In 1965, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration backed a military coup by a right-wing Indonesian general named Suharto – who like many Javanese used only his given name – that overthrew Sukarno, hero of his country’s freedom struggle against Dutch colonialism and its first post-independence president. Sukarno, an ardent anti-imperialist, had made the fatal errors of protecting Indonesian communists and cozying up to the Soviet Union and China, and was marked for elimination. In service of this, the US Embassy in Jakarta gave Suharto’s forces "shooting lists" of known and suspected communists; US officials later admitted checking off names of victims who had been killed or captured.
"It was a really big help to the army," explained former diplomat Robert Martens. "They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad." Suharto consolidated his power and, with US support, ruled Indonesia by 1967. More than half a million Indonesians died in what the New York Times called "one of the most savage mass slayings of modern political history.
Of Hands and Blood
Fast-forward 55 years to the present, when amid the crescendoing drumbeat of war, this time against Iran, one phrase seems to dominate the rhetoric of warmongering politicians and pundits alike: Qasem Soleimani, the top Iranian general assassinated along with numerous associates in a US drone strike in Baghdad on Thursday, "has the blood of Americans on his hands," we’re told. And yes, it’s true that hundreds of US troops in Iraq were killed or wounded by Iran-backed fighters. It’s also true that those troops were foreign invaders engaged in an illegal war of regime change, occupation and exploitation, and that Soleimani is seen by many as a hero who courageously – and successfully – defended his Shia brethren in Iraq and elsewhere from imperialist domination.
We’re not here today to debate whether Soleimani was a hero or a villain, for it is possible to be both, to different people. Nor are we here to remind that Iran is a country – which despite being surrounded by hostile US and allied forces, and despite a long history of sometimes extreme US aggression and meddling – that hasn’t started a foreign war since the early 1700s. Or that the immediate genesis of the current crisis is Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with which everyone agrees Iran was compliant, a move which many warned could precipitate fallout of a sort very much like what’s happening now. Or, for that matter, how President Donald Trump’s act of war will further inflame the world’s most combustible region.
No, we’re here today to discuss bloody hands. America’s bloody hands, to be precise. Logic would dictate that the US presumption that having American blood on one’s hands marks one for what Trump called "termination" would apply equally to those touched by America’s bloody hands, and the US has exponentially more blood on its hands than Iran. In the post-World War II era, it has invaded or attacked, in more or less chronological order, North Korea, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, Cuba, North Vietnam, Laos, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Libya, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Sudan, Serbia, Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. That’s 22 countries, some of them subjected to two or more US attacks or invasions.
‘Life Is Cheap’
While it is impossible to tell precisely how many people have been killed by a country that infamously "doesn’t do body counts," contemporary accounts and historical analyses paint a very bloody picture. After the Korean War, US strategic air commander Gen. Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay acknowledged that "we killed off 20 percent of the population" of North Korea. That’s nearly 1.9 million men, women and children. In comparison, the Nazis killed 17 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. At least half a million – and perhaps as many as a million – North Korean and Chinese troops also died.
At least one million North Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and allied Viet Cong fighters, along with at least 150,000 Cambodians and a similar number of Laotians were killed by US and allied bombs and bullets during the Vietnam War. Hundreds of millions of bombs were dropped on the peasants of Laos, the most heavily-bombed nation in history, and more than 20,000 Laotians, many of them children, have been killed by unexploded ordnance since the bombing ended in 1973. President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, along with a US-backed coup, ushered in the horrific era of Khmer Rouge rule and an ensuing genocide that claimed another 1.5 to 2 million lives.
Such bloodletting was a secondary concern for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in November 1975 told Thailand’s foreign minister to inform the Khmer Rouge that the United States would not oppose its rule. "We will be friends with them," Kissinger said. "They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way." A month later, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger were in Jakarta green-lighting another genocidal campaign, this time in East Timor. By the time it was over, 200,000 of the territory’s 700,000 people were dead.
"The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner," Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, explained in 1974. "Life is cheap in the Orient."
Although not quite Oriental, life was also cheap in Iraq, where US forces killed an estimated 200,000 Iraqi troops and civilians, at a cost of only 292 coalition troops, during the 1991 Gulf War. The United Nations later acknowledged that subsequent sanctions were to blame for the premature deaths of more than half a million Iraqi children. When journalist Lesley Stahl noted that this was "more children than died in Hiroshima," then-US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright replied, "we think the price is worth it."
The price was even higher for Iraqis the second time around, with a 2015 study concluding at least 1.2 million, and possibly more than 2 million, civilians and combatants in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have died in the ongoing US-led war on terrorism, now in its 19th year. Thousands more people have died in Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya.
A World of Hurt
Those were just the big wars. Thousands of men, women and children have been killed by US bombs and bullets in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama and Yugoslavia. Proxy forces have killed at least hundreds of thousands more on every inhabited continent save Australia. In Iran, the US has overthrown the most popular government Iranians have ever known, supported a brutal monarch and trained his forces in torture and repression, shot down a civilian airliner killing hundreds of civilians and trained terrorists who have carried out deadly attacks against Americans and Iranians alike.
Perhaps this sanguinary legacy is why, in survey after international survey, the United States is perennially voted the world’s greatest threat to peace in most of the world’s nations. After Soleimani’s assassination, Trump boasted that "his bloody rampage is forever gone." If only the same were true of Trump, who continues to fulfill his campaign promise to "bomb the shit out of" Islamist militants and "take out their families" as the US wages war in seven countries and kills thousands of civilians and combatants alike. So much more so than Iran’s, America’s hands are drenched in blood.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.