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William Rivers Pitt: House Republican War Crimes

House Republican War Crimes

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 15 June 2006

There is going to be a debate today on the floor of the House of Representatives regarding Iraq. Is it within the realm of possibility to categorize a debate on the floor of the House as a war crime? Is that too much of a stretch? Leveling a war crime accusation is deadly serious business after all, and not to be bandied about like some meager political football. Given what is expected to take place today in Washington, unfortunately, such a categorization is worth considering.

What is a war crime anyway? Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines war crimes as, "Willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power, or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly."

How many of these definitions have been met by the United States during our ill-fated adventure in Iraq and during this so-called "War on Terror" as a whole?

Willful killing? Check: see Fallujah, Haditha, etc.

Torture or inhuman treatment, including willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health? Check: see Abu Ghraib.

Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person? Check: see Guantanamo and the secret "rendition" of prisoners for interrogation to nations that practice torture as a matter of daily business.

Willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial? Check: see Guantanamo again.

Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly? Check: see much of Iraq, specifically its former petroleum industry.

But all this happened during the invasion and occupation, and many of these despicable activities have been papered over by dubious legal findings generated by Attorney General Gonzales. How does a debate on the floor of the House of Representatives rise to the level of a war crime?

Simple. Awareness that war crimes are being committed, combined with a lack of action to stop those war crimes by an individual or entity holding a position of leadership, is as bad as the crime itself.

Major Darwyn O. Banks of the US Air Force, whose April 2001 research paper on information warfare titled, "Mitnick Meets Milosevic," notes the following: "While there are no claims Milosevic personally committed any such crimes, he is culpable under the principles of command responsibility and direct responsibility. The former alleges Milosevic's foreknowledge of such crimes without acting either to prevent the commission thereof or to punish the perpetrators. The latter form of responsibility implies that he authorized, planned, instigated and/or ordered the unlawful acts. These indictments against the former Yugoslav president, then, highlight the primary categories of the law of armed conflict."

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution endowed Congress with the power to make war. To be sure, that power has been slowly but surely usurped by a series of presidents, but the basic principle remains. At a minimum, if the legislative branch is going to surrender its constitutional responsibilities regarding our formidable war powers to the executive branch, they should at least attempt to exert a degree of oversight once the bullets start to fly.

This Republican congress has not done this to any degree whatsoever. They rolled the whole process down the hill to 1600 Pennsylvania, provided political and legal cover for the White House every time something went wrong, wrapped themselves in as many American flags as they could find, and stapled themselves to this president who, by his own words, goes to work every day with war on his mind. Thus it has been for the last three years and 87 days.

Today, however, there is going to be a debate on Iraq in the House of Representatives. Republican Majority Leader John Boehner (OH) has stated publicly that he hopes this debate will "match the serious, dignified tone of deliberation that preceded the Gulf war, in 1991." One can hope, I suppose, but it bears mentioning that the last time the House debated Iraq in the open, a decorated Marine Corps veteran named John Murtha got called a coward for suggesting that it was time to consider a withdrawal from the seemingly endless conflict.

And then there's the confidential strategy memo, generated by Boehner's office and distributed to every House Republican, outlining where the majority leader would like to see the majority guide the debate. The serious, dignified tone he requested in public is hardly evident in the game plan he has provided to his fellow House Republicans.

Boiled down, Rep. Boehner would like his fellow Republicans to bring up September 11 as many times as possible - this short memo mentions 9/11 no less than seven times - while denouncing House Democrats as weak and vacillating. "Democrats," reads one portion of the memo, "are prone to waver endlessly about the use of force to protect American ideals. During this debate, we need to clarify just how wrong the Democrats' weak approach is and just how dangerous their implementation would be to both the short-term and long-term national security interests of the United States."

Nowhere in this confidential strategy memo does Boehner suggest that the House attempt to regain control of the process that has led us to this dreary and deadly situation. Nowhere does he note that waving the bloody shirt of 9/11, especially in situations that have nothing to do with that day, is an irresponsible perversion of the facts on record. Nowhere does he note that every credible human being on the planet has flatly declared that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Nowhere does he mention the weapons of mass destruction that were not there.

Nowhere does he note that the invasion and occupation has made this country, and this world, far less safe. Nowhere does he mention the 2,497 American soldiers who have died in Iraq. To be sure and certain, nowhere does he mention the fact that crafting any solution to the Iraq mess is going to require the bipartisan effort of the entire Congress.

Instead, Rep. Boehner would like the House debate to stomp across the same worn and discredited ground that has been endlessly covered throughout this whole affair. He would like the debate to be umbilically attached to 9/11, and he would likewise appreciate it if Democrats are attacked and denounced at every opportunity. It is, after all, an election year.

It is possible that the House debate today will break new ground, that sober minds will be able to elbow the snarling partisans into the periphery, that hard facts and real solutions will be presented, that a crack of dawn sunlight may be found in this long, terrible night, and that a step towards ending all the death and destruction and sorrow and woe may actually be taken.

Don't count on it, though. Thanks to the Republican majority and its leader, this debate will be yet another dog-and-pony show designed to do little more than frighten and divide the populace. In the process, this debate will ensure that the war goes on, and will further ensure that George W. Bush and his people are insulated from accountability, culpability and the basic need to chart a new course.

The Republicans in the House know what is happening, and know how bad things are. By framing this important debate in such simplistic, venal terms, they are absolutely guaranteeing more of the same. And that, friends, is a war crime, and you can watch it happen today on television.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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