Do as We Say, Not as We Do
By Robert Scheer
Published June 26, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
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
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 27 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 U.S. had a moral right to carpet-bomb
the Vietnamese into submission to achieve irrational U.S. policy goals.
In a letter McNamara wrote to Johnson in 1967, the secretary of
Defense conceded that the U.S. 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 U.S. It was
only when he was no longer useful to U.S. 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 U.S. 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.