In March of 2003, George W. Bush transformed the center of Baghdad into a bowl of fire during the “Shock & Awe” phase of his doomed Iraq invasion. I lay on my back in my living room that day, horrified by the massacre unfolding on the television, a vivid war crime I and millions of others had labored for months to thwart. More people protested that war before it started than any other conflict in all of human history, and yet it came to sorrow nonetheless.
In order to get their war, Bush and his allies within government and the media crafted a complete alternate reality to justify their intentions. Iraq, according to them, was in possession of 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons (which equals 1 million pounds) of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agents, 30,000 munitions to deliver these poisons, mobile biological weapons laboratories, uranium from Niger for use in a “robust” nuclear weapons program, and direct connections to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and around the world.
Not one word of this was true. Yet the message was chilling in its precision, the perfect threat to levy against a population still reeling from the shock of September 11. That the president of the United States deliberately used that terrible day against his own people was another accent in the symphony of lies and betrayals that led inexorably to war. Once begun, the war made its own gravy, in the form of easily manipulated “terror alerts” that kept everyone looking over their shoulders. Because of the war, many people expected a wave of retaliatory terrorism attacks to unfold any day.
That wave did not come, at least not here at home, but the invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on smoke and fiction did set part of the precedent for what we are all watching unfold in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the strongman leader who calls the Russian oligarch billionaire class his base, has also constructed an alternative reality to buttress his desire for an expanded empire. Alleging that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis — a conjuring word for the Russian people the way 9/11 is here — the Russian president has laid claim to the moral high ground within a near-seamless media bubble that has neighbor turning against “disloyal” neighbor and students turning in teachers who speak out against the war. Although of course, neo-Nazis are present in Ukraine as they are in other countries — including the U.S.! — the particular picture that Putin has painted is patently false.
With the war in Ukraine now several weeks underway, images of atrocity have flooded the networks and been splashed across front pages. U.S. officials and press pundits speak with unchecked outrage at the horrors being visited upon Ukraine’s civilian population. Of course, Putin’s horrific actions deserve all our condemnation. Remembering that day almost 20 years ago, when another aggressive invasion and occupation was underway, I am also left with an ugly and unavoidable question.
Will the pundits and officials currently condemning Putin’s unspeakable violence also condemn the U.S.’s unspeakable violence? The international community did not roundly sanction or otherwise punish the U.S. after Bush led us into that charnel house based on a tapestry of poorly weaved lies. Right down to the idea bubble that prevents people from reading and seeing the truth, Russia and the U.S. are both deeply guilty when it comes to wars of choice, and thus are both morally repugnant.
“In the wake of so-called Shock and Awe (i.e. the mass bombing of a city full of civilians), and alongside Abu Ghraib (mass torture of people being held, without trial, by an occupying force), Fallujah was the apex of brutality by the waning US empire,” journalist Dahr Jamail, who reported for Truthout for many years, told me in a recent email. “I know because I was there before, during, and after the sieges of that city.”
The corporate press is aghast at the atrocities they are witnessing across Ukraine, and rightly so. The intentional targeting of civilians, collective punishment, bombing civilian targets like apartments and train stations and hospitals: all war crimes.
Finding burned bodies with their hands tied, cluster bombs, and encircling cities and intentionally starving the people within them and cutting them off from medical help — war crimes the corporate press, and presidents of the EU and U.S. and other countries are right to call as such.
But where was this same outrage about U.S. war crimes in Iraq? Having reported from that country off and on for a decade, I can say unequivocally that the Russians have done nothing worse in Ukraine than the U.S. military did in Iraq.
The Guardian reports: “The mayor of the Ukrainian town of Bucha, near Kyiv, said that authorities had so far found 403 bodies of people they believed were killed by Russian forces during their occupation of the area, but that the number was growing.”
Dahr Jamail: “As horrible as the [total number of] dead civilians in Bucha, Ukraine is, that is at most one-tenth of the number killed in Fallujah. The numbers of dead civilians in Ukraine pale in comparison to the more than 1,000,000 Iraqis that died due to the savage U.S. occupation of that country, that continued into the Obama presidency. Where were the cries in the corporate media then for trying Bush and Obama for war crimes? The silence was deafening.”
BBC reports: “The US and Britain say they are looking into reports that chemical weapons have been used by Russian forces attacking the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Ukraine’s Azov regiment said three soldiers were injured by ‘a poisonous substance’ in an attack on Monday. However, no evidence has been presented to confirm the use of chemical weapons.”
Dahr Jamail on the Fallujah siege: “During the November siege of that year, the U.S. military used massive amounts of white phosphorous, an incendiary weapon, the use of which in an area where there could be civilians, is a violation of international law. The US military itself stated there were at least 30,000 civilians in Fallujah during that siege. I personally interviewed soldiers who were told to shoot anything that moved. This is the institution of war crimes as policy.”
It is the duty of every moral person to raise their voice against the bloodbath being perpetrated by Vladimir Putin against the people of Ukraine. Some 21 years ago, the same held true of George W. Bush and his long atrocity in Iraq. Bush proved in 2003 that you can get away with a hell of a lot if you’re a global economic powerhouse bristling with nuclear weapons.
There are no heroes among the powerful invaders. As we rightly condemn Putin’s grave atrocities, we must also remember U.S. war crimes and vow to oppose future ones.
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