I can’t say that I ever expected to write about the United States so blatantly advertising the potential commission of war crimes at some point in the future should a Middle Eastern adversary violently respond to the assassination of one of its uniformed generals who was apparently visiting another country, by invitation, to mediate the reduction of hostilities in the region. Much ink has already been spilled on the various aspects of General Qassem Soleimani being turned into pulp: Was it legal? Was it constitutional? Did the president violate the War Powers Act? Did it makes Americans safer, or less safe? Was General Soleimani helping to plan imminent attacks on US interests? Was there an actual imminent threat at all? I don’t particularly care for the language of “good or evil.” I don’t particularly care for the ever-widening scope and definition of the label “terrorist.” I’m sure that in the minds of some people around the globe, in light of this murky definition we’ve put forth, American policy constitutes terrorism, and American policymakers are terrorists. There is a danger in labeling everyone who does bad things to someone else a terrorist. Suffice it to say, Soleimani did contribute to the death of Americans. And while I could argue that our policies towards Iraq in 2003 put many Americans directly in the sights of men like Soleimani, he’s dead now. I do not grieve him.
Unsurprisingly, killing the man — again, a uniformed general in Iran’s military — has not gone over that well with the Iranians, neither among Iran’s leaders nor its civilians. There’s nothing like inducing regular Iranians to support their government. Iranian officials, unsurprisingly again, have vowed to retaliate. Wouldn’t we if, say, someone killed General Mattis?
On 04 January 2020, in response to that response, President Trump said on Twitter that “…we have targeted 52 Iranian sites…some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!” The emphasis is in the original, and the last sentence was added without a shred of apparent irony.
As a historian, and just as someone who thinks it’s important to preserve significant human landmarks, my sentiments towards this have already been published. I remember the global outrage when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, and I remember the same outrage when ISIS engaged in the looting and destruction of historical sites in Syria and Iraq just a few years ago. The fact that an American president has suggested that the US military will be ordered to destroy important Iranian cultural sites should induce the same sort of outrage Americans had twenty years ago. It seems that his supporters have been awfully quiet on this front, though I expect that the rationalizations will pour forth, no doubt mimicking the talking points the president tweets and Fox News repeats.
Given that no push-back can ever go unanswered, it’s no surprise then that the president reiterated that the United States will target such sites. As he returned from Florida on Sunday, he said to reporters:
They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.
Ignoring the idea, and it seems to be just an idea at this point in history, that the United States doesn’t descend to the same level of barbarity as our adversaries, it should be pointed out that deliberately destroying cultural and historically significant sites is a war crime. The United States isn’t supposed to engage in war crimes. Right? The United States certainly isn’t supposed to ADVERTISE the intent to engage in war crimes.
I’m not a lawyer, but a ten minute internet search turned up the international agreements that define such activity as war crimes. I even found a US law that seems to acknowledge that cultural sites and artifacts should be protected. First, there’s The Hague’s 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention. You’ll notice that the United States of America signed this convention on 14 May 1954 (see comment below). It went into force on 07 August 1956 and was registered at the UN on 04 September 1956. Again, the United States signed this convention, though as is usual with such things, registered a few “declarations and reservations,” the gist of which suggest that such sites are fair game if the owner uses them to shield legitimate military targets and that any commander “shall only be judged on the basis of that person’s assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized, or executed the action under review…” Also, in the view of the United States, collateral damage from nuclear weapons isn’t covered. Iran also signed onto this convention.
Secondly, there is the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 from 24 March 2017. This resolution was unanimously approved. To highlight how important the protection of cultural sites was to the US when this resolution was voted on, consider the words of Ambassador Michelle J Sison, US Deputy Representative to the UN:
“...[t]he policy of the United States government is clear: the unlawful destruction or trafficking of cultural heritage is deplorable—we unequivocally oppose it, and we will take all feasible steps to halt, limit, and discourage it…The United States looks forward to strengthened international cooperation, and to finding new channels of cooperation for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in armed conflicts, in order to preserve this priceless inheritance for future generations.”
This one is a little tricky. I’m not able to determine what this administration’s official position on this resolution is at the moment, or whether it was ratified despite the unanimous support it received on the UN floor. UNSCR 2347 is made trickier because the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at the end of 2018. Why? Because, as the US Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “We were in arrears to the tune of $550 million or so, and so the question is, do we want to pay that money? With this anti-Israel bias that’s long documented on the part of [UNESCO], that needs to come to an end.” In other words, we withdrew because we owed money and, I guess, because of some anti-Israel bias. The US will remain a “nonmember observer.” For this administration, the default seems always to withdraw from things, never to use membership and influence to induce a change. Or it’s financial (as we will see later). I almost forgot one thing: UNESCO’s current Director-General is Audrey Azoulay. She’s Jewish.
Lastly, we have HR 1493 — Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on 09 May 2016. This law specifically targeted the destruction and looting of cultural sites and artifacts by ISIS in Syria, restricting the import into the US of cultural property. Then there’s HR 4566, Title III of which is called Implementation of Convention of on Cultural Property, signed into law in 1983, which addresses the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
This all goes to show that there is a precedent for US acknowledgment of the importance of cultural sites and artifacts and the recognition that these things need to be protected. We’ve helped push the narrative, rightly so, that targeting a culture’s heritage is not permissible. The aforementioned US laws do not specifically address the destruction of such sites by order of the president, but we are signatories to a Hague Convention concerning this. And it was ratified by the US Senate. None of this changes solely because a president says “It doesn’t work that way.” It does work that way. We agreed to it. We’ve acknowledged, multiple times, that these sites should be protected and should not be deliberately targeted for destruction. Doing so is a literal war crime. How do you rationalize it any other way? Why has our stance changed? How do we ignore the last seventy years of progress on the issue, progress which we’ve helped shape?
I again ask you to look at how we reacted to the destruction by al-Qaida of what we considered to be a site representative of our culture. The World Trade Center wasn’t thousands of years old, but it was an important cultural site representing our economic might and splendor. The enemy knew that this site was important to us, because they attempted to destroy it in 1993 as well. And when those towers fell, we embarked on nearly two decades of war, pursued our enemies across the globe, willingly sacrificed our own rights for a sense of security, and compromised our principles. Do we think that the Iranians are going to just roll over and give up if we demolish a few sites that are thousands of years old? What would we do? The Iranians have a long, proud history. Saying that we are going to destroy pieces of that will not make us any friends, and it will not make continued hostilities or conflict any easier. And did I mention that it’s a war crime? Because it is.
The killing of Soleimani hasn’t made us any friends in general, though I recognize that many of us no longer care if we have any friends in the world. “America First,” and all that. The Parliament of Iraq, the country in which Soleimani was visiting when he was vaporized by US ordnance, passed a resolution “calling for the government to expel foreign troops from the country.” Those foreign troops are American troops. Countries tend to take a dim view of foreigners being killed by other foreigners on property. It makes them feel like they aren’t sovereign nations. It remains to be seen whether or not the Iraqi government will demand the US remove its troops or whether or not the US can even be compelled to do so. I don’t recall us having been invited in back in 2003. Trump, never one to like being told what to do, responded to the Iraqi Parliament’s resolution by saying:
“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame...We have an extraordinarily expensive air base that's there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We're not leaving unless they pay us back for it...If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq.”
See? It’s always about money. If that’s the case, maybe Iraq will just say that the US invasion cost the Iraqis a lot of blood and treasure, too, so we’ll all call it even. And it’s not like Iraq didn’t have airbases before the invasion, and so they needed this “extraordinarily expensive air base” we built. I should know. I spent many an hour looking at imagery of Iraqi airbases. But yes, sanctions. And tariffs. American foreign policy is now: 1.) Leave agreements made by a predecessor the president personally dislikes, 2.) Hit them with sanctions, 3.) Slap some tariffs on it, 4.) Say your dick, er, nuclear button, is bigger than theirs, 5.) Tweet some stuff.
It is certainly going to be interesting to see what transpires over the next few weeks. I’m guessing that in the future, military advisors and planners will not present the president with an absurd option, thinking he’ll never pick that one because of how absurd it is, in order to make the other options look more measured. I’m not quite ready to predict World War Three, but I do not see a way in which the Iranians don’t respond in a very loud, cinematic manner. Then I guess we’ll see to those cultural sites because, well, that’s how Americans wage war in 2020.
I’d like to just point out that if you’re going to defend and rationalize to me why destroying historically and culturally significant sites is permissible, we have nothing about which to talk. You can take your words and shout them directly into your favorite echo chamber. As much as I’d like to think that I could sway you away from that thinking, I would be deluding myself.
And lastly, if you think all this is very cool, and very bad ass, and love that the president doesn’t take any shit and doesn’t back down and FUCK YEAH AMERICA or whatever, I hope you know that there are plenty of recruiting offices around. Sometimes war is, indeed, necessary. Sometimes it is just. But regardless of all that, I’m too old. I served my time. It’s your turn now. Go get ’em, killer.
Author’s Comment: According to the Annotated Supplement to the US Naval Handbook (1997): “While the United States is not a Party to the 1954 Hague Convention [for the Protection of Cultural Property], it considers it to reflect customary law.” There may be some confusion here. The document itself has the US signing on 14 May 1954 when it was opened for signatures. However, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization the United States did not ratify this agreement until 13 March 2009 — the Senate must ratify treaties with 2/3 of Senators concurring. According to the UN, “Ratification defines the international act whereby a state indicates its consent to be bound to a treaty if the parties intended to show their consent by such an act.” Therefore, the United States is, as of 2009, bound by the stipulations of this treaty.