04 April 2016

American Nuremberg

It's been hard to avoid writing about politics this election year. Almost everything about this presidential election is hideous. 

What this book does, however, is remind us of why elections matter. A lot. My opinion, which may or may not be shared by the author, is that Bernie Sanders is the candidate least likely to continue the decisions that were made after September 11, 2001. You may have a different opinion, which is fine. But please, be informed.

American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War CrimesAmerican Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes by Rebecca Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No matter how closely you have followed the political, military, and attitudinal fallout after September 11, 2001, you have never read such a concise, analytical, closely-sourced, and cogent overview as this. In clean, spare, unemotional prose, Rebecca Gordon examines how the stage for the Iraq war was set long before that catastrophe, as right-wing strategists plotted the demise of Saddam Hussein, admittedly a tyrant and a bully, in order to realign the Middle East in our favor - and Israel's. She traces how 9/11 changed how the United States justified and waged war, captured and tortured prisoners, lied and obfuscated in international forums, and misjudged how the war would change the dynamics of the Middle East, leaving no doubt about the way the war paved the way for the ongoing brutality of ISIS and the continued suffering of the civilians in its path.

Before examining 9/11, however, Gordon examines the history, philosophies, and history of war crimes, including details about the Nuremberg Trials that may be new to the reader, and may have foreshadowed how the United States would proceed. Early on, for example, both Churchill and FDR wanted to execute the accused without trials; Stalin insisted on trials to establish the legitimacy of the executions. Questions were raised about whether Allied countries that had used fire bombs and atomic bombs on civilians had the moral standing to judge Germany. And the United States fretted about alienating Germany, which was seen as an ally against communism and the USSR. The trials were held, but with unusual rules of evidence and procedure that may have been foreshadowings of how the United States would capture, judge, and indefinitely imprison "enemy combatants."

Gordon argues that rules of evidence, reasons for just war, treatment of prisoners, and the definition of torture slid neatly under George Bush's "new paradigm" after the horrors of 9/11. Our own laws (such as the War Crimes Act of 1996) were ignored, as was our signature on many of the Geneva Conventions (which are defined and explored thoroughly). How else could 180 prisoners suffocate in a shipping container on their way to a camp headed by United States Special Forces? Why would the head of the CIA be upset to hear that a White House spokesman had said that detainees were being treated humanely? How could we justify having prisoners sent to countries where they were raped, or using white phosphorus on civilians and combatants alike? Why has the United States refused to sign the portion of the Conventions that protects civilian medical personnel in armed conflicts?

Some of the details of how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been waged (closely sourced, with authoritative, comprehensive footnotes and bibliographical references) that Gordon relates go beyond venal and sordid, beyond the horrors that any war creates. The actions and speeches reflect a widespread and disproportionate catastrophe, one that continues with every fleeing refugee and barbaric ISIS attack.

So what can we do, Gordon asks? Clearly, the officials and strategists, named and charted with great specificity, will never be tried as war criminals. The government of the United States does not even recognize the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Even more damning is her well-documented conclusion: "In the name of security, we have been terrorized by our own government... into giving up not only our own freedoms but our fundamental sense of human empathy."

That lack of empathy is the key to what we can do, says Gordon. We might take our cue from the government of South Africa, which created the Truth and Reconciliation process to acknowledge, with openness and truth, what had been done during the dreadful years of apartheid. Perhaps such an assembly could be convened here. Truth is what the United States owes to all of the victims of the wars in Iraq and its sequelae. In an ideal world, she says, we would end our use of torture, implement United Nations and Geneva Conventions, hold accountable the architects, and join the other 124 countries who are parties to the ICC. Working towards these goals would constitute the beginning of a true American Nuremberg.

This is a powerful book.

I received an advance copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair review.

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