College Quarterly
Spring 2005 - Volume 8 Number 2
Reviews How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity
Michael Mandel

Reviewed by David Model

Notwithstanding the surfeit of books in recent years on American defence policy, foreign policy and presidential decision making, How America Gets Away with Murder: Illegal Wars, Collateral Damage and Crimes Against Humanity by Michael Mandel offers a crucial perspective in the analysis of the formulation and execution of these policies and decision making that is sadly lacking elsewhere. There is no shortage of books which condemn American presidents as war criminals and their actions as war crimes but Michael Mandel goes beyond this analysis and investigates the legality of war itself and its implications for an analysis of possible crimes against humanity. Recently established to justify bypassing the United Nations, the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention" is exposed as a facade for committing war crimes. In addition, the book establishes with incisive and, for the most part, infallible logic that the United States committed acts of murder by waging illegal wars and reveals the techniques by which the U.S. has escaped accountability and culpability.

Mandel begins with an analysis of the use of force in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2001 and Serbia in 1999 in terms of the various classes of international crimes. He informs us that the legality of using force prevails over all other considerations and that if a war is illegal, even the death of one civilian constitutes a war crime. In order for a war to be legal, according to international law, it must meet one of two criteria: the war is an act of self-defense as defined by article 51 in the United Nations Charter; or it is sanctioned by the Security Council. If a war fails to meet either of these criteria, it is defined as a war of aggression and any collateral damage becomes a war crime. In a legal war, collateral damage is acceptable on the condition that all precautions were taken to minimize damage to civilian objects and innocent people.

To invalidate the justification used by the United States in the war on Iraq, Mandel describes very clearly that an act of self-defence according to international law is "…an 'armed attack' either actual or demonstrably imminent, so that there is no alternative but to respond with force." Even if the American Congress authorizes the use of force, it does not override the criteria defined above. He notes in a later chapter that the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not even embody the notion of a "war of aggression" in order to satisfy American demands although they pulled out of the ICC anyway.

In each example, Mandel demonstrates with very careful and detailed analysis that the United States committed a "war of aggression" and exposes the strategies for convincing, at the very least, the American public, that the use of force was justified. He proves with numerous quotes that members of the administration including the president told the most outrageous lies to win public support. For example, President Clinton invoked the classic time-honored subterfuge about threats to national security when he claimed that Serbia "…is a conflict with no natural boundaries. It threatens our national interests."
One of the outrageous lies propagated by the Clinton administration was the specious evidence that Serbia was guilty of ethnic cleansing and that it was imperative for NATO to intervene to avoid another Rwanda or Bosnia.

Mandel also discusses the sordid connections between the United States and other NATO countries with the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the forerunner to the ICC. Mandel condemns the ICTY for "…the crude and even amateur way it plays apologist for NATO. If it feels more like it was written by a lawyer for NATO than a judge, well, it was."

Michael Mandel dispels any delusions about the validity of "humanitarian intervention", a doctrine advanced by the United States to legitimize the use of force when self-defence and Security Council authorization were untenable. He points out that there is no clause in the U.N. Charter or anywhere else in international law that refers to "humanitarian intervention".

The book is a brilliant investigation into the nuances of international law and its application to recent wars. It is a must read for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of international law and how it applies to Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, although it is not without its faults.

Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. The legal analysis is very detailed and technical, limiting the audience to those with the ability to wade through what amounts to primarily a legal text.

Ironically, some of the non-technical sections in the book are stretched out beyond any necessity to prove a point. For example, to demonstrate that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY was a farce mainly because the judge was biased in favor of NATO and had already prejudged the case, Mandel cites about 15 pages of transcripts of the trial, for the most part demonstrating how the judge interfered with Milosevic's cross-examination.

Although Mandel's reasoning is generally sharp and infallible, there are a few exceptions. For example, he attempts to show that William Walker, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had a memory lapse while testifying for the prosecution at the trial of Milosevic. Previously, Walker had called a press conference during which he called for investigators from the ICTY to investigate a massacre for which Milosevic was indirectly responsible, and that they should enter the former Yugoslavia with or without visas. At the trial, he claims that Judge Arbour had called him the next day and "…reminded me that she had not been able to obtain a visa." Mandel concludes that "… in fact Walker was demanding that she be allowed to enter 'with visas' at the press conference itself, which means that Arbour must have been informed before the press conference. That's when she must have 'reminded' him about the need for visas, because he obviously wouldn't need reminding after the press conference where he demanded them on her behalf." Mandel's conclusion is on shaky ground. First of all, Arbour did not remind him about visas but about not being able to obtain one. If Walker knew that Arbour was unable to obtain a visa why would he not use that for propaganda purposes in his press conference? After all, announcing that the FRY refused to issue a visa to an ICTY investigator would have been a public relations coup.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anybody wanting an understanding of the severity of the war crimes and crimes against humanity resulting from the empire-building by the United States. When you finish the book, you will have a solid understanding of international laws as it pertains to the above-mentioned wars.

David Model teaches political science in the Police Foundations Program at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology