Writing in the Rocky Mountain News on Tuesday, Paul Campos debunked a rhetorical device frequently invoked to mitigate atrocities committed by the U.S. military.[1]  --  It's the opposite of blaming the victim; you might call it praising the perpetrator.  --  The trope was expressed recently by Peter Beinart of the New Republic in these terms:  "[W]hat makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of [the fact that we can be barbaric]. . . . [W]e are capable of Hadithas and My Lais. . . . [but we are] capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again."  --  Campos comments:  "What's disturbing about this claim is that illustrates how a person in a position of considerable public influence can simply concoct an imaginary past to suit the propaganda needs of the present war."  --  The historical record refutes Beinart's claim, Campos writes.  --  In the case of My Lai, "with one exception, none of the many soldiers and officers responsible for committing and covering up this mass murder were ever convicted of anything.  The one exception, Lt. William Calley, was pardoned by President Nixon after spending three years under house arrest."  --  No charges were ever brought relating to the hundreds of killings committed by the Tiger Force platoon in 1967.  --  In general, it is simply not the case that "we" are vigilant with respect to atrocities.  --  "All wars are terrible," Campos wrote, "but guerrilla wars in particular practically guarantee that, as in Vietnam, atrocities against civilians will become commonplace; that most such incidents will never be investigated; and that those that are investigated will rarely lead to punishment."  --  The expression of such absurdities by the New Republic is itself a disturbing development:  "That right-wing ideologues peddle jingoistic nonsense about American exceptionalism is only to be expected.  That the editor of a prominent liberal magazine should do so as well helps explain how we've managed to entangle our troops in yet another nightmarish guerrilla war." ...

1.

Opinion

Columnists

ROSE-COLORED VIEW OF HISTORY
By Paul Campos

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
June 6, 2006

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/opinion_columnists/article/0,2777,DRMN_23972_4752433,00.html

This column was originally going to be about a couple of law professor-pundits, Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Reynolds, who specialize in defending the Bush administration. My learned colleagues are now busy claiming that the supposed "media frenzy" regarding the apparent massacre of civilians in Haditha, Iraq, is a product of liberal bias, rather than of a sense of professional obligation to report a major news story.

But in the end it's not very interesting to point out that Bush administration dead-enders are willing to defend anything it does. (Hewitt in particular seems past praying for: If President Bush came out in favor of compulsory late-term abortions for the wives of NASCAR drivers, I wouldn't be surprised if Hewitt found something to praise in the proposal).

What's more interesting are the following comments from Peter Beinart, editor in chief of the *New Republic*. After noting that Americans can be as barbaric as anyone, Beinart argues that "what makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact." While it's true "we are capable of Hadithas and My Lais," America is nevertheless almost unique among nations because, when we confront such atrocities, we are "capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again."

What's disturbing about this claim is that illustrates how a person in a position of considerable public influence can simply concoct an imaginary past to suit the propaganda needs of the present war.

Consider three of the best-known atrocities committed by American troops during the Vietnam War. (I say best-known rather than well-known, since the vast majority of Americans have only heard of one of them at most. So much for our supposed national willingness to "acknowledge what happened.")

My Lai. Remarkably, Beinart invokes this massacre of between 200 and 500 Vietnamese villagers by American troops as an example of "bringing killers to justice." In fact, with one exception, none of the many soldiers and officers responsible for committing and covering up this mass murder were ever convicted of anything. The one exception, Lt. William Calley, was pardoned by President Nixon after spending three years under house arrest.

Tiger Force. For several months in 1967, a platoon of elite soldiers known as Tiger Force went on a frenzied killing spree, during which its members murdered hundreds of civilians, and engaged in such barbarities as wearing necklaces made out of human ears. A four-year investigation of the unit by the Army was suddenly called off, reportedly at the highest levels, in November 1975 -- the same month in which Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense and Dick Cheney was named President Ford's chief of staff. Despite overwhelming evidence, no charges were ever brought in the matter.

Thanh Phong. In 1969, 13 villagers were killed in the village of Thanh Phong, during an operation led by Lt. Bob Kerrey, who would eventually become a Medal of Honor winner, a U.S. senator, and a presidential candidate. There is some evidence that suggests the villagers were massacred by Kerrey's SEAL team. If the Thanh Phong incident was ever investigated by the military, I could find no evidence of it.

All wars are terrible, but guerrilla wars in particular practically guarantee that, as in Vietnam, atrocities against civilians will become commonplace; that most such incidents will never be investigated; and that those that are investigated will rarely lead to punishment.

Indeed, the only reason we know about My Lai, Tiger Force, Thanh Phong, and now Haditha, is that in each case unusually dedicated journalists refused to accept the official version of these events, which almost without exception absolved American troops of any wrongdoing.

That right-wing ideologues peddle jingoistic nonsense about American exceptionalism is only to be expected. That the editor of a prominent liberal magazine should do so as well helps explain how we've managed to entangle our troops in yet another nightmarish guerrilla war.

--Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

ABOUT PAUL CAMPOS

A native of Colorado, Paul Campos practiced law in Chicago before returning to his home state in 1990 to join the law faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has written extensively on the role of law in American society.  His most recent book is The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health.  Since March of 1999 he has written a weekly column for the Rocky Mountain News.