morgenthau's lament

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 18 March, 2005


In late 1965, opponents of the Vietnam War in the United States were thin enough on the ground to comfortably convene in living rooms across the country.

At one particular forum, where ties and jackets were de rigour and discussion rarely strayed from polite exchanges, two men who were to become America's leading intellectual opponents of the war addressed a small gathering.

Although other speakers on the same platform claimed that the war was too costly, a strategic mistake, or could only be won with different tactics, the two academics argued that Vietnam was fundamentally wrong and immoral. At the time such an indictment seemed to nudge the limits of expressible dissent, though it was a sentiment that only a few years later would enjoy majority support in the US.

Noam Chomsky, who had founded the discipline of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would soon produce American Power and the New Mandarins, his first political book and a seminal critique of Washington's war against Vietnam. On this particular evening he delivered a sober talk backed with sources and references, facts and counter-arguments, much as he would continue to do over the next decade as audiences concerned about the war steadily grew.

Hans Morgenthau, who was a founding father of the discipline of International Relations, had by then established himself as a leading 'realist' opponent of US aggression in Indochina. His guidebook to power in the international system, Politics Among Nations, was published in 1948 and has remained in print. Morgenthau spoke off the cuff.

With common cause the two men hit it off and went out afterwards for a coffee, where Morgenthau told Chomsky that he was taking entirely the wrong approach at these meetings - in effect, wasting his time. Morgenthau suggested to his younger colleague that he should ignore the facts and arguments against US foreign policy in Vietnam, as he himself did, and just say straight out that the war was a murderous crime and that those responsible for it should face war crimes trials.

It wasn't that Morgenthau rejected the importance of countering government propaganda, a sordid and distasteful task at the best of times. But he told Chomsky that we demean ourselves and lose our humanity when we argue with people who try to deny or diminish crimes like Vietnam. On certain issues we should simply reject the presumption that a debate is even legitimate and call the war what it was - a grotesque obscenity.

Morgenthau's suspicion that facts and detail wouldn't persuade the undecided seems partially vindicated. Four decades later it is still rare to find any references in mainstream journalism and scholarship to Kennedy's "invasion" of South Vietnam in 1962, or Washington's installation of "puppet governments" in the south, or even an acknowledgement that the South (good guys) was more intensively bombed than the North (bad guys). Despite mountains of evidence freely available, no such events apparently took place.

Ignoring the 'debate' might also be good advice to those who oppose the war against Iraq, particularly if they wish to avoid sinking to the moral depths of those who planned and support it.

After all, shameless lying, disinformation, contrived amnesia and dissimulation are not always amenable to rational enquiry. Like the Vietnam war, a cursory examination of the Iraq venture reveals a consistent record of state-sponsored propaganda and dishonesty:

•the invasion and occupation of a country on a pretext subsequently revealed to be phony (WMD) is said to in no way undermine the legitimacy of the war.

•justifications for the war previously unmentioned (spreading democracy) can retrospectively legitimise an attack.

•Washington and London's support for Saddam at the peak of his crimes in the 1980s - which are now invoked to justify his removal from power - are virtually unmentionable.

•civilian casualties in Iraq are not considered a subject worthy of inquiry.

•membership of the US-led coalition in Iraq confers immunity from international law.

•far from reducing it, the war has escalated violence in the Middle East - Iraq has been turned into a locus of terrorism and violent resistance to foreign occupation.

These and other pressing issues have been repeatedly raised by critics over the last three years to little or no effect. By themselves, counterfactuals exert insufficient pressure for governments to concede their errors, let alone reverse course. Too much is at stake to show even a semblance of doubt.

No two wars are ever the same, despite historical pairings like the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication (1964) and Iraq's non-existent WMD (2003), or the installation of client regimes by Washington in both Saigon and Baghdad.

Regrettably, however, there are examples of moral failure in the conduct of the war in Iraq on a similar scale to those in Vietnam. One of the most striking is the belief by war apologists that in Iraq, the ends can justify the means. If it all turns out OK - whatever that means in this case - what we did to get there is rationalised.

The US attack on Falluja late last year is a graphic illustration of this odious 'principle' in practice. As in Vietnam, it was apparently necessary to destroy the town in order to save it - in this case with a grotesque act of collective punishment for a city charged with sheltering insurgents.

After driving many of the 250,000 - 300,000 inhabitants out of the city in early November 2004, the US military and the largely Shia-based National Guard launched a terrifying attack, killing an unknown number of civilians who stayed behind and rendering the 'city of Mosques' largely uninhabitable. According to Ali Fadhil, a local doctor who returned to the city in late December, "it was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing … I didn't see a single building that was functioning … [though] there was no sign of the 1,200 to 1,600 fighters the Americans said they had killed."

Fadhil came across people who had been shot in their beds, rabid dogs feeding on decomposing corpses in the streets, and little or no water, electricity or sewage. Firdoos al-Abadi from the Red Crescent described conditions in the city as "catastrophic." Three months after the assault began it was estimated that less than 20% of population which fled had permanently returned to their homes.

The full picture of what happened in Falluja last November is obscured by the absence of journalists and restrictions on access to the town, including curfews and ID passes issued by US Marines. Claims that most of the insurgents had abandoned the city for Mosul, Amiriya and Abu Ghraib, either before the siege or early in the fighting, are therefore difficult to verify.

However, disturbing events at Falluja General Hospital at the beginning of the attack have been confirmed by several sources. According to the New York Times, the hospital was regarded as a "propaganda weapon for militants" because the publication of civilian casualties were "inflaming opinion throughout the country."

Dr Adna Chaichan, who was working in the hospital at the time, said that at the beginning of the attack all of the doctors and medical staff were locked in the hospital and refused permission to treat anyone. The Iraqi National Guard, acting on US orders, tied their hands, made them sit on the floor, and seized their mobile and satellite phone preventing all communication with the outside world.

By any interpretation of international law, this was a war crime. Article 19 of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field is clear about obligations to protect medical facilities in a war zone:

"Fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict. Should they fall into the hands of the adverse Party, their personnel shall be free to pursue their duties, as long as the capturing Power has not itself ensured the necessary care of the wounded and sick found in such establishments and units."

The behaviour of forces laying siege to Falluja was criminal. The blockading of Falluja General Hospital is presumably one of many examples that have yet to come to light.

The reporting of most Western journalists, on the other hand, was shameful. Military spin which assured the world that civilian casualties were being kept to a minimum was routinely and uncritically accepted, despite the refusal of US Marines to count the dead and injured. Obvious comparisons between the razing of Falluja and the tragedies of Dili, Grozny or Srebrenica either never suggested themselves or were consciously suppressed. Unverified claims about insurgent body counts were accepted without demur. Video footage of the attack and its aftermath is still difficult to find.

In Australia, the Defence Minister Senator Hill escaped with an admission that Australian troops "may" have been involved in the planning and execution of the attack, but he couldn't be sure and declined to confirm either way. He wasn't pressed on the issue by the Fourth Estate, so the public does not know whether its soldiers were implicated in a war crime.

How can this reticence be explained? A supine, craven media intimidated by a government at the peak of its powers? Are we witnessing a depraved subordination to power and authority by the media as a result of the 9/11 zeitgeist where "everything has changed", including our moral standards? Do we still hold to the romantic notion that we are only ever victims of terrorism and never its perpetrators?

One thing seems clear. It is at this ethical juncture that the analogue between Vietnam and Iraq, 1965 and 2005, is most relevant. Morgenthau's lament that we demean ourselves by even debating the merits of such behaviour, remains timely.


Richard A. Oppel Jr, 'Early Target of Offensive Is A Hospital', The New York Times, 8 November, 2004.

Richard A. Oppel Jr & Robert F. Worth, 'G.I.s Open Attack To Take Falluja From Iraq Rebels', The New York Times, 8 November, 2004.

Omar Khan, 'Covering Fallujah', Z Net, 14 November, 2004.

'Australians involved in Fallujah attack', The Age, 18 November, 2004

Ali Fadhil, 'City of ghosts', The Guardian, 11 January, 2005.

Michel Bôle-Richard, 'Falluja Residents Testify to the Destruction of Their City', Le Monde, 7 February 2005.

Jackie Spinner, 'A Return to Falluja to See What Remains', Washington Post, 14 February, 2005.

Noam Chomsky, 'Imperial Presidency: Strategies to Control the Great Beast', Z Magazine, February 2005.

Hans J. Morgenthau (revised by Kenneth W. Thompson), Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (6th ed, Knopf, New York 1985; orig. 1948).

Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (New Press, New York 2002; orig. 1967).