Help

Nation Topics - War and Peace

Topic Page

Articles

News and Features

This is not a picture from your kid's sci-fi comic. It's an illustration from a report by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Space Commission. The report advocates circumventing the intent of international laws (notably, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) that seek to keep space free from war and urges that the President "have the option to deploy weapons in space." National Missile Defense, begun as Star Wars under Reagan, is just one layer of this much larger scheme to "control" space and "dominate" the earth, in the words of the report. "The United States is seeking to turn space into a war zone," maintains the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (www.space4peace.org). To read the entire Space Commission report go to www.defenselink.mil/pubs/spacechapter2.pdf.

News that the United States has been voted off the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN international drug monitoring board has elicited vows of revenge from conservatives in Congress. They threaten to withhold payment on the long-unpaid dues owed the UN. They blame our adversaries--China, Cuba, Sudan and others--for the insult. But the secret votes enabled allies as well as adversaries to vent their mounting exasperation with US policies. At the last session of the commission, the United States stood virtually alone as it opposed resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, while it continued to resist efforts to ban landmines.

The global outrage is by no means limited to US policies on the Human Rights Commission. In barely 100 days in office, the Bush Administration has declared the Kyoto accords on global warming dead, spurning eight years of work by 186 countries. It banned US support for any global organization that provides family planning or abortion services, even as an AIDS pandemic makes this a matter of life and death. It bade farewell to the antiballistic missile treaty, while slashing spending on nuclear safety aid for Russia. It casually bombed Iraq, helped shoot down a missionary's plane over Peru and enforced an illegal and irrational boycott of Cuba. It sabotaged promising talks between North and South Korea, publicly humiliating South Korea's Nobel prizewinning president, Kim Dae Jung. The nomination as UN ambassador of John Negroponte, former proconsul in Honduras during the illegal contra wars, is an insult. "There is a perception," said one diplomat in carefully parsed words, "that the US wants to go it alone."

Our lawless exceptionalism is a deeply rooted, bipartisan policy that didn't begin with the Bush Administration. Under previous Presidents, Democratic and Republican, Washington denounced state-sponsored terrorism while reserving the right to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan or unleash a contra army on Nicaragua. It condemned Iraq for invading Kuwait while reserving the right to invade Panama or bomb Serbia on its own writ. The United States advocated war crimes tribunals against foreign miscreants abroad while opposing an international criminal court that might hold our own officials accountable. Our leaders proclaim the value of law and democracy as they spurn the UN Security Council and ignore the World Court when their rulings don't suit them. The Senate refuses to ratify basic human rights treaties. The US international business community even opposes efforts to eliminate child labor. And of course, there are those UN dues, which make us the world's largest deadbeat.

Worse is yet to come. US policy is a direct reflection of its militarization and the belief that we police the world, we make the rules. The Bush Administration plans a major increase in military spending to finance new weapons to expand the US ability to "project" force around the globe--stealth bombers, drones, long-range missiles and worse. The tightly strung Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds increasingly like an out-of-date Dr. Strangelove as he pushes to open a new military front in space, shattering hopes of keeping the heavens a zone of peace.

As the hyperpower, with interests around the world, America has the largest stake in law and legitimacy. But the ingrained assumption that we are legislator, judge, jury and executioner mocks any notion of global order. From the laws of war to the laws of trade, it is increasingly clear that Washington believes international law applies only to the weak. The weak do what they must; the United States does what it will.

After the cold war, we labeled our potential adversaries "rogue nations"--violent, lawless, willing to trample the weak and ignore international law and morality to enforce their will. Now, in the vote at the UN, in the headlines of papers across Europe, in the planning of countries large and small, there is a growing consensus that the world's most destructive rogue nation is the most powerful country of them all.

This is not a role most Americans support. Public interest groups and concerned individuals will vigorously remind Congress of the widespread popular backing in this country for paying our UN dues, for global AIDS funding and other forms of international involvement. Unilateralism must be opposed in all its guises, from national missile "defense" to undermining efforts to curb global warming. The United States was founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Let's keep it that way.

I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.

Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.

By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)

Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."

The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.

We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."

If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.

Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."

I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.

I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.

And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.

There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....

This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?

The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.

What exactly Bob Kerrey did one night in a Vietnamese community should concern every citizen.

The war was years ago, but that does not excuse misrepresenting one's participation in it.

America's provocative military posture in Asia makes war with China more likely.

Thankfully, the clash between Washington and Beijing over the downing of a US reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island never spiraled out of control like the Chinese jet that buzzed the EP-3E. On Whidbey Island, Washington, where the US crew is based, people broke out the yellow ribbons, but Administration spokespeople carefully avoided the term "hostage." Although George W. Bush jumped out of the blocks with harsh words that sounded like leftover campaign rhetoric, he commendably cooled it, silenced his hawks and gave diplomacy a chance.

The successful resolution of the spy plane impasse underscores an important principle: Diplomacy must be paramount in the contentious US relationship with China, whether it is a question of releasing detainees, easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait or confronting the Chinese on workers' rights.

What does not augur well for future diplomacy is the rising chorus of demands to punish the Chinese. A series of flash points in US-China relations loom--arms sales to Taiwan, most-favored-nation status, Beijing's bid for the Olympic Games, missile defense systems. The Pentagoners in search of a reliable threat and the conservatives who cast China as the new communist Antichrist are agitating to sanction, contain and undermine the regime (see Michael T. Klare, "'Congagement' With China?" April 30).

A reckless Chinese pilot may well have been at fault in the spy plane collision, but that's not the main point. The incident illustrates the larger danger of increasing military confrontations impelled by both sides. Conservative commentator Edward Luttwak writes in the Los Angeles Times that in the Clinton Administration's waning days, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific, accelerated electronic intelligence flights on his own initiative. And when the US plane was downed, Blair proposed that the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk sail toward the Chinese coast; this was fortunately rejected as too provocative. Such actions point up the danger of military-driven policy replacing civilian control. China is not a military power and won't be for another decade, so why play into the hands of Chinese army hawks with more US intelligence flights or advanced arms sales to Taiwan?

China and the United States must work to reduce military confrontations. They should move away from bilateral slanging matches and toward greater use of multilateral regional forums. Unilaterally, the United States should ground the intelligence planes. We do need intelligence about China--but not the kind gathered by spy planes. We need a better understanding of the strains and struggles within the Chinese government. We need to understand public opinion, such as that expressed on the Internet (where anti-American feelings are vented these days), which can influence the leadership. We need more exchanges--not just military to military but people to people, institute to institute--to weave a wider web of understanding and respect between the two nations. (China's arrest of three Chinese-American scholars is a setback to such exchanges. The arrests, like right-wing demagogy about Chinese espionage in this country, only fuel distrust.)

Similarly, the next shopping cart of arms for Taiwan should not include Aegis-equipped destroyers or other advanced weapons that might encourage a precipitate move toward independence by Taiwan. The democratic government deserves continued US support in the international arena, but Washington should stick to the ambiguous one China, two China formula that has allowed both countries to gradually build deeper economic and political ties.

How the Bush Administration handles Taiwan and other issues in the weeks and months ahead will determine whether the Hainan Island incident will be remembered as a model for resolving US-China disputes or as the pretext that triggered an East Asian cold war and a nuclear arms race.

The prevailing view of the Bush Administration's expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy scandal has been that it was a throwback to cold war days when the great game of tit for tat was the normal way of doing things. But the apparent recrudescence of the cold war mindset should be cause for concern. The only alternative interpretation--that Washington hasn't any better ideas for dealing with Moscow--is equally troubling.

For one thing, the size of the expulsions was excessive. One would have to go back to 1986 to find comparable numbers. Also, they come on the heels of a stream of in-your-face pronouncements by Administration figures--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, calling Russia an "active proliferator" and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying it is "willing to sell anything to anyone for money"--and the loud insistence that the ill-conceived National Missile Defense scheme must go through regardless of Moscow's (or China's or Europe's) objections.

In fact, America does need a new Russia policy after the Clinton Administration's failures. Russia should be our number-one security worry--not because of its strength or aggressiveness but because of its weakness. Its economy has collapsed, its military is demoralized. But it remains a nuclear power equal to the United States. Indeed, the difference between now and cold war times is that the Soviet state was in control of its nuclear devices. Now, it sits atop a crumbling nuclear infrastructure, with poorly maintained reactors, vulnerable stockpiles and a dangerously degraded control system over missiles that remain, like our own, on hair trigger alert. The possibility of an accidental launch triggering a nuclear exchange has never been greater.

The reversion to mindless cold war games obscures these new threats and makes even more difficult the US-Russian cooperation needed to deal with them. That each side will spy on the other is a fact of international life and should not be used as a pretext for further distancing. Washington's priority should be working more closely with Moscow to make the latter's nuclear armaments more secure. The cold war is over. It is frightening that the Bush people show no signs of comprehending this.

Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.

DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
battlefields.

According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
pay.

Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.

Workers
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.

Blogs

Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen appears on Democracy Now to discuss the frightening implications of US support for the ruling government in Kiev.

May 12, 2014

Hardliners in Israel, in Iran and in Congress are in the minority, it seems.

May 12, 2014

If so, perhaps a diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis is in sight.

May 8, 2014

A bill considered among the strongest of several competing bids to curb government spying has passed a major legislative hurdle—but not without significant trimming. 

May 8, 2014

Two cheers for the president's centrist foreign policy. 

May 7, 2014

The new cold war with Russia may create a real war in Ukraine.

May 1, 2014

It will take generations for Iraq to recover from the 2003 catastrophe ignited by the Bush administration.

April 30, 2014

Stephen Cohen discusses President Obama’s revived policy of containment against Russia on The Thom Hartmann Program. 

April 25, 2014

“It would be a mistake to think that the diplomats who sat down in Geneva this week control the situation,” says Stephen Cohen.

April 21, 2014