BY BRIAN TRAUTMAN
The U.S.-led war on Iraq, which formally began in March 2003 but essentially started more than a decade earlier with frequent aerial bombing and oppressive economic sanctions, was greenlit by the U.S. Congress under false pretenses. It was sold to the American people by political leaders and corporate media via a mass disinformation campaign. The war was a regime change war and a war for oil, rooted in racism, revenge, imperialism and capitalism. It violated international law on multiple levels, including as a war of aggression. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed and maimed. Over 4,500 “coalition forces,” most of whom were Americans, lost their lives. Tens of thousands more were wounded, many permanently. Nearly two decades on, occupying soldiers and Iraqi civilians are still dying. Some refer to the ongoing violence as blowback; yet, it is anything but unintended. It is the very nature of a military occupation to win by attrition, no matter the cost in lives or money.
Imperial forces who committed some of the worst atrocities in the name of the so-called “War on Terror” continue to escape accountability and justice for their crimes. Last year alone, Donald Trump granted clemency to war criminals from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They included Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, convicted of posing with the body of a teenage Islamic State captive whom he had killed with a hunting knife; Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, convicted of ordering his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan civilians, killing two; Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, charged with executing a suspected Taliban bombmaker; and, Army Lieutenant Michael Behenna, convicted by a military court for murdering an Iraqi prisoner.
If these outrageous acts of clemency were not revolting enough, on December 22 Trump further cemented his legacy as a malignant narcissist and amoral gangster, one who possesses a deep disdain for the Constitution and international law, by pardoning four convicted U.S. war criminals responsible for massacring unarmed Iraqi civilians. In September 2007, under the pretext of providing security for U.S. diplomats, four former guards (Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough) from the private security contractor Blackwater used machine guns and grenade launchers to slaughter 17 innocent people, including two children, in Nisour Square, a Baghdad traffic circle. The unprovoked rampage also wounded at least 20. The indiscriminate attack on Iraqi men, women and children was so barbaric and cold-blooded that it was compared by some to the “My Lai massacre,” the murder, rape and torture of hundreds of Viet Nam civilians, mostly women and children, by a platoon of U.S. troops in March 1968.
Founded by the right-wing Christian fundamentalist Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary, Blackwater USA (now Academi) is a mercenary force funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars that operated with sheer ruthlessness and extreme impunity in Iraq and elsewhere. The 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, written by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, provides a hard-hitting and detailed history and analysis of the notorious company.
The youngest victim of the Nisour Square massacre, a nine-year-old boy named Ali Kinani, was shot in the head while traveling through the Square with his father, Mohammed, and a few other family members. In a piece written for The Nation magazine in 2010 titled Blackwater’s Youngest Victim, Scahill tells the story of Ali, his family and the massacre. A short documentary by the same name contains an in-depth interview with Ali’s father. Paul Dickinson, an attorney who represented Ali’s family and five other families in a civil lawsuit against Blackwater and Erik Prince, recently penned an op-ed for The Intercept titled I Sued Blackwater for the Massacre of Iraqi Civilians. Trump Just Pardoned Those Convicted Killers. In the article, Dickinson states, “These men will now be free, despite their crimes, and they will not serve the time in prison they deserved. My clients assuredly feel ignored, mistreated, and used. Their belief in our legal system was misplaced. The result is not just that we see an injustice in the United States, but that the world must surely see cracks in the pillars of justice upon which our system is based. That may be the overriding damage caused by these pardons…” Dickinson was also recently interviewed on Democracy Now! to respond to the pardons.
In what became the FBI’s most intensive and expensive criminal investigations since 9/11, material, testimonial and forensic evidence was gathered and used in the prosecution and conviction of the accused Blackwater guards. In the opinion article, How I know the Blackwater defendants didn’t deserve a pardon from Trump, Thomas O’Connor, an FBI special agent who helped investigate the massacre, recounts the detailed investigation that took place and the substantial credible evidence that was collected. O’Connor writes, “I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of The FBI Evidence Response Team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings…The system worked and justice was brought to the deceased, the injured victims and their families. The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the President of the United States.”
International outrage over the pardons was swift and straightforward. The lip service that the U.S. government pays to valuing and protecting human rights, domestically and internationally, is contradicted time and again by their policies. A statement released by the UN Human Rights Office shortly after the pardons read in part: “We are deeply concerned by the recent US presidential pardons for four security guards from the private military firm Blackwater who were convicted for killing 14 Iraqi civilians…Pardoning them contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future. By investigating these crimes and completing legal proceedings, the US complied with its obligations under international law. Victims of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law also have the right to a remedy. This includes the right to see perpetrators serve punishments proportionate to the seriousness of their conduct…”
On December 30, the UN Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council issued a scathing response, in which they argued that the pardons violated international law, and called on all States parties to the Geneva Conventions to likewise condemn them: “Pardoning the Blackwater contractors,” the statement read, “is an affront to justice and to the victims of the Nisour Square massacre and their families…The Geneva Conventions oblige States to hold war criminals accountable for their crimes, even when they act as private security contractors. These pardons violate US obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law and human rights at a global level…”
Reactions to the Blackwater pardons were requested for this piece from several experienced and highly regarded individuals in the academic and activist communities. Among them are anti-war military veterans, a Gold Star parent and legal professionals. Here are their responses:
“Is this what the United States wants to stand for; criminals who slaughter men, women and children without accountability: a justice system that is more about who we know than the actions we have taken. Many of the facts around this event in 2007 are known; [however] imagine the many situations where we have been unable to expose the crimes. Image the war crimes we are not told about.”
– Brad Geyer, a Desert Storm veteran and member of Veterans For Peace.
“As a Muslim American and military veteran, it’s self-evident to me that Donald Trump has demonstrated, more clearly than anything else in his tenure, that he, as Commander in Chief, celebrates the promotion of bigotry, murder, and war crimes against Muslims. Whether it’s the pardoning of notorious war criminal and former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher or the current slew of Blackwater’s convicted genocidal thugs, Trump sees no fault in their heinous actions. Most distressingly, Trump’s endorsement of these acts serves to make war criminals of us all. Because when we, as a society, fail to uphold the most basic and sacred tenets of justice and humanity we are all implicitly guilty in the eyes of history – and rightfully so.”
– Nader Terani, a community organizer, writer, and military veteran who served as a member of the elite U.S. Navy Presidential Honor Guard and with military intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency
“This travesty is certainly an excellent example of the injustice and the crimes that have been committed against the Iraqi people for decades. The United States is guilty of generational slaughter against the Iraqi people starting with its support for Iraq’s role in the Iran-Iraq war, including the supplying of materials and intelligence for Saddam Hussein to use poison gas on the Iranians and his own people, the murderous sanctions of the 1990s, the near daily bombing of Iraq by US warplanes and drones for the last 30 years, and, of course, the illegal and unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003; which, almost 18 years later, savagely still harms and torments the Iraqi people today. The future of Iraq is one similar to that possessed by the Vietnamese people, condemned to generations of deformed, disabled and still born children due to the poisoning of Iraqi land, water and air by the US military. This pardoning of the Blackwater mercenaries is congruent with the absence of US accountability for its crimes against Iraq for the last 40 years. The only thing atypical about this pardoning is that these men were ever held accountable to begin with. There are thousands of people earning high salaries, bedecked with prestigious titles and enthroned with tremendous responsibility, including so many in the incoming Biden administration, who have never been held to account for their role in the crimes against Iraq, and they surely never will be.”
– Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps officer who took part in the occupation of Iraq. Hoh is now a senior fellow with the Center for International Policy.
“The end of term pardon of four Blackwater mercenaries by Donald Trump is another slap in the face to the people of Iraq. Blackwater, under the auspices of the Occupational Authority during the worst years of the war, ran rampant through that country: torturing and killing Iraqis in very brutal ways. However, it’s also personally hurtful to me and my family, as on April 04, 2004, our son and brother Casey Sheehan (Spc US Army) was killed in Sadr City, Baghdad, just days after the people of Fallujah rose up against Blackwater in a rebellion against Blackwater and US forces. Of course, the entire invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq is in and of itself a continuing crime against humanity. Bush, et al, should be in prison and no war criminals should be getting pardoned. Period.”
– Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war activist, Gold Star parent, and Executive Producer/Host of Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox Radio Show
“A “pardon” is another way of saying “I forgive you,” which begs a few questions — who’s doing the forgiving? For what? And who’s being forgiven? The first and third questions in this case are easy — the “I” is a man who has made a mockery out of the concept of service, and the “you” are a cluster of self-serving war contractors who were not constrained by any rules of engagement. The “what” might cause some confusion amongst those who have not been to war — after all, these guys were in a war zone where suicide bombers and car bombs were a constant threat. Weren’t they just protecting themselves and others? Well, no. The subsequent investigation showed unequivocally that they were not justified in unleashing their deadly force. So how can we see what happened clearly? Chris Hedges, in his essay “War is Sin,” gives us some guidelines: “There is a difference between killing someone who is trying to kill you and taking the life of someone who does not have the power to harm you. The first is killing. The second is murder.” So, we are left with this morally reprehensible scenario: a “military wannabe” forgiving a bunch of sociopaths for committing murder. In the name of the United States. In our name. We should be ashamed and very, very angry.”
– Doug Rawlings, a veteran of the American War in Viet Nam and a co-founder of Veterans For Peace
“Trump pardoned four Blackwater mercenaries who committed war crimes in Iraq, but indicted Julian Assange, who revealed evidence of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war criminals should be in prison and Trump should dismiss the charges against Assange and grant him a full pardon.”
– Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and the author of several books, including Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues
“The President has the power to pardon those whom he believes deserves one. There are times when errors and mistakes are made in the prosecution and conviction of those charged with Federal crimes. To check these possible abuses, our Founding Fathers gave the President the power to issue pardons when justice, mercy and equity require it. But Trump’s flurry of what can only be described as rash pardons makes a mockery of the pardon process…Certainly the most despicable and unjustified pardons were handed out to the four Blackwater mercenaries who carried out the Nisour Square massacre…During the massacre 17 innocent civilians, including two children were killed and twenty wounded. Following the second largest FBI investigation in history, four Blackwater employees were charged and convicted…One employee was convicted of murder and three others of manslaughter and various other firearm charges. The prosecution relied not only on eyewitness testimony, but detailed forensic and scientific evidence gathered by the FBI Evidence Response Team. There is no evidence of factual or legal error in the prosecution of the case, no evidence of judicial error and no evidence that the punishment was out of proportion to the crimes…Never in history have mass murderers of innocent civilians been granted a pardon by the President of the United States. Neither the President nor the Department of Justice is under any obligation to explain the rationale for granting the pardons. Even if they were, what possible rationale could explain this embarrassing and outrageous miscarriage of Justice?”
– Barry Ladendorf, a naval officer during the Viet Nam War, retired Deputy Attorney General in California’s Attorney General Office, and former president of Veterans For Peace
“Of course…no one should be surprised. Trump and his supporters are what the Lakota call “Was’ichu” (predators). The Anishinaabe refer to such individuals as “wendigo,” a monster whose influence promotes the worst of human potential. This energy has received too much support over the years, and it is growing exponentially despite the rhetoric of resistance. We need many more “Standing Rock” events with people gathering to stand strong from around the world to put the monster out of its misery. It is best not to hold the illusion of hope now, but to do everything possible to become a true human being and to protect others.”
– Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa), a former MarineCorps officer (Viet Nam era), professor of Education at Fielding Graduate University, and the author of many publications on Indigenous worldview
“Donald J. Trump has pardoned these four Blackwater convicted murderers because of what it represents for the people who follow and support him; MAGA sees itself as above the law. With extra judicial killings at the hands of rogue police or private citizens, violence is currency in their conspiracy filled economy. At this American empire’s highest point of technological innovation and communication we are also at our lowest in terms of human compassion and empathy; the very same people fighting to abolish a woman’s right to have an abortion are willing to kill in order to protect the right to own guns. With the 2020 election lost and the days dragging until the imposter in chief has to leave office, he has sent innocent people to the death chamber, pardoned known and convicted criminals and stolen tens of millions from his supporters as he lies about a stolen election. Perhaps Donald Trump and Erik Prince are forming a private extra security force to protect him from the seething masses as they awake from the long slumber? Perhaps it is something far more sinister …? Though I do believe in rehabilitation and restorative justice I condemn the choice to pardon these four Blackwater contractors, and former service members; the pardon condones their actions and that is yet another heinous crime committed by number 45.”
– Miles Megaciph, a veteran of the USMC 1992-1999 and an independent rapper, father and husband
The targeting and killing of civilians in war is not an aberration within the scope of the unbridled adventurism and imperialism of U.S. foreign policy; it is a manifestation of it. These pardons are emblematic of U.S. impunity from the consequences of this malignant and unsustainable policy. They are another tragic outcome of Trump’s sadism and sociopathy. The pardons continue America’s long history of colonial violence and dehumanization and extermination of people it sees as “the other,” particularly brown and black lives, at home and abroad. If justice cannot even be upheld in the rare instances when U.S. war criminals are held accountable for their atrocities, then the U.S. is sending the message to the rest of the world is that it truly believes it is above the law. That it has a license to kill whomever it wants, wherever and whenever it chooses, regardless of the circumstances. This message put American lives at serious risk, civilians and soldiers alike, across the globe. If anything could put U.S. national security in jeopardy and be a rallying cry and recruiting tool for international terrorists, the Blackwater pardons would be it.
Lastly, the constitutional pardon power of the president is not the problem here, as many have argued, some vehemently. It is a fundamental democratic instrument to check the judicial branch and rectify cases of extreme injustice when employed as the framers of the Constitution intended. The problem, rather, is unchecked centralized power and abuse of power, which Donald Trump was permitted to have by his apologists, enablers and supporters. The Constitution provides for mechanisms to remove such as a president. However, these mechanisms were largely ignored or scoffed at over the past four years. In recent personal correspondence, Reed Camacho Kinney, author of Ideology of Decentralized Civilization, shared his thoughts on the consequences of this type of power: “The situation is outrageous. [Trump’s] sadism has no bounds and is the only act that amuses him. He surrounds himself with no less oafish orgs that spur his destruction of America on, for their respective, perceived advantages. The only purpose of centralized power beyond the control of the people is the rupture of the lives of the less powerful, a pathological aberration disguised in human bodies.”
Brian J. Trautman is an instructor of peace studies at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA, a peace activist with Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice, and an Army veteran. He is also a member of Veterans for Peace. On Twitter @BriTraut.