Against War

The peace movement is coming together all around me, except on “govchat”, my graduate department’s email chatlist. So I’ve just sent it a message. I’ve suppressed the identities of other participants in the conversation, since I don’t think it’s a public group, and I don’t mention aspects of US foreign policy in the Middle East not because I don’t think these are very important, but because one participant in the conversation who used to serve in the US military said he didn’t like reading “email diatribe after email diatribe condemning the evil imperialistic policies of America while my friends are overseas in harm’s way defending American lives”. So I’ve spared his feelings on this occasion at least.

FIRST, the moral objection. All of us can construct arguments in our heads for why intervention in Afghanistan might be the “right thing to do”, all things considered, thinking especially of the issues which address our particular ethical concerns. All of us can (if we like to do this kind of thing) crunch the numbers in our own moral calculators and decide for ourselves how many civilian casualties are reasonable, defensible, inevitable or legitimate “collateral damage”. XX and YY have both mentioned, for example, the importance of “minimizing” civilian casualties. But this is a vague aspiration, like being “against sin” or “opposed to terrorism” — it’s one we all share. And it is a sad fact that the kind of war which _genuinely_ minimises civilian casualties is almost certainly not on offer. NATO spoke of the importance of minimizing civilian casualties during the Kosovo intervention, yet five hundred Yugoslav civilians were killed (this is the Human Rights Watch estimate), and Amnesty International’s report into the bombing concluded unambiguously that “civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war”. The NATO powers did not adhere to those laws during those eleven weeks (though they said they did), and I don’t think we have good reason to be confident that the Bush administration will during the present conflict, either. Those who think war is OK if civilian casualties are minimized should ask themselves whether they think the mechanisms are in place to secure this goal and whether they trust the US/NATO leaders to incorporate the strictest concern for civilian life into their military decisionmaking. Otherwise it will be a matter for _chance_ as to whether they get the kind of war they’d like to see, and this is obviously too important a matter to leave to this kind of chance. Six thousand-plus innocent people were blown to bits in last week’s atrocity; I don’t believe that any of us have enough assurance that the coming conflict won’t blow a few more to bits, and while I’m perfectly able to draw a distinction between the intended, foreseeable victims of terrorist attack and unintended, foreseeable victims of governmental response, this distinction doesn’t make me feel happy enough to sanction the blowing to bits of those who fall into the latter category.

SECOND, the political objection. We should be immensely suspicious of giving our backing to a war with such ill-defined parameters as this one. WW2 came to have clear war aims: Germany’s unconditional surrender; so did the Gulf War: the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait; so did the Kosovo intervention: the removal of Serb military forces from Kosovo. When our governments announce their “war on terrorism” it is entirely unclear as to quite what it is that we are being asked to support. This is, in fact, where we get very close to “1984” territory: Pakistan is our ally this week for putting pressure on the Taliban; next week it might become our enemy if the US administration chooses to remember that it was considered by Jane’s in 1997 as the “world’s leader in hosting international terrorist organisations”. Eastasia this week, Eurasia the next. Every move the administration makes on this front will be justified with reference to intelligence reports to which citizens don’t have access. Thus the governments say, and the media repeats, that OBL is the “prime suspect” for the 9/11 atrocity. Indeed, it may very well have been carried out on his instruction or by his minions — but we haven’t seen nearly enough evidence presented in the public sphere to persuade a sceptical citizen that this in fact is the case. Many of us much of the time are not wholly confident in the truth of the knowledge which national security organisations like the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6 help to generate — yet if this “war on terrorism” is allowed to get going and to escalate, we will repeatedly be asked to agree that acts of violence should be carried out in our names against up to sixty foreign regimes based on the selective leaking of state intelligence which will be almost impossible to verify. Our governments will almost certainly restrict our civil liberties and increase their surveillance over us as a part of this “war” which we are being told may go on for years. In short, we are being asked to put far too much of our trust in the most secretive, least accountable branches of government than is warranted as part of a war which the authorities are so far refusing to define with any precision, and which will therefore be defined as it unfolds entirely in accordance with their own short-term interests, which may very well not be ours.

THIRD, the practical objections. XX is obviously right that “organized elite groups are [not] mere reflections of mass experiences or attitudes”, but do people who favour “war” think that they will be able to break the terrorist networks apart irrevocably and reduce over the long term the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Western civilian targets? Remember that the British state failed to defeat the Provisional IRA in a twenty-year plus conflict despite being able (i) to keep Belfast and Derry under permanent military occupation, (ii) having a rather small local population counted at most in the low hundreds of thousands even passively supportive of the IRA’s activities and (iii) perpetrating a number of severe human rights abuses. Perhaps the Brits were just incompetent, but it seems to me that it is wildly optimistic to think that US military activity in the Middle East will secure the defeat over the long term of fundamentalist terror groups, especially since the specifically anti-US stance of such groups turns on their ability to exploit an already-existing distrust and dislike of US interference in the region, which is likely to increase. Sometimes the media discourse about this crisis focuses on the so-called “rogue” regimes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, as if they are the chief problem and the major culprits but it’s a very striking fact that most of the hijackers named by the US authorities were citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For those who preach “jihad” against America it can only be music to their ears when Mr. Bush announces a “crusade” in return. And to pursue the IRA analogy a little further, the British made the biggest inroads into the IRA in the late 1970s period when it treated IRA activity as chiefly _criminal_ rather than military in nature. This was a period when the death toll of the Northern Irish troubles fell sharply and when the number of terrorists being jailed rose substantially. The IRA was under a great deal of pressure, and in the end it was only something as drastic as the self-slaughter of the hunger strikers which enabled it to rally republican support for the armed struggle in the 1980s. I don’t think we’ve yet had a sensible debate as to whether the effort against terrorism should be treated primarily as a matter for international policing rather than military sabre-rattling and intervention: President Bush pre-empted that debate when he immediately branded this crisis a “war against America” and got Mr Blair to make equally foolish public declarations. Of course there would be problems in organising such an international investigation — the Taliban wouldn’t have handed OBL over if a request for extradition had come from a UN body, either — but in general this seems to me an immensely preferable route to go down in formulating anti-terrorist strategy. Strengthen the institutions for international policing, strengthen the International Criminal Court. Build genuinely multilateral institutions. And introduce better airline security and — crucially — a more transparent international banking system.

Each of these three sets of objections seems to me convincing. Together they are overwhelming.

FINALLY: I’m sure that a part of the reason why I feel so strongly opposed to war in Afghanistan this time around is that I made the mistake of thinking the NATO intervention in Kosovo was a reasonable one at the time, yet the arguments for that war still seem to me to be more persuasive than the arguments for this one. Back in 1999 I believed too much of what I was reading in the US/UK press and hearing from the politicians, and I judged there was more merit in the arguments of the various liberal humanitarian interventionists than I do now. Reflecting on and reading about that episode subsequently changed my opinion, and I now feel ashamed for having argued a pro-war position with friends and colleagues. (Relevant factors which changed my mind included my shifting evaluation of the West’s disregard for international law, NATO’s use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons, the avoidable killing of civilians, the course of NATO diplomacy in the period of Rambouillet and the demands placed on Yugoslavia, together with my persistent disinclination to believe that the Chinese Embassy was attacked owing to out-of-date maps being used by US planners.) So some of you may feel that I am overcompensating this time around in confidently rejecting a conflict which I fear is about to start and throwing myself into the peace movement here in Britain, which is now, I am pleased to report, growing fast. I feel more scared about what Mr Bush’s war is going to do to the citizens of the Western democracies and to the peoples of the Middle East than I feel threatened by international terrorists (and yes, growing up in London, bomb scares were part of everyday life). There are a lot of us who share the same feeling. Given that this is supposed to be a war on terror, that’s not good.

The War on Terrorism is like the War on Drugs: the US Government isn’t going to win it, and it has the potential to do a vast amount of harm at home and abroad on the way to not being won.


Michaele writes [23.9.01]: I rather enjoyed reading this. I am hoping that the peace movement here in Seattle receives a well-needed boost when students get back to the UW [University of Washington] in a week. In the meantime, I have been rabble-rousing in email form, and pleasantly surprised that so far my friend Peter is the only one who thinks war is a sensible idea. (Of course, there’s also the parents – but I have long since�given up on trying to persuade them to change their politics). Thanks for speaking for peace on govchat – from previous email conversations I’ve participated in, I can imagine that your voice was well-needed!

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