Intentions Don’t Matter

“War Criminal Found Dead at 88” was the headline in the July 1, 2021, issue of The Nation. Not a war criminal in Africa or the Balkans, but our very own former Secretary of Defense, the so-called “architect” of the entirely unnecessary Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld. “Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and so many others killed in the wars he launched and in the torture cells he oversaw, Donald Rumsfeld died peacefully,” writes activist and political historian Phyllis Bennis.

Donald Rumsfeld was not the first nor the last in a long line of warmongering bullies who found their patriotism in their willingness to send others to their deaths — American soldiers, soldiers and civilians from other countries. Rumsfeld and George W Bush called this “preemptive strike policy” and claimed it was justified by an assumption that “they” were about to attack “us” and we weren’t going to sit around and wait for that to happen. The use of preemptive strike policy as a “defense” was okay, according to this argument, because after all, we are Americans and only have good intentions toward the rest of the world.

Antiwar activist Barbara Deming in an essay on the war in Vietnam, published in 1967, reflected on that war and on the characteristics and implications of the “American personality.”

I am frightened that we Americans are on our way to becoming the world’s bullies, all the while the majority of us confident in our hearts that we are a well-intentioned people and therefore incapable of atrocities. And I find this unwillingness to look at what we are doing particularly frightening because I find it again and again in conjunction with another mental block. That is the refusal to believe that we could possibly withdraw from this war.
(“The Temptations of Power” in Revolution & Equilibrium, Grossman, 1971)

Today Americans are no longer “on our way” to becoming the world’s bullies, we have arrived — with China and Russia a close second. But only Americans think of ourselves as a generally a “well-intentioned” people, at least to the extent that we believe whole-heartedly in our own goodness. Fifty years ago, learning about the atrocities committed in Vietnam by U.S. soldiers was not only hard for many Americans, at first it was impossible. For some, the horrible massacre Lieutenant Calley and his troops committed at Mei Li was a turning point in the war, a turning point in U.S. public response to the war, after which we could not assume the goodness of everything American. For others, there was the firm conviction that this act was a justified response to an evil opponent. American intentions were clear and honorable. Our troops were fighting communism and it did not matter that they were fighting it in someone else’s country, that the policy of “destroying the sea the fish swim in” was destroying people’s own homes in their own villages in their own country. We could not see ourselves as the invaders; we were the liberators. How could we not be welcome?

Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be the first American president to preside over a U.S. defeat in a war. He saw withdrawal from a tenuous situation as defeat and in this he was not alone. Today public officials lament Vietnam, the “only” war the U.S. ever fought and lost and proclaim, as Donald Rumsfeld and his henchmen did, that each successive war will not be “another Vietnam.” (And then came Afghanistan…)

George W. Bush displayed the same mentality. Not that Presidents from other countries are happy to be “losers.” But there is something very “western” in the way the war-with-Iraq scenario was played out — more reminiscent of high noon in Dodge City or the shoot-out at the OK Corral than of responsible international politics. Rumsfeld, the President, the Congress and those who supported a “preemptive strike policy” that allowed this invasion put on their white Stetsons, pulled them down to shade their eyes, and swaggered into the shootout convinced that their intentions were righteous. We are Americans. How could it be otherwise?

Since the massacre at Mei Li, there have been numerous examples of bad behavior — Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Haditha, Iraq to name a few. Sgt Wuterich, the only military personnel charged with killing 24 unarmed men, women, and children in Haditha said, after he was found “not guilty” of manslaughter, “I wish to assure you that on that day, it was never my intention to harm you or your families. I know that you are the real victims of Nov. 19, 2005.”

I don’t know how else to say it, but our intentions don’t matter. Not at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, not now, not at all. It doesn’t matter to an Iraqi or Afghani civilian, to the hundreds or thousands of noncombatants who have died, whether we bombed their country to steal their oil or liberate them from a ruthless dictator or establish a noble democracy in the cradle of Middle Eastern civilization. They and their children are dead. It is the inevitable result, and it will not be changed by good intentions.

The policy of “preemption” has the potential power to destroy all life on this planet. It is not a policy of mutual support nor of confrontation and containment; those “old” policies helped save the world through two world wars and a cold war. Whatever we thought of them, their designers believed they were doing what was best for the world community. Those who designed and advocate the policy of preemption speak only of what is best for one nation, the United States.

In a September 8, 2002, address to the nation, President Bush articulated his perception of why this policy is necessary. To go back to the old policies, he maintained, is to find “false comfort in a dangerous world. We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.”

In Bush’s terms, if we engaged in the international community as an equal partner, if we considered the opinions and needs of other nations, if we even thought of ourselves as somehow connected to the common good, we are perceived as “weak” and this invites terrorist attacks. This is the justification of a self-serving bully, not a leader. To think that the attacks of September 11th happened because we were perceived as “weak” contradicts everything we know about perceptions of the United States in the Middle East and the world. America is weak only when our leaders want to argue for more military, more arms, more defense funding.

Early in his presidency, Joe Biden indicated that he intended to return the United States to a foreign policy that predates the “war on terror.” While there were assumptions and misjudgments in that foreign policy that we should not repeat, the heart of it is certainly an improvement over the last 50 years. “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” said Biden in the first month of his presidency. What does that mean? First, the United States will not, cannot, should not operate as if we were the only country that matters — because our citizens are citizens of the world before we are citizens of the United States. Second, we need to not believe that Americans are the best, the only, the most well-intentioned people in the world. We need to believe that we are neighbors and citizens of a world we share with millions of others. We need to articulate that connection without fear and in spite of being labeled unpatriotic — or weak. To say that Americans are part of a greater whole is not self-hatred or self-denigration; it is a way of expressing our belief in a shared future. As poet John Donne wrote in the 17th century,

No man is an island
Entire of itself…
Each man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind…

Forgetting this truth imperils us, our country, our world. Good intentions won’t save us.

Judith McDaniel, PhD, JD, teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1986