Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The U.S. Military in Iraq: Were Human Rights Ignored?

Philip Alston, a United Nations human rights official, warned the U.S. Government in 2006 that he had received information indicating that Iraqi reports of American troops executing an Iraqi family were true. Five of the victims were children five years old or younger. According to Alston, the troops “entered the house [after a 25 minute gun battle], handcuffed all residents and executed all of them.” He noted that the troops attacked the house in part because they suspected that the family was involved in the killing of two American troops earlier in March, 2006. If this is true, both the vengeful attack and the subsequent investigation by the U.S. military, which concluded that the report of the execution was false, demonstrate what can go wrong when conflicts of interest are ignored.

In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke writes that government is necessary because victims cannot be trusted to act as judges in meting out sentences in their own cases. At the very least, the aggressors could be expected to receive unduly harsh punishments because of the weight of vengeance on the victims’ judgment. So too, American troops cannot be trusted to take matters into their own hands concerning the shooting of other American troops. Moreover, the U.S. military cannot be expected to judge its own. So too, regarding the massacre of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli on June 29, 1996, which would prompt the protests that ultimately led to the fall of Qaddafi, the question of an independent investigation even by the rebels themselves should involve making certain that the ex-guards and government officials are not allowed to vitiate an investigation or its verdict. “We want a fair investigation to discover what exactly happened,” Jamal Bashir al-Gorgi said. His brother Faraj was killed. It is the ethical principle of fairness that is so easily discarded from justice when the victims become the victimizers.

Besides the matter of a military, whether African or American, “taking care of its own,” there is a danger, moreover, in having violence itself coming to be tacitly accepted simply because vested interests eviscerate accountability—which itself can foster a culture wherein spontaneous violence is not sufficiently held back from a normative standpoint. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it could be that the world had become so accustomed to the continued existence of standing armies that violence itself had come to be expected, or at the very least engrained in societal norms. Hence, the U.S. military was thrust into Iraq as a clumsy reaction of vengeance after the terrorist attack in New York City in September, 2001. Incredibly, the military itself was trusted to investigate “its own” while Alston’s letter that was submitted to the U.S. Embassy in Geneva 12 days after the killings in March 2006 was virtually ignored.

It could be that the very existence of a standing army relegates human rights while potential vengeance is given a ready instrument. Indeed, the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the American union is one of the most militarized alliances in the world—ready to be engaged by a commander in chief who can de facto declare war on his own in spite of the conflict of interest. Perhaps if human rights were more valued in American society, such large standing armies as those in the U.S. would not be necessary. That is to say, perhaps there would be less hatred around the world directed at the American union.


Richard Oppel, Jr., “Cable Implicates Americans in Deaths of Iraqi Civilians,” New York Times, September 2, 2011. 

Kareem Fahim, “Rebels Yank Open Gates of Infamous Libyan Prison, Seeking Clues to a Massacre,” New York Times, September 2, 2011.