‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, Gina Haspel and now, John Bolton!



"War may make a fool of man, but it by no means degrades him; on the contrary, it tends to exalt him, and its net effects are much like those of motherhood on women."– H. L. Mencken, Minority Report, 1956.

Selvam Canagaratna

One has come to expect the unexpected from Tom Engelhardt at his TomDispatch website. In introducing Rebecca Gordon’s latest offering, Tom notes – tongue-in-cheek, of course – "a lack of balance" in reporting on the recent appointment of, yes, none other than John Bolton!

"You can search in vain for any outlets (other than Fox News) giving President Trump the slightest credit for what he did, which was no mean trick. After all, short of bringing former Vice President Dick Cheney out of ʽretirement’ and making him Secretary of Defense, it’s hard to think of a single former official of the George W. Bush administration who would still so vehemently defend the absolute brilliance of the invasion of Iraq and of ‘preemptive war’."

And on that score, Tom admitted, "Bolton is as close to the last man standing as you’re likely to find and since, in his eagerness for that 2003 invasion (and his willingness to back intelligence information, no matter how false, promoting it), he was also one of the first men standing, which means he is indeed a unique candidate for the National Security Adviser’s job!"

And so, on to Rebecca Gordon, who began with a somewhat subdued blast: "A barely noticed anniversary slid by on March 20th. It’s been 15 years since the United States committed the greatest war crime of the 21st Century: the unprovoked, aggressive invasion of Iraq," she noted, then added: "The New York Times, which didn’t exactly cover itself in glory in the run-up to that invasion, recently ran an op-ed by an Iraqi novelist living in the United States titled Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country, but that was about it."

Gordon also noted in passing that The Washington Post, another publication that had repeatedly editorialized in favour of the invasion, had mrked the anniversary with a story about the war’s "murky" body count. Its piece concluded that at least 600,000 people died in the decade and a half of war, civil war, and chaos that followed."

But 15 years on, she noted, there seemed to be a significant consensus back in the US that the Iraq invasion was either a ʻterrible mistakeʼ, or a ʻtragic errorʼ, or even the ʻsingle worst foreign policy decision in American historyʼ. But fewer voices, in Gordonʼs considered view, were saying what it really was: A WAR CRIME! In fact, she noted, that ʻinvasionʼ fell into the very category that led the list of crimes at the Nuremberg tribunal, where high Nazi officials were tried for their actions during World War II.

But wasn’t all that a long time ago?

Indeed, Rebecca recalled author Gore Vidal saying that fifteen years was an eternity in what he termed "the United States of Amnesia." So why resurrect the ancient history of George W. Bush in the brave new age of Donald Trump? she asked, and replied the answer was simple enough: because the Trump administration was already happily recycling some of those Bush-era war crimes along with some of the criminals who committed them. And its top officials, military and civilian, were already threatening to generate new ‘war crimes’ of their own!

Last July, the State Department closed the office that, since the Clinton administration, had assisted war crimes victims seeking justice in other countries. Apparently, the Trump administration sees no reason to do anything to limit the impunity of war criminals, whoever they might be.

Indeed, Secretary of Defense James ("Mad Dog") Mattis has said that the President has the right to lock up anyone identified as a "combatant" in our forever wars, well, forever.

Mattis already has plenty of blood on his hands, wrote Gordon: that "Mad Dog" sobriquet was earned while commanding the US Marines who twice in 2004 laid siege to Fallujah when American forces sealed that Iraqi city off, attacked marked ambulances and aid workers, shot women, children, and an ambulance driver, killed almost 6,000 civilians outright, displaced 200,000 more, and destroyed 75% of the city with bombs and other munitions. The civilian toll was vastly disproportionate to any possible military objective – itself the definition of a war crime.

One of the uglier aspects of that battle was the use of white phosphorus, an incendiary munition. Phosphorus ignites spontaneously when exposed to air. If bits of that substance attach to human beings, as long as there’s oxygen to combine with the phosphorus, skin and flesh burn away, sometimes right into the bone. Use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon is forbidden under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the US has signed.

In Iraq, Mattis also ensured that charges would be dropped against soldiers responsible for murdering civilians in the city of Haditha. In a well-documented 2005 massacre – a reprisal for a roadside bomb – American soldiers shot 24 unarmed men, women, and children at close range. As the convening authority for the subsequent judicial hearing, Mattis dismissed the murder charges against all the accused soldiers.

Mattis is hardly the only slightly used war criminal in the Trump administration. As most people know, the President has just nominated Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to head the Agency. "There are times when women might want to celebrate the shattering of a glass ceiling, but this shouldn’t be one of them" wrote Gordon.

Haspel was responsible for running a CIA black site in Thailand during the Bush years when the Agency’s torture program was operating at full throttle. She was in charge when the CIA tortured Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was waterboarded at least three times and, noted the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture report, "interrogated using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques."

Haspel was also part of the chain of command that ordered the destruction of videotapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah (waterboarded a staggering 83 times!). According to the PBS show Frontline, she drafted the cable that CIA counterterrorism chief José Rodríguez sent out to make sure those tapes disappeared.

And Trump’s nominee to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State is CIA Director Mike Pompeo, well-known for his antipathy to Muslims (and to Iran).

Pompeo is as eager as Trump to restore torture’s good name and legality, although his public pronouncements have sometimes been more circumspect than the President’s. But as Britain’s Independent reported, Pompeo wrote that he would back reviewing the ban on waterboarding if prohibiting the technique was shown to impede the "gathering of vital intelligence."

Still, of all Trump’s recycled appointments, the most dangerous of all took place only recently. The President fired his National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and replaced him with John Bolton of Iran-Contra and Iraq invasion fame.

And then there’s always the chance – the odds have distinctly risen since the appointments of two raging Iranophobes, Pompeo and Bolton, to key national security positions – that Trump will start his very own unprovoked war of aggression. "I’m good at war," Trump told an Iowa rally in 2015. "I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war in a certain way, but only when we win." With Mike Pompeo whispering in one ear and John Bolton in the other, it’s frighteningly likely Trump will soon commit his very own war crime by starting an aggressive war against Iran.

No better way to close this commentary than by noting that Engelhardt immersed himself in the thrill of imagining what could possibly come next, only to remind Ameicans "of what a thoroughly stellar crew we’ve had running our ship of state, our own Titanic, for much of the time since . . ." – in the words of Rebecca Gordon herself – "the United States committed the greatest war crime of the 21st Century."



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