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Thursday, July 12, 2007

The myth of a 'Humanitarian' war

"I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, 'A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi.."

Specialist Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry, as quoted in today's Independent.
I guess many readers will have been shocked by the admissions of US soldiers like Englehart who have been serving in Iraq. They really shouldn't be.

Here's my February 2006 piece from The Australian on why war can be many things- but never humanitarian.

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 major 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.


cramerj said...

Wars have ways of getting not so nasty. Even if this is largely a result of self serving soldiers saying if I'm nicer then they will be. So no gas , no specially shaped bayonets and no (not often ) shooting of first aiders.
So yes torturing prisoners shgould be shocking.
A nation such as the USA who was outraged at the torture of american prisoners in Korea and vietnam should not expect people to condone their curreent views.

andrew said...

Nicely put Neil (as usual, apart from the annoying pro-smoking rants !). It's great to hear a voice of sanity amongst the biased crap the media spout about Kosovo. I have now stopped buying the Independent newspaper due to their continued enthusiastic support for ethnic Albainan terrorists. In General the media in the UK toes the government line re; the demonisation of Serbs; very occasionally the Guardian, Times and Spectator allow dissenting views in their organs. The not very aptly named "Independent" have never published anything other than rabid support for anyone who is anti-Serb basically! The final straw/insult for me was an article and leader on Monday 09 July in the Indie which said that Kosovo had enjoyed relative peace since the KFOR occupation in 1999. I suggest the middle class liberal effete buffons at the Indie tell that to the 300,000 Serbs, Roma, Jews etc that have been ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by their beloved KLA.

Neil Clark said...

Hi andrew,
Have you written in to the Independent to voice your concerns? The only way newspapers change their line is if they start to lose readers- and readers let them know the reason they're going elsewhere.
Best wishes,

andrew said...

Hi Neil
Yes I have, on numerous occasions but The Indie will not(unlike, The Guardian, Times and even the BBC!) publish readers letters that are opposed to their pro Kosovan Independence stance. The Indie is also the most rabidly pro Albanian and anti-Serb of the "quality" UK press. I will not be buying the paper anymore, which is a shame, because they have some good people working for them; Robert Fisk and Mark Steel for instance. I definitely won't miss Hari though!
Cheers, Andrew