Big and Little Wars

U.S. female soldier speaks with civilians during 2010 engagement mission in Afghanistan

A Congolese battalion trained by the U.S. military committed mass rapes and other atrocities last year, according to a newly released United Nations report. Soldiers from the unit joined with other Congolese soldiers to rape 97 women and 33 girls in eastern Congo. This represents a setback for the U.S. military’s little-known efforts to train troops in third-world countries.

Consider another story from two years ago. In October 2011 the United States sent a small combat unit of 100 special forces troops to Central Africa to track down and “remove” Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has murdered and raped tens of thousands of men, women and children in Uganda and the surrounding countries over two decades.

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If you were not aware of U.S. military action against Mr. Kony, then perhaps you have not read Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013, published on May 3 by the Congressional Research Service. The report describes every deployment of the U.S. military, from the undeclared naval war with France in the Dominican Republic in 1798 to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s deployment of up to 200 additional troops to Jordan on April 17 of this year. The list includes five declared wars, eight undeclared wars and recent deployments as part of NATO or the United Nations.

The sheer volume of interventions comes as something of a shock. Just zoom in on the 21st century. The United States deployed troops 70 times in 23 countries, including Niger, the Philippines, Libya, East Timor, Kosovo, Haiti, Liberia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of these interventions seem warranted—peace missions, disaster responses, assisting the still unsuccessful pursuit of Joseph Kony, saving a U.S. citizen from Somali pirates. Some appear less justifiable, and a handful have proved disastrous. But they all suggest how grave the responsibility and how well-measured the decision must be before U.S. troops are sent into harm’s way.

¡Justicia en Guatemala!

Guatemala made history in April, when a national tribunal became the first ever to try a former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity. Now they can claim the first conviction, too.* On May 10 Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, 86, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for attempting to destroy the Maya Ixil ethnic group during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war. General Ríos Montt ruled for 17 months in 1982-83, one of the bloodiest periods in the war. The director of intelligence who worked under General Ríos Montt was acquitted of the same charges.

International human rights organizations lauded the landmark conviction. This time, it is not just the poor and powerless held accountable for criminal activity, but a former head of state—whose friends are still in power. No one should be above the law. While America has supported forums like the International Criminal Court for trying such cases, this unprecedented case shows there are additional options for bringing about long-delayed justice. Other countries could follow Guatemala’s example, providing a warning to the powerful everywhere: If you commit genocide or torture or other serious crimes, you will be held accountable.

In delivering the verdict and sentence, Judge Yasmín Barrios mandated the attorney general to investigate and prosecute all others implicated in these crimes. Some wonder whether Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala, could be subject to prosecution once he leaves office. President Molina served as a military field commander under General Ríos Montt. Questions also remain about whether U.S. officials might face accountability for supporting General Ríos Montt. The United States provided the Guatemalan military, as an ally in the fight against Communism, with money, weapons and intelligence. This kind of support carries with it a moral responsibility to understand its consequences. As Guatemala has exemplified, it must also involve accountability for crimes committed.

* On May 20, 2013, after America went to press, Guatemala's highest court overturned the conviction of General Ríos Montt, but did not invalidate the entire trial. The attorney general is expected to appeal the court's 3-2 decision. Most of the testimony still stands; everything that occurred after April 19 must be reexamined. Click here for more.

Last Words

The graduation ceremonies at universities in the United States are more and more in danger of becoming battlegrounds. The administrations, faculties and student bodies are split on what commencement means and how to celebrate it. At Swarthmore College near Philadelphia the students opposed as a speaker the former president of the World Bank, an alumnus, who had supported the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, some alternatives to “controversial” speakers are poor substitutes: sitcom stars, celebrities, television anchorpersons, comedians or sports “heroes,” who allegedly make graduation memorable. Some make the circuit, pick up stipends and deliver the same bromide on every campus. Mark Schwartz, a Swarthmore alumnus, says it best: “This isn’t about tolerance or intolerance. It’s about whether or not you honor someone within the highest ideals of Swarthmore’s Quaker tradition.” Catholic universities should follow the same rule. The commencement is the university’s last opportunity to teach. It should carefully choose a person who embodies the school’s ideals.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Gerardine Luongo
5 years ago
I would suggest that most Americans who saw Kony 2012 wouldn’t have been opposed nor surprised that the US attempted to intervene in that insanity. America should be lauded for an attempt to raise awareness of covert actions or lesser know US military involvement around the globe. While some covert US involvement may have been for justice, other actions may be more the result of what was once called imperialism. I am not sure if hindsight is the best way to assess such intervention but it is often all we, the citizens, have, but we also are not always able to assess what would have happened had we not gone in.
E.Patrick Mosman
5 years ago
"The commencement is the university’s last opportunity to teach. It should carefully choose a person who embodies the school’s ideals." So, what does the following say about Boston College's ,a Jesuit institution, ideals? Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree from Boston College, a Catholic university. As PM Kenny leads an attempt by politicians in Ireland to alter their country's ban on abortion, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley did not attend the graduation ceremony, as is customary, to protest the school's refusal to disinvite Kenny.
Vincent Gaitley
4 years 11 months ago
As a former college dean, I offer a simple solution to the commencement address, and believe me, I've heard some horrors! The president of the college or university should always be the speaker, preceded by one student. At one institution the speaker, a US Congressman and Naval veteran, recalled the struggle at Pearl Harbor, and actually suggested that the commencement was a kind of Pearl Harbor for the graduates. He said this moments after I welcomed fifty visiting Japanese parents watching their children receive degrees.

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