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The rehabilitation of the American war criminal

While the United States rallies an international response against the brutal war crimes Russia has committed during the war in Ukraine, it may finally be time for Americans to reflect upon our own history of wrongdoing. Russia should be punished for their atrocities, but the U.S. should not turn a blind eye to its own record of bloody misdeeds. 

In an official context, a war crime is defined by the United Nations as a grave breach of the conditions laid out at the Geneva Conventions and specifically during the 1949 convention following the tragic results of World War II. The UN claims that war crimes range from willful killing, torture and biological experiments on captives to extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure and other forms of unjustifiable savagery. 

We have seen these acts take place throughout American history. America has a habit of forgiving domestic war criminals, sweeping their terrible actions under the rug, or even celebrating them as heroes. The most infamous examples of these rehabilitated American war criminals are former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and former President George W. Bush. 

Kissinger’s list of crimes is long. He convinced former President Richard Nixon to neglect peace talks during the Vietnam War in favor of expanding the war into Laos and Cambodia as well as advocating for the bombing of anything that moves. In 1971, he backed Pakistan in its war against Bangladesh despite evidence of massacre and rape. In 1973, he orchestrated a military coup against the democratically elected Allende regime of Chile, replacing it with the violently oppressive Pinochet dictatorship. In 1973, Kissinger said one of his most famous quotes during the Watergate scandal and his nomination to Secretary of State.

“The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.” 

Kissinger’s friend George W. Bush was not any better. Bush is responsible for torture and death on a mass scale. Bush, along with former Vice President Dick Cheney and their crony former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, orchestrated the Iraqi invasion that resulted in the civilian deaths and destruction, all to remove weapons that did not actually exist. They also allowed the proliferation of torture at offshore military sites such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. 

When high-ranking officials like Rumsfeld were notified about these abuses of power, they did nothing. When Bush was subsequently notified of these officials’ failures, he kept them around. These abuses did not occur on American shores and did not target American citizens, so many Americans can pretend they never happened. 

Today, Kissinger sells millions of books, writes articles for major magazines and newspapers, gives talks at Ivy League universities and is celebrated by many as a foreign policy genius. Bush is now an aspiring painter who sells his collections, teaches a course on Masterclass, frequents talk shows and is good buddies with Michelle Obama and Ellen Degeneres. Bush is now viewed as an elder statesman; the guiding hand amongst a rotting Republican party. 

Aside from high-ranking politicians and officials, American amnesia has been extended to individual soldiers. War crimes committed by some criminal military personnel over the last few decades in the Philippines, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea remain unpunished. Former President Donald Trump even pardoned four Blackwater security officers for slaughtering 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. 

This method of selective remembrance and forgiveness is harmful; we need to recognize the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as former President Barack Obama has done, while also realizing that war crimes are not a thing of the past. U.S. drone strikes still kill large numbers of civilians annually and military drills have caused many deaths. America still continues to support criminal nations such as the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia

As a nation, we need to learn from our mistakes and practice what we preach. Congress and our criminal justice system cannot let war crimes and those who conducted them remain unprosecuted, while we citizens need to stop giving them a free pass. After all, how can we condemn Russia when we can’t even be honest with ourselves? How can America be a protector when it is an instigator? 

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