It’s hard to believe that a little more than one week ago, the Iraqi regime, facing imminent attack, was meekly dismantling its al-Samoud missiles, presenting scientists for interview, and allowing hundreds of air strikes to deplete its forces without reply. US oil, ‘defence’ and other state-corporate interests had of course long since chosen war. Or, rather, they had chosen a “cake walk” – a parade of the best firepower money can buy, a travelling arms fair ensuring that the latest killing machines would be suitably ‘combat tested’. US generals talked of “flexibility and responsiveness”, British generals of “niche combat roles”. This sounded disturbingly like the Total Quality jargon of management consultancy.
And now a giant snake of military equipment lies caked in dust, bruised and battered, its body wallowing in the blood of innocents. Suddenly Stalingrad feels like something that happened only sixty years ago. There is a palpable sense of the ghosts of ancient wars looking down grimly on a humbled leviathan. It’s an old story: supply lines overstretched by overconfidence, state of the art power shaken by ‘little people’ who weren’t supposed to matter, people who haven’t read the script. Suddenly war seems about blood and courage again, not computers.
But there is no glory here – US and UK troops have been led into a nightmare, they are dying for a cause that no one should be asked to die for. Can you imagine dying for Bush and Blair? Can you imagine killing for them? Michelle Waters, the sister of a Marine who died soon after the war began, says of her family:
“It’s all for nothing. That war could have been prevented. Now, we’re out of a brother. Bush is not out of a brother. We are.” (Quoted, ‘Media War: Obsessed With Tactics And Technology’, Norman Solomon, ZNet, March 27, 2003)
And the people of Iraq – their soldiers, often conscripts, are people too – are being slaughtered in their thousands. Hell, we now know, is a bombed market place under an orange sky in a war fought for oil and power. Hell is an impoverished, speechless market trader trembling amid the body parts. “Alas”, cried Shantideva a thousand years ago, “our sorrows fall in endless streams!”
In some spiritual traditions compassion is described as the “invisible protector” of living beings. If this sounds like mere sentiment, consider that compassion is protecting the civilian population of Iraq in a very real way, right now. The millions of ordinary people who felt like insignificant ants marching in giant crowds in February and March have had this very real effect: they have placed an invisible restraining hand on the shoulders of the people throwing the Tomahawks, the MOABs and the JDAMs. The US military does not feel able to shed the blood of thousands of civilians by bringing its giant, fiery hammers down on urban areas – they know the world is watching, they know the world will not tolerate it. They know this because you and we filled small areas of space with our bodies on the streets of our cities. It didn’t feel like much at the time.
Be in no doubt, if this had been Stalin or Churchill, if it had been Nixon or Reagan, Basra and Baghdad would now be rubble. This could well be changing – when mighty armies start taking casualties the gloves tend to be mislaid – and optimism must not stray into naivety, but we must be clear about one important point: the protests, the concern, the dissent, are absolutely vital. They have made a difference.
The media is, of course, busy sanitising the horrors that are taking place in our names. Indeed the ability to overlook horrors committed by the West and its allies is a key job requirement for mainstream journalists. A Nexis database search showed that between 1990-1999 the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time used the word ‘genocide’ 132 times to describe the actions of Iraq against Kurds. Over the same period the same word was used 14 times to describe the actions of Turkey against Kurds. We all know what Iraq is alleged to have done to the Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere, but how many people know about the 50,000 Kurdish dead and 3 million refugees, victims of Turkish military assault? Who knows that 80% of the arms were supplied by the US, including M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, Cobra gunships, and Blackhawk ‘slick’ helicopters? As Turkish commandos slip now across the border into Northern Iraq, the BBC’s John Simpson comments: “Of course the Kurds are very nervous about the whole thing.” (BBC1, March 22) If an enemy and not a NATO ally had been involved, we might perhaps have been given a little information on the detail behind the jitters.
Hiding the “good guy” horrors of course becomes seriously problematic in time of war. On March 21 the whole world watched wide-eyed as 320 cruise missiles erupted in the heart of Baghdad, an impoverished city of 5 million people. “In over 30 years of covering these stories I have never seen anything of this magnitude,” said CNN veteran Wolf Blitzer (Quoted, Kathryn Flett, ‘Horror show of explosive footage’, The Observer, March 23, 2003). The intensity of the bombardment was genuinely shocking to behold – there was the same sense of ordinary life being overwhelmed by hellish violence that characterised September 11. Despite everything we had seen, BBC anchor Maxine Mawhinney felt able to declare the following day:
“It’s difficult to verify who’s been hit, if anyone.” (BBC1, March 22)
Taking a look inside a hospital was one option to explore. When the BBC’s Hywel Jones managed it he commented on one small, wailing boy with head injuries: “It’s impossible to verify how he received his injuries.” (Ibid) In fact doctors with the International Red Cross were quickly able to verify that patients’ injuries had been sustained from blast and shrapnel – the Iraqi regime claimed three deaths and 207 hospitalised civilian casualties.
If the reality of the horror can’t be challenged, it can at least be kept well out of sight. Steve Anderson, controller of ITV News, responded to complaints that the horrors of war are being sanitised:
“I have seen some of the images on Al-Jazeera television. I would never put them on screen.” The BBC’s head of news, Richard Sambrook, agrees that such pictures are not suitable for a British audience.
The images in question were indeed horrific – a young Iraqi boy with the top of his skull blown off with only torn flaps of scalp remaining – too much for the British public to bear, we are told. Instead we are trained to admire the Jeremy Clarkson side of war: the muscular curves of Tornado bombers, the cruise missiles ripping at the sky: “This is seriously hardcore machinery going in” (BBC1, March 22), as one BBC ‘military expert’ drooled.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, even honest debate is being censored. Sir Ray Tindle, chairman and Editor in Chief of Tindle Newspapers Ltd, owner of 130 weekly titles, relayed his orders to editors on the eve of war:
“When British troops come under fire, however, as now seems probable, I ask you to ensure that nothing appears in the columns of your newspapers which attacks the decision to conduct the war.” (Andy Rowell, ‘Anti-war reporting banned in UK papers’, PR Watch, March 23)
Normal ‘free press’ service will be resumed, it seems, immediately a “ceasefire” is agreed “when any withheld letters or reports may be published”. Tindle’s papers, in other words, will be ‘liberated’ at the same time that Iraq is ‘liberated’. Then, if Baghdad lies in ruins, the deserts drenched in blood, it will be good to know we are free to discuss whether somebody should have tried to stop it.
Virtually all politicians and almost all the media are demanding that we now support our armed forces in their action. BBC and ITN reporters, for example, have taken to repeatedly asking protestors: “Is there any point in protesting now that the democratic decision has been taken to go to war?”
The answer is provided by a top secret US Defense Department memorandum from March 1968, which warned that increased force levels in Vietnam ran “great risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions” (The Pentagon Papers, Vol. IV, p. 564, Senator Gravel Edition, Beacon, 1972). Fears of “increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities” were very much on the minds of military planners as they decided whether to massively escalate the assault on Vietnam, or back off, after the Tet offensive. They backed off.
While we feel sympathy for the plight of our troops – we grieve for all who die in this war – we agree with the respected political commentator, George W. Bush, who said recently of military responsibility:
“It will be no defence to say, ‘I was just following orders’.” (The Scotsman, ‘Bush orders Saddam to flee’, March 18, 2003)
We also note the view of Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1946, who said:
“The very essence of the Nuremberg charter is that individuals have international duties which transcend national obligations of obedience imposed by the state.” (John Pilger, Disobey, March 13, 2003)
We are all human beings – no one is granted special exemption from moral responsibility, least of all people engaged in killing. Our TVs have been full of soldiers and airmen declaring innocently: “I’m just here to do a job and to do it to the best of my ability.”
But killing and mutilating people in a cynical and illegal war are about far more than just doing a job. Why do we imagine that signing a contract and agreeing to abide by certain rules in exchange for money means we are relieved of our responsibility as moral actors? What does our promise to do as we are ordered mean when we are ordered to incinerate innocent men, women and child? Which is more important – our agreement, or the burning to death of innocents?
Where does the argument for unconditional support for our troops lead? Consider the words of the dissident Spanish chronicler, Las Casas, recording the actions of Spanish troops on the island of Hispaniola in the 16th century:
“There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Perennial, 1990, p.7)
By the media’s logic if we had been Spanish in 1508 we should have supported ‘our’ Spanish troops. British troops are not Spanish conquistadors, but the point is that the issue is not black and white – we can’t just be told to shut up and stop thinking the moment the shooting starts. Because it’s not black and white, it needs to be discussed. Tolstoy described well the reality of the call to mindless patriotism:
“Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthralment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached. Patriotism is slavery.” (Tolstoy, Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, New Society, 1987, p.103)
Beyond all the facts, evidence, arguments and counter-arguments, there is a simple truth that conflicts with the primitive idea that mass violence is either necessary or effective as a solution to anything. It was elegantly outlined by the 12th century philosopher Je Gampopa:
“It is not anger and hatred but loving kindness and compassion that vouchsafe the welfare of others.”
If we took this idea seriously and acted upon it, the swamp of hatred that breeds the mosquitoes of terror would soon dry up. Anger and hatred are powerless in the face of authentic human kindness. Much of the world now understands that violence and hatred are not good answers to violence and hatred, that the fog of war is not a good antidote to the ignorance of arrogance and greed. Alas, there remain centres of ruthless power which understand what war is good for – it’s good for business, for frightening and controlling people into submission, for getting what you want that other people have.
But a bloody US/UK ‘victory’ means disaster for the Iraqi people and an explosion of hatred around the world. At home, war means the further entrenchment of the fossil fuel fundamentalists, military elites and other greed-driven cynics leading the world to social and environmental ruination. A continuation of the current global protests means something else – it means the possibility that we might at last wake up from the nightmare of history to a world dominated by human concern for others rather than human suffering.
(A shorter version of this Media Alert appears in this week’s New Statesman magazine)
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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