Crimes against humanity

by Chris Bertram on October 23, 2010

It has become commonplace for self-styled leftist erstwhile advocates of the Iraq War to whine that their critics have been unkind to them. Can’t those critics accept, they wheedle, that there were reasons on both sides and that the crimes against humanity of the Saddam regime supported at least a prima facie case for intervention? During an earlier phase of discussion, when those advocates were still unapologetic, but whilst the slaughter was well underway, we were treated to numerous disquisitions on moral responsibility: yes there is slaughter, but _we_ are not responsible, it is Al Qaida/the Sunni “insurgents”/Al-Sadr/Iran ….

Well “the latest Wikileaks disclosures”: ought to shut them up for good (it won’t, of course). “Our” side has both committed war crimes directly and has acquiesced, enabled, and covered up for the commission of such crimes by others. The incidents are not isolated episodes: rather we have systematic policy. The US government has a duty to investigate and to bring those of its own officials and military responsible to justice. Of course, this won’t happen and the Pentagon will pursue the whistle-blowers instead. So it goes.



TONY 10.23.10 at 11:01 am

1. The ‘at least we’re better than Saddam’ crowd of Nu£abour shills can shut up now, as you say. I’m sure they won’t.
2. The ‘war is hell and these things happen in war’ line is being trotted out by the war apologists today. They are prepared to suggest that it’s perfectly okay to bomb and murder innocent civilians thousands of miles away (and not admit to killing them of course) because ”war is hell.” It certainly is and the squalor that we, yes we, were compicit in gives a fuller picture thanks to Wikileaks. God bless them.


Donald Johnson 10.23.10 at 12:43 pm

I agree with Chris’s point, but on a related subject the wikileaks report did not support the Lancet 2 death toll. I’m not sure how much weight to give this , but I would have expected that if Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence were ten times higher than the Iraq Body Count figures, there’d be much more indication of this in the documents, not just 15,000 deaths that IBC didn’t know about. On the other hand, you wouldn’t expect much honesty about American-caused civilian deaths and from what the NYT and the Guardian report, there isn’t much–no civilians reported killed in Fallujah during the two assaults where IBC counted over 1000. Maybe they saw Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence as something that reflected poorly on them, and therefore not something to be accurately monitored if the true numbers were much higher than what made it into the press.



stostosto 10.23.10 at 1:00 pm

The Lancet study’s number for violent deaths were eminently reconcilable with those from the IBC, even before the Wikileak revision.


sg 10.23.10 at 1:25 pm

Unfortunately Donald, the wikileaks figures are figures from an organisation we now know was trying to hide 15000 deaths it didn’t report, and was also hiding its involvement with torture. So we probably can’t believe the 85000 they did report.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.23.10 at 2:03 pm

Thank you. It’s good to see some sanity on this.


PHB 10.23.10 at 2:48 pm

The Wikileaks data does not tell us anything that was not already known.

The significance is that it disproves the official denials given at the time and reported in the establishment press. This is information that anyone who was willing to look at the situation honestly knew was happening but was being actively denied by the administration.

The people trying to spin this as old news were denying the facts that have now been revealed. And in many cases we now know that the people making those denials knew that they were lying.

The figure for Iraqi deaths is clearly a lower bound on the total number of civilian deaths. It excludes the invasion and first year of the occupation for a start, it also excludes people who might be wounded and die later and people who die due to the destruction of sanitary infrastructure.

These figures are totally reconcilable with a total number of excess Iraqi deaths between 500,000 and 1,000,000.


Gareth Rees 10.23.10 at 3:22 pm

Donald Johnson: The studies measured different things, so it’s not surprising that they reported different numbers.

(1) Lancet report (Burnham et al. 2006): excess civilian deaths (over the pre-2003 death rate), extrapolated from household surveys.
(2) Iraq Body Count: documented deaths reported by commercial media, NGOs and official bodies.
(3) Wikileaks: (a subset of?) deaths recorded by US armed forces in Iraq.

There’s every reason to expect (1) to be much higher than either (2) or (3).


skidmarx 10.23.10 at 3:42 pm

1. We are not responsible, it was the Irackis doing the torturing.
2. We’re not responsible for failing to supervise, because we were too busy torturing other detainees.
3.There was torture under Saddam, so any that has occured since is the fault of the culture he created and of the peaceniks who wanted to leave him in power (or Muslims naturally torture each other and need to be re-educated with modern Abrahamic values).


BenSix 10.23.10 at 3:44 pm

The ‘war is hell and these things happen in war’ line is being trotted out by the war apologists today.

War has also created hell. The abuses are a feature of Iraq’s “idiosyncratic” state…

Methods include: rape or the threat of rape; beatings with cables and hosepipes; prolonged suspension by various limbs; removal of toenails with pliers; electric shocks to the genitals; piercing of the body with electric drills; asphyxiation with plastic bags; being forced to sit on broken bottles. Add to this vicious beatings and imprisonment for months or years – sometimes in secret prisons, generally without access for family or lawyers and invariably without formal charges being brought – and you get some idea of the degraded nature of Iraq’s response to the security threats it faces.


BenSix 10.23.10 at 3:47 pm

I’d like to summarise what I assume the pro-war response will be in visual format. Still, what does it matter. The broader problem is indifference, not support.


ogmb 10.23.10 at 3:51 pm

I’m pretty sure Obama is somehow to blame for this. And if not, Bill Clinton.


Bob 10.23.10 at 4:13 pm

No suprises, but still some shock to read the details. Ultimately, what it all leads to is the slogan of the Friends Committee on National Legislation: WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER.


jeer9 10.23.10 at 4:20 pm

Perpetual war is good for the oligarchy. Not only is it profitable for the military/industrial complex while misdirecting economic interests away from more equitable paths, but it forestalls any progressive attempts at economic reform because those efforts cannot be expended during such a time of peril. Furthermore, it provides all the political benefits derived from zealous patriotism and fear-mongering and an outlet for the riff-raff whose tempers might explode from disemployment if they were not otherwise being channeled toward “liberating” those less democratically inclined (irony intended). Torture is an unfortunate result of such idealism, the corporate media will explain, and far too complicated in its procedural details to prosecute. Bureaucratic complexity together with the wide-ranging nature of the criminal activity make it a perfect model of blame the victim, do-nothing hand-wringing which the securities and mortgage fraud investigations will soon feature as well. Austerity is the only solution for such incompetence and disrespect for the law. Pain is necessary for the less fortunate. It teaches them discipline and respect for their superiors’ manipulation of the system.


qb 10.23.10 at 4:29 pm

I can see why it wouldn’t shut them up. In order for US war crimes to count against a prima facie case for intervention, you’d also have to argue that those crimes were basically inevitable. I don’t think you have to be a rightwing warmonger to concede that the US could have, you know, not committed war crimes while occupying Iraq. At least some of the people you think your argument should persuade can simply respond that some intervention was justified–just not the one that happened.


Chris Bertram 10.23.10 at 4:50 pm

_you’d also have to argue that those crimes were basically inevitable_

A bit of a high threshold perhaps? How about “very likely to occur”?


william u. 10.23.10 at 5:01 pm

Or, to borrow some of Rummy’s own words: “You go to war with the administration you have, not the administration you might want or wish to have at a later time.”


adam 10.23.10 at 5:10 pm

Quickly, how many years of sanction related deaths does this equal?

If 500,000 Iraqis died between 1990 and 1999 as per Unicef then this represents 3 years worth of deaths under the sanction regime. The violence also peaked and has since declined.

There was a Lancet study in 1995 claiming that there had been 567,000 excess deaths due to the sanctions. It relied on sample surveys. It’s accuracy is now being challenged – likely by the same faction plumping the more recent Lancet study, also based on sample surveys.

So what will it be? Sanctions or civil war?


BenSix 10.23.10 at 5:12 pm

I don’t think you have to be a rightwing warmonger to concede that the US could have, you know, not committed war crimes while occupying Iraq.

They could have, perhaps, but they didn’t. It’d be hard to argue that a state which blithely carried out/aided war crimes can be trusted to enact a “humanitarian” war.


qb 10.23.10 at 5:51 pm

That’s right, Chris. But the antecedent likelihood of the US committing war crimes is where liberal proponents would disagree. Just because you lost at gambling doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have placed the bet. Or so, at any rate, the argument would go. I think the antecedent likelihood of unacceptably high civilian casualties and of civil war and insurgency more obviously rendered the war impermissible, and so US war crimes is merely icing on the “we told you so” cake liberals have been so keen to eat from the beginning.

BenSix: you missed the point, please try again.


BenSix 10.23.10 at 6:39 pm

I don’t see how. To modify your analogy, if you bet on a football team and they throw the match it does suggest that a) you made a pick and b) you shouldn’t try it again.


BenSix 10.23.10 at 6:40 pm

[*] made a bad pick


Donald Johnson 10.23.10 at 9:36 pm

Gareth and others–

You might be right. I’d be curious to know to what extent the US military or intelligence agencies did try to learn the death toll–in theory they should be interested, since they were supposedly there to protect the civilians (leaving aside the ones they killed themselves) but in practice maybe they didn’t want to know or made no serious effort to find out.


joz 10.23.10 at 11:46 pm

qb: I hear you. The US has never ever committed war crimes, like initiating systematic torture regimes, before, so why suspect they’d start this time, right?

Bush is a war criminal. But what does “war crime theory” say about people like Obama, who can but refuse to initiate war crime proceedings against Bush and his co-criminals? Is Obama’s omission itself a form of war crime? Or other crime? (I’m only asking about the legal/quasi-legal issues here, since the moral disvalue of Bush’s and Obama’s acts is crystal clear.)


qb 10.23.10 at 11:48 pm

I don’t think losing a bet implies that it was a bad bet to make. Claiming otherwise seems to ignore relevant epistemic differences between prospective and retrospective reasoning. Not sure what work “throwing the match” is doing in your version of the analogy.


JP Stormcrow 10.24.10 at 12:50 am

But the antecedent likelihood of the US committing war crimes is where liberal proponents would disagree.

As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly


Lemuel Pitkin 10.24.10 at 1:16 am

Seems like the standard liberal hawk response (e.g., or the loathesome Charli Carpenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money) is to say that since neither the US military nor Wikileaks are morally spotless, it’s all a wash. One killed and tortured tens of thousands of civilians, one failed to properly redact some personal information. So, who’s to say who the real war criminals are?


qb 10.24.10 at 1:20 am

23: Well, yes. They really didn’t think turkeys could fly, did they? But then, one flightless turkey isn’t going to convince anyone who thinks they can fly that they can’t, or that the one that isn’t flying couldn’t have, if it had tried harder. And that’s why, by itself, the Wikileaks revelation won’t, and in fact, shouldn’t convince liberal proponents of the Iraq war that there was never a prima facie case for intervention.


Bloix 10.24.10 at 4:09 am

“The Wikileaks data does not tell us anything that was not already known.” – PHB

“The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.” – The New York Times


qb 10.24.10 at 9:03 am

Joz, I believe you might be mistaking me for the people I’m talking about. But yes, abuse of power comes as no surprise, especially when we’re talking about an occupying force facing an insurgency. On the other hand, to claim that you saw it coming, that you knew before the war was launched that this was headed towards a systematic regime of torture seems to indicate either excessive cynicism or post hoc confabulation. The high body count was utterly predictable–the foreseeable result of a power vacuum, latent ethnic conflict, and a prolonged occupation. The torture regime, for example, was less predictable, at least by my estimation, because it depended more heavily on the decisions of a larger number of individual actors.

Anyway, my point–which remains simple and should not have to be repeated so many times–was that if the liberal proponents of the Iraq war weren’t convinced by the history of American warfare that Bad Things were Very Likely to occur, it’s not clear why the Wikileaks leak would change their minds. Or even should, when considered in isolation from a historical trend. I know you and everyone here deeply, deeply wants to support every argument that contradicts the opposition’s view of the war. But some arguments are lazy and weak even when their conclusions are true..


Bread & Roses 10.24.10 at 10:50 am


One could be against the war and also against the sanctions. I was. I think sanctions are only morally defensible against democratic regimes. (And maybe in a few other circumstances. But not when they lead to widespread famine & deprivation).

It also matters to me, as a US citizen, whether preventable death is our fault or not. An Iraqi civil war would, did, and will cause much suffering and death. But it matters to me whether we push it or not. And without the great powers feeding resources into them civil wars can come to a conclusion much more quickly.

I guess I wouldn’t push the fat man onto the track. That’s his moral decision to make.


joz 10.24.10 at 10:58 am

qb: If anyone X wasn’t convinced that bad things (systematic torture regimes, murdering civilians, enslaving civilians as human bomb sweepers and such) were very likely prior to the war, then X can be faulted for that, because the US historical trend is crystal clear war crime wise and there where no good reasons to think this would turn out any different.

There is nothing lazy or weak about that argument. Unless you want to downplay the atrocity of systematic murder and torture.

The fact that those atrocities where systematically and intentionally covered up is itself, I’d argue, sufficient to render Bush and the rest of the top tier justly deserving of punishment, carried out orderly after proper international court proceedings.


ejh 10.24.10 at 12:25 pm

I don’t think losing a bet implies that it was a bad bet to make.

Well it depends what sort of bet you’re talking about, doesn’t it? I mean when it’s a war and an invasion, we’re not talking about the 40/1 shot on whom you put a fiver each way because they seemed like generous odds and it looked good in the paddock. We’re talking about the 5/2 on can’t-lose favourite where you had top-notch inside information and you knew the second favourite wasn’t going to run a finish.

So you spunked the mortgage on it, which isn’t looking too clever now it’s been pulled up, they’ve found out it was running lame and on top of that, the jockey’s facing a hearing for excessive use of the whip. And what’s more, everybody involved has previous form for doing exactly the same sort of stuff.

I think that’s the sort of bet you might like to review on the grounds that it didn’t represent the sort of value you first imagined.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.24.10 at 2:42 pm

Shorter qb: Since no single piece of evidence, taken in isolation, is enough to change deeply held beliefs, no one should change their beliefs based on evidence.


qb 10.24.10 at 3:37 pm

Nope Lemuel, that’s not it at all. Here, I’ll do it myself: evidence of crimes against humanity does not undermine the claim that there was a prima facie case for intervention, since by itself that evidence does not establish that those crimes were likely to be committed under any feasible intervention.

Unless you’re just willfully misinterpreting me–and I don’t think that’s a negligible possibility–I suspect the main source of plausible disagreement here lies in how (whether) we’re understanding the difference between a prima facie case for an intervention, on the one hand, and a full justification for it, on the other.


Lemuel Pitkin 10.24.10 at 8:19 pm

I think the difference is between whether ex post outcomes convey information about ex ante probabilities. Your position seems to be that they don’t.


qb 10.24.10 at 8:54 pm

Of course they convey information. The question is whether the specific ex post outcomes described in the leak provide sufficient reason for anyone who thought there was a prima facie case for intervention to change his or her mind. In order to disagree with me, your position would have to be that they do, but so far no one has suggested why this specific evidence should push anyone past that specific threshold. Proponents can simply, and not at all disingenuously, respond that “Sure, the leak indicates that crimes against humanity were more likely than I thought they were, but it doesn’t indicate that they were so likely as to undermine the prima facie case for intervention.”


Donald Johnson 10.24.10 at 10:45 pm

“Sure, the leak indicates that crimes against humanity were more likely than I thought they were, but it doesn’t indicate that they were so likely as to undermine the prima facie case for intervention.”

Because who in 2003 would have ever heard of US intervention in another country leading to massive civilian casualties, enormous refugee flows, and crimes against humanity? Back then such an outcome would have been inconceivable.


BillCinSD 10.24.10 at 10:45 pm

But that the prima facie case for intervention was a pack of lies told by people known for their willingness and ability to lie should have long ago undermined the prima facie case for intervention. Well lies and 10 year old information that was no longer ,relevant I suppose


Lemuel Pitkin 10.24.10 at 10:56 pm

no one has suggested why this specific evidence should push anyone past that specific threshold.

Now you’re just being obtuse, maybe deliberately. No single piece of evidence is sufficient to force someone to abandon a strongly held belief. However, evidence only arrives in single pieces. So if anyone is ever convinced by evidence, it has to be by a not-in-itself-sufficient piece. Your position is just a version of Zeno’s paradox.

(Question for John Holbo: Was Zeno the original troll?)


qb 10.25.10 at 12:13 am

Well, I wasn’t the one saying that this particular grain of sand made the pile. And from the sounds of it, you’d agree that there’s no particular reason to think that it does.


Chris Bertram 10.25.10 at 2:58 pm

I’m on World Have Your say programme on BBC World Service tonight discussing Wikileaks/Iraq/torture 6-7pm UK time.


qb 10.26.10 at 5:04 am

Nice job, Chris. Robert was a huge fucking crybaby. Here’s a link to the podcast.


qb 10.26.10 at 5:05 am

Or um… here?

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