Progressive media are addressing some very big items at the moment – and of course, apart from climate change and its effects, the biggest items are the US occupation of Iraq and legislation dealing with related longer-tern issues, such as eventual control of Iraqi oil. But there are deceptively small items that should command attention. For example, I’m concerned about two little words that, in their quiet way, lead us toward make-or-break, indeed life-and-death decisions.
The words are “preemptive” and “preventive.” You’ve probably noticed one or both - most often “preemptive” - popping up in editorials and columns lately, even in alternative media that should know better. You can be forgiven for thinking these words are interchangeable, because that’s how they’re generally used. Yet there’s an important distinction.
“Preemptive” describes a form of war that’s legal (whether it’s moral is another matter) in the context of international agreements and understandings like the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1927), the United Nations Charter, and the Nuremberg Principles. The idea is simple: If you know you’re about to be attacked, you have a right to pre-empt the attack by striking first. There must be solid evidence of an immediate physical threat. The best-known (and most-debated) example of preemption is the 1967 Six Day War in the Middle East. There are very serious questions about Israel’s justification for firing first (Egyptian moves at the time, among other things, may not have constituted a prelude to invasion). But at least in this historical case, it’s certain that both sides were on a war-footing, and that there was mutual hostile intent.
The case of the US vs. Iraq is vastly different. Even if Iraq had possessed WMDs and other offensive capabilities, it had given absolutely no evidence of using threatening force against the US at home or abroad. Iraq had actually been under periodic attack by US forces for years, and these attacks plus the murderous economic sanctions of the Clinton Era had rendered Iraq entirely vulnerable, i.e. in no position to threaten anyone. So no war that the US might launch against Iraq could rightly be labeled “preemptive.” No, the kind of war the US launched in 2003 is properly termed “preventive.” Which is just a polite way to say it lacks justification, that it is in fact what’s known as “aggressive war,” a term that further reduces to “criminal.”
Shades of Nuremberg. Which reminds me: I recently learned that US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief US prosecutor of Nazi war criminals, hailed from the Southern Tier. Jackson actually was born in Warren County, PA, but he grew up and worked as an attorney in Jamestown, NY, which is now home to the Robert H. Jackson Center (www.roberthjackson.org). If you thought Lucille Ball was Jamestown’s only famous offspring, think again.
Think harder, though, about Jackson’s famous words at the Nazi trials. He hammered home the plain truth: “To initiate a war of aggression,” he said, “is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
So connect the dots. Following on Jackson, you can’t escape the conclusion that what US leaders have been doing since 2003, if not before, is no different purely in legal terms from what the Nazis did. And that the crimes US troops have committed - atrocities large and small in Fallujah, Haditha, Abu Ghraib, and many other places – may be horrendous, yet in the final analysis, they’re less serious than what George W. Bush and company have dictated.