Images of a U.S. marine killing an unarmed wounded prisoner during the recent battle for Falluja resulted in widespread shock, leading the Pentagon to withdraw the soldier from battle and launch an investigation. However, the issue--similar to Abu Ghraib--has served as a smokescreen, diverting attention from much larger atrocities and the very nature of war.
No doubt many U.S. soldiers took care in Falluja--as elsewhere in Iraq--to respect international humanitarian law and avoid injuring civilians. But as throughout the U.S. invasion and the ongoing conflict, war crimes and civilian casualties were frequent and often systematic, rather than rare and exceptional.
In breach of the Geneva Conventions, for example, U.S. troops refused to allow males of "military-age" (16 to 55)--defining them all as potential enemy combatants--to flee Falluja. Given the heavy American bombardment of the city, one wonders how many of these men are among the estimated 1,200 to 1,600 categorized by U.S. authorities as dead insurgents.
American military commanders first stated there was no evidence of civilian casualties in Falluja. Now, the Pentagon has accepted responsibility and offered compensation for the death of a family of seven, including a three-month-old baby. Yet it still only admits to having killed a few.
Press accounts, however, described Fallujas streets as littered with corpses. One high-level International Committee of the Red Cross official in Iraq estimated in mid-November that there were "at least 800 civilians" among the dead. More recently, the Iraqi Red Crescent estimated that more than 6,000 people may have died in the battle.
Eyewitness and survivor reports make clear that U.S. forces were responsible--often deliberately--for most of the victims.
At least five fatalities were patients at a Falluja clinic bombed by U.S. forces--despite promising that they would spare the facility. A clinic doctor stated that American snipers killed many civilians, the youngest a four-year-old boy. An Associated Press photographer described U.S. helicopters shooting people trying to ford a river to safety. Among those slain was a family of five.
Similar to the free-fire zones of Vietnam, U.S. forces in Falluja had instructions that they could shoot anyone under the assumption that those left in the city were hostile. As a teacher who witnessed two civilians shot and killed by American troops told the Independent of London, "The only way to stay alive was to stay inside and hope your house did not get hit by a shell."
Given such rules of engagement and what war does to those who wage it, it would be foolhardy to see the execution of the wounded prisoner as an isolated occurrence. Indeed, some of the fellow marines of the soldier who pulled the trigger openly support his actions: "I would have shot the insurgent too. Two shots to the head," stated one. "You can't trust these people."
Such callousness combined with deadly firepower have led to an Iraqi death toll of horrific proportions. An October article in Britain's most respected medical journal, The Lancet, estimated 100,000 Iraqis had died due to war-related violence, mostly from aerial bombings. Over two-thirds of the fatalities have been women, children or elderly--non-combatants, in other words.
The Geneva Conventions require occupying militaries to protect civilians from violence and prohibit the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate force. As the death toll in Falluja and throughout Iraq shows, the Pentagon has failed to comply. When such transgressions are isolated, they are war crimes. When they are systematic, they constitute crimes against humanity.
From Vietnam to Nicaragua to Washington's ongoing efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court, American political and military leaders have long insulated themselves from accountability for their illegal behavior overseas. The resulting culture of impunity permitted the Bush administration to launch its illegal invasion of Iraq and has allowed the Pentagon to commit atrocities with little fear of punishment.
Failure to combat official crimes has exacted high costs--at home and especially abroad--and will continue to do so barring far-reaching change. Because Congress is unwilling to hold accountable high-level officials for war-related crimes, it is the American public's political and moral responsibility to reign in Washington. By acting upon this responsibility, a mobilized citizenry can help end the Iraq debacle and lessen the likelihood that U.S. soldiers are even in a position to commit future atrocities.
Joseph Nevins is an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College. Cornell University Press will release his latest book, A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor, in early 2005.