The Audacity of Samantha Power
One can only marvel at the audacity of Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the UN, whose statement on the abhorrent humanitarian situation in Aleppo immediately went viral. Speaking directly to the general assembly, Ms. Power strongly chastised the complicity of Russia and Iran in the “carnage of Aleppo”. Along with the Assad Regime, they “bear responsibility for these atrocities” that “will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil.” She goes on to demand (and this was the part Facebook went nuts for), “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism, no execution of children that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about to justify?”
The most perceptive response to Ms. Power’s statements was the words of Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who told her to “remember [her] own country’s track record” before she started “opining from the position of any moral supremacy.” Churkin remarked it was “strange that the United States’ representative had delivered a statement like Mother Theresa, given that country’s political position…”
Mr. Churkin did not elaborate further, but I will. Our own track record in barbarism and carnage is not exactly one to be proud of, and is far too extensive for close examination in a blog article. There are two particular instances, however, which unquestionably hold a place in "the ranks of those events in world history which define modern evil." As you read about them, please keep Ms. Power's words fresh in your mind.
I. THE SECRET WAR IN LAOS
In the mood for a light bedtime story which, according to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, “no American should be able to read without weeping at his country’s arrogance”? Check out Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War by Fred Branfman, originally published in 1972. Mr. Branfman, an American, went to Laos to avoid the draft and become a teacher. What he found were thousands of Laotian civilians fleeing Northern Laos, whose gruesome stories of being targeted by American bombers were compiled by Mr. Branfman into an anthology. “I felt as if I had discovered the truth about Auschwitz and Buchenwald while the killing was still going on,” he said. Voices is the result of Mr. Branfman’s work.
One after another, residents recounted horrifying stories of American warplanes mercilessly decimating their homes and livelihood, the extent of which is hardly conceivable. Using the most exotic-lethal military toys of the day (napalm, cluster bombs, white phosphorous, flechette anti-personnel bombs), the US flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, which equates to one bombing missions every eight minutes around the clock for nine years straight. “There wasn’t a night when we thought we’d live until morning,” described one refugee. “Did our children cry? Oh yes, and we did also. I just stayed in my cave. I didn’t see the sunlight for two years. What did I think about? Oh, I used to repeat, ‘Please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come, please don’t let the planes come.’”
Why, you might ask, did US planners order an air campaign that indiscriminately murdered thousands of innocent people and made Laos “one of the most heavily bombed places on earth”? Your questioning is shared by the refugees who asked Branfman, “with genuine curiosity,” why they were being bombed. Branfman himself was haunted by this question, wondering “if innocent, kind, gentle Lao people could be slaughtered this way, who among us was safe?” The answers he uncovered are almost as horrifying as the bombings themselves.
The President and top Executive Branch officials had ordered Laos to be destroyed without even notifying Congress (hence the term “Secret War”). The mission was supposedly to provide close air support to Royal Laotian Government forces fighting Communist rebels, but in practice the air strikes were obviously quite different. Branfman devoted a significant portion of his time to examining the documentary record and speaking with actual Air Force personnel on the ground. Former Captain Jerry Brown, who had selected targets out of the US embassy in Vientiane, made it clear in a series of interviews with Branfman that the CIA, State Department, and Air Force were fully aware civilian targets were being bombed. Pilots actually flying missions were against them because “they knew their leaders were lying when they were denying bombing Laos.” When President Johnson called a bombing halt over North Vietnam in 1968, he simply diverted those planes to continue their hard work in Laos and join in the already incomprehensible massacre of helpless peasants. There was, of course, no military reason for doing so. Indeed, US Deputy Mission Chief Monteagle Stearns testified before Congress in 1969 (when they were finally aware of what was happening), “Well, we had all these planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.”
Today, millions of unexploded bombs are still buried in the Laotian soil, waiting to maim or kill the next inquisitive child unfortunate enough to pick one of them up. 8,000 people have been killed by cluster bombs, with a further 12,000 injured since the end of the bombing campaign in 1973. “This country, every time I come here, blows my mind,” comments Tim Lardner, formerly a British Army ordnance disposal officer who experience in Afghanistan, Colombia, Mozambique, and Angola. “The scale of the contamination is horrendous. In terms of the amount still in the ground, Laos is worse than any other country I’ve seen.”
II. INDONESIAN INVASION OF EAST TIMOR
In December 1975, the Indonesian government launched an invasion of the newly independent nation of East Timor kicking off twenty-four years of horrifyingly brutal atrocities. Jakarta had been eyeing a takeover of the region ever since Portuguese colonists retreated in 1974, fearing that an independent East Timor would “be used as a base by unfriendly governments or spur other secessionist movements in Indonesia.” In December 1975, Indonesia launched a full scale invasion of East Timor and made quick work of local military forces representing the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN).
Life in East Timor under Indonesian occupation became the subject of a 2,500 page report published by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR), an extensive documentation of the atrocities. With regard to civilian casualties, the report estimates that from 1974-1999, “the lowest number possible of conflict related deaths…is 102,800,” and could have been as high as 183,000. Amnesty International’s estimate of 200,000 is even higher. Approximately 20% of that number is attributable to murders and disappearances, with the remainder “due to hunger and illness in excess of what would be expected” during peacetime. The report surmises that Indonesian security forces “consciously decided to use starvation of East Timorese civilians as a weapon of war,” and that “the intentional imposition of conditions of life which could not sustain tens of thousands of East Timorses civilians amounted to extermination as a crime against humanity committed against the East Timorese population.” The report goes on to discuss direct atrocities by Indonesian forces, finding that “rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence were tools used as part of the campaign designed to inflict a deep experience of terror, powerlessness and hopelessness upon pro-independence supporters.” Public beheadings, genital mutilation, and thousands of summary executions were a few of the many horrors endured by East Timorese civilians at the hands of occupying forces. There should be no confusion that “the violations were committed in execution of a systematic plan approved, conducted and controlled by Indonesian military commanders at the highest level.”
American support of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor was at least equal to, if not greater than, Moscow’s backing of the Assad regime in Syria. The CAVR report identifies US political and military support as “fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation.” Suharto’s army benefitted from $1.1 billion in American weaponry over the course of the occupation, a contribution which “was crucial to Indonesia’s capacity to intensify military operations…in its massive campaign to destroy the Resistance.” Declassified State Department documents, required reading for anyone who wishes to further understand America’s role in the slaughter of East Timorese civilians, also reveal as much.
The day before Indonesia attacked East Timor, President Ford and Secretary Henry Kissinger stopped in Jakarta on their way home from China to meet with Presdient Suharto. In the meeting, President Ford expressed in no uncertain terms that the US would support Indonesia’s aggression, remarking that, “We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problems you have and the intentions you have.” These were the words Suharto had been waiting for, and it’s no coincidence the invasion was launched the next day. In fact, he was instructed to wait by Secretary Kissinger until the President had returned to America before taking any action. During that same meeting in Jakarta, Kissinger voiced some concern about the use of US-made weapons by the Indonesians, remarking that “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation.” Obviously his priority was spinning the best public relations story on Indonesian use of American weapons, rather than exactly what the weapons would be used for. As long as he avoided creating “a climate that discourages investment,” Suharto’s invasion had the full blessing of the United States. This stands in stark contrast to Kissinger’s public remarks, where he denied the President and Mr. Suharto even discussed East Timor.
A transcript of Secretary Kissinger’s staff meeting on June 17, 1976, reveals a great deal about attitudes within the State Department six months after the invasion. Initially Congress had mandated that State conduct an “administrative review” to determine for what purpose the Indonesians would be using American weapons before continuing military sales. This was born out of concern about US arms being used to commit atrocities, something which Kissinger had already anticipated. At the time of this particular meeting in June, the review had been conducted (while military equipment still flowed to Indonesia) and Congressional sentiment towards Indonesia had subsided. At the meeting, State Department official Philip Habib remarked to Secretary Kissinger that the US should continue to let Indonesia “do what they’ve been doing. We have no objection. We’ve not objected in UN Security Council debates. They’re quite happy with the position we’ve taken. We’ve resumed, as you know, all of our normal relations with them; and there isn’t any problem involved.” Habib, in no uncertain terms, is referring to the “problem” caused by Congress wanting to investigate the uses of American weapons by the Indonesians. He cautions that any high profile diplomatic involvement with Indonesia could “reopen the question of whether the Indonesians are acceptable.”
The US did indeed abstain from all UN Security Council Resolutions condemning the Indonesian invasion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as our ambassador from June 1975 until February 1976, explains why in his memoirs. “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about,” he says. “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” Later he said that he defended a “shameless” policy in East Timor.
Shameless indeed. I wonder what Samantha Power would have to say about it?
BONUS: Check out this intensely awkward debate between Marilyn Manson on Bill O'Reilly of Fox News