The Geneva Conventions, My Lai, and Haditha
The Haditha killings in Iraq on November 19, 2005 by US Marines have been compared to to the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre. There are many similarities between the two massacres. Both involved the murder of unarmed men, women , and children. Both massacres resulted in the deaths of elderly people. The two attacks were both driven by the motive of retribution for earlier attacks on US forces. US forces at My Lai, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, rounded up hundreds of innocent men, women, and children and murdered them in a huge pit. The retribution killings at Haditha were conducted in a somewhat different manner. Marines broke into innocent Iraqis’ homes and used grenades and small firearms to kill civilians.
There are other issues that are remarkable about both massacres. First, besides William Calley, who served hardly any real jail time, all other perpetrators of these grotesque killings were let off with punishments that amounted to slaps on the wrists. Some critics might argue that in military terms those “slaps” were tantamount to the end of the military careers of those involved, but even with an end to careers, the individuals involved in the murders were allowed to continue to live their lives, while those innocents who were massacred, and their families, had their lives snuffed out or irremediably and devastatingly changed.
The grotesque details of the 1968 massacre at My Lai galvanized the peace movement in the US. The Tet Offensive, also in 1968, did the rest, and though the killing would go on for years in Vietnam, the war began its final march to a conclusion. The domestic massacres at Kent State University and Jackson State precipitated a great outcry from the antiwar movement and people of goodwill across the US and around the world. Those atrocities were caused by the student movement’s reaction to the military incursions into Cambodia by the Nixon administration.
Haditha took place in the context of a preemptive war that followed on the heels of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan. The US had long since shed its distaste for war known as the Vietnam Syndrome.* Members of the administration of President George W. Bush had colluded to rewrite the rules of war. John Yoo, in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General, and Vice President Dick Cheney turned thousands of years of those rules, and what is known as the Just War Theory, on its head. It was only a short distance on that slippery slope to perpetrate atrocities and condone and carry out widespread torture around the world.
Viewing these massacres from the perspective of what international law has to say about the treatment of civilians in war zones is illuminating. The following excerpts from The Geneva Conventions (1949) comprise some of humanity’s most promising effort to codify what constitutes acceptable behavior (if indeed there can be such a thing) regarding the treatment of civilian noncombatants during war.
The Conventions contain the words that the US agreed to after the defeat of the forces of fascism at the conclusion of World War II. What may strike readers is that the attempt to eradicate those words, developed after thousands of years of the tortuous development of the human species, by a cowboy president and his compliant underlings was so easily accomplished! His teachers, to some extent, were both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon who were responsible for millions of dead in Southeast Asia and tens of thousands of dead American military personnel. And Barack Obama seems intent on carrying on the litmus test of American Presidents: the willingness to conduct wars of dubious merit with lethal weaponry.
Protocol 1 Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949
“In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
“Effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.”
“When a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, the objective to be selected shall be that the attack on which may be expected to cause the least danger to civilian lives and to civilian objects.”
“No provision of this Article may be construed as authorizing any attacks against the civilian population, civilians, and civilian objects.”
The Geneva Conventions are not written in high-sounding undecipherable legalese. They address the murder of civilians quite directly. What amazes is how governments, as in the cases of My Lai and Haditha, can so casually cast off thousands of years of effort to protect the innocent in war!
In this era of unbridled militarism (now reaching new heights with drone attacks), the ease with which supporters of state violence cast off criticisms of masses of civilian deaths is telling. Often the excuse of a few bad apples in the military is supplied as the reason for such atrocities. Sometimes the specter of American Exceptionalism is brought into the argument to highlight the purity of US military objectives and US militarism. Often no excuse is given at all. As the Vietnam era Winter Soldier hearings (1971) established unequivocally, mindless killing of noncombatants is more the norm in war than was ever admitted by the government. The same tip of the iceberg of killings exists in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan (2008) provided the nation with yet another glimpse of the brutality of those wars from the viewpoint of veterans. With the mass media effectively silenced and placated through the use of embedded reporters, the reports of such contemporary atrocities are left to chance reporting or the consciences of lone soldiers.
- Vietnam Syndrome was the short-lived aversion to war on the part of a majority of those in the US following the Vietnam War. The so-called “syndrome” was soon discarded in the dustbin of history through the policy of low-intensity warfare waged by Ronald Reagan in Central America. I was labelled as having Vietnam Syndrome by the Army’s Discharge Review Board in 1977.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.