War Crimes

Written by Sarmad Ishfaq 11:47 am Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

The United States of America: The Superpower of War Crimes, Terrorism, & Hypocrisy

When it comes to human rights and democracy, the United States of America tends to place itself on a high pedestal. The US’ false sense of righteousness and its tendency to ignore its own crimes while calling out other states has allowed it to remain on its high horse. The author, Sarmad Ishfaq, notes that the US has actively supported insurgencies and covert regime changes, initiated a nuclear arms race, and killed 22,000 civilians in airstrikes. No incident can better represent the US’ war crimes and hypocrisy than its bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet, despite it killing hundreds of thousands of people, the world turns a blind eye to America’s transgressions.
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About the Author(s)
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Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, The Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.

The ten Afghan civilians left dead in the wake of a US drone strike in Kabul recently is just another tragedy in the US’s sordid book of human rights transgressions. The United States, often self-labeled as the bastion of human rights and a shining beacon of democracy is far from such a reality – in fact, achieving such is tantamount to a pipedream for the country drowning in war crimes.

One need only examine some of the historical injustices that America has committed against other nations and their people to appreciate how destructive the country is. Crimes so indelible that if it were any other nation in the world, it would be a pariah facing a myriad of sanctions. America, however, gets a clean chit most of the time.

Apart from its war crimes, the US’s gall to shame other countries for their lack of freedom, democracy, and sub-par standards is laughable and the definition of hypocrisy. How can the global destructor-in-chief freely ride around on its high horse while being guiltier than most? The debate is not whether China, Russia, and other countries are innocent – but rather who gave America the moral right to decide a country’s culpability when itself is a plight for millions in the world.

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The 9/11 Wars and Countless US War Crimes

“If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.” – Noam Chomsky

The War on Terror that began after September 11, 2001, was perhaps the most pivotal moment in recent history. A tragedy had befallen the sole superpower of the world where almost 3,000 people died. This September marked 9/11’s 20th anniversary and while the US grieved for its citizens, no tears were shed for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians that died due to the US misadventurism and its cowboy “shock and awe” antics.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, the US ingressed into Afghanistan for a brutal 20-year war that just recently ended with the world’s sole superpower defeated humiliatingly. The Afghanistan war cost trillions of dollars and fractured the nation but far more importantly left too many civilians dead as a consequence. America’s invasion of Afghanistan also catapulted Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan, into a war and perhaps the worst internal security situation for the country in its history.

America subsequently invaded Iraq in 2003 under the suspicion that Iraq had relations with Al-Qaeda and was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Both these claims were and remain unproven – therefore, the war was necessitated on false pretenses and the US was never put on trial for this let alone the consequences of its war. Moreover, it was the US’s ignominious decision to dismantle the Iraqi army that conceived and mothered ISIS due to ex-Iraqi soldiers joining the terror group in riposte.

Overall, around 200,000 Iraqi civilians have died (due to the 2003-2011 US-led Iraq invasion and the 2013-2017 war against ISIS) and around 4 million Iraqis have been internally displaced. One must also not forget the series of war crimes including the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse conducted by the US army personnel and the CIA.

In Syria, the US might not have directly started the civil war but it had been funding and training thousands of anti-Assad rebels since at least 2012 covertly under CIA-led operation Timber Sycamore. The CIA’s surreptitious policy of aiding rebels, like most US plans involving other nations, fell through as US-funded weapons not only fueled the fire of civil war in Syria but some weapons ended up in the hands of ISIL and al-Nusra Front. Furthermore, many of the rebels in the Free Syrian Army, supported by US and Arab states, began defecting to ISIS eventually due to dissatisfaction with US support and its airstrikes.

According to Brown University’s findings, around 363,939 – 387,072 civilians have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan since the 9/11 wars at the hands of the US forces, local militaries, and rebel fighters. Following Iraq’s tragic 200,000 civilian deaths, Syria suffered 95,000 civilian fatalities followed by 46,000 in Afghanistan.

Neta C. Crawford, a Boston University political science professor, states that the total number could cumulate to over a million dead when accounting for deaths from war that came from disease, displacement, and destroyed infrastructure. In contrast, Al Qaeda, the prime reason the US initiated so many wars, killed 4,101 people all around the world from 1993-2010.

Although it is difficult to ascertain how many civilian deaths came directly at American hands as many areas are still warzones, there are certain estimates that shed some light: for example, from 2007-2016, the US and its allies are said to have killed an average of 582 civilians per year in Afghanistan which almost doubled to 1,134 from 2017-2019.

An Amnesty International report from 2014 stated that thousands of Afghan civilians had been killed since 2001 by international military operations and despite these high numbers, the US and others had not done barely enough to bring those responsible for “unlawful killings to justice”. It also mentions that incidents such as the killing of five civilians, including two women, in Gardez (February 2010) by US forces, in what appeared to have been a component of war crimes, go uninvestigated and unpunished too often.

The US has also, throughout various administrations, severely undercounted civilians killed by it and this appears to be a concerted effort by the country to veil the world from reality. The New York Times for example revealed that during airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, 31 times more civilian deaths occurred than the official US statement. In fact, according to The Independent, many attacks that take civilian lives are not acknowledged as a practice.

Obama, who is usually portrayed as a sagacious and almost a saintly figure in the media, has his hands stained with blood akin to his predecessor and successor. He not only initiated the US’s deadly unmanned drones program and launched 10 times more airstrikes than Bush, but his administration too undercounted civilian deaths in drone strikes. According to the NGO Airwars, the US conducted 91,340 airstrikes since 9/11, through which 22,679 civilians have been directly killed while noting that this number could be potentially as high as 48,308.

During the Trump presidency, the administration restricted public disclosure of the number of airstrikes the US conducted – this has serious implications and signifies that the number of civilians that died via airstrikes is far more than the aforementioned numbers. On-the-ground investigations of drone attacks are rarely conducted by the self-proclaimed champion of democracy.

In fact, a report by Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute and the Center for Civilians in Conflict that examined 228 US military investigations vis-à-vis civilian harm in Afghanistan and Iraq (2004-2014) found that out of these there were site visits only 16% of the time. The same report (written in 2019) also stated that AFRICOM (US Africa Command) “did not conduct a single site visit to investigate claims of civilian casualties in the last three years.”

The US’ voracious ego and the world’s muteness have made it so that the families of the dead have, many times, not received a single apology for the US’s gung-ho antics. For example, in Yemen, a series of US drone strikes coupled with a special forces raid killed 34 members of two families, including nine children of which the youngest was a three-month-old baby who was shot by a US Navy SEAL. The US remained monolithic and offered no apology.

The US Has Been Involved in Some Conflict 225 out of 243 years

According to research, the US has spent over 90% of its existence in some sort of conflict – at worst a war and at best covert interventions and/or electoral intervention in foreign countries. Vis-à-vis wars, there have been many; some sources cite close to a hundred wars, others more than a hundred. The Philippine-American War, The Occupation of Nicaragua, The Banana Wars, The World Wars, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, Invasion of Panama, The Gulf War, The Afghanistan War, The Iraq War, the American-led interventions in Syria and Libya are examples to name a very few.

The US also has a colossal history spanning many decades of electoral rigging and political interference in a myriad of countries. Dov Levin, an academic at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated the prevalence of election interventions by both US and Russia from 1946-2000. He found 117 “partisan electoral interventions” in this timeframe of which almost 70% were cases of US intervention.

US intervention by region

Although swift to reprimand Russia and others for political interference, the US overlooks a country’s sovereignty when itself is the perpetrator – but again, somehow, always avoids mass criticism. The Washington Post states that between 1947 and 1989, the US attempted to change other countries’ governments 72 times. These included assassination attempts, funding militant groups, and sponsoring coups. The same article states that meddling in foreign elections was the most successful covert tactic.

Covert regime change was found to be devastating for target countries as the countries became more likely to develop undemocratic practices and more prone to civil war and widespread killing. In 2013, the CIA finally admitted that it was behind the coup against Iran’s Prime Minister Mr. Mosaddeq in favor of Reza Pahlavi in 1953.

Other US covert regime change involvements include the 1949 Syrian coup d’état, the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, the 1971 Bolivian coup d’état, the 1976 Argentine coup d’état, the 1996 Iraq coup attempt, and 2012-17 Timber Sycamore in Syria to name a few. The US has also funded and supported militants and insurgents in nations such as Cuba, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey etcetera.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Unapologetic Bombing of Japan

“It was not just a war crime; it was a crime against humanity.” – Peter Kuznick

The US has also brazenly never apologized to Japan for dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an extremely “the ends justify the means” manner. The bombing of the Japanese cities has been described by many notable individuals as well as reputable organizations as a war crime. Yet, for the US, the definition of war crimes differs.

There is unfortunately a huge discrepancy when it comes to how many people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The “low” estimates that were calculated by the US military in the 1940s stated that around 110,000 Japanese in total died in both cities, while the “high” estimates derived by anti-nuclear weapons scientists in 1977 (mainly spearheaded by Japan) revealed that around 210,000 people died in totality.

While there is a huge debate, on whether bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary or not, many notable people, including physicist Leó Szilárd who had worked on the Manhattan Project, never wanted the bombs to be used as they considered them to fall in the category of war crimes. Leó Szilárd stated, “Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?”

Robert McNamara, a former Secretary of Defense and architect of the civilian conventional bombing of Tokyo, also reflected similar sentiments. He said, “Was there a rule then that said you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, shouldn’t burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night? [Curtis] LeMay [American general] said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

Almost every US military leader at that time was against dropping the bombs. US military leaders such as General Douglas MacArthur were against it as was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, who said, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.” Other senior US officials mirrored similar sentiments.

The US which had protested the vile Japanese bombing of Chongqing (Republic of China) in 1938 stating that bombing of non-combatant populations violated international and humanitarian laws, did not object to its own firebombing of Japan and its nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two wrongs do not make a right after all.

The scholar R. J. Rummel has described the nuclear bombing of the two cities as “democide”, a concept derived by himself, which is the intentional killing of unarmed/disarmed persons by government forces in accordance with the government’s policy. He asserts that America committed its greatest democide during World War II by indiscriminately bombing German and Japanese cities.

Not only was the bombing inhumane and militarily unnecessary, but it lobbed the world into a nuclear arms race. The end of the Second World War heralded the “birth of the atomic age”. The nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union began and increased expeditiously in the years to come with France and Britain also joining the act.


When it comes to the US, the world’s moral compass as well the US’s, more often than not, ceases to function and war crimes no longer hold the same meaning. Countries the US targets usually get accused of supporting militancy and are labeled as terrorist countries at worst and state-sponsors of terrorism at best, but the US with its colossal legacy of supporting militancy, installing puppet regimes, precipitating civil war, and war crimes remains invulnerable.

Is it the pro-West mainstream media that has brainwashed the masses or the so-called “American dream” that has the world mesmerized? Why isn’t the US labeled as a terrorist nation and accused of war crimes when it has, directly or indirectly, taken the lives of potentially millions of people? More than an answer to these glaring questions, justice needs to be given to those who most deserve it but unfortunately remain forgotten victims.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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