The Powell Doctrine:
Baghdad/Jenin/My Lai
by Heather Wokusch
August 17, 2002

With the US poised to attack Iraq, it's helpful to recall what pushed us over the brink last time ... the invisible steps and the unspoken consequences.

In the fall of 1990, when the US Congress was debating going to war, Amnesty International (AI) released an explosive report detailing how Iraqi soldiers had taken Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Many US Senators later claimed it was the Amnesty "dead baby" report that finally convinced them to use vicious force against the Iraqis.

Minor glitch. It was soon revealed that the Amnesty report was a complete sham - Kuwaiti propaganda put together by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton. The Summer 2002 edition of Covert Action Quarterly describes how political infighting at AI had pitted a board member (who said the report was too "sloppy" and "inaccurate" to release) against a high-level official at Amnesty UK, now suspected of having been an undercover British intelligence agent, who released the sham report anyway.

Regardless, the attack on Iraq had already begun and television viewers worldwide were absorbing endless footage of laser-guided bombs, pinpoint missiles and other" precision warfare" that miraculously seemed to destroy machinery without harming civilians. Back home, flag-waving hysteria followed Operation Desert Storm to its climax, and returning conquerors, including then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, were feted as national heroes.

Minor glitch. A few months later it was revealed that actually 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis, many of them unarmed civilians, had died during the six-week attack, including tens of thousands mowed down in aerial assaults as they were trying to flee along what became nicknamed "The Highway of Death."

Equating civilians and combatants is integral to "The Powell Doctrine" which recommends using overwhelming force on the enemy, regardless of civilian casualties. In his autobiography, Colin Powell discusses the Vietnam War and explains the benefits of destroying the food and homes of villagers who might sympathize with the Viet Cong: "We burned the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters ... Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said people were like the sea in which his guerillas swam. We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference does it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?"

Unmentioned is the moral implication of targeting civilians, or why doing so would make them want to sympathize with the US.

A few years later, Colin Powell was an up-and-coming staff officer, assigned to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai, Vietnam. He was put in charge of handling a young soldier, Tom Glen, who had written a letter accusing the Americal division of routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians; the letter was detailed, its allegations horrifying, and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers. Rather than speaking to Glen about the letter, however, Powell's response was to conduct a cursory investigation followed by a report faulting Glen, and concluding, "In direct refutation of this (Glen's) portrayal, is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."

Minor glitch. Soon after, news surfaced about the Americal division's criminal brutality at My Lai, in which 347 unarmed civilians were massacred; Powell's memoirs fail to mention the Glen incident.

Fast forward to April 2002, and having risen to Secretary of State, Colin Powell reported to a US congressional panel about his visit to the Jenin refugee camp, site of a recent Israeli attack. Powell testified, "I've seen no evidence of mass graves ... no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place ... Clearly people died in Jenin - people who were terrorists died in Jenin - and in the prosecution of that battle innocent lives may well have been lost." In the same vein, Amnesty International issued a short release stating that while it appeared "serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed ... only an independent international commission of inquiry can establish the full facts and the scale of these violations." For its part, the White House also claimed more facts were needed, and then Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace."

So in essence, the whole Jenin attack would need to be swept under the carpet because (since Israel had not allowed a UN investigation and NGOs had come up with very little) there was not enough solid information to support accusations.

Minor glitch. Unmentioned is the fact that the US military, under the auspices of learning about urban warfare, had accompanied the Israeli military on its attack on Jenin (Marine Corps Times, 5-3-2002). Or the fact that dozens of foreign journalists witnessed 30 Palestinian corpses being buried in a mass grave right near the hospital. Or the fact that local hospital personnel describe seeing the Israeli military loading other corpses "into a refrigerated semi-trailer, and taking them out of Jenin" (which would answer the question posed in Amnesty's release, "What was striking is what was absent. There were very few bodies in the hospital. There were also none who were seriously injured, only the 'walking wounded'. Thus we have to ask: where are the bodies and where are the seriously injured?'').

Moral of the story? Truth is often the first casualty of war. Before we hang our hopes on heroes or unquestioningly believe what we hear from even the most reliable sources, we need to dig deeper to find the real story. Second, while the US was appropriate to be outraged at the targeting of its civilians in the September 11 attacks, we should extend that outrage to scenarios in which our government targets, or is complicit in targeting, civilians elsewhere.

Heather Wokusch is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

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