The concluding sentence of Roy Medvedev’s superb account of Russia during the Stalin years reads:
When the cult of Stalin’s personality was exposed [in the XXth and XXIInd Congresses in 1956 and 1961 respectively] a great step was made to recovery.1
It’s a vital point, similar to that made by the incredible truth and reconciliation commission event that followed the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and that point is this: before any society can really advance it must recognise and admit to itself the mistakes and crimes perpetrated by its own trusted leaders. Or, as Rosa Luxemburg once put it:
Self-criticism – ruthless, harsh self-criticism, which gets down to the root of things – that is the life-giving light and air of the proletarian movement.2
Yet self-criticism of our own governments is almost impossible. Infinitely more effective than state censorship – which can restrict criticism – is self-censorship, and that’s pretty much what we have: a society which is incapable of seriously challenging those in power, let alone calling them to account for any wrongdoing – not through any state-imposed censorship, but through creating a culture that’s utterly brainwashed into believing the perfection of their constitution and therefore refusing to even imagine its very considerable imperfections. Whilst we do not have the domestic death squads and concentration camps of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia to enforce domestic obedience, we still have loyal populations that are almost as effectively programmed to believe the perfections of their state leaders and their institutions as many Germans and Russians were during the Hitler and Stalin years.
In Britain, for example, in 2015 when the leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett was provocatively questioned about the Party’s well-known opposition to monarchy she remarked,
I can’t see that the Queen is ever going to be really poor, but I’m sure we can find a council house for her — we’re going to build lots more.
This obviously whimsical comment, although factually reasonable, provoked the following headline in The Independent: ‘We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,’ say Greens
Similar sensationalist headlines led in almost every newspaper and TV news broadcast. Green Party membership, which had been surging until that moment, immediately fell off a cliff. I was a membership secretary for our local Green Party branch at the time and had been signing up new members at the rate of about two a week. New memberships not only stopped completely, but some who had just joined us immediately cancelled their memberships. And this from people who would see themselves as progressives. No need to guess how Tory voters, who comprise most voters, reacted to Bennett’s quip. Such is the level of brainwashing in a supposedly democratic country about the perfection of the British monarchy, and its unchallengeable position as unelected head of state.
But it’s not just Britain that has to endure a majority of brainwashed citizens. I remember seeing a TV documentary about the time of the illegal Iraq War in 2003. The programme was about heroic US marines bravely defending western freedom, by helping to kill defenseless Iraqi civilians. Some of the heroes were interviewed about the hard time they were having, and the one that will forever stick in my mind implied that no amount of personal suffering was too great for him. “I would slit my own throat for my president”, he said. So Iraqi civilians didn’t have much chance.
The marine’s remark reminded me of a quote in Medvedev’s book, showing the similarity between modern US citizens and the brainwashed Russians of Stalin’s day:
Just as [religious] believers attribute everything good to god and everything bad to the devil, so everything good was attributed to Stalin and everything bad to evil forces that Stalin himself was [supposedly] fighting. “Long live Stalin!” some officials shouted as they were taken to be shot.3
When, very occasionally, some of the major crimes of our great trusted leaders are brought to our attention, there is never any clamouring for justice, no national outrage that the public’s trust could be so cheaply squandered. Whilst some newspapers might print a subdued story or two, located somewhere towards the bottom of page thirty nine, and whilst national TV stations may record a few words tucked away deeply buried somewhere on their websites, in the sacred name of “balance”, the real gravity of the misdeeds of our trusted leaders are otherwise routinely ignored, and the revelations are quickly lost in the usual myriad of trivial distractions.
For example, when, after many years and thirteen million pounds of treasure, the Chilcot Report was eventually published, effectively providing sufficient evidence for Tony Blair and other establishment leaders to be indicted for war crimes, no such calls from our trusted leaders were heard – just a deafening silence, followed almost immediately by business as usual. But those who dare to provide the evidence of our rulers’ misdeeds are quickly and viciously victimized – as any whistleblower could easily confirm; with the better-known of whom, such as Daniel Ellsberg, Mordechai Vanunu, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Ed Snowden standing as fine examples of the terrible consequences of speaking the truth about power. This is how Rosa Luxemburg’s ruthless self-criticism is rendered impossible in our “free” societies where official censorship doesn’t exist, but where official “news” isn’t worth censoring.
One of the holiest cows of the establishment, the institution which, almost above any other, will not tolerate any form of criticism, are our so-called “defence” forces. The word “hero” has been re-defined to mean absolutely anyone wearing a military uniform. TV commercials encouraging young people to join the armed forces appear almost every night. TV programmes depicting the military as brave heroes resisting overwhelming odds in the sacred name of freedom and democracy appear almost every night. Every year people adorn themselves in little plastic poppies and stand in silence for two minutes on the 11th November, not so much to recall those who were needlessly slaughtered for the supposed “war to end all war”, but to serve as a subliminal recruitment aid. Criticising the armed forces is always strictly off limits.
The Annihilation of Raqqa
Yet a recent report by Amnesty International (AI), who investigated the devastating attack by western coalition forces on the Syrian city of Raqqa, is so damning that anyone who does not criticise those responsible is guilty by association of war crimes.4 They are in a similar position to those who silently stood by as their neighbours were carted-off to Nazi concentration camps. Although AI has a somewhat dubious reputation, earned mainly by its very tepid response to the multitude of horrors perpetrated over many years by the Zionist regime in Occupied Palestine, its latest report on Raqqa has some merit.
No one will ever know how many civilians perished in last year’s battle for Raqqa. However, estimates for the numbers of people living in the city prior to the war are given at around 220,000, whilst the number estimated to be living there earlier this year is around 61,000. Some civilians managed to flee the city, but many did not, as they were prevented from doing so by IS. Amnesty summarised the terrible situation for civilians as follows:
The four-month military operation to oust the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) from Raqqa, the Syrian city which IS had declared its capital, killed hundreds of civilians, injured many more and destroyed much of the city. During the course of the operation, from June to October 2017, homes, private and public buildings and infrastructure were reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair.
Residents were trapped, as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, and US-led Coalition’s air and artillery strikes rocked the city. With escape routes mined by IS and the group’s snipers shooting at those trying to flee, civilians fled from place to place within the city, desperately seeking refuge or escape. Some were killed in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge, and others as they tried to flee.5
If Amnesty was referring to North Korea, say, or Iran, Russia, China, or the Syrian government, almost certainly its report would have been leading the western world’s news broadcasts. Outraged politicians and their tame propagandists in the mainstream media would have been demanding that “something should be done”. But those countries were not the subjects of the Amnesty report. It was referring instead to the biggest villains in the world — the US and British governments, joined on this occasion by France. Although other countries were implicated in this particular “coalition of the willing”, their roles were relatively minor. Consequently our politicians and their lackeys in the mainstream media seem hardly to have noticed AI’s report. Once again the truth is available, but has been conveniently self-censored by all the usual tricks of state.
Two investigators from AI spent two weeks in February 2018 visiting the ruins of Raqqa. They went to 42 different locations and interviewed 112 civilian residents. About half of the report focuses mainly on the personal stories of four families whose lives were devastated by the “liberation” of Raqqa from IS occupation by the combined efforts of western firepower, and ground-troops supplied by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a mainly Kurdish militia.
Although the so-called global coalition:
boasts membership of 71 countries and four inter-governmental organisations; an eclectic alliance including nations as diverse as Panama and Poland, Australia and Afghanistan. Some Coalition members, Chad, for example, or Niger, are likely to have given support in name only. Others, particularly European states, were more deeply involved, although the exact extent of their actions is not always clear.6
Whilst most people are probably aware that US, British and French air forces bombed countless targets in Syria generally, and specifically here, in Raqqa, fewer people know about the involvement of western ground troops. But AI tells us:
[T]he US deployed some 2,000 of its own troops to north-eastern Syria, many of whom were engaged in direct combat operations, notably firing artillery into Raqqa from positions outside the city. In addition, a smaller number of special forces were operating close to front lines alongside SDF members. British and French special forces were also deployed to the area, but in much smaller numbers.
Among the US deployment were Army High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) with GPS-directed 227mm rockets, which could be fired from 300km away, as well as hundreds of Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and the 24th MEU equipped with M777 howitzers, which they used to rain down 155mm artillery fire upon the city from a distance of up to 30km.6
AI concludes its summary of the involvement of “coalition” forces as follows:
The Coalition launched tens of thousands of strikes on Raqqa during the military campaign. Of these, more than 4,000 were air strikes, almost all of them carried out by US forces. British forces carried out some 215 air strikes, while the French military was responsible for some 50 air strikes with the overwhelming majority – more than 90% – carried out by US piloted aircraft and drones. No other members of the Coalition are known to have carried out air strikes in Raqqa. At the same time, US Marines launched tens of thousands artillery shells into and around Raqqa…
While Coalition forces operated mostly from positions several kilometres outside the city, a small number of special operation forces from Coalition member states – notably the US, UK and France – operated alongside the SDF close to front line position in/around the city, reportedly mostly in an advisory rather than combat role.
The SDF were partly responsible for locating targets for Coalition air and artillery strikes. It is not clear what percentage of the Coalition air and artillery strikes were carried out based on co-ordinates provided by the SDF – as opposed to strikes on targets identified by Coalition forces themselves through air surveillance or other means – and the extent to which Coalition forces verified targets identified by the SDF prior to launching strikes on those targets.7
Although Kurdish militia were reportedly too lightly-armed to be physically accountable for the destruction of Raqqa, their target identification function was clearly significant.
It has long been routine for the military’s propaganda machine to dismiss concerns about civilian casualties inside war zones, and the carnage wreaked on Raqqa was no exception. Furthermore, the military’s word is always accepted at face value.
[A]t the height of conflict in Raqqa, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend wrote that ‘… there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict’.8
But the alleged accuracy of the ordnance used by the military is not the point. The point is that no matter how smart the smart bombs are, they’re still killing civilians – and that’s a war crime. An estimated 4,000 bombs were dropped on the defenceless civilians of Raqqa by “coalition” warplanes. Given that many of those are only accurate, on a good day, to within ten metres of their target, it’s very clear to see that these alone must have accounted for considerable civilian casualties. But they may not have been the main problem.
Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell (senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), suggests that the Coalition operation was far from precise: ‘In five months they fired 35,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets… They fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa, Syria, than any other Marine artillery battalion, or any Marine or Army battalion, since the Vietnam War.’8
But legitimate ISIS targets must have been almost negligible, as IS had immersed themselves amongst the civilian population. Given also that most artillery shells are considerably less accurate than guided missiles, and can only be expected to strike within a hundred metres of their targets, and given that tens of thousands of these things rained down on the trapped and defenceless civilians of Raqqa, the claims by the military’s propagandists that they tried everything possible to minimise civilian casualties are obviously ludicrous.
There has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict [than in Raqqa]
— Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend
Isis withdraws, undefeated, from Raqqa
Sometime in October some sort of deal was suddenly worked out which allowed Isis to simply pack up and leave Raqqa, in a convoy of trucks, together with most of their weaponry. According to a BBC report, the deal:
enabled many hundreds of IS fighters to escape from the city. At the time, neither the US and British-led coalition, nor the SDF, which it backs, wanted to admit their part. Has the pact, which stood as Raqqa’s dirty secret, unleashed a threat to the outside world – one that has enabled militants to spread far and wide across Syria and beyond?
Great pains were taken to hide it from the world. But the BBC has spoken to dozens of people who were either on the convoy, or observed it, and to the men who negotiated the deal…
[T]he convoy was six to seven kilometres long. It included almost 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of the Islamic State group’s own vehicles. IS fighters, their faces covered, sat defiantly on top of some of the vehicles…
Freed from Raqqa, where they were surrounded, some of the [IS] group’s most-wanted members have now spread far and wide across Syria and beyond.
The US-led “coalition” undoubtedly committed a vast number of war crimes in the “liberation” of Raqqa, and the considerably-referenced AI report summarises the particular breaches of law applicable:
(a) The Principle of Distinction
This requires parties to conflict to at all times, ‘distinguish between civilians and combatants’ and to ensure that ‘attacks may only be directed against combatants’ and ‘must not be directed against civilians’. Parties to conflict must also distinguish between ‘civilian objects’ and ‘military objectives’. Anyone who is not a member of the armed forces of a party to the conflict is a civilian, and the civilian population comprises all persons who are not combatants. Civilians are protected against attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. In cases of doubt, individuals should be presumed to be civilians and immune from direct attack. Making the civilian population, or individual civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities, the object of attack (direct attacks on civilians) is a war crime (My emphasis).9
It isn’t clear how hard the “coalition” tried to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, but in the four detailed case studies that Amnesty supplied – which were the tragic stories of just four families from a city of tens of thousands – it would appear they didn’t try very hard at all. One such piece of evidence was supplied by “Ammar”, who
told Amnesty International that on ‘the second or third day of Eid” [26-27 June 2017] an air strike killed 20-25 people, mainly civilians but some IS too, at a communal water point, around the corner from Abu Saif’s house.’10
So, clearly essential water supplies were either deliberately targeted by the “coalition”, or some “legitimate” target was so near that the likely presence of defenceless civilians was simply ignored.
The principle of proportionality, another fundamental tenet of IHL, also prohibits disproportionate attacks, which are those “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. Intentionally launching a disproportionate attack (that is, knowing that the attack will cause excessive incidental civilian loss, injury or damage) constitutes a war crime. The Commentary on the Additional Protocols makes clear that the fact that the proportionality calculus requires an anticipated “concrete and direct” military advantage indicates that such advantage must be “substantial and relatively close, and that advantages which are hardly perceptible and those which would only appear in the long term should be disregarded (my emphasis).11
Whilst it is undeniable that the head-chopping organ-eating occupiers of Raqqa were about as vile a group of psychopaths as it’s possible to get, and that their removal from Raqqa would no doubt be extremely difficult to accomplish, it’s deeply questionable that the total destruction of a civilian-occupied city could be considered proportional to the reign of terror it was supposed to terminate. The fact that IS were eventually cleared out of Raqqa, very much alive and well, shows that they were not committed kamikaze warriors and suggests that alternative methods for bringing to an end their repulsive occupation may have been possible.
In order for parties to an armed conflict to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality they must take precautions in attack. “Constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects”; “all feasible precautions” must be taken to avoid and minimise incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. The parties must choose means and methods of warfare with a view to avoiding or at least minimising to the maximum extent possible incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects. As well as verifying the military nature of targets and assessing the proportionality of attacks, the parties must also take all feasible steps to call off attacks which appear wrongly directed or disproportionate. Parties must give effective advance warning of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit. When a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, the parties must select the target the attack on which would be expected to pose the least danger to civilians and to civilian objects.
The limited information available on the precautions in attack taken by the Coalition suggests that they were not adequate or effective. The cases examined in detail indicate that there were serious shortcomings in verification that targets selected for attack were in fact military, with disastrous results for civilian life. Further, several attacks examined by Amnesty International suggest that the Coalition did not, at least in those instances, select weapons that would minimise harm to civilians. Also, the warnings that were given to civilians were not effective. They did not take into account the reality that civilians were blocked from leaving Raqqa, and did not include specific information (such as warning civilians to stay away from tall buildings).11
Amnesty claim that up to the point of publication of their report repeated approaches to “the coalition” for specific details regarding their attacks on Raqqa were either inadequately answered or had not been answered at all. Therefore questions relating to whether sufficient precautions were taken remain unanswered, and could imply breaches of international law.
(d) Joint and individual responsibility of coalition members
One of the attractions to “coalition” actions is the difficulty in attributing specific responsibility for possible crimes after the event, and Amnesty states:
It is concerned that this lack of clarity may enable individual Coalition members to evade responsibility for their actions. The UK Government, for example, maintained until May 2018 that it had not killed a single civilian in Syria or Iraq, despite carrying out thousands of air strikes across the two countries. On 2 May 2018 it admitted for the first time that one of its drone strikes had caused one civilian casualty in Syria in March 2018.11
However, there is very limited wriggle-room in attempting to evade responsibility by trying to divert attention to others. International Humanitarian Law (IHL):
Requires all states to ‘respect and ensure respect’ for its provisions under Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions. This includes both positive and negative obligations on states providing assistance to another state which is then used to commit a violation of international humanitarian law. The negative obligation is not to encourage, aid or assist in violations of IHL by parties to a conflict. The positive obligation includes the prevention of violations where there is a foreseeable risk they will be committed and prevention of further violations where they have already occurred.
The USA, UK, France, and other states involved in military operations as part of Operation Inherent Resolve therefore may be legally responsible for unlawful acts carried out by Coalition members.12
(e) Duty to investigate, prosecute and provide reparation
States have an obligation to investigate allegations of war crimes by their forces or nationals, or committed on their territory and, if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecute the suspects. They must also investigate other war crimes over which they have jurisdiction, including through universal jurisdiction, and, if appropriate, prosecute the suspects.12
Life-giving light – and those who would snuff it out
The Amnesty International report provides compelling evidence that, at the very least, there are legitimate questions to be answered regarding the attacks on Raqqa by the USA, Britain and France. And it must never be forgotten that the whole IS phenomenon is mostly a creation of the west, that without the deeply cynical plotting of the US, British and possibly French deep states, IS would likely never have come into existence. The words of French foreign minister Roland Dumas should be recalled:
I’m going to tell you something,” Dumas said on French station LCP. “I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business [in 2009]. I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate. Naturally, I refused, I said I’m French, that doesn’t interest me.
So Dumas may have said – but the French were involved in the destruction of Raqqa.
If similar probable war crimes had been carried out in some other country by Russia, say, or China, or Iran, or any other nation to which the west is routinely hostile, almost certainly outraged voices would be heard caterwauling in Westminster and Washington. Front pages of newspapers, together with TV and radio news programmes would be howling that “something must be done”. Yet in Westminster and Washington the silence is deafening. Not a single word of protest appears on the front pages of our newspapers, and our TV and radio stations appear to be looking the other way. Why? Because our “heroes” are personally involved, and personally responsible for the terror, and that is the terrible truth that cannot be admitted.
The cold hard fact is that far from being heroic, many people in the military are de facto war criminals. From at least as far back as the second world war, when defenceless civilians were bombed to death and incinerated in their homes in the pointless bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, for example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, through the slaughter of countless defenceless civilians in later wars, in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the more recent civilian killing fields of Iraq, Libya and now Syria, our so-called heroes have just as much innocents’ blood on their hands as any Nazi war criminal ever had.
With very few exceptions, the military seldom do anything heroic. The very last thing that senior officers want, the generals, admirals, air marshals and so on, is a peaceful world – for the very obvious reason that they would all be out of work, vastly overpaid work requiring very little real and useful effort, work that not only pays these people far more than they’re worth, but also, which is far worse, gives them far too much power in our societies. Consider, for example, the words of an unnamed general in a recent Observer interview that if Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong pacifist – was to win a general election:
There would be a mutiny in the armed forces… unless he learnt to love NATO and the nuclear bomb.13
The cold hard fact is that these people, those who run our so-called “defence” forces are out of control. They are more interested in protecting their own careers than doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and which so many people mistakenly believe they are doing – protecting us. We are not made safer by the ruthless and illegal destruction of civilian cities such as Raqqa. The people that carry out these war crimes should be brought to account and charged like the common war criminals they really are, which is pretty much the same conclusion reached by Amnesty International:
Where there is admissible evidence that individual members of Coalition forces are responsible for war crimes, ensure they are prosecuted in a fair trial without recourse to the death penalty.14
We need complete, truthful information. And the truth should not depend on whom it is to serve.
— V.I. Ulyanov, (Let History Judge, Roy Medvedev, Preface.))
Self-criticism – ruthless, harsh self-criticism, which gets down to the root of things – that is the life-giving light and air of the proletarian movement.
— Rosa Luxemburg15
Sometimes I think we biologists may find ourselves coming into politics from our own angle. If things go on as they are going – We may have to treat the whole world as a mental hospital. The entire species is going mad; for what is madness but a complete want of mental adaptation to one’s circumstances? Sooner or later, young man, your generation will have to face up to that.…
I have an idea, Father, a half-formed idea,that before we can go on to a sane new order, there has to be a far more extensive clearing up of old institutions… The world needs some sort of scavenging, a burning up of the old infected clothes, before it can get on to a new phase. At present it is enormously encumbered… This is just a shadowy idea in my mind… Something like breaking down condemned, old houses. We can’t begin to get things in order until there has been this scavenging.
— HG Wells, The Holy Terror, Simon and Schuster, 1939.
- Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, Roy Medvedev, p. 566.
- Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, Roy Medvedev, Preface.
- Medvedev, p. 363.
- Amnesty International Report, p. 9.
- AI Report, p. 5.
- AI Report, p. 48.
- AI Report, p. 49.
- AI Report, p. 53.
- AI Report, p. 62.
- AI Report, p. 44.
- AI Report, p. 63.
- AI Report, p. 64.
- How the Establishment lost control, Chris Nineham, p. 93.
- AI Report, p. 67.
- Let History Judge, Roy Medvedev, Preface