U.S. Declares:

"The Commander in Chief... Is... Responsible" for Crimes Committed by His Military Forces

September 2, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

As the full-court press for U.S. intervention in Syria unfolded, the New York Times (August 28, 2013) reported the following arguments from a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department justifying plans to launch military attacks on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad:

[E]ven without hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack, administration officials asserted, the Syrian leader bears ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.

"The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership," said the State Department's deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf—even if, she added, "He's not the one who pushes the button or says 'go' on this." [our emphasis]

It's worth looking at this statement carefully. The U.S. frames its threats to attack Assad as an application of a universal principal, arguing that in any situation, the commander of the armed forces is responsible for whatever those armed forces do, even if he or she didn't directly order it, or didn't even know about it. So in Syria, according to this principle, even if the U.S. doesn't know or can't prove that Assad ordered the gas attack, the fact that his troops (allegedly) carried it out makes Assad responsible, makes him an international war criminal, and justifies U.S. military action to "punish" him, or to get rid of him altogether.

But if this is a universal principal, if it doesn't just apply to Syria but to "the commander in chief of any military" in the world, then don't we have to ask: "How does this apply to the commander in chief of the U.S.armed forces, that is, to the president of the United States?"

We are going to get into that in a bit, and we are going to bring out some very damning facts about the "ultimate responsibility" of U.S. presidents! But before we get to that, it's important to note that in the U.S. media, almost no one even asks that question, and for the U.S. population as a whole, most people do not notice that this question is not being asked.

In fact, the media, the education system, the religious institutions, and the endless political "debate" around elections, all train people to assume, without even thinking about it, that "bad actors," war criminals, tyrants, and despots are only to be found among the opponents of the United States, that "we" are "the good guys." People are trained to think that America's intentions are always good, "we are fighting for freedom, democracy, and human rights," even though we sometimes "make mistakes." (Think about how the war in Iraq—a war plainly aimed at dominating a strategic region, its wealth and its people, and launched under cover of a hurricane of conscious lies—is always described in the media, even by its critics, as "a mistake," or based on "bad intelligence," never as a crime that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.)

And when atrocities, massacres, rapes, torture, and other crimes against humanity are exposed and linked to U.S. forces, and when the U.S. is unable to suppress such exposure and is forced to go through the motions of holding somebody responsible, every effort is made to put the blame on "bad intelligence," "corruption," and "rogue elements," and to go after low-level members of the political or military institutions involved, while making every effort to protect the commander in chief from any taint.

So is it any wonder that when the issue of "the ultimate responsibility of the commander in chief" for crimes against humanity comes up, the media does not touch, and most people do not consider, how that applies to American presidents?

But now let's put all that thinking (and really, non-thinking) aside, and seriously apply the principle advanced by the U.S. government to the U.S. government. When we do that we will see that every U.S. president, living or dead, has been "ultimately responsible" for massacres, coups, assassinations, rapes, tortures, atomic bombings and, yes, poison gas and biological weapons attacks carried out under their overall command!


1) Massacre of civilians, My Lai village, Vietnam, 1968. Part of the Americal Division, Charlie Company was ordered by its colonel to "go in there [My Lai] aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good." Before the attack, their captain told them: "They're all V.C. [Viet Cong], now go and get them ...Who is my enemy? Anybody that was running from us, hiding from us, or appeared to be the enemy."

Over the next two days, Charlie Company burned the village and crops, fouled the wells, and murdered between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians, including many women, children, and infants. Countless women were raped, tortured, and mutilated. Three soldiers who tried to stop the killing were later denounced as traitors by several U.S. Congressmen.

After a high-level effort to suppress news of the massacre failed, and in the face of massive world-wide outrage, the U.S. military charged and convicted... one lieutenant (William Calley). He was sentenced to life in prison, but served barely three years under house arrest.

Commander in chief for the My Lai Massacre: President Lyndon Johnson.


2) Iraq's Use of Poison Gas in the Iran-Iraq War

The U.S. claims it is horrified and is compelled to act because of Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons. So let's look at another infamous example—Iraq's use of poison gas in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. This was cited by the U.S. to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But in reality, a covert U.S. operation aided and abetted Iraq when it was using chemical weapons against Iranian forces and its own Kurdish population. (The U.S. at that time supported Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq against Iran.)

The New York Times (August 1, 2002) cited senior military officers with direct knowledge of a secret program under which U.S. officials "provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war.

"More than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA] were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq."

This program continued even when it became clear that the Iraqi military "had integrated chemical weapons throughout their arsenal and were adding them to strike plans that American advisers either prepared or suggested."

A DIA officer said the Pentagon "wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas. It was just another way of killing people—whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference."

Thousands of Iranians were slaughtered or crippled by Iraqi gas attacks.

Commander in chief overseeing use of poison gas: President Ronald Reagan.


3) Torture of Prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, 2003-2004.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq, thousands of Iraqis, from suspected insurgents to people suspected of minor crimes, were held in the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib prison, where they were routinely abused by U.S. personnel. Prisoners were attacked by dogs, urinated on, made to pose naked for pictures in piles with smiling U.S. soldiers standing in front of them, and sometimes beaten to death.

When journalists exposed this, the U.S. government claimed it was a "rogue" operation that went against U.S. policy. But documents obtained by the Washington Post and the ACLU show that the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, authorized the use of military dogs, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns, and sensory deprivation as interrogation methods in Abu Ghraib. And in this same period, the U.S. Attorney General commissioned the infamous "torture memos" that sought to legally justify torture in a variety of ways.

Again, compelled by massive outrage, the U.S. focused on lower-level people involved, while seeking to protect and distance the commander in chief from responsibility. Some people in mid-level command positions were demoted, while 11 soldiers (highest rank, sergeant) were convicted of various crimes.

Commander in chief for the Abu Ghraib Torture Operation—President George W. Bush.


4) Drone Attacks—Over the past decade, at least 2,000 people have been killed around the world by U.S. drone strikes. One of the most horrific was an attack on a religious seminary in Chenegai, Pakistan. On October 30, 2006, CIA drones flattened much of the school. Their target was reportedly the headmaster. Eighty civilians were killed, including 69 children.

Drone attacks have greatly escalated under President Obama; since he took office, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed, including more than 60 children. The U.S. claims that "most" people it kills are "terrorists," but one way that they do this is by declaring that any male of fighting age who is killed in a drone strike is by definition a terrorist unless it can be proven otherwise.

Commanders in chief for Drone Attacks: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.


These are just four examples from the last 50 years, but we seriously challenge anyone to find a U.S. president in the last 150 years who does not have the blood of countless innocent people on his hands. We are confident that the more you try to find one, the more you will come to see that these leaders are themselves nothing but bloody-jawed beasts and gangsters with the blood of millions on their hands.

It is the capitalist-imperialist system itself, built on the oppression of billions around the world, that requires of its top leaders a willingness to slaughter innocent people in pursuit of the famous "U.S. strategic interests," and it is this system that needs to be done away with so that humanity can flourish. But it can be said of the various commanders in chief of U.S. forces, Democrats and Republicans, that they have all been fitting representatives and able executioners of the brutal and outmoded system that they extol and serve.

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