War and Accountability

by Jonathan Schell

The Nation magazine, May 23, 2001


Few things are harder than an honest, voluntary accounting by a nation of its own crimes. When the crimes are committed by other nations, people know well how to respond. The pictures-those of, say, Serbia's recent atrocities in Kosovo shown in the Western media-are abundant. Investigations are energetic, coverage prompt. The outrage is spontaneous, and the indignation flows easily. Perhaps judicial proceedings will begin, or "humanitarian intervention" will be contemplated, accompanied by a gratifying debate on the limits of decent outsiders' moral obligations. Perhaps in time movies will be made showing and caricaturing-their evil and contrasting it with our virtue. Maybe museums of the horrors will even be founded.

But how different everything becomes when our own countrymen are the wrongdoers. Investigations move at a snail's pace perhaps they take decades, if they occur at all. Whereas before we seemed to be looking at the events through a sort of moral telescope, which brought everything near and into sharp focus, now we seem to look through the telescope's other end. The figures are small and indistinct. A kind of mental and emotional fog rolls in. Memories dim. The very acts that before inspired prompt anger now become fascinating philosophical puzzles. The psychological torments of the perpetrators move into the foreground, those of the victims into the background. The man firing the gun becomes more of an object of pity than the child at whom the gun was fired. All of these responses have been on full display in the reaction in this country to the excellent, meticulous report in the New York Times by Gregory Vistica on the killing of at least thirteen civilians in February 1969 in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong by a Navy SEAL team led by Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School University (where, I should state, I am a part-time lecturer) and formerly a senator from Nebraska and presidential candidate...

Some have suggested that the United States has anguished long enough over the Vietnam War and that it's long past time to put it behind us. The debate over Thanh Phong, however, occurs in a new context. Today, nations all over the world-South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Rwanda, to name just a few-have been struggling to come to terms with crimes committed in their recent past. In some countries, judicial proceedings are under way. In others, truth commissions, offering amnesty in exchange for full confession, have been founded. Elsewhere, lustration-laws preventing wrongdoers of the past from holding office-has been the recourse. Western countries have been liberal with their advice. "International civil society" has added its voice. Hundreds of academic conferences have been held. In still other cases, international tribunals have been created at The Hague to bring committers of crimes against humanity to justice. Special tribunals are in operation to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serbia. The United States is among many countries that have sought the extradition of the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, and others to face justice at The Hague. More important, thirty countries have ratified an agreement to establish a permanent international criminal court. Taken in their entirety, these efforts amount to a sort of movement, in the wake of the terrible violence of the twentieth century, to create a bare minimum of accountability for the worst crimes in the twenty-first.

The reactions of journalists and senators on news programs in the United States to the Thanh Phong massacre will not decide the outcome of these efforts. But if as a nation the United States- the self-styled "world's only superpower"-cannot investigate, cannot condemn, cannot assign responsibility for the killing of the women and children of Thanh Phong, then state-licensed murderers everywhere will take heart and those who are seeking to bring them to justice will be discouraged. The United States cannot condemn in others what it covers up when committed by its own. The movement forjustice will continue, but the voice of the United States will be discredited. We'll be missing in action.


Jonathan Schell is The Nation s peace and disarmament correspondent and the Harold Willens Peace fellow at the Nation Institute.

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