Renewed imperialist interventionism in the Third World has been a characteristic of global politics since the end of the Cold War. Crucial to this new era of intervention has been a propaganda offensive that the Third World is full of bloodthirsty leaders and tribes who are continually carrying out war crimes. The main part of the article below was written in 1997 when this trend was still relatively new. It appeared in the Christchurch-based revolution magazine, #3, August/September 1997.  The section on napalm has been added today.


Top: Hiroshima; Above: The USA dropped 8 million tons of napalm in Vietnam. Western war criminals will never be brought to trial.

by Sharon Jones

War crimes, it seems, are pretty common these days. They seem to be breaking out virtually everywhere – except in the West. For instance, every time some repressive regime in the Third World carries out the kind of policies which Western governments encouraged in the past, during the Cold War, they are now denounced by those same Western governments as perpetrating ‘war crimes’.

Have the Western elites turned over a new leaf and become humanitarians? Or is ‘war crime’ fever in the West an indication of a sickness within the Western body politic?

Let’s begin by looking at the latest example of the obsession with war crimes, the American government’s attempt to get Pol Pot extradited to face a war crimes tribunal in the United States.

Pol Pot’s regime was a horrendous one, killing between one and two million Cambodians in its brief time in power, 1975-1979. It attempted to physically annihilate the urban working class and intelligentsia and build a nightmarish peasant totalitarian ‘communist’ society in the impoverished countryside. No-one in their right mind could shed any tears over Pol Pot getting the justice he deserves.

But how and by whom is this justice to be meted out? Why should the United States or any other Western power or institution play any part in this, especially given the US record in IndoChina? Are we really to believe that the rulers of the United States are even horrified by the activities of the Pol Pot regime?

Pol Pot and the USA: the real record

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge only became a force in Cambodia after US bombing and a 1970 invasion by US ground troops had plunged the society into chaos. When Pol Pot took power in 1975, Washington quickly moved to encourage him in a series of border attacks on Vietnam. The US government courted by Pol Pot and his backers in China as a way of punishing Vietnam for having inflicted a humiliating defeat on the United States.

When the Vietnamese sent in troops to ally with an anti-Pol Pot faction of the Khmer Rouge and overthrow his murderous regime, thereby helping save many more Cambodian lives, Washington rallied to the displaced Pol Pot side. Washington and Beijing ensured that Pol Pot’s gang continued to be recognised by the UN as the ‘legitimate’ and ‘official’ government of Cambodia and continued to hold Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly. Vietnam was punished with sanctions and a US-backed Chinese invasion for ending Pol Pot’s murder spree. Clearly, then, the US rulers are not at all bothered about Pol Pot’s ‘crimes against humanity’. (NZ governments, Labour and National alike, backed Pol Pot’s gang holding onto the Cambodian seat at the UN – Redine, 2015.)

Shift in priorities

However, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the shift of the Vietnamese government to a more market-oriented economic course, Pol Pot – like so many other Washington-backed stooges – became surplus to US requirements. Now Washington is anxious to charge him, on US soil, with the crimes they never battered an eyelid over for twenty years.

The Clinton government would dearly love a good war crimes trial for two reasons. Firstly, it would allow their own sleaze-ridden regime to occupy the moral high ground and thereby improve their faltering public standing at home and their ability to intervene further in the Third World. Secondly, it would help to sanitise the United States’ own record in IndoChina in the 1960s and 1970s and rewrite the blood-soaked history of that intervention in which several million people were killed and even more turned into refugees, huge tracts of land defoliated and more tonnage of bombs dropped by the US than that dropped by all sides in the two world wars and the Korean War combined.

While the US stance in relation to Pol Pot is a particularly gross piece of hypocrisy, it is important to see it as part of a much broader trend in the post-Cold War world.

War crime fever

The West’s new-found fever for war crimes trials found its first major expression in the 1993 decision of the United Nations Security Council to set up an international war crimes tribunal through which the West could judge the rest. The assumption behind the initiative was, and remains, that the source of violence and barbarism is ‘over there’ – in the Third World – and the proper people to sit and pass judgement are ‘over here’ – the great and the good who run society in the West.

By this means, some of the poorest and least powerful peoples on earth – such as those in Rwanda struggling over resources made scarce thanks to imperialist domination – are to be blamed for causing war and oppression while the West’s tiny minority of ruling rich are to be upheld as morally superior.

In fact, even the notions of ‘war crimes’ and ‘war criminals’ are problematic. They appear more as ideological constructions applied by Western elites to brand any forces in the rest of the world who have falen out of their favour. The concept of ‘war criminals’ also suggests that the Western elites behave like perfect gentlemen during war – an idea that the Jews of Europe, the citizens of Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the people of IndoChina and many other places would clearly dispute.

Whether it’s bombing millions of people to death or awarding medals to officers who have carried out the destruction of villages or the killings of peaceful demonstrators, powers such as the United States and Britain have no problem at all with what many of us would regard as ‘war crimes’. No wonder one of the Serbian militiamen, Arkan, charged with ‘war crimes’ in Bosnia declared, “I will go to a war crimes tribunal when Americans are tried for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Cambodia, Panama.”

Western powers justify attacks on civilians

It is also interesting to note that the last time the West staged a major war crimes tribunal, at Nuremburg after World War II, the judges who tried Nazi war criminals specifically justified attacks on civilians, including atomic bombings, saying these were “legitimate warfare”. Aerial bombardment, which has killed millions, was justified by the judges because the people with the biggest capacity (and necessity) for it are the main Western powers themselves.

No-one was ever going to be charged over the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that incinerated hundreds of thousands.  And nor have or will any US commanders or politicians ever be charged over the horrendous war crimes they committed in Vietnam.

Take, for instance, just one aspect of US war crimes in Vietnam: the use of napalm.*  Napalm combines plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline producing a jelly-like substance that, once ignited, sticks to pretty much anything and burns for up to ten minutes.  “Napalm is the most terrible pain you can ever imagine,” said Kim Phúc, a survivor from a napalm bombing. “Water boils at 212°F. Napalm generates temperatures 1,500°F to 2,200°F.”  It’s one of the most painful ways imaginable that someone can die.

The US government used it in Vietnam initially to burn down forest and bush where the liberation movement was taking shelter and then they used it on villages. Just one napalm bomb could destroy up to 2,500 square yards. From 1965-1973 the US dropped 8 million tons of napalm in South Vietnam, the place they claimed to be ‘defending from communism’.  The supposedly ‘evil communists’ dropped no tons of napalm.

The Gulf Wars and the invasion of Afghanistan provide more sharp reminders of who has the real power to kill.

Clearly, then, the current preoccupation of Western governments with war crimes has nothing to do with the nature of the crimes themselves or even the actual perpetrators, so many of whom are former Western allies. The chief reason for the ‘war crimes’ fever is not to be found in events in the Third World at all, but within the West itself.

These days no Western government can solve the problems of economic slump, social decay and fragmentation which increasingly afflict their countries. And politicians are about as popular as lawyers and taxmen.

The demise of the old Soviet bloc, meanwhile, has re oved the external factor which Western elites used to cohere their societies around their rule.

It all seems to be coming apart

In such a situation, the Western elites are particularly anxious to demonise, condemn and stitch up people in the rest of the world. Unable to gain authority and respect through their actions at home, they are trying to find an external focus through which to re-establish their authority and their moral claims to leadership.

Whatever you might thjink of us,” they are saying to the rest of us, “just be thankful you are not in a country run by barbarians.” Exploitation and violence all over the globe is turned into an argument for the defence of the Western ruling classes whose system is responsible for these problems in the first place.

What’s a war crime? Well, it all depends who’s doing the violence, who’s on the receiving end and who has the power to apply the label.

* The information on napalm comes from


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