Do As We Say, Not As We Do

Do As We Say, Not As We Do


What’s wrong with this picture?: Slobodan Milosevic will be dragged before an international war crimes tribunal while Robert McNamara tours American college campuses touting his latest book on how to achieve world peace, and Henry Kissinger advises corporations, for a fat fee, on how to do business with dictators.

Clearly, when it comes to war crimes, this nation is above the law.

The United States has supported, nay imposed, a standard of official morality on the world while blithely insisting that no American leader ever could be held accountable to that same standard.

The persistent, if implicit, argument, made since the time of the Nuremberg post-World War II trials, is that we get to judge but not be judged because we are a democratic and free people inherently accountable to the highest of standards. Dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians was, therefore, a peaceful gesture because it shortened the war. Wouldn’t we judge such a claim as barbaric if employed by any other nation to justify using such a weapon?

As the war in Vietnam further demonstrated, we are deeply invested in the righteousness of war against civilians, but only when we are the warriors. Now we will judge Milosevic a war criminal because he did the same.

Whatever the horrors inflicted upon noncombatants during Milosevic’s tenure, they pale in comparison to what McNamara did during the eight years that he presided over the Vietnam War, in which millions died because of the lies he told and policies he ordered.

Milosevic is accused of using military force to wage a campaign of terror against the civilian population of Kosovo. Yet it was McNamara who defined the largest part of the Vietnamese countryside, populated by peasants, as a free-fire zone. At no point was the population of Kosovo systematically raked with anti-personnel bombs and incinerated with napalm, as were the Vietnamese under the McNamara-directed policy.

McNamara refused to discuss his role in Vietnam for twenty-seven years after leaving his post as Secretary of Defense, yet the acts over which he concedes guilt in his 1995 memoir certainly could have formed the basis of war crimes investigations of both McNamara and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president he served. In his book, McNamara makes clear that neither he nor Johnson believed that the United States had a moral right to carpet-bomb the Vietnamese into submission to achieve irrational US policy goals.

In a letter McNamara wrote to Johnson in 1967, the Secretary of Defense conceded that the United States was flirting with war crimes and cautioned the President that “there may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go.” He added: “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.” But LBJ and McNamara were never held accountable in a court committed to those human rights limits, and their successors, Richard Nixon and his key warrior, Kissinger, promptly escalated the war, carpet-bombing North Vietnamese peasants and destroying all normal life in neutral Cambodia. The fierce bombings that destroyed the Cambodian countryside also collapsed civil rule there, paving the way for Pol Pot, a mass murderer who killed more than a million of his own people and yet later became an ally of the United States. It was only when he was no longer useful to US policymakers that they considered him worthy of a war crimes trial. By then he was infirm.

Certainly Milosevic would seem to qualify as a war criminal, but forcing him to trial while McNamara and Kissinger enjoy acclaim as elder statesmen is to desecrate the standard of moral accountability. McNamara was forced to address the war crimes issue last week before a USC audience. He said he wished that international standards had been in place when the United States was in Vietnam. Well, there was a standard. It was established at Nuremberg, and McNamara and company clearly violated it.

As for Kissinger, his offenses are not restricted to any one continent. He recently said he was too busy to answer a subpoena ordering him to appear before a Paris judge investigating crimes by the Kissinger-backed Pinochet regime in Chile.

Milosevic may well be a war criminal, but what arrogance to condemn Yugoslavia’s butcher of civilians when we have exonerated our own.

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