Unearthed in Colombia

May 6th, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Forensic teams have unearthed 211 bodies buried in dozens of mass graves near a single town in southern Colombia in the past 10 months, a legacy of fierce fighting in this coca-rich land.

Chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran told a news conference Saturday that investigators exhumed 105 bodies alone on Friday near La Hormiga, 340 miles (540 kilometers) south of Bogota in the province of Putumayo. Most of the victims, who investigators believe were killed between 1999 and 2001, had been dismembered before burial.

Historically a key region for growing the coca plant that is used to make cocaine, the Putumayo jungles near the border with Ecuador are the scene of almost daily fighting between leftist rebels, far-right paramilitaries and state security forces.

Iguaran said that based on information from local residents, authorities suspect both the paramilitaries and the rebels were responsible for the killings. Both sides regularly kill civilians they believe to be aiding their enemies.

Investigators have been digging for the mass graves in Putumayo since August of last year.

Forensic teams have found hundreds more shallow graves in recent months, as demobilized paramilitaries confess their crimes as part of a peace deal with the government.

Iguaran’s office estimates 10,000 murdered Colombians lie in unmarked graves across this South American country, now in its fifth decade of civil conflict.

Toby Muse, Associated Press (2007-05-06): Colombia Finds 211 Bodies in Mass Graves

Press reports have only told a little bit of the story behind the mass graves discovered in Putumayo. They mostly do not mention that it has become increasingly clear that the paramilitaries have been covertly sponsored and encouraged by powerful men within the Colombian government–possibly including President Alvaro Uribe himself–as a clandestine part of the military and drug war projects heavily underwritten by the United States government’s Plan Colombia.

The long, cozy relationship between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the US Congress is over. Washington has spent billions on the Plan Colombia policy to combat terror, increase security and economic development, and stymie the drug trade with little to show for it. Ongoing investigations into links between Colombian leaders and former paramilitary commanders have revealed close ties. For the Democratic leaders in Congress this has become hard to ignore, especially when discussing a possible free trade agreement (FTA) or continuing the financing of Plan Colombia.

… Beyond perceptions of human rights atrocities and the killings of union leaders, the reality is that paramilitary forces for many years have been the law of the land in rural areas where the Colombian state had little to no presence. Before Plan Colombia took flight, the 1990s was a decade when paramilitarism was seen as a viable solution to confront the spread of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

The shady nature of the relationship between Colombian leaders and paramilitary commanders allowed the latter to operate beyond the law with impunity. Such latitude, combined with profits from selling cocaine to the US market, allowed the paramilitaries to quickly grow beyond the control of their rural landowner masters. And one of them, it seems, might have been Alvaro Uribe himself.

Yet through his connections, Uribe sparked a process of disarmament that has led Colombia down a path that, among other unintended destinations, has taken Colombia into a phase of truth telling whereby Colombian leaders from the military, Congress and the president’s office, have been forced to reckon with their past.

While the so-called para-politico scandal continues and Uribe has managed to avoid direct scrutiny in Bogota, leaders in Washington don’t want to be seen as having supported the Colombian president when the scope of his past involvement with the paramilitaries is in question, despite the argument that such ties were necessary.

Sensing a climate change, Uribe hired a lobbying firm with known close ties to Democrats, The Glover Park Group, at US$40,000 a month to help improve his image in Congress.

His first stop in Washington was the White House, where US President George W Bush showed open-ended support for Uribe’s US$700 million request for Plan Colombia.

It is very important for this nation to stand with democracies that protect human rights and human dignity, democracies based up the rule of law, Bush said.

Uribe’s next meeting took him to the offices of Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees congressional spending on Plan Colombia. In April, the subcommittee froze US$55.2 million in military aid to Colombia, citing accusations that paramilitary groups had infiltrated the Colombian government and military.

Leahy and Uribe likely discussed this as well as the fallout after the mid-April speech Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro gave his country’s Congress during which he presented a list of some 2,000 names of individuals closely tied to paramilitaries. One of those names was Santiago Uribe, the president’s brother.

Sam Logan, Spero News (2007-05-05): Uribe’s reality check

It is also increasingly clear that paramilitary groups, which have repeatedly murdered peasant activists and union organizers, have been backed by United States corporations.

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe headed to Washington this week, hoping to contain the fallout from an ever-widening scandal linking some of his closest allies to right-wing paramilitaries — a scandal that is threatening a key free-trade agreeement and future military aid from the U.S.

The trip puts Uribe under the spotlight of a Democratic-controlled Congress, some of whose legislators have expressed concern over the light sentences awaiting confessed paramilitary leaders under a deal negotiated by the Colombian government.

But Washington has made its own deal with at least one backer of the Colombian paramilitaries: Under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in March, banana giant Chiquita Brands International acknowledged it had paid $1.7 million to Colombia’s paramilitary groups. The company said it had made the payments to protect its employees, but about half of the money was paid after the paramilitary federation in question, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, had been placed on Washington’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in September of 2001.

… Still, Chiquita continued to make monthly payments to the AUC until February 2004, even after disclosing the situation to the Justice Department.

… Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell said that the company had felt obliged to make the payments to protect its employees. “We believe they saved people’s lives,” he said. However, during the time Chiquita was making the payments, thousands of people across Colombia died at the hands of the AUC, which expanded its power. In the banana belt alone between 1997 and 2004, right-wing paramilitaries are blamed for 22 massacres in which 137 people were killed, according to government figures.

Sibylla Brodzinsky, TIME (2007-05-02): Terrorism and bananas in Colombia

Wars are Based on Pillars

April 21st, 2007

This is from an Inter Press Services story on the January 27, 2007 march against the war in Iraq, which drew 500,000 demonstrators to Washington, DC, and thousands more to smaller demonstrations around the country.

In Seattle, more than 1,000 people turned out to protest. Among the speakers at that rally was first Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to face prosecution for refusing to serve in Iraq.

Long-time social activist Tom Hayden told IPS President Bush’s ability to wage war is increasingly tenuous.

Wars are based on pillars, Hayden said. You need available soldiers, you need bipartisan support. You need recruitment of more soldiers, you need money, you need your moral reputation to be preserved and you need allies. By any of those measures the pillars are being undermined.

Hayden noted that more than 1,000 active duty U.S. soldiers have signed a petition calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Unhappiness with the war is also growing among veterans, with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War estimating their organisation has quadrupled in size over the last year.

Supporting the troops that have signed these petitions and supporting efforts to stop military recruitment at our high schools and at community colleges are absolutely vital, Hayden added. But people every day can do something. You want to convince your undecided neighbor to go against, you want to convince your kid not to go, you want to take a picket sign to the military recruiting office. You want to link up with the poor people’s and labour organisations and say this war costs 287 million dollars an hour.

If you put your energies toward a pillar they will eventually tip, he said, and they cannot fight a war without these resources.

Aaron Glantz, Inter Press Service (2007-01-28): Anti-War Marches Draw Hundreds of Thousands

Growing the Peace Movement, from the Wall Street Journal

April 2nd, 2007

From the Wall Street Journal‘s Washington Wire (2007-03-29): Growing the Peace Movement:

In the past several days, a huge peace sign has appeared in the grass in front of the U.S. Capitol. Not planted, mind you, but in the form of darker and longer blades of grass. According to the Washington Times, the U.S. Capitol Police suspect that antiwar protesters carefully placed fertilizer to grow the sign.

The Capitol Police contacted Communities for Peace about the mark after a demonstration Sunday, the group’s founder Gerry Eitner said. The grass mark is the same size — and located in the same place — as a children’s peace quilt placed on the Capitol lawn for 15 minutes during the demonstration. Eitner said no fertilizers were used, and added that the quilt has been placed there before.

Eitner said there’s a lot of speculation as to why some of the grass is greener, something she attributed to the power of peace and prayer. She emphasizes Communities for Peace promotes peace but isn’t an antiwar organization. Whatever the cause of the grassroots message, the group may soon find out that peace has a price. Eitner said the Capitol Police raised the possibility of requiring the organization to pay for the cost of removing the symbol.

Dean Treftz

Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night

December 25th, 2006

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Simon and Garfunkel, 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Rules of Engagement: The Fallujah Legacy

November 2nd, 2006

On March 31, 2004, precisely two years before Captain McConnell and his Kilo Company came home from their momentous tour in Haditha, four American employees of a security firm called Blackwater were ambushed and killed in Fallujah. Their corpses were hacked apart and burned, and two of them were hung from a bridge amid celebrations on the street. Images were beamed around the world. Judging correctly that it could not leave the insult unanswered, the Bush administration, after brief consideration of the options, decided on an all-out assault against the city. That decision continues to stand as one of the worst of the war, ranking only below the decision to disband the Iraqi Army and the initial decision to invade. At the time, for those of us living independently in Iraq outside of the American security zones, and with some sense therefore of the mood on the streets, it demonstrated once again the inability of officials to imagine the trouble that the United States was in, and the astonishing insularity of Washington, D.C.

The Marines knew better. They wanted to respond to the Blackwater ambush by going after the individual killers, and then following through with a well-crafted counter-insurgency campaign to stabilize and mollify the city. But when they were overruled and ordered to do the opposite—to mount an immediate full-frontal offensive—they set aside their theories, and as professional soldiers they dutifully complied. It was a disaster. Backed up by tanks and combat aircraft, the Marines went into Fallujah dealing destruction, and quickly bogged down in house-to-house fighting against a competent and determined foe. To make matters worse, the showcase battalion of the new Iraqi Army mutinied and refused to join the fight. The battle cost several dozen American dead and many more wounded, and did immeasurable damage to the prospects for American success. It turned into a humiliation for the United States when, after four days of struggle, the Marines were ordered by a nervous Washington to withdraw. Again they dutifully complied. Afterward, the jubilant insurgents took full public control of the city, and with the help of the foreign fighters turned it into a fortified haven which U.S. forces did not dare to enter.

To get a feeling for Kilo Company and the killings in Haditha, it is necessary to remember this. After the spring battle was lost, Fallujah became an open challenge to the American presence in Iraq. There were plenty of other challenges, and to speak only of Fallujah is grossly to simplify the war. Still, Fallujah was the most obvious one, and the United States, unless it was to quit and go home, had no choice but to take the city back. Everyone knew it, on all sides, and for months the antagonists prepared. Because of the fortifications and the expectation of active resistance, there was no question this time of a patient counter-insurgency campaign: the Marines were going to have to go in and simply smash the city down. In November of 2004, they did just that, with a force about 10,000 strong. Before attacking they gave the city warning, and allowed an exodus to occur. Nearly the entire population fled, including most of the insurgents, who spread into Baghdad or up the Euphrates to carry on the rebellion, leaving behind, however, a rear guard of perhaps 1,000 gunmen who, exceptionally, wanted to make a stand. This was their mistake. The Marines attacked with high explosives and heavy weapons. Over the 10 days it took to move through Fallujah, and the following weeks of methodical house-to-house clearing, they wrecked the city’s infrastructure, damaged or destroyed 20,000 houses or more, and did the same to dozens of schools and mosques. They were not crusaders. They did not Christianize the place. They turned Fallujah into Stalingrad.

Many insurgents survived the initial assaults and emerged to contest the Marines at close quarters, room to room and in the rubble. It is said to have been the most intense battle by American forces since Vietnam. The insurgents were trapped inside cordon upon cordon of American troops, and they fought until death. For the Marines the rules of engagement were necessarily loose. Rules of engagement are standing orders that limit the targets of soldiers, defining the difference between appropriate and inappropriate killing according to strategic and tactical goals, and between legal and illegal killing according to interpretations of international law. In Fallujah the rules allowed Marines to kill anyone they believed to be dangerous, and others who got in the way. In addition to those seen carrying weapons, in practice this meant everyone in every structure from which hostile fire came, and any military-age male seen moving toward the Marines or running away. Obviously, the Marines were not allowed to kill wounded prisoners, but in a televised case one of them did, and Marine Corps justice averted its gaze.

The men of Kilo Company fought through the thick of Fallujah. Lance Corporals Terrazas and Crossan, and most of the other men of future Haditha note, ran the course from start to finish. Kilo Company lost four Marines killed and at least 20 seriously wounded, and was involved in the best-known close-quarters combat of the battle—a desperate attempt to clear insurgents from the rooms of a house, which came to be known as the Hell House fight. Toward the end of it, a New York–based photographer named Lucian Read snapped an iconic picture of a blood-drenched sergeant who had been shot seven times and blasted with an enemy grenade, but who nonetheless was emerging on foot from the house, holding a pistol in one hand, supported by a Marine on each side. The photograph showed the Marines as they like to be seen, and as some like to see themselves. There’s a lot to be said for going to war with a photographer in tow, until something happens that you would rather forget.

Fallujah was a victory for the Marine Corps, but a victory narrowly defined. The reality is that a quarter-million people were forced from their homes and, when they returned, were faced with a city in ruins, surrounded by concertina wire and watched over by armed men in towers. Marine general John Sattler, who had led the assault, claimed that the insurgency had been broken. But as the seasons slid by in 2005, guerrillas slipped back into Fallujah, or sprang up from its ruins, and they surged forward through all the other towns of Anbar, including Haditha. Sattler was wrong, and embarrassingly so. Within more contemplative circles of Marines, the battle of Fallujah became less of a triumph than a warning. The consequences were not difficult to discern. A hard-pressed combat officer once put it this way to me: Yeah, we won Fallujah. But before that we made Fallujah. And we definitely can’t afford to make another.

Rules of Engagement, in Vanity Fair (November 2006)

Richard Russell and Harry Truman exchange greetings after Hiroshima

August 7th, 2006

This is a telegram that Richard B. Russell, then a powerful U.S. Senator for the state of Georgia, sent to Harry S. Truman the evening after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Winder, GA Aug 7 42 7P

The President
(Personal Delivery) The White House

Permit me to respectfully suggest that we cease our efforts to cajole Japan into surrendering in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration. Let us carry the war to them until they beg us to accept the unconditional surrender. The foul attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into war and I am unable to see any valid reason why we should be so much more considerate and lenient in dealing with Japan than with Germany. I earnestly insist Japan should be dealt with as harshly as Germany and that she should not be the beneficiary of soft peace. The vast majority of the American people, including many sound thinkers who have intimate knowledge of the Orient [sic], do not agree with Mr. Grew in his attitude that there is any thing sacrosanct about Hirohito. He should go. We have no obligation to Shintoism. The contemptuous answer of the Japs [sic] to the Potsdam Ultimatum justifies a revision of that document and sterner peace terms.

If we do not have available a sufficient number of atomic bombs with which to finish the job immediately, let us carry on with TNT and fire bombs until we can produce them.

I also hope that you will issue orders forbidding the officers in command of our air forces from warning Jap cities that they will be attacked. These Generals do not fly over Japan and this showmanship can only result in the unnecessary loss of many fine boys in our Air Force as well as our helpless prisoners in the hands of the Japanese, including the survivors of the March of Death on Bataan who are certain to be brought into the cities that have been warned.

This was a total war as long as our enemies held all the cards. Why should we change the rules now, after the blood, treasure and enterprise of the American people have given us the upper hand. Our people have not forgotten that the Japanese struck us the first blow in this war without the slightest warning. They believe that we should continue to strike the Japanese until they are brought groveling to their knees. We should cease our appeals to Japan to sue for peace. The next plea for peace should come from an utterly destroyed Tokyo. Welcome back home. With assurances of esteem

Richard B. Russell, US Senator

Two days later, Truman replied with a one page letter:

Dear Dick:

I read your telegram of August seventh with a lot of interest.

I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner.

For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the pigheadedness of the leaders of a nation and for your information, I am not going to do it unless it is absolutely necessary. It is my opinion that after the Russians enter into war the Japanese will very shortly fold up.

My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.

Sincerely yours,
Harry S. Truman

Truman sent this letter to Dick Russell on August 9th, 1945 — the very same day that Truman’s humane feeling for the women and children in Japan were demonstrated by an American B-29 bomber, acting on his orders, dropping a second atomic bomb, without warning, on the city of Nagasaki, destroying the city and burning alive about one-third of the civilian population.

Today Truman is often counted as one of the greatest Presidents by American presidential historians. Russell served as a senator until he died of ephysema in 1971. The Russell Senate Office Building was named in his honor and a statue of Russell stands in the rotunda.