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

In our recent Media Alert, ‘Panorama and Guardian Editors Respond,’ (November 27, 2002), we mentioned a recent article by George Monbiot, titled, ‘See you in court, Tony,’ (The Guardian, November 26, 2002)

Monbiot has since responded (see below). Prior to publishing our Alert we contacted Monbiot to check our understanding of his article. This is the exchange that followed:

Dear George

Hope all is well. In today’s article you wrote, “[If] war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that”. Can you explain why you would prioritise the support of such a war ahead of a war to remove the Algerian generals, the Turkish regime, the Colombian regime, or maybe Putin? Would you also support a war to remove these regimes, if this turns out to be the only way?

Best wishes

David Edwards – 26.11.02

This was Monbiot’s response:

Hi David,

Thanks for writing.

The other nations you mention have some, admittedly flimsy, domestic means of redress: in other words, being democracies, or nominal democracies, citizens can, in theory, remove them without recourse to violent means. There is no existing process within Iraq for removing the regime peacefully. Like many of those who oppose this war with Iraq, I also want to help the Iraqi people to shake off their dictator, and I feel I have a responsibility to do so, for two reasons.

The first is what I call the Empathetic Principle: that I would like others to be treated as I would wish to be treated myself. I would hate to live in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and if I did, I am sure I would want people in other nations to help me to remove him and his apparatus of government.

The second is historical: we helped to put him there, and that seems to me to suggest that we have a special responsibility to try to get rid of him.

As I suggest in my article, we must try the non-violent means first, and there are plenty which have not been exhausted. But if all the conditions which I believe would provide the case for a just war are met – namely that less violent options have been exhausted first, that it reduces the sum total of violence in the world, improves the lives of the oppressed, does not replace one form of oppression with another and has a high chance of success – then it seems to me that it would be right to seek to topple Mr Hussein by military means.

If you read the introduction to my website, you’ll see that this is a position I have sought to derive from first principles: that we must always strive for the minimum of violence, which sometimes means using violence ourselves: “Political closure is inherently violent, both because systems which deploy it violate the rights of most of the people they govern and because violence is the only available means of challenging such systems. In these circumstances, the Empathetic Principle instructs us to kill, if killing some thousands of the oppressing political class is the only means of saving the lives of some tens of thousands of the oppressed.”

What this means is that I believe that there is such a thing as a just war. I am also firmly of the opinion that the current plans to invade Iraq constitute nothing of the sort.

With my best wishes, George – 26.11.02

Media Lens’ response:

Dear George

As you know, we’re admirers of a lot of your work. But that doesn’t mean we agree with everything you write, and doubtless the feeling is mutual. The front page of the Guardian last Tuesday read:

“George Monbiot: How to make a just war against Iraq.”

Like some of our readers we assumed, given the current political situation, the comment must have been intended ironically or sarcastically. When we turned to the article, we found that, while you were quite clear that you vigorously oppose an unjust war of the kind being planned by the US/UK governments, you were being serious. You wrote:

“It is not difficult to conceive of a just war against Iraq. We know that it is governed by one of the world’s most bestial regimes… [I]f war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that; which will not stop until the people of Iraq are running their country themselves, but will stop the moment that this happens; and whose purpose is not to seize the oil wells, to support the ambitions of some of the most ruthless and dangerous people in the western world, or to overturn the norms of international law.”

Here you have clearly accepted that, if war turns out to be necessary and is well motivated (a strictly hypothetical notion, by the way, given the real world, and therefore a curious point to make), then it would be acceptable as a last resort. The point we made in our recent Media Alert (‘Panorama and Guardian Editors Respond,’ November 27, 2002) is that we believe you would not be recommending any such thing, even as a last resort, had it not been for the endless demonising propaganda issuing out of Washington and London presenting Iraq as a special case requiring a military solution. Iraq is not a special case, it is one of many tinpot murderous regimes in the world.

To be consistent you would have to be in favour of waging ‘just wars’ against other similar regimes for similar reasons. Selecting states at random, Edwards wrote to you asking if you thought Algeria, Turkey, Colombia, or perhaps Russia, also qualified as targets for a ‘just war’. You rejected the suggestion, arguing that we have a “special responsibility” to help the Iraqi people shake off their dictator for two reasons: 1) the “Empathetic Principle” – if we were living in Iraq we would want to be liberated from Saddam, and 2) we helped put Saddam in power.

You also wrote that:

“The other nations you mention have some, admittedly flimsy, domestic means of redress: in other words, being democracies, or nominal democracies, citizens can, in theory, remove them without recourse to violent means. There is no existing process within Iraq for removing the regime peacefully.”

The idea that Iraq is different because people living in these countries have “some, admittedly flimsy, nominal democracies”, and these citizens can “in theory” remove their governments is remarkable. Your theoretical possibilities do not help the victims struggling to survive in these countries, and in fact such possibilities do not exist.

Your “Empathetic Principle” clearly applies to Kurds living in Turkey, for example. Turkey has been “responsible for burning villages, inhuman and degrading treatment, and appalling failures to investigate allegations of ill-treatment at the hands of the security forces”, according to the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. “Mystery killings” of Kurds alone amounted to 3,200 in 1993 and 1994. These continued with torture, destruction of some 3,500 villages – seven times the US figure for Serb atrocities in Kosovo – bombing with napalm, and casualties generally estimated in the tens of thousands. Kurdish TV and radio are illegal, Kurdish may not be taught in schools or used in advertising, parents cannot give children Kurdish names.

As for our “special responsibility”, 1994 marked two records in Turkey, veteran Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal reported: it was “the year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces,” and the year when Turkey became “the biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world’s largest arms purchaser”. Turkey’s arsenal, 80 percent American, included M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, Cobra gunships, and Blackhawk ‘slick’ helicopters, all of which were eventually used against the Kurds. “Turkish officers educated in the United States employed the methods familiar to peasants from Vietnam to Guatemala”, according to writer John Tiernan. The records reveal such actions as throwing people from helicopters, burning civilians alive while bound and tied with electric cables and chains, and a long gory list. Do you really believe that these people have “flimsy, domestic means of redress”?

How is all of this, and our support for it, materially or morally different from the horrors perpetrated in Iraq? Why are you not advocating a ‘just war’ against Turkey, our NATO partner?

In 1997 John Sweeney noted in the Observer that the weight of evidence indicted the state of Algeria in the slaughter of 80,000 people after the generals demolished democracy by scrapping the elections in 1991: “The government – le pouvoir – is corrupt, hated and stays in power by a reign of terror”, Sweeney noted. The intelligence services in Europe know the government was responsible for the killing, but keep silent to protect access to Algerian oil. Sweeney continued:

“So why the silence? Let us not underestimate the power of the state of Algeria. It squats on huge oil and gas deposits worth billions. It supplies the gas that warms Madrid and Rome. It has a £1.8 billion contract with British Petroleum. No Western government wants to make trouble with the state of Algeria. Its wealth buys silence, buys complicity. Since the military junta overthrew the country’s democracy, 80,000 have been killed: Europe’s gas bill.”

Again, appalling horror combined with special responsibility.

The slaughter in Colombia has also, of course, been appalling – 20,000 killed since 1986, 1 million refugees, 80% of the massacres perpetrated by government-backed paramilitaries, with all of this supported by vast quantities of US military, economic and political support ($1.3 billion in military aid was approved in 2000), and UK complicity – our special responsibility combines well with the “Empathetic Principle” here again, as Chomsky notes:

“The sharp increase in arms shipped to Colombia is officially justified in terms of the ‘drug war,’ a claim taken seriously by few competent analysts… The targets are guerrilla forces based on the peasantry and calling for internal social change, which would interfere with integration of Colombia into the global system on the terms that the US demands, dominated by elite elements linked to US power interests that are accorded free access to Colombia’s valuable resources, including oil.”

To reiterate, we accept that you reject US/UK plans, and that you see a ‘just war’ as a last resort. But the special case you make for Iraq just doesn’t stand up – there are any number of monstrous Western-backed regimes that match your criteria in a very similar way.

US writer and Chomsky co-author, Edward Herman, has commented on the susceptibility of what he calls the “cruise missile left” to US/UK propaganda:

“Many of the liberals and leftists who have joined the war party, or criticize it only on tactical grounds, have been overwhelmed by the flood of administration and administration-supportive propaganda, and find it difficult to escape that barrage.”

We don’t believe you are a member of the “cruise missile left”, but we do think that you have succumbed to administration-supportive propaganda in the writing of your recent article. We cannot, for example, imagine that you would be talking in terms of a ‘just war’ against Iraq now, if the US/UK had gone after Somalia as you note they originally planned.

Effective opposition to war on Iraq, we believe, should begin with an exposure of how the US/UK mass media has distorted public opinion by suppressing many of the most elementary facts about the supposed ‘threat’ of Iraq, and about the criminality and illegality of US/UK actions. We have shown how the Guardian has consistently failed to report that Iraq was 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass destruction by December 1998. The Guardian has also consistently claimed that inspectors were thrown out of Iraq, contradicting its own 1999 reports. There have been vanishingly few mentions of the 250,000 Iraqi victims of the last Gulf War, of the half a million predicted victims of the next war (according to the Medical Association for Prevention of War), of the 1 million civilian dead as a result of US/UK sanctions. There has been next to no discussion of the corruption of the UN by the US, of the vast oil and arms interests driving the hidden US agenda, of the criminal nature of the sanctions, or of the illegality of a pre-emptive war. Instead the Guardian has been filled with literally thousands of articles echoing US/UK establishment views. As of November 26, the Guardian/Observer had mentioned Iraq in 2,955 articles this year – just 49 of these contained mentions of former chief UN arms inspector, now anti-war campaigner, Scott Ritter. There were 21 mentions of Noam Chomsky, 12 of John Pilger, 4 of Hans von Sponeck, and none at all of Denis Halliday. This constitutes a shocking suppression of dissident views by the country’s ‘leading liberal newspaper’. As a result, we believe the Guardian is complicit in covering up what senior UN diplomats have described as a US/UK “genocide” in Iraq, while making a further massive and murderous assault against Iraq possible. What is your view of the Guardian’s performance? Have you considered resigning your position as a columnist in protest at this performance?

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell – 1.12.02

Just prior to sending the above, we received the following email from Monbiot on December 1. Monbiot tells us that this message was originally sent on November 27 to the address from which we send our Media Alerts, and not to the address given at the end of our Alerts, and so we did not receive it. What follows is +not+ a response to our comments above. Monbiot begins with the following quote from our November 27 Media Alert:

“He [George Monbiot] holds his views (+he+ believes) because Iraq +is+ a special case, not because propaganda has +made+ Iraq seem a special case.”

Hi David,

No, I do not believe that Iraq is a special case, or, rather, I do not believe that it is any more special than a number of other cases. I would advocate the same approach for ridding the people of Burma of their government, or liberating the people of West Papua from Indonesian colonisation. Indeed, if the cure was not more dangerous than the disease, I would suggest removing China from Tibet or the US from Guantanamo Bay by the same means, but I have a feeling that this could precipitate a third world war.

In my correspondence yesterday, I sought to explain to you that I have argued from first principles, and have tried to apply those principles, which were conceived long before the outbreak of this war, to the current situation. Either you have ignored that explanation, or you have chosen not to believe it. In either case, I think I have good cause to feel insulted. I notice that you usually publish your correspondence with the journalists you challenge. Have you chosen not to do so in this case because it would not assist your argument?

Yours Sincerely, George – 27.11.02 (received 1.12.02)

Dear George

Thanks for your second email. We did take account of your explanation when writing our Media Alert, and in fact immediately published your response on the message board at our website – there was, and is, no question of suppressing your correspondence.

In your first email you rejected David Edwards’ examples of possible targets for a ‘just war’, making mention of no others. It seemed clear, then, that you believed that Iraq truly was our “special responsibility” based on the fact that it was “one of the world’s most bestial regimes”. That is why we wrote:

“He holds his views (+he+ believes) because Iraq +is+ a special case, not because propaganda has +made+ Iraq seem a special case.”

Now you say there are two other “special cases” that fit your “first principles”, thereby becoming suitable targets for a ‘just war’ “ridding the people of Burma of their government, or liberating the people of West Papua from Indonesian colonisation”.

Can this be the same George Monbiot who, in May 2001, wrote an article titled ‘Violence is our enemy’?:

“Violence is our enemy… If we can’t divide ourselves from violence, then violence will divide us from society.”

Your recent arguments recall Bakunin:

“Revolution, the overthrow of the state means war, and that implies the destruction of men and things.”

In his history of anarchism, Demanding The Impossible, Peter Marshall summarised the reality of these earlier attempts to achieve progressive change through violence:

“These acts of terrorism not only sparked off repressive measures against anarchists in general but gave the anarchist cause a reputation for violence which it has never been able to live down. It has consequently done enormous harm to the movement.”

Only you can know why those of us who hope to relieve human suffering “may find that this requires military force” in Iraq, Burma and West Papua, but not in Turkey, Algeria, Colombia, Russia, and in any number of other places around the world. But given that you “do not believe that Iraq is a special case, or, rather, I do not believe that it is any more special than a number of other cases”, why did you single out Iraq as a uniquely “special responsibility” to a mass audience by failing to mention other “special cases” at a time when war mongering cynics absolutely +depend+ on the presentation of Iraq as uniquely evil to justify a monstrous war? Your isolating of the Iraqi regime in your article echoed and reinforced the isolating propaganda of Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Perle and the rest.

We reject your “first principles” for ‘just war’. In the real world a successfully fought ‘just war’ here is a potent example inspiring a murderously fought unjust war there. The last thing the world needs is an apparently benign example of the therapeutic effects of mass violence. The success of the ultimate ‘just war’ of 1939-45 has been used to facilitate and justify a monstrous series of unjust wars ever since, right up to the present day’s targeting of the latest ‘New Hitler’ in Iraq. Historian Howard Zinn argues that the war against Nazism helped to promote its worst horrors. Writing on the Holocaust in his essay ‘Just and Unjust War’, Zinn argues that Hitler’s pre-war aim was the forced emigration of Jews, not extermination, with the policy degenerating into mass murder as the frenzy of war overtook the already deranged Nazi mind-set. Zinn writes:

“Not only did waging the war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be that the war itself brought on the Final Solution of genocide. This is not to remove the responsibility from Hitler and the Nazis, but there is much evidence that Germany’s anti-Semitic actions, cruel as they were, would not have turned to mass murder were it not for the psychic distortions of war, acting on already distorted minds.”

Much the same point has been made by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman regarding another of the last century’s great genocides: the mass slaughter in the ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia. Chomsky and Herman quote David P. Chandler, former Foreign Service Officer in Phnom Penh, who asks: ‘What drove the Cambodians to kill?’:

“To a large extent, I think, American actions are to blame. From 1969 to 1973, after all, we dropped more than 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside. Nearly half of this tonnage fell in 1973… In those few months, we may have driven thousands of people out of their minds. We certainly accelerated the course of the revolution.”

Zinn’s conclusion:

“A war that apparently begins with a ‘good’ cause – stopping aggression, helping victims, or punishing brutality – ends with its own aggression, creates more victims than before, and brings out more brutality than before, on both sides. The Holocaust, a plan made and executed in the ferocious atmosphere of war, and the saturation bombings, also created in the frenzy of war, are evidence of this.”

What the world needs are potent examples of how reason, compassion and concern for others have the power to undermine the unrestrained greed and hatred that are so often the causes of war and suffering. Together, Bush, Blair and Osama bin Laden are busy teaching us a lesson summarised well by an Indian philosopher many centuries ago:

“For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.”


David Edwards and David Cromwell – 2.12.02

We are anticipating a further reply from Monbiot to our December 1 and 2 emails above. If received, we will publish this with a response as an Update to this Media Alert.


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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