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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Military option unleashes the brute

Here's my piece on Abu Ghraib from today's (Monday's) Australian.
Military option unleashes the brute
The ugly consequences of the 'humanitarian' war in Iraq were entirely predictable, argues Neil Clark

THE most surprising thing about the latest shocking images of prisoner abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail, revealed on Australia's SBS last week, is that anyone should find them surprising. What else did those who supported the invasion of Iraq expect?This is war, after all, not a cocktail party, and in war two things are always guaranteed. One, innocent people get killed -- usually lots of them. Two, people end up doing the most unspeakable things.

In the Boer War, the British came up with the novel idea of concentration camps in which to incarcerate women and children: more than 26,000 inmates, 80 per cent of whom were children, died from starvation and disease. The widespread abuse of prisoners in World War I led to 128 countries signing the Third Geneva Convention, but that didn't make too much difference as the Germans and the Japanese, aided by the advances of science, soon took the abuse of captives to new, terrible depths.
Even when the scourge of Nazism was removed from the face of the earth and the Geneva Convention was extended to include ill-treatment of civilians, war's ability to cause mankind to sink to barbarism has continued: from Rwanda to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to the Congo.
There has not been a single military conflict in history where atrocities of one form or another have not taken place. Yet, incredibly, there were still those who believed three years ago that the Iraq war would, in some way, be different. What do these people, the ones who argued for a war not to rid Iraq of its phantom weapons of mass destruction but to "liberate" its people, say now as the latest pictures of Abu Ghraib appear on our screens?
Their first response is to come out with formulaic condemnations and to stress how important it is for those responsible to be held to account. Their second is to say that however bad the abuse may be, Iraqis were being abused a whole lot worse under Saddam Hussein.
Neither line is anywhere near good enough. No one would dispute that those found guilty of abusing enemy prisoners should be prosecuted, but what of the responsibility of the politicians whose lies and chicanery led to such an unnecessary, illegal and brutal conflict in the first place? And as to the second line of defence, did we really go to such trouble and expense merely to abuse Iraqis a little less than Saddam did?
Those who did fall for the humanitarian case for war three years ago should have done a little more homework. Just four years before the Iraq invasion came the war in the former Yugoslavia, an intervention couched in exclusively humanitarian terms. Its supporters claim it to have been a success; in reality it was anything but.
Far from preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, the NATO bombing campaign actually precipitated one: a trickle of Kosovan Albanian refugees before the bombing soon turned into a flood. Although the Yugoslav military remained undefeated, 1500 civilians lost their lives, and the high levels of cancer in areas where depleted uranium was dropped mean that the final death toll will be far higher. And since Kosovo was liberated, an estimated 300,000 people have been forced to flee the province -- Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, Egyptians and other non-Albanian minorities; an Amnesty International report details extensive abuse of human rights.
All this begs the question: If Kosovo is an example of a successful humanitarian intervention, what on earth would an unsuccessful one look like?
The problem with a humanitarian war is that wars are by nature unhumanitarian. Electricity and water supplies get cut off. Disease spreads. Innocents get killed: be they Iraqis in a crowded marketplace, Afghans at a wedding or Serbian students on a bridge. We call these casualties collateral damage. Iraqis, as Martin Samuel of Britain's The Times points out, have different words for them: Mum, Dad, Junior. The same words are used by Afghans and Serbs, too.
Does the unhumanitarian nature of war mean that it can never be justified? Not quite. The only war in the past 100 years -- some would say of all time -- that satisfies St Augustine's criteria for a just war is World War II: in 1939, however terrible war was, to have done nothing would have been worse. The fact that out of the 165 wars in the 20th century that killed more than 6000 people, only one can be justified ought to make us pause for thought.
The next time a politician stands up and tries to convince us of the moral case for war, just remember the pictures you saw on SBS last week. And think too of the 100,000 civilians who have lost their lives since the Iraq conflict began. "Wars would end if the dead could return," said British prime minister Stanley Baldwin. They might also end if we stopped believing that they can ever be humanitarian.

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