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Generals, and War Criminals, Die in Bed
by Derrick O'Keefe
December 22, 2004

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Augusto Pinochet, the 89-year-old retired general and dictator of Chile, will face a trial for human rights abuses. Maybe. He may yet evade a conviction -- he has been deemed unfit to face trial on several previous occasions, and this week he apparently suffered another stroke. But Pinochet long ago evaded justice for the thousands exiled, tortured or murdered under his rule, and for the hopes and aspirations he helped to drown in blood. And his arrest is a bitter reminder that war criminals, unlike those they help to strike down in their prime, die in bed.

Almost eighty years ago, a Canadian World War I veteran penned an angry and bitter tract, Generals Die in Bed. Obscured by better-known titles like A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front, Charles Yale Harrison’s novel deserves to be considered an anti-war classic. The title conveys Harrison’s sentiment; early on, he identifies the three “real enemies” that soldiers in the trenches came to know: “lice, some of their officers, and Death.”

While a generation was being slaughtered in the “Great War,” the architects of the great massacres of the latter half of the 20th century were just being born. One might conclude, in fact, that, all diet and health fads aside, the real secret to living a long life is to commit ghastly crimes against humanity. Henry Kissinger, after all, is 81. His long-time partner, Robert McNamara, is 88. Indonesia’s General Suharto is 83, and still evading justice for the hundreds of thousands murdered after the coup from which he came to power, and for the Western-backed devastation and subjugation of East Timor –not be mention the small matter of nepotism and graft to the tune of some $15 billion.

We shouldn’t let the septuagenarians off the hook either. Ariel Sharon is only 76, but no doubt has many more Israeli state-sanctioned murders left in him. A head of state whose nickname is “the Bulldozer,” though, deserves a column of vituperation all his own. I’d be remiss not to include Donald Rumsfeld, who, at 72, also ranks high amongst war criminals on active duty.

In fact, the swaggering Secretary of Defense’s handling of controversies over the past year offers good insight into the kind of callousness and sociopathic disregard for human life required to attain top rank in an imperial, mercenary army. First, Rummy blithely evaded the momentary heat of the Abu Ghraib “abuse” scandal. Despite convincing documentation of the systematic nature of U.S. torture in Iraq provided by the likes of journalist extraordinaire Seymour Hersh, blame and recriminations fell only on the lower-ranks. Recently, when caught off guard by a pointed question from a soldier in Iraq about the lack of armoured vehicles for U.S. troops, Rumsfeld replied with the sensitive and insightful retort, “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can [still] be blown up.” Most recently, it was revealed that the Secretary of Offensive War had not been handwriting his signature on letters of condolence to the families of deceased soldiers. Perhaps the automated signing was designed to save his 72 year-old wrists for squash; it’s said the old hawk still plays a mean game at the country club.

In 1997, in the wake of galvanizing demonstrations against APEC here in Vancouver and just awakening to the realities of imperialism and Canadian-sponsored crimes abroad, I wrote a strongly-worded letter to my then Member of Parliament, Raymond Chan, who was serving as Jean Chretien’s Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific. I arrived for my appointment with the esteemed MP, and was greeted with thanks for “writing to [him] and not to the papers.” After a pathetic series of excuses such as his assertion of a looming threat of Chinese invasion of Indonesia – this was why the weapons Canada was selling to the dictatorship were “defensive”! – Chan delivered the coup de grace designed to appease my foolish, young, idealistic mind. Asking me to keep the information quiet, Chan assured me that “Suharto is very sick, he will die soon.”

It’s not a matter, however, of vengefully wishing death on an individual, as Chan absurdly implied. It’s more a wish for justice – Romanovian or Ceaucesceauian perhaps – to be realized by the societies and people who have been devastated by the systemic violence of enforced privilege. Suharto, Pinochet, Rumsfeld and Kissinger are the executioners; but their victims -- to borrow a recent title from John Ross, the author and lifelong radical whom we recently had the pleasure of hosting in Vancouver – were, in a broader sense, Murdered by Capitalism.

So in this life, wherein so many of the best -- loved ones, friends, comrades and companions – are taken from us so prematurely, it multiplies our sorrow to see the worst, those who have perpetrated such great injustices, living in unimaginable material comfort, and kept among us by unlimited access to the best medical technology.

Bob Everton, one of the best, a beloved Vancouver-based activist and a survivor of the stadium concentration camp set up after Pinochet’s coup in 1973, passed away suddenly this week. His was a life cut too short, but one packed with dignity and with struggle on the right side of the barricades. It was there, alongside the many thousands of lives he touched in both Canada and Latin America, that he fought for real justice, for profound and deep-going economic, political and social change.

Derrick O'Keefe is a Vancouver-based activist and founding editor of

Other Articles by Derrick O’Keefe

* Colombia and Venezuela: Labor in Canada Builds Solidarity
* An Interview with Anthony Fenton on Haiti