On the Justice of Roosting Chickens by Ward Churchill

reviewed by Faith Attaguile
for LiP magazine, Summer 2004

On the Justiec of Roosting ChickensOn the matter of 9-1-1, Ward Churchill takes no prisoners. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” is the message urgently advanced in his new book’s first section, “The Ghosts of 9-1-1.” The rest of the book effectively jams the same message into the reader’s consciousness, although in a very different way. In the end, he fully exposes – in all its “imperial arrogance and criminality” –  the thieving, murderous hulk lurking behind 225 years of American “law-abiding”pretensions. No one is absolved from responsibility for ending these crimes.

In “That Most Peace-Loving of Nations” Churchill offers a year-by-year chronology of military violence and annihilation forced upon other peoples both within and outside US borders from 1776-2003. Even though Churchill describes it as a short-list  – “the barest tip of the American militarist iceberg” – it remains one of the most comprehensive narratives I’ve ever seen. As a backdrop, Churchill quotes a Marine who had first-hand knowledge of some of these actions:

I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force – the Marine Corps… And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect money in. I helped in the raping of a half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street… I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped get Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. I helped get Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents. (Major General Smedley Butler, 1935) (40)

Any remaining illusions that even though these events may be true the US remains exceptional for its reputed “law-abiding” foundation will not survive “A Government of Laws?” – the final section of the book. A chilling 172-page “chronology of criminal comportment” documents the true underpinning of US legalistic pretensions between 1945-2003. The lethal, mind-numbing efficiency with which the US has repeatedly violated international law in the past, and continues to do so in the present, is uncovered. Churchill notes:

If, as US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has observed, the world continues to be an exceedingly “rough neighborhood,” it is mainly because he and his ilk have insisted – indeed guaranteed – for their own purposes that it be so. And this, notwithstanding the insufferably smug delusions afflicting the great and mostly mindless mass of “law-abiding Americans,” is the signature characteristic of the variety of criminal enterprise commonly referred to as an “outlaw” or “rogue” state. (104)

These two sections comprise an invaluable resource in themselves as well as supporting the analysis pulsing with anger that surges through the essays in “The Ghosts of 9-1-1.” He is uncompromising in his criticism of the seemingly unstoppable propensity of Americans of every ilk – right, center and left – to dodge responsibility for the “hideous human costs” attending US actions around the world by claiming “innocence” or ignorance of the facts. Noting that most Americans engage in “willful and deliberate ignoration” — the state of choosing ignorance even when information is available – Churchill writes that he “feels obliged to try and deny them the option of such pretense.” In this chapter alone he succeeds. In combination with the information in the rest of the book, he triumphs.

Churchill asks which of us, left horrified in the wake of 9-1-1, stopped to consider how many American children would have had to die in 9-1-1 in order to achieve parity with the 500,000 Iraqi children dead from US-imposed sanctions after Gulf War I? Which of us stopped to consider how many American adults would have had to die in 9-1-1 in order to achieve parity with Iraqi adults dead from sanctions after the same war?

The answer — assuming a 15:1 US/Iraq population ratio –  is 7.5 million children and 22.5 million adults respectively. This is mind-boggling in its implications. As Churchill notes, we’d run out of people long before we ran out of “compensatory obligation” if we were “forced to compensate proportionally and in lives for the damage…wrought upon other peoples over the past two centuries.” (15)

“The Ghosts of 9-1-1,” originally published in a shorter form directly after 9-1-1,1 caused quite a stir amongst some American leftists. Intent on categorizing themselves and their loved ones as “innocents” in the wake of the attack, they flinched at Churchill’s description of the majority of those who died from the 9-1-1 attack as “little Eichmanns.” Whining “But Eichmann was a nazi!” – as though Churchill was unaware of that – those who use “nazi” to describe most everything they dislike are perhaps unable to comprehend how someone could use the same term with very specific intent.

Churchill uses “little Eichmanns” to describe that “cadre of faceless bureaucrats and technical experts who had willingly (and profitably) harnessed themselves to the task of making America’s genocidal world order hum with maximal efficiency…”  Eichmann, Churchill notes,

was a mere mid-level officer in the SS, by all accounts a good husband and devoted father, apparently quite mild-mannered, and never accused of having personally murdered anyone at all. His crime was to have sat at several steps remove from the holocaustal blood and gore, behind a desk, in the sterility of an office building, organizing the logistics – train and “cargo” schedules, mainly – without which the “industrial killing” aspect of the nazi Judeocide could not have occurred. His most striking characteristic, if it may be called that, was his sheer “unexceptionality” (that is, the extent to which he had to be seen as “everyman”: an ordinary,” “average” or “normal” member of his society. (“The Ghosts of 9-1-1,” note 131)

Although it is easy to see why many of us might wish to self-define ourselves out of this category, the fact remains that in the eyes of the world, today’s Good Americans are ultimately just as responsible for the state terror perpetrated in their name as were yesterday’s Good Germans. Then, with Americans cheering the loudest, the entire German people were convicted for “never attempting to meet the legal/moral obligation of holding their government to even the most rudimentary standards of human decency.” (7) Do American’s have less responsibility today then the Germans did then?

To those who counter Churchill’s argument with “We’re doing all we can,” he replies simply that it doesn’t count if the crimes don’t end. If they don’t, and the US continues pushing the rest of the world around, don’t be surprised to find that the ones who finally push back aren’t “nice guys.” He continues:

whoever they might otherwise have been or become, the sheer and unrelenting brutality of the circumstances compelling their response is all but guaranteed to have twisted and deformed their outlooks in some truly hideous ways. (10)

During the Fall 2001 controversy over Churchill’s first “Ghosts,” the US undertook a bombing campaign in Afghanistan that killed some 3,500 innocent civilians.2 These people were not Al Quaeda. They were not the Taliban or its soldiers. These people were, by all estimates, innocent Afghan men, women and children, torn to shreds when US bombs destroyed their homes and villages in the nightmare called the “war on terror.”

In December 2001, the Burlington Free Press3 expressed much self-righteous indignation over the “little Eichmann” reference in Churchill’s first “Ghosts of 9-1-1″ – while ducking his main argument. The article was apparently a response to Churchill’s having been invited to a local event protesting the terrorist bombing campaign in Afghanistan – and the author felt people should somehow be forewarned. He maintained stony silence, however, on the possible connections between terrorism returned on 9-1-1 and the US bombing of Afghanistan. The BFP thus exemplifies Americans who refuse to recognize how the sum of their own actions and behaviors can create the possibility of a 9-1-1 attack. Instead of recognizing their own responsibilities emanating from living in a perpetrator state, they

… [bleat] their “innocence” for all to hear; … reacting like a figurative Jeffrey Dahmer, enraged because the latest of his many hapless victims has displayed the effrontery of slapping his face. (16)

Churchill is right. Until we take responsibility for terrorism perpetrated in our name, and until we end that terror, we can’t stop the terror returned. Indeed, those people who live in “the seething, bleeding psychic wastelands spawned by the unspeakable arrogance of US imperial pretension” will continue to feel the need to push back to the extent that Americans — all of us — continue to wallow in delusions of “innocence” and exceptionalism. Standing as “moral witnesses” to these crimes, so long as they continue, is not enough.

On the Justice of Roosting Chickens speaks “truth in the teeth of power,” as Chellis Glendelling writes in her powerful introduction. To some, Churchill is a “howling, shocking nuisance.” But we desperately need people like him to shake us to our roots.


  1. Pockets of Resistance, No. 27, Sep 01. See
  2. Prof. Marc W. Herold, “Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan,”
  3. “Activists views on attacks will have people buzzing,” Burlington Free Press, Burlington, Vt, Dec 1 01.


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