A gross political diversion has found its way onto American mainstream and social media recently, one that stinks of historical manipulation and neoconservative bias. It showed its face during the reaction to the death of John McCain and continued with Joe Biden presenting a farcical award to George W. Bush. It’s the continued white washing of the Bush administration’s horrifying military actions against the people of the Middle East, the reality that the media is more than a willing accomplice in trying to paint over that history, and that other high profile individuals such as Barack and Michelle Obama are lending their reputations to the fight by participating in the rewriting of US history beginning with George W. Bush.
The administration of George W. Bush should sit in specific infamy, as he and his underlings inaugurated the absurd and tragic "war on terror," taking the "known" rules of war and transforming them into paltry shields used to explain away the ongoing death, destruction, and refugee crisis created by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, an invasion wholly unsupported by facts, despite the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein was holding large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. And in a odd but understandable case of "monkey see, monkey do," he gave oppressive governments the world over a convenient excuse to whitewash their war crimes: simply say that the government is fighting "terrorists."
The US used this propaganda to cover the actions of the American military and the CIA as they tortured captured combatants, sent them off to be held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay and other secret US prisons far away from the US homeland, without any hope of release or due process. Bush’s many public appeals fear, fear of a terrorist attack, lent credence to paper thin connections between the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to the planners and executors of the September 11 attacks – thereby attempting the legitimization of military deployments across the Greater Middle East.
Rebranding is a time honored tradition among both businesses and governments. It allows large organizations to rename something the media or other critics have found distasteful or particularly loathsome. Blackwater, the mercenary company founded by Eric Prince and famous for massacring civilians in Iraq, has gone through several name changes to hide its sins: first Xe, then Academi. Phillip Morris, the American company made famous for making cigarettes more addictive and subsequently hiding the findings, changed to Altria in the hopes people would forget how many people died from their products. And, in the United States, our government and its associated organizations now attempt to rebrand our very leaders in a more wholesome light.
Recently, the warmonger rebranding process took a new but unsurprising turn in the Bush saga. The National Constitution Center, a "non-partisan" history center and museum in Philadelphia, announced they would award their Liberty Medal, the center’s highest honor, to President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush, for their “work with veterans.” At first glance, this appeared to be an outright indignation. How can the man who oversaw the deaths of four thousand Americans, the wounding of thousands more Americans, not to speak of the millions of Arabs and Muslims who lost their lives and their sovereignty, possibly be seen as some kind of honorable leader, much less one who "worked" with veterans, when he did more to create wounded veterans than any president since Nixon?
The award citation outlined that President and Mrs. Bush founded the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, within which operates the "George W. Bush Institute, a nonpartisan public policy and leadership development center focusing on solving today’s most pressing challenges." The veteran portion of the center, coined the Military Service Initiative, "includes an employment partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the Veteran Employment Transition Roadmap, and the Warrior Wellness Alliance, which connects peer-to-peer veteran networks with best-in-class health care providers." The citation references nothing about Bush’s service as president. The entire award was predicated on this "Service Initiative" created after Bush left office.
However, looking at the list of recipients, it’s clear that the National Constitution Center, in its efforts to be "bipartisan" has given this award to others within the American national security state, even those with a hard and fast reputation for war mongering. The awardee in 2017 was Senator John McCain, arguably a war criminal, and an incessant cheerleader of the American war state, with other past Liberty medals going to former Secretary of State, 2016 presidential candidate, and serial warmonger Hillary Clinton; General, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush II administration Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; and former British prime minister Tony Blair. All these individuals are or have been figureheads for the neo-liberal / neoconservative interventionist consensus.
While the Liberty Medal did go to some worthy recipients, including civil rights icon and US representative John Lewis, former heavyweight champion of the world and civil rights icon Muhammad Ali, and former Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor, the honor has gone primarily to fervent supporters of the war state, mostly holding horrifying foreign policy stances and positions. Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who happens to be the chairman of the National Constitution Center’s board of trustees, has participated in the horror show, personally placing John McCain’s medal around his neck.
The entire charade clearly showed the bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy and how future leaders will continue to cover up the larger sins of our government. It can’t be a coincidence that Colin Powell received his Liberty Medal in 2002, the year preceding the invasion of Iraq and in which he gave a horrifying (and grossly inaccurate) speech at the UN in which he attempted to convince world leaders that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was creating and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. If anyone was out in front for Bush during the lead up to the war (when W needed some political cover), it was Powell.
When Barack Obama chose to not prosecute Bush administration torturers and those who supported them, when he did not officially dispute the rationale for the war on terror, he too became party to the ever-present American exceptionalism myth, particularly the portion which defends the most abhorrent of American policy decisions. For a man like Obama, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize within the first two weeks of his administration, world leaders might have expected a leader more committed to peace. Certainly, Obama’s campaign stumping, like Donald Trump’s after him, supported the transparent lie of criticizing the Iraq war and the war on terror, only to find him continue the warfare state begun by George W. Bush. And, when he ordered a new surge into Afghanistan, Obama’s admission to the warmongers club was complete. But now joining the ranks of the white washers, Barack and Michelle have become something worse than warmongers: apologists for the same.
However, this history shrouded in the myths of American exceptionalism, also connects to a military problem, equally dripping with moral decrepitude: the token award-giving made famous in recent conflicts. My grandfather received two Bronze Stars during his time in the Marine Corps: the first, for his actions fighting fires aboard the USS Tennessee during the bombing of Pearl Harbor; the second for combat in Korea. Once, during a discussion with him regarding his service, I asked about his Bronze Stars and how he felt about the US military giving them as deployment awards to senior noncommissioned officers and officers who usually didn’t even see combat (something I witnessed during both my deployments to Iraq). Grandfather responded by telling me that when he left the Marine Corps, almost all the men he knew who received a Bronze Star were dead.
The Bronze Star medal itself was not created as an award for valor, it was first given to soldiers and marines who survived ground combat in World War II, akin to the Army Combat Infantryman badge, Combat Medic badge, and today’s Combat Action badge. It was created by General George C. Marshall to boost morale among American combat forces while dealing with the harsh realities of life in combat. A V device for "valor" could be added to the award if it denoted a specific valorous act, one deemed inappropriate for higher awards. General Marshall had one piece of guidance he insisted awarding commanders consider when granting the medal: "Keep a balance among the services involved in battle, the best to the man who is actually in the fighting. Something else, less impressive, to the men who labor behind the lines.”
Today, it is the lack of such distinction that is most perturbing. If the intent is to raise the morale of those directly in combat and to grant a different award altogether to recognize the sacrifices of non-combat hardship, why is it now given out like candy to senior personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan who by virtue of their rank or position saw little or no combat? And it this that connects to the Bush award ceremony. These Bronze Stars are devoid of their original worth, given to undeserving men and women as a matter of course. The Liberty Medal and its recent militaristic recipients suffer the same fate.
While my grandfathers’ was a different generation in a different war, the cognitive dissonance of the empty award giving did not sit well with either him or me. Does this not parallel the vacuousness of this latest Liberty medal award ceremony? The entire parody seems like little more than a paltry attempt to give an award that demonstrates President Bush has "sacrificed and suffered" enough to allow our worthy moral judgments of him to evaporate. This tokenism was seen on display during Donald Trump’s election, when a veteran offered him a Purple Heart and he accepted it willingly and seriously. "I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier,” Trump said. And when politicians use veterans for their own ends, such as having them attend the State of the Union speech alongside their chosen partisan leaders, how can ordinary people not begin to devalue veterans as a whole?
The War on Terror already has its own unseemly history with awards. The death of former Arizona Cardinals NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, killed by friendly fire from his own comrades, was manipulated by senior US commanders including General John Abizaid and then Lt. General Stanley McChrystal. Both men falsified award orders for a Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion of Tillman to Corporal, along with ordering Tillman’s comrades to lie about the details of his death to Tillman’s own family at the funeral. No senior leaders were ever punished for their crimes again Pat Tillman, his comrades, and his family. Heck, McChrystal was promoted.
Britt Slabinski, a Navy SEAL and former member of SEAL Team 6, the group’s elite counterterrorism force, received a Medal of Honor from President Trump for his actions during an ambush early in the war in Afghanistan that killed fellow Navy SEAL Neil Roberts and six other special operations troops. The award was issued after years of speculation about whether Slabinski had left behind a fellow combatant, Air Force Tech Sergeant and combat controller John Chapman, believed by Stabinski to have been killed when he and others retreated by air in the initial ambush. Given the number of war crimes believed to have been committed by members of SEAL Team Six throughout the War on Terror, the Intercept posed the question of whether giving this award for this particular incident was simply another way to rebrand the SEALS’ image and, indeed, the image of all combatants in the war on terror.
A long time SEAL commander told the Intercept in discussing the case that "One of my commanders told me point-blank: The bigger the fuck-up, the bigger the award." Awards allow combatants to segment the "good" portions of their service from the "bad," giving the impression that their careers are solely filled with military accolades rather than the regular killing of opposing combatants and civilians.
There’s one more element in need of illumination in this discussion and it’s the dehumanization process: the degradation of certain kinds of humans that war propagandists use to justify atrocities. Combatants are often trained to see their enemies as less than human, thereby making their death and dismemberment easier to stomach. But this can’t be simply seen as a way to survive combat; it’s another form of propaganda. On a larger scale, however, propaganda bridges the gap between the actions of combatants on the ground and the later deification of heroism by senior leaders. It gives ordinary citizens a concrete reasoning behind all the overseas killing and dying: our enemies are not human.
Back in World War I, a massive propaganda campaign was put out by the US Government to sow popular fear and hate of the Germans. American troops heard about the "assassination" of Edith Cavell, the sinking of the Lusitania, the declaration of unrestricted U-Boat warfare, Zeppelin raids, and the use of gas in the trenches, all of which seemed to confirm the fundamental depravity of the German character. Thus German atrocities were afforded a particular prominence, whereas the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, or British and French starvation of their colonial populations passed almost unnoticed.
This is an old tactic, used by political leaders for centuries to justify the subjugation of and violence against vulnerable people. In the context of propaganda, the term "sub human", comes from Nazi Germany ("Untermensch" in the original German) as Hitler used this rationality to justify his atrocities against Jews, Poles, people of color, gays, and the disabled. Even a quote from Hitler’s key lieutenant, Hermann Goring, could outline almost exactly how Bush used the hatred of Arabs and Muslims to justify his war: "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
The Bush administration was able to use this rationale to deflect criticism of detainee abuse in the war on terror. Branded "unlawful" combatants by the Bush administration, the detainees were able to be treated differently because they had no clear cut connections to recognized nation-states. How a human being defending their home and country from foreign invaders could be considered "unlawful" is itself any interesting question (though one for another piece). Without a state to defend their actions, nor to negotiate for their release as would be normal policy in a war between state actors, Bush was able to convince Americans and their allies to treat "unlawful" combatants as "sub human;" their treatment at the hands of American forces and detention locations didn’t come with the normal discussion of prisoner rules under the Geneva Conventions.
"Unlawful"combatants received no prisoner of war status, no nation attempting to negotiate for better conditions on behalf of "their" prisoners, and no other talk of human rights; Bush even specifically declared that "None of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world." Considered neither criminals nor prisoners of war, captured enemy combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan were transformed into literal stateless beings. This all hearkened back to America’s history of slavery, as black slaves long held a similarly dubious legal status. Unable to petition a court, or legally break away from the bonds of servitude protected by American law at the time, slaves held no power to challenge their enslavement or their mistreatment.
It’s also important to discuss the reality of Bush’s veterans’ policies as commander in chief. President Bush cut VA funding in late 2007, right at the height of the Iraq war, because he saw balancing the budget as a loftier goal than taking care of the hundred of thousands of US servicemen and women returning from operations in the Middle East. This occurred at the height of Bush’s "surge" operations in Iraq, when the number of troops in Iraq was only eclipsed by the numbers used in the initial invasion in 2003. The wait list problems that plagued the Obama administration’s tenure with the VA actually began during the Bush administration. The problem was well known to Bush administration officials and, yet, it wasn’t fixed until several years into the Obama administration.
It’s not enough to remember our victims of the "war on terror." We must remember not just how Americans were pushed towards bigoted and hateful impressions of our enemies, but also the historical precedents for such hatred and fear mongering. In World War II, the dropping of the atomic bombs, seen by many Americans as necessary to save American soldiers’ lives, had no strategic significance, as Russia’s entrance into the war against Japan would have brought the war to a close anyway. Still, American history books continue to celebrate a veritable "reverence" for this event, incorrectly insisting that it avoided a million American casualties by avoiding an invasion of the Japanese mainland. It was the racist framing of the Japanese that gave then President Harry Truman the cover needed to drop the atomic bombs and fire bomb Tokyo.
Similar notions and tactics explain how Bush got Americans to accept the horrors he regularly inflicted in the Middle East. Rebranding murderers is an old story and one students of history see repeated time and again. The methods change, but the need to paint over it doesn’t. Nevertheless, veterans and Americans in general should never forgive the bigotry and war mongering of George W Bush – a man directly responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of human beings. We, as a nation, must do better. We cannot allow Bush’s biggest apologists to claim a hero’s status for an abhorrent war criminal. It is our duty, as citizens of an ostensible republic, to demands more from our leaders…and anointed our heroes.
Chris "Henri" Henrikson is a Iraq combat veteran from Portland, OR. Now a journalist, writer, and podcaster, you can find his blog and website at www.fortressonahill.com, where he and co-host Danny Sjursen host Fortress On A Hill Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @Rorak11GGD. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.