Update: George Monbiot Responds Again on Iraq and ‘Just War’

In response to our recent Media Alert Update, “George Monbiot Responds on Iraq and ‘Just War'” (December 2, 2002), Monbiot has sent the following response:

Dear Media Lens, Two issues appear to divide us, one philosophical, one practical.

The philosophical issue is the question of whether it is ever just to use violence as a last resort. Your responses appear to suggest that it is not. You even seem to argue that we should not have gone to war against Hitler. By contrast, I believe that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary to use violence to prevent a greater violence. This is the founding principle of democracy. The social contract implicit in democratic governance is that the state asserts a monopoly of violence, in return for protecting its citizens against external aggression, and preventing us from murdering each other. This contract recognises humanity’s extraordinary capacity for violence, and acknowledges the fact that, in the absence of restraint, the strong will simply crush the weak.

Of course the paradox of governance is that any power great enough to crush the strong also has the capacity to crush the weak, and the monopoly of violence asserted on our behalf can, if we are insufficiently vigilant, be turned against us. This is the tension at the heart of democracy, with which all those of us who believe in freedom from oppression – whether the oppression of our neighbours or the oppression of the state – must continually engage. When it is clear that the social contract has been broken, and the violence of the state is turned against its peaceful citizens to such an extent that it outweighs any advantages we derive from its protection – in other words, when it drops all democratic functions and achieves political closure – then we surely have a democratic duty to seek to overthrow it. And if we cannot do so by peaceful means, we must do so through armed struggle, in the hope that this struggle will permit us to replace it with a state which will guarantee peace.

At the international level, the United Nations was founded with the same intent. It does not, of course, have the democratic credentials of an elected government – it is a delegated organisation, over which the citizens of the nations it represents have no real control. This problem is compounded by the capture, upon the UN’s foundation, of its security functions by the five principal victors of the Second World War. Even so, if you were to ask me “would you prefer a world with or without this flawed agency?”, I would have to answer “with”. The atrocities of the kind you document, and of the kind we have seen in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Central America etc over the past two decades, suggest that an international peacekeeping body is essential. Indeed, as Rwanda, East Timor and the instances you cite suggest, it it is surely rational to have hoped that such an agency would have intervened more often and more effectively, rather than less often or not at all.

Of course, this issue is complicated by the partisan constitution of the Security Council and by the hegemonic will of its dominant member, both of which have significantly compromised public trust in its decisions and its operations. In practice, for obvious reasons, it will not act against US infractions of international law, or those perpetrated by its allies. This, as you know, is an issue I have been commenting upon for a long time.

But if, as you suggest, there should be no armed intervention, ever, and therefore no ultimate means of upholding international law, and therefore no international policing body (for there is no point in possessing laws or police forces if you cannot deploy them) I would suggest to you that you have simply reinvented a world in which the strong can act without restraint in their oppression of the weak. I would invite you to answer the following questions.

a. What would you have done to prevent Hitler’s conquest of Europe?

b. What would you have done to prevent Interahamwe’s massacre of the Tutsis?

c. Would you support the armed struggle of the Kurds in Iraq? Or of the West Papuans against Indonesian occupation? Or of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua? Or of Castro’s Cuban revolution?

d. If your answer to c is yes, what form would this support take? Would you, if you were able to, send them arms? Would you send them money to buy arms? Or would you expect them to support that struggle, against a far stronger enemy, entirely with the use of their own resources?

e. If your answer to c is no, how would you suggest they respond to the oppression they faced or are facing if not through force of arms? Please do not fudge these questions. I really would like to know the answer.

The practical question which divides us is this: did I write what I wrote about Iraq because I was influenced by the barrage of propaganda in the media? Have I changed my opinions because I have succumbed to the will of the dominant minority?

The simple answer to this is no. If you look at the introduction to my website, you will see that it is dated April 2001. You will also see that the principles from which I argued in the column you criticise were laid down in that introduction. I have merely applied them to the issue now uppermost in people’s minds. I stand by what I wrote. The current war being planned against Iraq is wrong on just about every count. But from this it does not automatically follow that all possible wars against the Iraqi regime would be wrong: we could, if the very strict conditions I laid down were applied, contemplate a just war against Saddam Hussein. I believe, as I explained in one of my earlier replies, that we could also contemplate a just war against the military junta in Burma, and a just war against the Indonesian occupation of West Papua. So the question then arises: why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua?

The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought. Yes, of course the reason for this is that the hawks in the US have put it on the agenda. But since they put it on the agenda, I have written nine articles about Iraq. Far from attacking me for doing so, you have reproduced one of them on your website, which appears to suggest that you supported my decision to have concentrated on this theme. What do I conclude from this? I conclude that your objection to what I have written arises not from the fact that I have been provoked into responding to a news agenda set by the US, but that I have responded to it in a way with which you disagree. I conclude, therefore, that your attack is not analytical, but ideological.

And this surely highlights the trap into which Media Lens has fallen. There is a desperate need for what you appear to be doing: the world cries out for a thorough, critical analysis of the media, its agenda and its hidden interests. When your project began, I believed that this was what you were offering. But I have viewed your mailings over the past few months with growing concern. Rather than offering a clear, objective analysis of why the media works the way it does, who pulls the strings, how journalists are manipulated, knowingly or otherwise, you appear to have decided instead to use your platform merely to attack those who do not accept your narrow and particular doctrine. Whenever a journalist takes a line at variance to your own, your automatic assumption is that he has stopped thinking for himself, and has been, wittingly or otherwise, coerced by dark forces. As a result, you are in danger of reproducing the very problems you criticise. You appear to me to be confronting one form of bias and intolerance with another.

I must end this letter with an apology. I do not have time to write another, as I have a very busy schedule. So please do not expect a response to your next reply.

Yours Sincerely, George Monbiot – 3.12.02

Dear George,

Many thanks. You provide no examples to support your assertion that we have taken an intolerant attitude towards the press, so it’s hard to comment. What we can say is that the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of emails we’ve received from readers over the last 18 months have been strongly supportive. A remarkable number of people have written simply urging us to “please keep going”. Following the last Media Alert covering our exchange with you, we have received a large number of supportive emails, with just one against.

Not enough is said by dissidents about what actually is the motivation for their work. The beginnings of an explanation for ours can be found in a key observation made by American historian Howard Zinn:

“The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

The extent to which truth is reversed and obscured by the mainstream media was initially deeply shocking to us. We have often felt a sense of awe and bewilderment at the way the media’s version of reasonable and true conflicts so dramatically with what seems to us to be reasonable and true, and humanly important.

A couple of years ago, one of us, David Edwards, interviewed the former UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday on Iraq (see Interviews: www.Media Lens.org). It was a substantial interview and, in it, Halliday achieved two things of really tremendous importance: he demolished the US/UK governments’ account of the effect of sanctions on Iraq and, in the process, showed how we really are responsible for the killing of a million people in Iraq. Edwards approached all the leading liberal newspapers and journals with a copy of the transcript. Although nothing like this had appeared in the mainstream before, he was told by various sections of different papers: ‘There’s no space this week, and there probably won’t be next week either’, ‘The question and answer format isn’t right for us’, ‘Halliday is yesterday’s news’, ‘Government policy would need to change before we ran a piece like that… Oh that’s what you think +we+ should be pushing for!’, ‘It’s not right for our section’, ‘We’ve already published an article on Iraq this year’, and so on.

What Halliday had to say was vital by any standard that we can imagine, and yet it was rejected out of hand for reasons that were so absurd that they could be met with no sensible response. It was breathtaking. And it was horrific, because of course it is in these moments – in these failures of reason and humanity – that power gains the strength to kill for profit. It is the coming together of many of these moments that makes genocide possible. We note, incidentally, that Halliday has yet to be mentioned even once this year in the Guardian, or in the Observer (where he has not been mentioned at all since 1998) in this year of crisis centred on Iraq.

Our motivation is to try to expose and disempower these silences, these gaps, for the simple reason that they facilitate the killing of people in large numbers. That, honestly, is our aim. We are not interested in attacking individual journalists but in challenging their ideas; the problem is systemic, and in fact global, far beyond the guilt of individuals. But journalism is made up of examples of individual reporting and we have to use these to indicate the wider trends.

You are a leading political commentator in this country. You are often named alongside John Pilger and Robert Fisk as one of a select few dissident journalists. You are deemed a supremely honest left voice writing in this country’s leading liberal newspaper, and you clearly view yourself as uncompromisingly honest.

Consider, then, that we devoted more than 300 words in our last letter to you outlining the appalling, and central, role of the media in currently making possible a war that could cost 500,000 lives in Iraq. We have endlessly criticised this country’s most credible and important media – particularly the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC and ITN. We haven’t criticised these because we feel any kind of enmity towards them, but because they are the country’s best and most credible media – they are the media that convince people we have a free press.

And so we asked you, as a leading honest journalist, to comment on the performance of the Guardian and the media generally on Iraq, even asking if you had considered resigning from the Guardian in protest. Your response to us – a media watch site that is focused precisely on lethal silences – was to say nothing at all on the matter. Instead you responded as if we had asked no such questions, as if no such issues even existed – these, the most vital issues of all. You even requested that +we+ not fudge our answers to your questions, as if in complete unawareness of what you yourself were doing. In 14 articles mentioning Iraq this year in the Guardian, you have made literally no mention of the role of the media in making war possible. Once again, George, we stand in utter bewilderment before the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance; before the fact that you can nevertheless write:

“There is a desperate need for what you appear to be doing: the world cries out for a thorough, critical analysis of the media, its agenda and its hidden interests.”

This, indeed, resonates disturbingly with a comment you made in October:

“There is little that those of us who oppose the coming war with Iraq can now do to prevent it.” (‘Inspection as invasion,’ the Guardian, October 8, 2002)

The relentless propaganda pouring out of Downing Street suggests that the government does not agree – the all-important battle for public support has +not+ been won. One thing we can do, then, is to seek to undermine the media uncritically channelling these government lies.

Perhaps your argument, shared by many, is that to radically criticise the media, let alone the Guardian itself, would rapidly reduce your employment prospects as a journalist, so limiting your capacity to do good. But would it? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman do nothing but criticise their potential media employers. Herman, for example, wrote a piece on the US media with the evocative title, ‘Nuggets from the Nuthouse’. He has recently said of the growing opposition to war on Iraq:

“This widespread and deepening dissent has had only a modest impact on the mass media, which are still serving mainly as conduits and press agents of the war party, and the liberals and ‘leftists’ who make it there commonly accept premises of the war party and serve its interests, which is of course why they make it into the media.”

Chomsky has said of editors and journalists who ignore dissident work, people like your Guardian editor:

“Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. [They] can’t deal with the arguments, that’s plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don’t know anything.”

Chomsky’s book 9-11 has sold well over 100,000 copies. This time last year, in a version of intellectual Beatlemania, three of the top ten books on international affairs were by him. Chomsky is the world’s most popular author on international politics, particularly among young people. Now you might argue that Chomsky is a special case, that he is a genius. We agree; he is a genius. But above all he has a genius for honesty. He has a genius for simply telling the truth, regardless of the consequences.

In an age when the media is instrumental in manipulating public opinion to lethally destructive effect, it is simply no longer reasonable for honest writers to keep silent. You can’t be neutral on a moving media train – to be silent is to allow the media to use you as a fig leaf obscuring their delivery of islands of dissent within oceans of propaganda. To fail to speak out is to ensure that dissident voices are heard, but not enough to make a difference. Honest articles on Iraq, some of them by you, +have+ occasionally appeared in the Guardian, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people are now a hair’s breadth away from death and mutilation. The nationality of the victims may change, but that’s how it will always be unless there is a radical change in media reporting – business must have wars.

We urge you to act on your own words on your website:

“A professional trouble maker should be prepared to make trouble everywhere. She can afford no loyalties. She should seek not to be restrained by embarrassment or fear. She should not balk at causing offence, for those we feel most anxious to appease are those whom we should be most prepared to challenge.”

Continuing our discussion on the theory of ‘just war’ feels like a terrible indulgence, particularly at the present time, but we’ll answer your points. You ask:

“a. What would you have done to prevent Hitler’s conquest of Europe?

b. What would you have done to prevent Interahamwe’s massacre of the Tutsis?” Your question recalls Michael Buerk’s response to Denis Halliday in a BBC radio interview earlier this year:

“You can’t… you can’t +possibly+ draw a moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George Bush Senior, can you?”

The fact that you can ask us such a question tells us a lot about how you see the world. We would have done then exactly what we are doing now – exposing the lies and manipulation of state-corporate power – bearing in mind that for a lot of people around the world, particularly in places like Iraq, George Bush +is+ a Hitler figure, and the US Army is seen as a rampaging horde. The US, after all, killed a quarter of a million people in Iraq in the last Gulf War, and US/UK-led sanctions have killed a million people since. It may well be about to kill many more.

In 1933, we would have been hard at work trying to expose US/UK support for Hitler. We would have quoted, for example, the American charge d’affaires in Berlin, who wrote to Washington in 1933 that the best hope for Germany lay in “the more moderate section of the [Nazi] party, headed by Hitler… which appeal[s] to all civilised and reasonable people”.

We would have done all in our power to support the brilliant anarchist Rudolf Rocker in his attempts to reveal how the crass selfishness of post-Great War capitalists was sowing the seeds for utter despair, and so future war, in Germany:

“It never occurred to them that in order to rescue the rest of the nation from helpless despair and misery after the war they might be content with smaller profits. They stole what they could lay their hands on, while the nation fed on dry bread and potatoes and thousands of German children died of under-nourishment. None of these parasites ever heeded that their uncontrolled greed delivered the whole nation to destruction. While the workers and the middle class of the great cities perished in misery, Stinnes became the owner of fabulous riches. Thyssen, who before the war had approximately two hundred million gold marks, is today [1936] the owner of a fortune of a billion gold marks, and the other representatives of German heavy industry enriched themselves in the same proportion.”

You ask:

“c. Would you support the armed struggle of the Kurds in Iraq? Or of the West Papuans against Indonesian occupation? Or of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua? Or of Castro’s Cuban revolution?

d. If your answer to c is yes, what form would this support take? Would you, if you were able to, send them arms? Would you send them money to buy arms? Or would you expect them to support that struggle, against a far stronger enemy, entirely with the use of their own resources?”

Would we send arms, or money for arms to West Papua? No, we wouldn’t. Would you? Are you doing so now? Of course violence can be justifiable in some situations, but the consequences are at best highly unpredictable. Do we understand why victims take up arms against their oppressors? Of course. Would we do the same in their situation? Perhaps we would. Whether that makes it the right option for them, for us, or for humanity more generally, is very unclear. One of the worst things oppressed people can do in the face of ruthless power is to provoke it into even worse outrages. Success ‘here’, as we have said, can encourage disastrous and bloody failure ‘there’. Some would argue that, despite the loss of 2 million Vietnamese and 60,000 US lives, the Vietnam War represented a ‘just war’ triumph against US imperialism. But Vietnam is now being conquered by global economics, as Michel Chossudovsky, author of The Globalisation of Poverty, explains:

“The achievements of past struggles and the aspirations of an entire nation are [being] undone and erased… The seemingly neutral and scientific tools of macro-economic policy constitute a non-violent instrument of recolonisation and impoverishment.”

When Western corporations can now be assured that “Vietnam’s open door invites you to take advantage of its low standard of living and low wages”, as one advert puts it, then we must surely agree with Gabriel Kolko in Anatomy of a War that the Vietnam War has ended in “the defeat of all who fought in it and one of the greatest tragedies of modern history”. The Sandanista’s struggle in Nicaragua you mention ended in a similar, appalling catastrophe.

The ruthlessness of the Western-backed slaughter of 600,000 people from 1965 onwards in Indonesia was in large part motivated by a desire to avoid another Vietnamese-style ‘loss’ of natural resources to independent nationalism. The massacres in East Timor from December 1975, following hard on the heels of the final defeat in Vietnam, came at a time when no quarter was being shown to independent nationalism. Referring to US support for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, US columnist Jack Anderson reported:

“The United States had suffered a devastating setback in Vietnam, leaving Indonesia as the most important American ally in the area. The US national interest, [President] Ford concluded, ‘had to be on the side of Indonesia’.”

It seems equally clear that the fanaticism of the subsequent Western-backed assault on libertarian movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Argentina and elsewhere, was at least in part inspired by the experience of Vietnam. The ferocity of the assault on Iraq during the Gulf war also resulted from a determination to put into practice lessons learned during the Vietnam disaster. One of the main lessons being: spare no enemy casualties to ensure a quick victory. These are the kinds of lethal unintended consequences that can spring from the use of mass violence.

Talk of ‘just war’ in current conditions is hopelessly hypothetical. The reality is that any corrupt regime overthrown by moral and rational forces – ie by forces unallied to US/UK power – would immediately be targeted for destruction by the West.

The real fear of the West is “the threat of a good example” – a nation of poor Third World people escaping tyranny in a way that inspires other poor people to attempt to do the same. The use of violence in the ‘just’ coup would be used as evidence of the vicious and despotic nature of this new ‘rogue state’ with its ‘appalling human rights records’. The violence would be endlessly emphasised and hyped, and used to justify vast arms budgets and restrictions on democratic freedoms, and to terrify and pacify domestic populations. Economic sanctions would be imposed. If possible, internal military elements favourable to the West would be cultivated and empowered in the new ‘rogue state’ – a counter-coup would be encouraged. Failing this, outright external invasion would be organised. We know all this would happen, because it’s exactly what has happened when progressive change has been attempted in the past in countries like Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere.

The real hope for progressive change in countries so vulnerable to Western greed and violence abroad, is a reduction in the dominance and acceptability of greed and violence here, at home. To the extent that the public wakes up to, and opposes, Western exploitation and brutality, the harder it will become for cynical interests to do as they please. All of this supports the observation of the Buddhist philosopher, Tarthang Tulku: “

When fear and hatred motivate us in our attempts to destroy evil, the negative nature of such motivation, rather than destroying the forces of evil, lends them strength. Such action actually opens a gate for demons to enter.”

We believe that the real enemies of humanity are unrestrained greed and blind hatred. If these really are the root causes of many of our problems, what role can violence realistically play in combating them? The antidotes to selfishness are concern for others and compassion; the antidotes to hatred are reason, understanding and tolerance. The problem is that violence and hatred annihilate reason and tolerance, and they annihilate the compassion that might otherwise oppose unrestrained selfishness.

You write:

“why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua? The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought.”

The issue has never been why you wrote a column about Iraq. The question is why you wrote +what+ you wrote abut Iraq, why you targeted Iraq in total isolation for ‘just war’ at a time when hawks everywhere are doing just that. We asked you why you added fuel to the anti-Iraqi propaganda that is vital in determining whether there will be another assault. Imagine if Jews had been involved in criminal activity at the time of the Holocaust, would it have been a moral act for a journalist to highlight such stories at the time in the German press? We are suggesting that your angle on Iraq, not your mentioning of Iraq, involved a dangerous submission to propaganda.

You made a telling point in the Guardian in May 2001, a month after elaborating your “first principles” on ‘just war’ on your website:

“The advocates of violence insist that their aggression is insignificant by comparison to the violence of global capitalism. This is true, but it’s hard to see how it could be construed as a justification. I have heard activists condemn the continued bombing of Iraq on the grounds that violence of this kind will only hurt the people it is supposed to protect, then go on to advocate attacking the police as a means of saving the world. If, as they argue, advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is surely doomed to fail…”

George, we have heard people condemn the continued bombing of Iraq, then go on to advocate attacking Iraq as a means of saving the world. Given that advanced capitalism is the most violent of all political systems, then violent conflict with that system is clearly doomed to fail.

David Edwards and David Cromwell


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

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