intelligence personnel have been convicted of crimes that would fall under count three.
Saddam Hussein was a war criminal. He was also a brutal dictator who terrorized and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. But we went to war over his alleged ties to Al Qaeda and WMDs and he had not attacked us. Looking back at history and using the criteria that we established at Nuremberg I have no doubt that had Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld been in the dock that Justice Jackson would have destroyed them and the court would have convicted them.
So 10 years, nearly 5000 US military personnel dead, 32,000 wounded, over 100,000 afflicted with PTSD, and other spiritual and psychological injuries, with an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide every day; somewhere between 1 and 2 trillion dollars spent, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, wounded and displaced from their homes and a country destroyed and still in turmoil. And somehow those that decided to take us to war roam free. They write books defending their actions and appear on “news” programs hosted by their media allies who 10 years ago helped manipulate the American public, still traumatized by the events of 9-11-2001 to support the war.
Saddam and many of his henchmen are dead or rotting in Iraqi prisons for their crimes against the Iraqi people. However good this may be one has to ask if how it happened was legal or justified under US or International Law, if it was worth the cost in blood, treasure or international credibility. Likewise why have none of the men and women who plotted, planned and launched the war been held the standard that we as a nation helped establish and have used against Nazi leaders and others?
If we cannot ask that and wrestle with this then we as a nation become no better than the Germans who sought minimize their responsibility for the actions of their leaders, and in doing so enable future leaders to feel that they can do the same with impunity. That is a terrible precedent.