The Myth of American Exceptionalism
It might be time for the United States to reconsider the rules of the road it attempts to impose on others. The time should be ending when the US could simply ignore world opinion, supposedly built on what US politicians call “American exceptionalism” and go its own way when it comes to international behavior.
The term is said to be traceable to the writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who referred to the country as exceptional because of its unique ideology based on liberty, individualism, laissez-faire capitalism and egalitarianism. That supposedly anoints the United States with a special destiny to lead the world towards liberty and democracy. The phrase has been used in particular by presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in excoriating President Barack Obama, supposedly because Obama doesn’t believe in it, or doesn’t believe in it fervently enough.
But there may be another definition of American exceptionalism that is far darker than anything de Tocqueville or Gingrich for that matter ever thought of, and that is an apparent belief in the right of exception from punishment when its citizens and soldiers break the laws of other countries and of human nature itself. It is a message that does not seem to have reached the ears of much of the United States, and particularly a marathon military tribunal involving US Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was busted last week to Private E1, more than six years after he ordered the men under his command to “shoot first and think later” after his unit was hit by a roadside bombing in the western Iraqi city of Haditha. The Marines killed 24 unarmed men, women and children before the day was out.
Subsequent evidence, much of it discovered by reporters for Time Magazine and the New York Times, thoroughly discredited the initial claim that 15 of the civilians had been killed by the IUD that hit the convoy and that eight “insurgents” were killed when the Marines returned fire against the attackers. Officers well above Wuterich’s rank were found to have participated in a cover-up of the incident.
In fact, an investigation by the US military alleged it had found evidence that the Marines had deliberately shot civilians including unarmed elderly men, women and children. Ultimately, eight Marines were charged in 2006. Seven of the eight were exonerated by the military or charges were dropped, leaving only Wuterich, who pleaded guilty to dereliction of duty and received a suspended sentence of a mere 90 days in jail after expressing remorse for the Iraqi deaths.
Three officers have been officially reprimanded for failing to properly initially report and investigate the killings. In 2011, the New York Times reported it had found secret transcripts of military interviews from the investigation into the killings in which Marines described killing civilians on a regular basis. One sergeant testified that he would order his men to shoot children in vehicles that failed to stop at military checkpoints.
Nor are Wuterich and his squad alone. Men, women and children were routinely murdered by US servicemen in both Iraq and Afghanistan, supposedly in the heat of battle but far too often in cold blood. The most recent ugly incident occurred in Afghanistan when a YouTube video was made public showing US servicemen urinating on dead Afghan insurgents. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then a candidate for the presidency of the United States and fervent believer in American exceptionalism, said the Marines who did it were just kids and didn’t need to be punished.
These incidents in Iraq stem from a war that should never have been started, sold on a series of lies on the part of the administration of President George W. Bush and his hawkish henchmen, Vice President Dick Cheney (“I had other priorities,” he said, when asked why he hadn’t served during the Vietnam War), Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“stuff happens,” he said when Iraq turned into chaos) and a flock of other neocons who sullied the country’s honor and caused the deaths of perhaps 100,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 American servicemen. An estimated 2.25 million Iraqis were displaced in the country and another 2.1 to 2.25 million were driven out of the country to Syria and Jordan.
Is this American exceptionalism? The same week Sgt. Wuterich was being slapped on the wrist by the military tribunal for his orders, the Chinese government came under international criticism and particularly harsh condemnation in the United States for their actions in suppressing Tibetan protesters, most recently on Jan. 24, when the London-based advocacy group Free Tibet said Chinese forces had killed at least one person and wounded at least 34 in a monastery town west of Chengdu. That crackdown generated 782 news stories, most of them critical, according to an account by Google.
This is not to defend the Chinese for their brutal crackdown on both Tibetan and Uighur minorities. But why do Americans, and especially right-wing politicians, think American servicemen should be allowed to get away with atrocities? The infamous Lt William Calley, who was held responsible for triggering the massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in March of 1968, was convicted of murdering at least 22 civilians himself. In all, as many as 500 women, children, infants and the elderly were killed in what may have been the worst massacre perpetrated by American soldiers anywhere. Calley’s life sentence triggered a massive outcry on the part of the American people, who besieged the White House with telegrams running 100 to 1 against the decision. Eventually President Richard Nixon reduced Calley’s sentence to house arrest, in which he served three and a half years. Nixon eventually granted him a limited Presidential pardon. So much for 500 dead, innocent Vietnamese.
Status-of-forces agreements, between host countries and foreign nations stationing troops on their territory, have been lightning rods for criticism particularly in South Korea and Japan. These agreements all too often allow for US military personnel to be tried within the US military or legal system instead of the judicial system of the host country. As with Sgt. Wuterich, the American legal system appears to view offenses against the people of the country in which they serve with a good deal less outrage than the host countries do.
The sum and substance of these episodes is to generate a view on the part of much of the world that Americans believe that their own brand of exceptionalism allows them to kill people of the lesser races – particularly Muslims lately – with impunity. Well, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Leaders of the free world can’t always stop to observe the niceties. But the Chinese damned well better had.
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel